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Changing Perspectives in Prize-Giving

 

Gwen Harwood craftily constructs the character of Eisenbart (German for Greybeard – a noted nuclear physicist) to illustrate the contrast between a narrow mature rational scientific mind with a younger precocious genius combining both intellect and passion.  The older man is depicted as vain, arrogant, pretentious and dull, stuffy, trapped in an insular parochial stable and smug world while the younger girl combines both technical achievement and passion.

 

Eisenbart comes across as rude and superior by reluctantly deigning to attend the Assembly to primarily to flaunt his superiority.  Even his distinction and dignity is qualified as an “unspecified kind”.  Through clever use of structural irony, a fluctuating tone and subtle use of colour and images, Harwood abrasively undercuts Eisenbart’s pomposity and he is made to see himself as the fool he is.

 

Despite his intellectual supremacy and the initial adulation, when confronted by true full blown talent of a young precocious Mozart (whose music has power over the mind and passion) played by a vibrant passionate adolescent, he suffers a reversal and suddenly sees the emptiness of his vaunted pride.  He finds himself “a fool trapped by music in a copper net of hair”

Harwood’s ironic use of tone lulls the reader into a false sense of well being as Eisenbart creates a stir on his arrival, but soon his affectations; his posing of Rodin’s The Thinker is pierced by the mimicry of a young girl with titian hair.  The passion of her electric handshake jolts the subconscious, stirring complex, dormant, irrepressible urges of sexual fantasy, his “rose-hot dream”.  The unifying motif of hands, from Rodin’s, Eisenbart’s affected pose to the arrogant hands of the girl’s mastery of Mozart, completes the circle of pride going before the fall. Her arrogance is based on genuine performance, while his is vaunted, false – a pose.  His final disgrace is described by the oxymoron “sage fool”.

 

The sexual suggestiveness is achieved through word play and innuendo.  Eisenbart “shook indifferently a host of virgin hands” but his attention is attracted to the titian-haired girl –who, “hitched at a stocking, winked..”  . The punning of “chased”  is clever  word play echoing the chastity of virgin hands, but also provocatively suggests sexual pursuit.  But it is the unambiguity of  “voltage” and “suffered her strange eyes, against reason dark”   ‘Forging a rose-hot dream”  and the confinement of the verb “trapped”  conclusively completes the image of a man beguiled and enmeshed by  the power of sexual seduction.  There is evidence that the poem could be autobiographical as Harwood herself played the piano and had reddish hair in her youth.

 

Prize-Giving illustrates in a short dramatic sequence of events that a sudden disturbing encounter between equal minds can have an unsettling effect on the older one’s self perception and cause a re-evaluation of how he sees himself.  Eisenbart is forced to change his perception on who he is and how he rates himself.  The deflating mockery of a young maestro gives him cause to see himself “suspended upside down” a pathetic fool trapped by his fantasies about a genuine talent.   All his vaunted pride has come to naught because he failed to nurture the human or emotional side of his being.

 

 

 

 

Changing Self – In the Park

 

 

The mother negatively depicted In the Park is a counter point to the dominant sacramental mother who is fulfilled and enriched by the procreation of children. The dominant motif of motherhood in artist history (Madonna and Child) usually emphasizes the positive aspects.

The choice of a sonnet form with a regular rhyme pattern ironically contrasts with the bleak flat monotone of a rather depressing frumpy view of motherhood.

The pejorative choice of words including the bland clichés trivialize and depreciate the role of the mother making her appear to be the loser in life while the “neat” head of the man appears positive and affirming.  The truth could easily be inverted where he is lonely and unfulfilled while she is cherished and valued.  The perspective you choose to view it from determines the final consensus.  The image of “flickering light”  reinforces the ebbing hope she has for the future.

 

 

 

The Glass Jar

 

The changing self- perception, a common motif in Harwood’s poetry is dramatically narrated in the Glass Jar where a young naïve boy reveals a lack of understanding of both the laws of physics and the nature of lovemaking.  His loss of innocence and transition to mature understanding is dramatically recreated by the use of series of clever episodes and images.

 

Ambiguity

The religious language and images; good, (angels, disciples, bless, holy commonplace, resurrected sun) is counterpointed by references to evil; (monsters, fiends, pincer and claw,{synecdoche} a malignant ballet. Good and evil are also contrasted through light (security and order) and darkness (emptiness and chaos).

 

The references to music, nature (forest, wood, field, thickets, flower, clearing) and subconscious dreams (Freudian suppressed urges – Oedipal)  makes this a subtle but evocative and effective poem depicting the transition between the innocence of childhood and adolescent awareness.  We all need defenses against emptiness and the forces of darkness;  horror, pain and separation are necessary steps towards independence, maturity and self-reliance.

 

The dominant image of the glass jar, like the boy’s innocent faith in the sun, is transparent and easily shattered. Hope is personified and “fell headlong from its eagle height.”

 

The tones modulate between expectation, hope, mystery, fear, jealousy with overtones evoked through religious language.


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