The poem I will be analysing today is In the Park written by Gwen Harwood. Gwen Harwood was an Australian poet. She was born in Taringa, Queensland and was brought up in Brisbane. Harwood’s poetry always focuses on motherhood and the stifled role of women, particularly those of young mothers. In the Park deals with the feelings of motherhood – particularly those feelings which are negative in nature and challenge traditional perceptions. The dominant reading of the poem is that for certain women motherhood can be a burden. Sometimes when a woman’s life predominantly revolves around looking after her children, her sense of worth is devalued. In her representations of the theme of motherhood and family, Harwood utilizes subject matter, discourses and poetic devices to challenge traditional perceptions and make her statements more powerful.
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The major subject matter of the poem is an event in the life of a mother. Whilst taking her children to the park, she encounters an ex-lover and they discuss how their lives have progressed. The conversation is short and they discuss her children, however, it is a superficial conversation and Harwood suggests that the man spends his time thanking God that he did not end up with the woman and her children and, as he departs, she states to no one in particular that her children ‘have eaten [her] alive’. The meaning of this statement is that the choices the woman has made for her life have all revolved around her children. As the man departs, she returns to her imprisonment of a life with the children.
Harwood illustrates that the fact that the mother no longer lives the same life she used to have. “Her clothes are out of date” suggests the mother only wears or uses old things which means she doesn’t have the time or money to enjoy a good life. “They have eaten me alive” constructs the main message of the poem that because this woman no longer living her own life but instead is a martyr to her children. They have life by ‘eating’ hers. The subject matter of the poem is therefore the negative aspects of motherhood and family life.
The major tone of the poem is pessimistic because Harwood wants to demonstrate that when a woman decides to become a mother, countless sacrifices are made, one being the identity that she had in society prior to having children. The poem shows this in the line: “Her clothes are out to date”, which illustrates that the woman in the park wears clothes which are not the most current fashion and demonstrates that a mother has no time to care for her own appearances or to enjoy any kind of self-pampering, and her life is all about her children. Her final statement shows that the things she stated to her ex-lover, such as: ‘It’s so nice to hear their chatter, watch them grow and thrive,’ are falsehoods that she has rehearsed to convince herself and others that her life is not miserable. However, it is the final line which shows the reader that her life as a mother is monotonous and torturous.
Harwood’s controlling idea of the negative aspects of family and motherhood challenge traditional values and she positions the reader to accept these by privileging the mother’s regret. At the end of the poem, the woman’s statement that her children have eaten her alive, suggests that she sees her children as parasites to be loathed rather than cherished. This representation of a resentful mother is also made stronger by the fact that she is aware of her ex-lover’s relief at not being trapped in the same family environment. The reader is told that: ‘From his neat head unquestionably rises a small balloon’ which means that his thoughts are as obvious to her as a cartoon thought bubble rising above his head. He is glad that he has not settled down with her. By having the woman’s resentment and the man’s relief, Harwood does not value the family or the children and the reader is positioned to see her as a victim.
This is also emphasised by the use of the words “too late” at the end of the first stanza to position the readers to understand her feelings about life. These two words create a vivid portrait of a woman gripped with sadness and regret. She is no longer the energetic and attractive woman; instead she selflessly devotes all her time and energy to her family.
In the Park uses poetic devices to great effect, and the most powerful of these is symbolism. The reader is shown the contrast between the man’s life and the woman’s life and these are represented symbolically. For example, in the first line of the poem “Her clothes are out of date” refer not just to her clothes but symbolically represent the fact that she is losing pride in her appearance. The ex-lover’s ‘neat head’ may symbolically represent a fashionable haircut , and suggests that the woman is not only unfashionably dressed but unkempt and scruffy as well. The children’s behaviour also carries symbolic representations, as they are demanding constant attention and hang off of her like parasites who “whine”, “bicker” and “tug her skirt”. The reader can assume that the children always act in this way, the man is always neat and fashionable and the woman is not.
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The ‘small balloon’ which rises from his head is a metaphor for his thoughts, which are obvious to the woman and make her realise how little worth the man sees in her life. This is also strengthened by the fact that the author uses personification in the sixth line, when he states states, “Time holds great surprises.” The word “time” is intangible; but is used by the two characters to explain how their lives have diverted so far from one another.
The use of irony is also powerful in the poem, by further enhancing the reader’s understanding of the characters’ thoughts. The statement in line ten and eleven, “It’s so sweet to hear their chatter, watch them grow and thrive” is refuted by this irony and makes her final statement very powerful indeed. She didn’t want her old lover to notice her sad life, so she pretends to be happy, but privately admits that she is spiritually dead. In this line, “they have eaten me alive”, Harwood uses hyperbole to show this woman is tired of her life.
In conclusion, the poem “In the Park”, Gwen Harwood portrays a woman’s feeling of being smothered by her children. She is no longer enjoying life and regrets the life she has chosen. Harwood wrote this poem with very simple composition techniques but it affords a rather big impact which helps to give an insight into the life of a mother which bares the burdens of children. Alternately, “Sonnet 118” by William Shakespeare is a celebration of love and is a poem filled with promise at young love. It looks to love as the opportunity to begin a loving family, by using the metaphor of a day which promising a beautiful summer. However, In the Park shows that such promise does not always deliver a beautiful summer. Sometimes it is stifling and oppressive.
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