Samples for Comparison
‘Harwood’s poetry exposes the inherent brutality of humanity.’
How far is this true?
For the sake of this activity I immediately thought of the contrast between ‘Barn Owl’ and
‘Nightfall’ in ‘Father and Child’, the proposed vengeances in ‘Burning Sappho’, and the various
childhood cruelties in ‘Class of 1927’. These poems are the focus for this, mostly because they are
ones I have looked at in class, not necessarily because they are the best choices for the prompt.
Sample 1
In her poetry, Gwen Harwood explores with brutal honesty the inherent behaviours of
mankind. Instead of glorifying the dignity of old age, or romanticising the innocence of
childhood, or sanctifying the self-sacrifice of motherhood, she portrays the true pettiness
and cruelty of human nature. At the same time, she allows for mitigating emotions and
Harwood’s children are often a portrayal of what could be perceived as true human
nature before it has been civilised into acceptable parameters. There is a lot of
indiscriminate sadism towards frogs in much of Harwood’s poetry. In ‘The secret life of
frogs’, the speaker, in a flashback to when she was a little girl, tells us nonchalantly that “the
big boys blew them up and spiked them”. There is no condemnation in her voice as “that was
life for frogs” but she and her friend Alice sit “cradling” theirs. The girls do feel protective
towards them and the frogs safely “cuddled their vulnerable bellies in hands that would do
them no wrong.” Later, as an adult, the speaker is in a position to stop her Siamese from
killing frogs, although she is sanguine enough to allow it mice. In ‘Slate’ the doctor’s son is a
budding psychopath and the whole class is pleased when he gets his come-uppance at the
hands of the class “Bonehead” who “knew no evil”. The children here are brutal but are
working within a shared morality. The children’s behaviour works according to capacity: the
doctor’s son, “a clever skite” tortures the mouse; the studious children in the back are too
frightened to intervene; the middle section pretends not to look; the “vacant lad” takes
action. He is the only one not controlled by social expectation into acceptance of this
cruelty; instead he hits the “vivisector” over the head with his slate, hard enough to draw
blood. This is a brutal retaliation but the children see retribution and cheer their hero. The
mouse still dies because of the “arrangement of the universe”. Harwood’s attitude appears
to be that the universe itself is brutal, and that people, particularly children who have less
control over things than adults, are both part of and subject to this brutality.
The child in ‘Barn Owl’ is intentionally brutal. This child, “master of life and death”, is
himself out to “punish beak and claw” for its own natural brutality. The speaker refers to
himself (which pronoun is based on the assumption that Harwood’s boys tend to be more
physically cruel than the girls) as “a horny fiend”. The child’s cruelty is mitigated, though, by
his childhood ignorance that death is “obscene” rather than “clean and final”. The father
combines discipline and education in the harsh instruction to “end what you have begun”.
While some might consider this unnecessarily brutal parenting, others might see it as the
appropriate ‘tough love’ response to such violence (in a farming community where children are
brought up to use guns appropriately). The child then seeks, and the parent gives, comfort.
Despite the brutality, Harwood ensures that there is also apparent the beauty of nature and
the love of father and child. By contrast the second poem, ‘Nightfall’ has no blood and gore.
The only brutality is the brutal reality of death. This poem concentrates on other inherent
human capacities. The poem is poignantly beautiful and speaks of “time’s long promised land”,
reached at the end of a “marvellous” journey through life where a “child’s delight” in nature
is worth sustaining. Love and compassion are the main emotions apparent here.
Children are capable of compassion too. The ‘Class of 1927’ includes some children
competing for ‘The Spelling Prize’. Like the child in ‘Barn Owl’, this child also regrets an
unnecessary cruelty she imparted on another. Here the speaker wins a spelling test despite
the other students “hissing, ‘Give Ella a chance. Let her win.’” The speaker has visited Ella at
home where a bull calf is casually (if brutally) butchered while she longs for ‘Every Child’s
Book of Animal Stories’, and keeps her dolls carefully in a shoebox. Sixty years later the
speaker still feels sorry for Ella and remembers the other children punishing her (again
Harwood keeps the speaker’s gender intentionally ambiguous) for her selfishness. ‘The
Twins’ too are victims of the brutal realities of life: a dead mother, a drunkard father, an
incomplete education, and ultimate (possibly inevitable) “grief”. The speaker recalls all this,
as well as personal regret for the unnecessary pettiness of not wanting to share sweets.
This individual meanness pales into insignificance in the face of the greater brutality in
which the universe is organised.
In ‘Burning Sappho’, Gwen Harwood’s speaker, probably in autobiographical reflection
on some of her own experience, uses imagined brutality as a way of dealing with her own
frustrations. When her daughter “kicks her good new well-selected toys with spite…and
whines for food” she imagines sticking her through with pins. When interrupted by visitors
and a waking child she poisons them with prussic acid. When her husband wants to make love
she wants to dismember him. One might consider these over-reactions to fairly trivial
inconveniences in the scheme of things; however they do reveal a truth about life. While
nature (or the universal order) might not be intentionally cruel, it is certainly brutally
indifferent to the suffering or desires of individuals. This woman says she wants to write
poetry, like Sappho, to “find my truth, my poem, and grasp it yet”. This is a “burning” desire
(even need) within her to fulfil herself through creating more than dinner or a clean house.
