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.
Hesiod noted that: Eros, fairest among the deathless gods,
“unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind”.
Plato: Passions can over rule the mind.
Helen Garner agrees:
there’s stuff about men and sex and women that are just not amenable to social control, and never will be.
We are never so vulnerable as when we fall in love.
God gave mankind a brain and a penis, but only enough blood, for either to be used at one time.
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. One message may be a cautionay tale of not losing your heart, even while being dictated by your head.
Eisenbart Poems #
Harwood composed eight Eisenbart poems illustrating the conflict between reason and passion. He has a live-in mistress who counterpoises his dry academic disposition. Harwood delightfully toys with his secret life.
In Daybreak, she writes:
In the hushed corridors of sleep
Professor Eisenbart plots treason
Caretaker mind prepares to sweep
The dusty offices of reason.
In Panther and Peacock, Harwood juxtaposes the brutal and the beauty of nature.
His mistress watched a peacock. He grimaced,
Making rude comments on the proud
Creature’s true centre of that radiant fan.
Raked by the aureoled bird’s nerve-twisting cries
They strolled away, affecting noble ease.
The Panther is described as:
Let the dark beast whose cat-like footpads scour
My cortex barren leap from its cage and tear Their feathers out!
Later Eisenbart falls asleep.
…………….She (his mistress) cradles his head
Its intricate landscape of fine lines and scars,
Ridges and hollows, veins meanderings,
Grew desperate in sleep.
He then dreams of becoming the Peacock, with feathers and quills, ripped apart by the dominant and predating Panther.
“ripped awake still rooted in his dream of death.
In Boundary Conditions, the male voice of the scientist comparing the sun’s centre of the atomic nuclei with the power of an atomic bomb is juxtaposed by his mistress’s antithetical voice’s feminine sensibility through the technique of Counterpoint.
“Sprung from love’s mysterious core
Soul and flesh,”
..mankind’s old dichotomy:
Mind and matter; flesh and spirt;
What has been and will be;
Desire that flares beyond our fate:
Still in the heart more violence lies
Than in the bomb.
Ganymede, the son of Tros, king of Troy. Because of his unusual beauty, he was carried off either by the gods or by Zeus, disguised as an eagle, or, according to a Cretan account, by Minos, to serve as cupbearer.
The earliest forms of the myth have no erotic content, but by the 5th century BC it was believed that Ganymede’s kidnapper had a homosexual passion for him; Ganymede’s kidnapping was a popular topic on 5th-century Attic vases. The English word catamite was derived from the popular Latin form of his name.
In Harwood’s poem, Ganymede, Professor Eisenbart finds himself sexually attracted to a young boy:
The cause of his unrest: a boy whose wealth
Of beauty, gathered now beneath the tragic
Green of cypress, had seduced by stealth
Since their first meeting, Eisenbart from his magic
In their assignation in a “rented heaven”, they undress, but then despite the strong attraction, fail to make any physical connection.
Ganymede, with crude mockery, chose to go.
Eisenbart took his pen; let sunset frame him
A city fringed with water and cold light,
Restless with growing life, and turned to live,
To work in his own world, where symbols might
Speak to him their sublime alternative.
Homo-erotic poetry exists through the ages for both men and women.
The Roman view, like the Greek, was that responsible homosexuality was a phase you went through, but then grew out of it as an adult and became respectable family men.
They distinguished between the penetrator and the penetrated, the latter playing a passive and subordinate role.
Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice displays the hidden yearnings as a married father of six for a young boy.
Mann, played a lifelong “game between what was revealed and what was concealed.”
Mann is another sexually repressed artist who did not let himself behave as he wished. published an overtly homoerotic novella, “Death in Venice”; he left behind diaries that acknowledged his attraction to men, stipulating that they could be made public twenty years after his death. Perhaps he became a writer due to his thwarted desires.
Having Fun with the Professors’: Gwen Harwood and Doctor Eisenbart Ann-Marie Priest
Priest examines the role of Gwen Harwood’s Eisenbart poems in helping to establish her career as a serious poet. It argues that Harwood had more trouble breaking into the male-dominated world of Australian poetry than is generally acknowledged, and that the Eisenbart poems, which centre on a fictional scientist, represent a turning point in her literary fortunes. In the 1950s, Harwood struggled to get the kind of attention she sought from a number of influential poetry editors and reviewers, many of whom were also academics.
Chief among them for her were A. D. Hope, Vincent Buckley and James McAuley. Her Eisenbart poems, which both play up to and satirise the cultural icon of the god-professor, were an attempt to subvert expectations of so-called ‘lady poets’ and beat the ‘professors’ at their own game. They also gave literary expression to the debate between positivism and humanism that dominated some aspects of academic life in the 1950s, and to the anger and frustration Harwood experienced at repeated rejections of her work.
A.D. Hope begins his 1972 essay on Harwood with the line: ‘Gwen Harwood is always having fun with the professors but the professors seem rather wary of her’ (227).
This wariness, he explains, is because Harwood’s brand of fun is ‘disturbing, if not [. . .] terrifying’, and ‘is apt to be aimed at critics, professors, editors and the literary menagerie in general’ (227). But Harwood’s terrorising of ‘the professors’ through literary jokes, hoaxes and biting satire is only one aspect of her multi-layered and highly ambivalent relationship with the Australian literary establishment in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when she was developing an identity as a professional poet. She herself was ‘not academic’, as she told John Beston in 1975,1 although as the wife of a Reader in English at the University of Tasmania, she knew many academics She was also, contrary to contemporary expectations of the…
Published 26 February 2017 in Volume 32 No. 1. Subjects: Australian Women Poets, Australian poetry, Gwen Harwood.