This page contains extensive study notes on Gwen Harwood's poems.

Please use this page to study each poem and to help you with Close Analysis Activities.

The Violets

“It is dusk, and cold”
- Dusk represents a transitional period between night and day. It is symbolically linked to the uncertain, shadowy space between memory (illusions that are mentally manifested) and reality.

“frail melancholy flowers among
ashes and loam”
- Harwood personifies the flowers
- Violets have short lifetimes, which mirrors the transience of life and the fallibility of memory
- The juxtaposition between “ashes and loam”. Ashes conjure images of death and decay, while loam represents fertility and perennial growth
- Harwood explores contrasting ideas to show the complexity of life and the human condition

Childlike mood in the poem:
“The melting west/is striped like ice-cream” (metaphor)
“It will soon/be night, you goose”
“a child with milk and story-book”
- Harwood deepens the memory by representing it in a childlike manner. She suggests that in order for us to have an objective understanding of our adult lives (with all its complexities and frustrations), we should remember the innocent minds we harboured as children

The presence of nature is stimulating and comforting:
- “our blackbird frets and strops his beak” is an example of onomatopoeia
- “I would not hold/their sweetness, or be comforted”

“Ambiguous light. Ambigious sky”
- Mirrors the uncertainty and fallibility of memory
- Ironically, light often symbolises an epiphany or revelation, yet this memory is shadowed by self-doubt

The next three stanzas are made distinct from the first. This is where Harwood invites the reader to enter the narrator’s memory. It’s almost as if the narrator is worried about the blurred lines between our memories and our realities, and feels the need to make that line clearer.

“fearful/half-sleep of a hot afternoon”
- A mood of uneasiness is evoked

“her long hair falling/down to her waist, she dried my tearful/face as I sobbed, “Where’s morning gone?”
- Depiction of female beauty and the traditional role of the mother
- Idealised, almost romantic, description of family
- The child is distressed to realise that sometimes life will be dark – her blissful innocence begins to fade. Harwood uses the light to evoke a sense of continual movement, a metaphor for the fleeting quickness of adult life. Life sometimes moves so fast that we don’t even realise it. Compare to ‘Nightfall’ (“Forty years, lived or dreamed”)
- The child still needs guidance and support to accept maturity. Compare this to the child in ‘Barn Owl’.

“...carried me downstairs to see...
even when my father, whistling, came
from work...”
- Harwood illustrates an image of domesticity, simplicity and uncontrived happiness
- The memory is made vivid and appears genuine simply through its commonplace nature

“the thing I could not grasp or name
that, while I slept, had stolen from me
those hours of unreturning light”
- The symbol of time and the theme of losing power
- Time is an intangible and perpetual force
- A sense of continuity and forward movement in life is evoked here. It cannot be resisted or fought.
- The child realises that sometimes life will be dark and obstacles will test her. Like in ‘Barn Owl’, the child is suddenly forced to mature.

“Into my father’s house we went,
young parents and their restless child”
- Image of domestic happiness
- The stereotypical nuclear family
- The narrator attempts to connect to a simpler existence, before the complexity of adult life became known to them

“To light the lamp and the wood stove”
- Realism
- The specificity reinforces the power of memory

“Reconciled,/I took my supper and was sent/to innocent sleep”
- Reconciled with the idea of time being a force we cannot resist or fight
- She develops an understanding of the significance of youth, aging, death
- Sleep is a time when our senses are at rest and our mind is blank. However, because we cannot control our dreams they can be seen as an indication of our true natures
- The narrator reflects on sleep as a time of complete innocence because we can feel and see things without guilt or restrictions

“Years cannot move”
- The line is spaced for dramatic effect. It’s almost as if we return to the present and make a declaration of continuity

“death’s disorienting scale/distort those lamplit presences”
- A feeling of comfort and refuge (“lamplit presences”)
- An ominous reminder of the reality of death, but a declaration of continuity in life is made here

“Faint scent of violets drift in air”
- The narrator’s mind is spontaneously drifting into reflection. This reinforces the idea that memory is fluid and uncontrived






Rhythm, rhyme, tone
- Personal pronouns (“I”, “me”, “my”) being used throughout enhances the intimate atmosphere
- Free-verse, without restrictive rhythm and rhyme patterns, reflects the deeply personal, uncontrived and almost fluid nature of memory
- The tone is grieving, melancholic, nostalgic, even lyric meditation

Themes
Gender roles
- The stereotypical male role (i.e. going to work and coming home)
- The mother’s role (cooking breakfast, comforting a sobbing child) and depictions of female beauty and femininity
- The final stanza (distinctly separated) illustrates the image of an ideal, nurturing nuclear family

Power
- The child is robbed of time
- Child forced to grow up and move on with life
- Memory and experience empowers the narrator (“years cannot move...”)

Allusions
- Scarlatti’s song
- Kedron Brook