Gwen Harwood was an Australian poet. This is a speech I had to do in English Literature in Year 12, 1998. I keep it on my site as when I was trying to research this speech, I couldn't find anything on the Internet except her poems. I hope this helps other people trying to research Gwen Harwood's life. Since I've read nothing about Gwen or her poems since 1998, I doubt I'll be able to answer any questions you have.
Gwen Harwood was born in Brisbane, Queensland in 1920. Her family was
close and as a child she was immersed in music, philosophy, religion and language. She was
raised in a family of strong women, her grandmother earning her own living until she was 80,
and her mother was a feminist who was into community issues. It was Gwen's grandmother that
introduced her to poetry. Her family was self-sufficient, and music was very important to them.
Her father played the piano and violin. Both Gwen and her brother were
given piano lessons, and originally Gwen aspired to become a musician. She eventually decided
she would never be a successful in that field. She then became a music teacher, organist at
the All Saints Church of England in Brisbane and a member of the Handel society. Then she
became actively involved in religion, as she had always had a fondness for the Old Testament.
Gwen's interest in philosophy escalated at this point, and she would spend ages discussing
philosophy, theology and music with her friends. She also had an interest in the German
language, which she learnt in the early 50s to be able to read German poetry. Because of her
interest, the majority of her poems are written in tetrameter or trimeter as she saw iambic
pentameter as monotonous. Wittgenstein was her greatest inspiration.
She began writing poetry in 1950. In this time, Australia was
predominantly white and middle class. Men were still dominant, and only very few women
entered the work force. Gwen was of upper middle class, and many of her poems are based on
her Christian beliefs and society's beliefs. However, Gwen did not adhere to strict social
rules, instead challenging the beliefs towards motherhood and many other issues of the time.
When she first began writing poetry, she used pseudonyms such as Walter
Lehmann and Miriam Stone. She married William Harwood, a linguist in 1945, and moved to
Tasmania. Their first child (the first of four, three sons and a daughter) was born in 1946.
Tasmania never felt like home to her, as she writes in 'Lamplit Presences'. "Tasmania has
always given me a feeling of exile. When I got off the plane here 35 years ago, a voice told
me, this is beautiful, but not your place".
Poems was published in 1963, Volume Two in 1968. She was
awarded the Robert Frost award and the Patrick White award in 1977 and 1978 respectively.
In 1981, The Lion's Bride was released, followed by Bone Scan. In 1989, Bone Scan won
the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards Prize for poetry, and the South
Australian JJ Bray Award. The Present Tense was published in 1995.
The Harwood family had moved to five different houses, and these all
provided settings for her poems. In 'An Impromptu for Ann Jennings', she writes about
a house she lived in at Fern Tree, on the side of Mount Wellington looking down on Hobart.
The house she lived in at Oyster Bay, 25 miles south of Hobart, is referred to in poems
both in The Lion's Bride and Bone Scan. As she felt she did not belong in
Tasmania, Gwen Harwood refers to people who feel they don't belong often. In 'Oyster Cove',
she writes sympathetically towards the Aboriginal people who were killed at that spot by
introduced European diseases. More poems along this line include 'Evening, Oyster Cove' and
'Oyster Cove Pastorals'.
Gwen Harwood tells in The Lion's Bride of her fear that marriage can
eliminate a person's independence and creativity. In her poem 'I am the Captain of my Soul'
she tells of children who don't see their parent's troubles, and instead increase them.
In 'The Sea Anemones', she gives the image of family clamouring to be fed. In 'An Impromptu
for Ann Jennings' and 'Iris', she describes marriage as a type of imprisonment, but that
there is a sense of accomplishment in fulfilling the important role of wife and mother.
Despite that, she was happy with domestic life and her role. She herself said "I like the
domestic scene because it springs from early childhood. I love cooking and reading and just
caring for a family". She also believed that having children was the key to immortality.
She received awards such as Honorary Doctorates of Letters from the
Universities of Queensland, Tasmania and La Trobe.
She died in December 1995.