Human memory is a definitive experience that is made significant by the exploration of deeply humanizing events such as the acceptance of death and the recognition of life as snapshots of bittersweet moments. In Gwen Harwood’s poem “the violets” her ability to interweave past and present emphasises the importance of memory in preserving ones journey though the universal experiences of growth, maturity and mortality. Similarly the poem “Mother who gave me life” demonstrates the memory of motherhood as a timeless quintessential part of the human condition. Thus, though analysis of the ways in which human experience become a definitive element of human memory, responders are able to perceive Harwood’s masterful construction of motherhood, innocence and experience.
Harwood’s ability to interweave the past and the present is epitomised through her poem “The Violets” where her deeply personal experiences elevate the inevitable cyclic effigy of one’s life. The composer emphasises the immortality of memories as a constant which permeates throughout the reassess of time, coalescing growth, maturity and mortality, universal commonalities of the human condition. Alluding to the cyclical nature of “The Violets”, the paradox “Frail melancholy flowers among ashes and loam” symbolise death and rebirth, highlighting Harwood’s recognition of the inevitable aging process. Through this, Harwood is able to communicate the complexities of the human condition to the audience, exploring the inevitability of growth from innocent to maturation. Much like other poems in Harwood’s body of work, the present is reverberated with memories of the past, alluded in “Ambiguous light. Ambiguous sky”, the use of epistrophe symbolising the movement between adulthood to childhood, paralleled with the transition of night to day and from spring to winter. Similarly, memories is utilised to highlight ones transition from innocence to experience correspondingly to the human condition of the cyclical nature of life is explored in “At Mornington” where, reflection on “iridescent, fugitive” memoirs lead to the personas growth and acceptance of mortality.
As a young contemporary reader, Harwood’s emphasis on the importance ofl childhood memories is particularly resonant, evoking the audience to reflect upon their own naïve recollections. This is also supported by the critic Hoddinott who stated that within Harwood’s body of work, “dreams of childhood have a particular power…perception of the truth with fear of the unknown” is also evident in “The Violets” where the importance of memories is explored as a reflection on an individual’s growth from naivety to experience. Initially, Harwood utilises the rhetoric “Where’s morning gone?” in recognition of the carelessness exhibited in one’s childhood and evoking resonant memories within her audience of their childish ignorance of the intangibility and fluidity of time. To reinforce the childish simplicity and ignorance of time loss, Harwood personifies time as a thief, youth becoming “the thing I could not grasp or name”, the use of monosyllabic language emphasising ones adolescent ignorance and obliviousness towards youth, a precious finite commodity of life “that, while I slept, had stolen from me”. By drawing upon common experiences, Harwood conveys the resonate message of the quintessential connection between experience and memory. This notion is particularly evident in the realisation of the persona “years cannot move nor deaths disorienting scale distort those lamp lit presences”, reiterating the immortality of memory as a constant, surpassing the boundaries of time and mortality. Thus, it is evident that deeply personal moments of one’s past are made significant by the bittersweet nature of life and the inevitability of death which are a part of the human condition.
Likewise, in the poem “Mother Who Game Me Life”, Harwood utilises both a deeply personal experience as well as a reflection upon human history to elevate the self-sacrificing effigy of motherhood. Here, the diminishment of a mother to her daughter throughout the passage of time, is made timeless by the quintessential nurturing role of ‘motherhood’ that is common to the human condition. The individual experience is demonstrated by Harwood though her personal tone of reflection and nostalgia, in which the use of personal pronouns communicate an intimate and heartfelt connection between daughter and mother “mother who gave me life, the wisdom I would not learn from you”, striking a chord within her audience though her authentic reflection on an universal commonality. Through this personal experience, Harwood promotes a the collective concept of motherhood that persists through the ephemeral personal experience of the persona, the cyclical imagery “women bearing women… the wild daughters becoming women”, emphasise the generations and history of women being mothers, particularly in the patriarchal context of this poem. Through the exploration of motherhood into history, Harwood conveys universal experiences which remain timeless and relevant to today’s society.
Harwood succinctly explores the memory of motherhood as a timeless essentiality of humanity, a constant which “illuminates both the present and the future…take[ing] on possibilities in infinity”, a timeless role which permeates time. This is reinforced by Harwood through her employment of imagery reminiscent of time “seasons burning backward in time… guileless milk of the world” emphasising the timeless nature of motherhood through its pre-historical origins. Once again, Harwood returns to a personal tone of voice, connoting the tension that exists between her intimate connection to her mother and the realization and acknowledgement of the cyclic nature of motherhood “at our last meeting… saw your face crumple…then somehow smooth to a smile”, the imagery resonating within the audience as Harwood emphasises the history of sacrifices which a mother endures, a quintessential characteristic of the role of a mother. Lastly, Harwood comments and expresses her dissatisfaction that despite her mother’s personal sacrifice and the sacrifices of all mothers in raising their daughters, they are still constrained by a patriarchal society which forever denies them ownership, “your voice calling me in as darkness falls on my father’s house” the use of biblical allusion emphasising the male-centric heaven and striking a chord within the audience who are able to empathise with the constraints of women in the 1980s.
Hence, Harwood powerfully captures the essence of a deeply personal, exploratory poem that engages with the read through the human condition of empathy. These universal thematic concerns of motherhood, childhood, and the transition from innocence are what makes her works timeless and enduring.