At Mornington

At Mornington #

For Thomas Riddell, her life long unrequited love who had a house at Mornington on Port Phillip Bay, Victoria

Sound Effects #

Read the poem aloud. Comment on the Sound Effects, verbal music. It’s rhyme. Rhythm and melody. Assonance, alliteration. onomatopoeia. etc. (Blending repetition patterns. slow/fast movement, harsh, discordant, sibilance, sotto, allegro, Rhapsodic, lyrical, elegiac, upbeat, blue, staccato, dirge, ode, Melody. tone. mood. atmosphere. voice.

The poem begins softly with an account of anonymous family anecdote telling of her first encounter with the sea.

The Tone is conversational, reflective and contemplative suggesting the passing of time and gaining of wisdom. From a concrete experience the poem then becomes philosophical with the waters finally taking her away.

II Subject Matter – Context and Background #

After the publication of Blessed City, a collection of letters to Lieutenant Tony Riddell while he was posted to Darwin, this poem becomes more clear.

Blessed City only chronicles Harwood’s letters; the responses from Riddell are not included. Harwood refers to some of his comments in her own letters, but Riddell remains largely silent. This is because John Harwood, Gwen Harwood’s oldest son, has long held charge of his mother’s estate. He has kept Riddell’s letters to his mother private and is renowned for being very protective of her public image.

Her emotionally charged letters (over many years) become particularly poignant when we discover that her passion is unrequited; Riddell is content to be associated with her only as her muse. Tony does introduce her to a fellow soldier, William Harwood. They marry and she moves from warm Brisbane to a colder Tasmania.

The poem is closely related to experiences with family and friends beginning with a first sighting of the sea and then introspectively musing on water, memory and death. The meeting with her close friend Thomas Riddell at the cemetery where his parents are buried spawns thoughts of their own mortality “autumn grasses”. This rare moment spent together induced reflection about death, memories, the passing of time and the importance of friendship.

The ability to interweave past and present is Harwood’s most striking feature.

At Mornington #

They told me that when I was taken
To the sea’s edge, for the first time,
I leapt from my father’s arms
And was caught by a wave and rolled
Like a doll among rattling shells;
And I seem to remember my father
Fully clothed, still streaming with water
Half comforting, half angry.
And indeed I remember believing
As a child, I could walk on water –
The next wave, the next wave –
It was only a matter of balance.
On what floor are they borne,
These memories of early childhood
Iridescent, fugitive
As light in a sea-wet shell,
While we stand, two friends of middle ages,
By your parents’ grave in silence
Among avenues of the dead
With their cadences of trees,
Marble and granite parting
The quick of autumn grasses.
We have the wholeness of this day
To share as we will between us.
This morning I saw in your garden
Fine pumpkins grown on a trellis
So it seemed that the vines were rising
To flourish the fruits of earth
Above their humble station
In airy defiance of nature
- a parable of myself,
a skinful of elements climbing
from earth to the fastness of light;
now come to that time of life
when our bones begin to wear us,
to settle our flesh in final shape
as the drying face of land
rose out of earth’s seamless waters
I dreamed once, long ago,
That we walked among day-bright flowers
To a bench in the Brisbane gardens
With a pitcher of water between us,
And stayed for a whole day
Talking, and drinking the water.
Then, as night fell, you said
“There is still some water left over.”
We have one day, only one,
But more than enough to refresh us.
At your side among the graves
I think of death no more
Than when, secure in my father’s arms,
I laughed at a hollowed pumpkin
With candle flame for eyesight,
And when I am seized at last
And rolled in one grinding race
Of dreams, pain and memories, love and grief,
From which no hand will save me,
The peace of this day will shine
Like light on the face of the waters
That bear me away for ever.

III Themes, concerns, issues - values* #

Memories triggered by the meeting a childhood friend and the realisation that the persona can transcend death because of memories, love, family and friendship. Love and friendships enshrined in memory will protect the persona against time and mortality.

The persona realises that memories change — “as light in a sea-wet shell”.

At the end of the poem there is an acceptance of death. “waters that bear me away forever”. Nature is indomitable.

No change has occurred in the persona’s stubborn and determined nature —

“I could walk on water” to “in airy defiance of nature”.

However, she now realises that she “no hand Will save her”, but the poem ends in peace and acceptance, as death will be followed by eternity.


Structure: linear, circular, episodic, flash backs, climactic. Images: (visual, auditory, o1factory, tactile, ,gustatory) figures of speech: similes, metaphors, personification, analogy, synecdoche, contrast, antithesis, unity, irony, Allusions, etc

In At Mornington elements of the past, present and future are used in images of water — the water of the ocean in childhood, when I believed I could walk on the sea; the water of the dream in which I sat with Thomas Riddell in the Brisbane Botanical Gardens drinking from a pitcher; the water of creation,

the first source of the flux of life; the water of the infinity of death.” Gwen Harwood — Lamplit Presences

The poem contrasts the unthinking impulses of childhood with the reflective appreciation of middle age. Death has been placed in perspective as only one aspect of life and memories and friendship enable people to transcend death. The persona acknowledges the true value of friendship. This poem was dedicated to Thomas Riddell, Gwen Harwood’s life long friend who encouraged her to change from being a recluse and publishing her poetry using pseudonyms to touring the country as a poet and forcing the literary world to acknowledge the true poet.

Form— the long stanzas and free verse reflect the passing of time and the flooding memories.

Imagery — images of change — persona as a child, carefree and confident to a middle aged person with an aging body — “when our bones begin to wear us”; the earth’s emergence — “drying face land rose”, “autumn grasses”.

Images of water: “sea’s edge, father..streaming with water, I could walk on water, flood (of memory), earth’s seamless waters, pitcher of water, drinking the water, face of the waters.

Water: the mystery of creation; birth-death-resurrection; purification and redemption; fertility and growth. According to Carl Jung, water is also the commonest symbol for the unconscious.

a. The Sea: the Mother of all Life; spiritual mystery, and infinity; death and rebirth; timelessness and eternity; the unconscious.

b. Rivers: also death and rebirth (baptism); the flowing of time into eternity; transitional phases of the life cycle; incarnations of deities.

Parable: the pumpkin’s cycle of life and its defiance of nature make it a parable for the person who believes that she can transcend time and age through friendship and memories of her experiences.

Symbolism — light and water symbolise the continuity of life even after death - renewal. The pitcher of water symbolises the importance of friendship.


Approach: Subjective/Objective, Attitude or Tone, Audience, Style: diction, word play, puns, connotative/denotative, emotive (coloured biased,) /demotive, (technical, dispassionate) clichés, proverbial, idiomatic, expressive, flat, Jargon, euphemisms, pejorative, oxymoron. Gender biases. Register: formal, stiff, dignified or Colloquial; relaxed, conversational, inclusive, friendly or Slang; colourful, intimate, Rhetorical devices; Questions, exclamations, cumulation, crescendo, inversion, bathos, repetition, 3 cornered phrases.

Colloquial – with occasional formal words: iridescent, fugitive, defiance, seamless,

First Person — intimate use of personal pronoun “I” enables reader to witness the changes in self.

Changing Tense — the change from past to present to future tense signifies the passing of time and the changes in self.


This is a deeply pensive an philosophical consideration of life and the human relationship with the natural world.