Harwood The Glass Jar

The Glass Jar #

 Harwood excels in depicting the confusion, due to a lack of understanding;  the senses of awe and wonder in young children.  Our brains really do not mature until our early twenties. The poem presents this immaturity in a sympathetic light.  Harwood’s poems deal with adult reflections of vivid memories that, in blissful ignorance,  she could not comprehend as a child.  She tells of overhearing a WWI veteran talking about a French brothel where the Germans killed all the frogs.   She gormlessly believed a brothel was a hotel that served hot broth and wondered why they didn’t like frogs.

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.  The fact he is not identified, suggests it could apply to anyone.   His loss of innocence and transition to mature understanding is dramatically recreated by the use of series of clever episodes and images.


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 Glass Jar

 To Vivian Smith

*       A child one summer’s evening soaked* *       a glass jar in the reeling sun* *       hoping to keep, when day was done* *       and all the sun’s disciples cloaked* *       in dream and darkness from his passion fled,* *       this host, this pulse of light beside his bed.*

*        Wrapped in a scarf his monstrance stood* *        ready to bless, to exorcize * *        monsters that whispering would rise* *        nightly from the intricate wood* *        that ringed his bed, to light with total power* *        the holy commonplace of field and flower.*

*        He slept. His sidelong violence summoned* *        fiends whose mosaic vision saw* *        his heart entire. Pincer and claw,* *        trident and vampire fang, envenomed* *        with his most secret hate, reached and came near* *        to pierce him in the thicket of his fear.*

*        He woke, recalled his jar of light,* *        and trembling reached one hand to grope* *        the mantling scarf away. Then hope* *        fell headlong from its eagle height.* *        Through the dark house he ran, sobbing his loss,* *        to the last clearing that he dared not cross:*

*        the bedroom where his comforter* *        lay in his rival’s fast embrace* *        and faithless would not turn her face* *        from the gross violence done to her.* *        Love’s proud executants played from a score* *        no child could read or realize. Once more*

*        to bed, and to worse dreams he went.* *        A ring of skeletons compelled* *        his steps with theirs. His father held* *        fiddle and bow, and scraped assent* *        to the malignant ballet. The child dreamed* *        this dance perpetual, and waking screamed*

*        fresh morning to his window-sill.* *        As ravening birds began their song* *        the resurrected sun, whose long* *        triumph through flower-brushed fields would fill* *        night’s gulfs and hungers, came to wink and laugh* *        in a glass jar beside a crumpled scarf.*

* ……. *

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 rise to the heights of hope to the depth of despair is conveyed through verbs.  The image of the crumpled scarf represents disillusionment.

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

The boy’s innocence about the sexual act is understandable. It is a recurring motif in literature.   

In Burning Sappho, Harwood again alludes to its possible brutal nature:

*          My husband calls me, rich in peace,*

* To bed. Now deathless verse, goodnight*

*        In my warm thighs a fleshless devil*

* Chops him to bit with hell-cold evil.*

* *

*        So the loved other is held*

*        for mortal comfort, and taken,*

*        and the spirit’s light dispelled*

*        as it falls from its dream to the deep*

*        to harrow heart’s prison so heart may waken*

*        to peace in the paradise of sleep.*

Barbara Lawrence, claims our swear words *signal “a sadistic aggressive attitude of male sexual conquest.  The brutality of the word “f*ck” together with its equivalents (screw, bang, nail, lay…) carry undeniably dominant, painful and sadistic implications, whereas “making love” suggests more mutual and fulfilling experiences”.  *

The revered French actor Catherine Deneuve insists that women are *“sufficiently aware that the sexual urge is by its nature wild and aggressive. But we are also clear-eyed enough not to confuse an awkward attempt to pick someone up with a sexual attack.”

Simone de Beauvoir claims *“Sexual pleasure in a woman is a kind of magic spell. * It *commands complete abandon; if the moment opposes the magic of caresses the spell is broken.”  *

Nikki Gemmell continues:*  “How easy it is to dissolve that spell.  The female path to organism is such a fragile, delicate one, so easily lost. Our organisms are shy little things to coax out, insisting on concentration and focus and then of course complete abandonment; such a tricky combination”.**

Alice Munro maintains*,  “Sex seems to me all surrender - not the woman’s to the man, but to the person - to the body.”  It takes time to surrender; to enter the sacred, exhilarating zone when we’re jolted into life, combusted into light.  The best sex involves a sense of connecting on the deepest level, with two people who are utterly in the moment. *

All good sex aids self-esteem for both parties.

As all aspects of life, S*x can be personally fulfilling or damaging to us.  Good experiences can enhance our self-esteem but exploitive manipulative or coercive experiences can be demeaning, degrading and lead to self loathing.

Coming to accept our s*xuality can be the most humanising experience we all encounter. 

Much of Harwood’s life and writing is about sexual pleasure. * “I **wanted to write like she made love; that she waits for a demon lover; that she writes poetry from inside the domestic sphere whilst simultaneously transcending it. *

The following poem echoes motifs from Kenneth Slessor and Judith Wright

*  **Carnal Knowledge I  ***

* *

* Roll back, you fabulous animal*

* be human, sleep. I’ll call you up*

* *from water’s dazzle, wheat-blond hills,

* *clear light and open-hearted roses * * this day’s extravagance of blue * * stored like a pulsebeat in the skull. **

* Content to be your love, your fool,* * * your creature tender and obscene * * I’ll bite sleep’s innocence away * * and wake the flesh my fingers cup * * to build a world from what’s to hand,* * new energies of light and space **

* wings for blue distance, fins to sweep** * the obscure caverns of your heart, * * a tongue to lift your sweetness close* * leaf-speech against the window-glass* * a memory of chaos weeping * * mute forces hammering for shape *

  • sea-strip and sky-strip held apart * * for earth to form its hills and roses* * its landscape from our blind caresses, * * blue air, horizon, water-flow, * * bone to my bone I grasp the world. * * But what you are I do not know* *