Changing Perspectives in Prize-Giving, #
Gwen Harwood writes about the transition from youth, innocence to
experience and maturity. Prize-Giving is set in a girls school at the end of year ceremony, where prominent dignitaries are invited to speak and dole out academic and social awards.
There is a distinct possibility this is drawn from Harwood’s personal experience, the evidence relying on the fact that as a child she played the piano and had red (titian) hair. She enjoys sending up the vaunted pomposity of pretentious people - professors of universities including from the literary world and its cast of hyper-inflated egos.
Eisenbart (either iron beard or grey beard) is an enigmatic construct of Harwood’s fertile larrikin imagination. It appears a fusion of an earlier ceremony by incorporating self important men she met later in life. She has little time for dissembling, affectation or ceremonial pageantry and rituals.
Professor Eisenbart, asked to attend
a girls’ school speech night as an honoured guest
and give the prizes out, rudely declined;
but from indifference agreed, when pressed
with dry scholastic jokes, to change his mind,
to grace their humble platform, and to lend
distinction (of a kind not specified)
to the occasion. Academic dress
became him, as he knew. When he appeared
the girls whirred with an insect nervousness,
the Head in humbler black flapped round and steered
her guest, superb in silk and fur, with pride
to the best seat beneath half-hearted blooms
tortured to form the school’s elaborate crest.
Eisenbart scowled with violent distaste,
then recomposed his features to their best
advantage: deep in thought, with one hand placed
like Rodin’s Thinker. So he watched the room’s
mosaic of young heads. Blonde, black, mouse-brown
they bent for their Headmistress’ opening prayer.
But underneath a light (no accident
of seating, he felt sure), with titian hair
one girl sat grinning at him, her hand bent
under her chin in mockery of his own.
Speeches were made and prizes given. He shook
indifferently a host of virgin hands.
“Music!” The girl with titian hair stood up,
hitched at a stocking, winked at near-by friends,
and stood before him to receive a cup
of silver chased with curious harps. He took
her hand, and felt its voltage fling his hold
from his calm age and power; suffered her strange
eyes, against reason dark, to take his stare
with her to the piano, there to swap
her casual schoolgirl’s for a master’s air.
He forged his rose-hot dream as Mozart told
the fullness of all passion or despair
summoned by arrogant hands. The music ended,
Eisenbart teased his gown while others clapped,
and peered into a trophy which suspended
his image upside down: a sage fool trapped
by music in a copper net of hair.
Gwen Harwood craftily constructs the character of Eisenbart (German for Greybeard – an imaginary noted nuclear physicist) to illustrate the contrast between a narrow mature rational scientific mind with a younger precocious genius combining both intellect and passion. As the wife of a University Professor, Harwood would undoubtedly have met many pompous self important academics. This older man is depicted as vain, arrogant, pretentious and dull, stuffy, trapped in an insular parochial stable and smug world, yet susceptible to the sexual allure of nubile youth, while the younger girl combines both innate technical skill, achievement and passion.
Eisenbart comes across as rude and superior by reluctantly deigning to attend the Assembly to primarily 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.