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 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.

Music #

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.

Images #

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.

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).

Tone #

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.

Harwood’s marriage #

Edited extract from My Tongue is My Own, A Life of Gwen Harwood, by Ann-Marie Priest (La Trobe University Press, , out May 4, 2022.

Gwen grew up in warm Brisbane but met a former naval officer and moved to cold Tasmania away from her family. Gwen and Bill moved to a cottage in Fern Tree, a village halfway up Mount Wellington, near Hobart. Conditions were primitive. By night, possums made a “ghastly racket in the roof” and “bush rats [ran] round [the] bedroom”. By day, the birds descended upon their newly planted vegetable garden. But the newlyweds were happy. Gwen threw herself into domesticity with zeal. She was still glowing with idealism about her new role as wife and helpmeet, and determined to be the embodiment of the perfect housewife. In the ­evenings, she and Bill sat by the fire reading and talking “endlessly”. When Bill was at work, however, Gwen felt her isolation keenly.

She was delighted to find, early in 1946, that she was pregnant. All went well with the birth, though she would later say that she was “unprepared for the pain, and howled like a Wagnerian soprano”. When she brought baby John home a fortnight later, she was overcome with happiness. “I took him onto the balcony; snow started to fall. I stood with my child in a state of inexpressible joy.”

She loved being a mother but as she and Bill ­settled in to their new lives, she became aware of the gap between her idealised vision of love and the reality of marriage. This was becoming evident in all kinds of small ways. She was gradually coming to understand that Bill did not enjoy “frolicsome company”, and was “indifferent” to art and music. Less sociable than she, he was also more private. Bill paid for the household, so he could order it as he chose. “I wished I had listened to my mother – her last words as I left Brisbane were, ‘Keep your own bankbook.’ I stupidly didn’t and passed my savings into the common fund.

She very much wanted Bill’s approval, and was alert to any subtle signs that she had disappointed him. She had learned that he conveyed his displeasure with looks and silences – what she dubbed “Bill’s coldness”.

His silences inflamed her fear that if she did not live up to his expectations, he would cease to love her. She was determined not to risk that. If that meant being aloof with others instead of warm and lively, she was prepared to do it. If it meant keeping art and music in the background, she would do that, too. Later, she would say that she lost her “natural shape”, explaining: “When I look back on the early years of our marriage I cannot imagine myself.”

But there was so much that was good in their marriage – in their intellectual companionship, their sex life, their “mutual solicitude” – that such sacrifices seemed a small price to pay.

In Burning Sappho, Harwood again alludes to sex’s 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 mintains*, “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, Sex 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 sexuality 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 sha> pe
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