Society expects that she will be a good wife and mother and some elements of society would
castigate her for expecting more. Harwood uses the doggerel rhythm of her vengeances to
form the final couplet in each of her stanzas to stress that they are related humorously.
The child is not neglected, the “kind friend” has the opportunity to gossip, and her husband
is “rich in peace”; no harm has come to any of them, it is the woman who has “devils burning”
in her brain. The black humour appears to be brutal but the real brutality is the limitation of
the individual by the expectations of society.
There is, without argument, brutality inherent in the characters and events of
Harwood’s poems. She does not condemn it as an aberrant or essentially evil aspect of the
way of things; although intentional cruelty is something frowned upon. The cruelty of
children is presented partly as childishness, something that is regretted with experience and
maturity, but is still a normal part of childhood and being human. Harwood is merely being
honest about all the truths of human nature, where love, compassion, intellect, aesthetics
and guilt are all inherent characteristics of humanity just as much as brutality.
Sample 2
Harwood’s poetry exposes the inherent brutality of humanity.’
How far is this true?
In her poetry, Gwen Harwood often has sequences that show that humans are naturally
brutal. There are different types of brutality; in ‘Class of 1927’ the poems are like autobiography,
where Gwen Harwood speakers recall brutal experiences from childhood. In ‘Father and Child’,
the speaker tells of killing an owl as a child and then as an adult shares the experience of death
with the aging parent. In ‘Burning Sappho’ a woman plans the brutal revenge of all the people who
annoy her during the day.
‘Class of 1927’ is a group of poems which seem to be about the same experience of
growing up and going to school in a poor farming area. You assume that the speakers all have the
same voice which could be Harwood’s own experience. ‘Slate’ is a long poem about a nasty boy
who dissected and spiked animals “to see how long they took in dying”. The class dunce called
“Bonehead” took his writing slate and hit him over the head with it and made him bleed. The
children all thought this was fair. Harwood makes the cruel boy disgusting and the one who stops
him the hero even though he wins through violence. In ‘The Spelling Prize’, the speaker describes
seeing a bull calf being butchered. There is blood all over the place and then it seems as though
the calf is watching itself being cut up. The speaker is so upset that they run away in tears. This is
very brutal and not nice to read, but they are not being cruel, it is just what happens if you want to
eat meat. The children in here are also kind enough to want to make sure that Ella wins the prize
because her family is poor and she doesn’t have much. The most brutal person in these stories is
“Sir”, their teacher. He is such a central point in their lives that he doesn’t even have a name. He
doesn’t seem to care about bullying or torturing mice, but he gives them a detention for sighing,
and carries his cane wherever he goes; he would give “6 cuts” for a rude picture. There is
constant brutality in their childhoods but the cruelty is what they don’t like.
‘Barn Owl’ has a graphic description of an owl being cruelly shot. In this poem the speaker
calls himself (Harwood leaves the sex ambiguous) “a horny fiend”. The child thinks it will be good
to kill the owl and calls it a “prize” but doesn’t really understand the consequences of his actions.
The wounded owl is an “obscene bundle of stuff” that doesn’t die at once. The child recognises his
cruelty and his father comes to tell him to “end what you have begun” and put the owl out of its
misery. Like before, this is unpleasant to read, but the child learns from his behaviour and the
parent comforts him when he learns from his mistakes.
“Burning Sappho” has a housewife who wants to write poetry thinking up brutal things to do
to the people who stop her. It is meant to be a funny poem because these are just fantasies. The
speaker says “hatred forks between my child and me” which means that Harwood doesn’t present
mothers and children in just a good light but tries to be honest about how a mother can resent her
children sometimes. When her daughter interrupts her poetry she wants to “stick her image
through with pins”. Later she finishes all the housework again and visitors interrupt and her
daughter wakes up again. Now she wants to give them “prussic acid” instead of tea. When her
husband wants to make love she imagines that she has a savage vagina and it “chops him to bits”.
The brutality here is just imaginary and for a good cause.
There are lots of other examples of brutality with children bullying, animals suffering and
people dying from old age and cancer. This can make some of Harwood’s poems quite off putting
or confronting. Harwood exposes brutality as all just part of life. If someone is brutal to punish
someone or stop them from tormenting someone else then that seems acceptable. Children being
childish and mischievous or selfish is not good but is normal. It is when people are knowingly cruel
that Harwood depicts them as being bad or wrong. There is a lot of brutality that is just
unavoidable or a fact of life. Harwood tries to be honest and expose brutality is an inherent part of
human nature but not always with a moral rating.
Sample 3
Harwood’s poetry exposes the inherent brutality of humanity.’
How far is this true?
About as far as you can throw it.

Samples Harwood Essays for Comparison