Opportunities for an individual to develop understanding of themselves stem from the experiences attained on their journey through life. The elements which contribute to life are explored throughout Gwen Harwood’s poems, At Mornington and Mother Who Gave Me Life, where the recollection of various events are presented as influences on the individual’s perception of the continuity of life. Both poems examine the connections between people and death in relation to personal connections with the persona’s father or mother.
By encompassing aspects of human nature and life’s journey, Harwood addresses memories and relationships which contribute to one’s awareness of life. Memories and meandering thoughts, related to personal experiences, are explored throughout At Mornington where the persona shifts between the past and present and dreams and reality. This is similar to Father and Child where Barn Owl is set in past test and Nightfall is set in the present, symbolic of appreciation and understanding of the complexities of life which the child learns.
At Mornington opens with an evocation of an event from the persona’s childhood which establishes the temporary and ever changing nature of human life. Reflected through the shifts between past and present tense, the persona is attempting to use past experiences in order to appreciate the present and accept the future. The poem provides a reflective and personal point of view accompanied by the recurring motif of water which symbolises the persona’s transition from childhood to the acceptance of the inevitability of death.
In the third stanza, the persona refers to a more recent past where she had seen pumpkins growing on a trellis in her friend’s garden. The action of the pumpkins is described as “a parable of myself” which allows the persona to reflect on the meaning and quality of her own life and existence. The metaphor between the pumpkin vine and the persona suggests that like the pumpkin, human life also ripens and matures before coming to a closure and returning to the earth. Supported by the phrase “candlelight for eyesight,” the reader is made aware of the transience of life that the persona has grown to accept and understand.
In Father and Child, as the persona moves on from childhood, her father becomes elderly and is entertained by simple things in nature, “birds, flowers, shivery-grass. ” These symbols of nature remind the persona of the inconsistency of life and the certainty of death, “sunset exalts its known symbols of transience,” where sunset represents time. Both poems are indicative of the impermanence of life and that the persona has managed to mature and grow beyond the initial fearlessness of childhood moving onto a sophisticated understanding of death.
The connection between life and death is expressed in a different way through Mother Who Gave Me Life, a poem of mourning for the dead. The poem can be seen as a personal farewell to the persona’s mother where the dominant images of the poem show evolution and the passing of time. Father and Child also demonstrates the passing of time as the persona moves from the innocence of childhood to the sadness of her father’s advancing age and inevitable passing.
In Mother Who Gave Me Life, the reference to Halley’s Comet, which appears only once every seventy-six years, tells the reader that the mother was unable to see it once more before surrendering to death. The direct speech of the Sister is reported without the use of quotation marks as in, “When she died she was folding a little towel. ” This provides readers with the knowledge that the mother addressed in the poem is dead. Without quotation marks, the flow of the poem is maintained and is therefore more easily absorbed into the texture of the poem.
The parallel image of the “fabric of marvels” being reduced to the “little towel” raises the notion that whilst death may have brought a physical end to the persona’s mother’s life she remains a marvel of creation as the persona’s memories of her live on. The poem ends with the ‘fine linen’ recalling the memories of a typical childhood scene where the persona’s mother is calling for her to have dinner “as darkness falls on my father’s house. ” This biblical reference to the House of the Lord, combined with the coming of darkness, reminds the reader of the inevitable ending of life and the respective movement into heaven.
As the second section of Father and Child draws to a close, it is evident that the persona has grown to understand that she has limited time left with her father. The significance of Nightfall as the title of the second section, when considering the daybreak setting of Barn Owl, reinforces this. Sunrise symbolises youth whilst nightfall, in comparison, suggests an ending which implies death, a concept that the adult persona is beginning to acknowledge it as part of life.
A particular instance in life can conjure different memories of the past as in At Mornington where the persona is drawn into recollections of childhood experiences with her father while standing by the graveside of her friend’s parents. A positive image of the father and child relationship is conveyed throughout the poem as in, “secure in my father’s arms. ” This image conveys safety, comfort and protection which assists the persona in moving on and accepting the cycle of life.
It is the security which stems from this relationship that enables the persona to mature from the perceptions and thoughts maintained as a child. Insight into the relationship between the persona, as both child and adult, with her father is also demonstrated in Father and Child. The dominance of the father is suggested through his imperative tone, “End what you have begun. ” Despite the power-play in their relationship, there is still a sense of closeness, “I leaned my head upon my father’s arms. ” This connection has enabled the persona to mature and grow through experiences.
This personal relationship is also evident in Mother Who Gave Me Life where the imagery of light shows the persona realises the importance of her mother as she walks “in the light of the living. ” This suggests that the persona is able to walk amongst the living due to her mother. The affirming experiences and enlightenment provided by this relationship enables the persona to see the life-giving role of women as part of the cycle of life. All the poems comment on an individual’s relationship with their mother or father which is essential in maturing and evolving as an individual.
The relationships conveyed enable the persona to gain an understanding of life whilst considering its value and accepting its cycle. Ultimately, the exploration of memory and relationships with the persona and their father or mother enables an individual to comprehend human nature and the links between life and death. Throughout the poems At Mornington and Mother Who Gave Me Life, Harwood shows the reader, through memories and comparisons, different aspects of life which contribute to what it means to be human.