THE VIOLETS #
A young child falls asleep during the day only to realise she has lost a number of hours to sleep. Sleep may be important for our mental and physical health, but when it robs us of daylight hours, its loss can be regretful.
Power naps refresh us, but prolonged daylight sleep can make us groggy. Both Shakespeare in Macbeth and Slessor’s poem Sleep dwell on the therapy of sleep. In the past, a hungry and cross child sobs ‘where’s morning gone’ and is grieved at the loss of unreturning light, while in the future the now adult speaker ponders where her whole life has gone.
The shifting tone moves from a sense of loss to more resigned nostalgic ones as we traverse emotional states between the past and present: a sense of loss, the seeking of comfort, and a reconciled source of comfort.
The persona expresses varying tones of: despair, grieving, loss, pain, lyric meditation, frailty, melancholy nostalgia, with contrasting tones of joy and woe.
It is dusk, and cold. I kneel to pick
Frail melancholy flowers among
Ashes and loam. The melting west
Is stripped like ice-cream. While I try
Whistling a trill, close by his nest
Our blackbird frets and strops his beak
Indifferent to Scarlattis song.
Ambiguous light, Ambiguous sky.
*Towards nightfall, waking from the fearful
Half sleep of a hot afternoon
At our first house, in Mitchelton
I ran to find my mother, calling
For breakfast, Laughing, “It will soon
Be night, you goose”, her long hair falling
Down to her waist, she dried my tearful
Face as I sobbed, “Where’s morning gone?”
And carried me downstairs to see
spring violets in the loamy bed.
Hungry and cross, I would not hold
The sweetness or to be comforted,
Even when my father, whistling, came
From work, but used my tears to scold
The thing I could not grasp or name
That while I slept, had stolen from me.
These hours of returning light
Into my father’s house we went
Young parents and their restless child
To light the lamp and the wooden stove
While dusk surrendered pink and white
To blurring darkness. Reconciled
I took my supper and was sent
To innocent sleep.
Years cannot move
Nor death’s disorienting scale
distort those lamplit presences
“child with milk and story book”,
My father, bending to inhale
the gathered flowers, with tenderness
stroking my mother’s goldbrown hair
Stone-curlews call from Kedrum Brook
Faint scent of Violets drift in air.
Indentation: The poet indents the flashbacks - or trips down memory lane contrasting the past and present.
The play on light features contrasts The melting west/ Is stripped like ice-cream, with the man made *steadfast lamp lit presences / ambiguous light & blurring darkness. - Ambiguous light, Ambiguous sky.
The dominant image of : ‘spring violets…loamy bed’/ ‘frail melancholy flowers.. .ashes’ are both visual and olfactory - My father, bending to inhale/ the gathered flowers - Faint scent of Violets drift in air.
Tactile images abound: father, with tenderness/ stroking my mother’s goldbrown hair.
Sounds of her Whistling a trill, of Scarlattis song, Stone Curlews call.
Violets symbolize the transience of time and experience.
Repetition - sustained images of violets which appear in both the past and present, stirring forth the speaker’s memories.
References to the light of the sun,
Figurative language — simile: sunset images, melting west.
The Kedron Brook is an urban creek that flows through the northern suburbs of Brisbane.
Imagery - rich in poetic images induced by the speaker’s drifting of the mind into memory and reflection.
Domenico Scarlatti,1685-1757, Italian composer noted for keyboard sonatas.
Figurative language - simile: melting west striped like ice—cream, sunset images symbolic of the approach of death.
Vernacular language is integrated into the poem: ‘It will soon be night, you goose’.
Language creates a rhythmic drifting sense - ‘stone— curlews call from Kedron Brook. Faint scent of violets drifts in air’, echoing images of the speaker’s mind drifting into reflection.
The brevity of time and time lost. Unfulfilled aspirations.
Our childhoods last a life time, lodged in time, place, experiences and influences. Our impressionable and formative years determine who we become. Enchanting “trips down memory lane” pensively indulging in the foggy charms of nostalgia, the fun and folly of romanticising the past; through a mist of reflection. can be beneficial – soothing or therapeutic for the soul - our self esteem. Harwood appears to be indulging in a serious exercise of discovering who she is, through analyzing past experiences.
Basically we have two kinds of memories: pleasant and painful, the former can become romanticised and nostalgic, while the latter, haunting and traumatic. Memories, frozen in time, become crystallised, embedded in your psyche.
Mark Baker’s claims, “Memory is about “light shed on a dark situation”. But memory is also about darkness in light- the denial of the past and not wanting to confront things”.
• The memory process being so strong so as to superimpose images of the past on to the present, thus filling and colouring a faded and melancholy world. Valued memories are unambiguous and so neither ‘years nor death’s disorienting scale’ can distort them.
• The moving through thought & imagination to abstract reality. Memories are seen to maintain a cohesiveness & continuity of experience: images and song-sounding of repeated motifs continually bind the past and present. .It is valued memories which remain & transcend the ambiguous experiences of our existence within the world.
• Memory is an agent of a recovered sense of life.
The Violets successfully exemplifies the way daydream memories allow an introspective meditation on the voyage of memory to discovery. The poem brilliantly fuses the past and the present, and in doing so, suggests that in memories and reflection are intimations of immortality.
Ultimately, this meditative work of poetry insists that the operation of memory is a consolation rich and glowing.
Excerpts from an essay on The Violets
The first person, ‘I’, in ‘The Violets, is used to give voice to the child. This evokes our emotion towards the ‘I’ as we can identify and engage by replacing this with our self. This strong sense of feeling, relationship and engagement to the poem emphasis’s our own emotions. ‘I kneel to pick frail melancholy flowers among ashes and loam,’ puts us in the same, dull, lifeless position as the narrator. We have this strong sense of empathy with and compassion towards her.
Gwen Harwood’s poetry significantly deals with issues surrounding the mind, for example, fear and anxiety of the young, looked at from the perspective of middle age. In ‘The Violets,’ the child is saddened having lost most of the day’s sunlight, placing emphasis on a probable fear of the dark. ‘As I sobbed, where’s morning gone?’ implies the child’s confusion as to the time, acknowledging the child’s feeling of being cheated having slept throughout the entire day.
The past in ‘The Violets,’ is valued, however the plaintive tone otherwise states that it is not something that can be relived. The child in ‘The Violets,’ is ultimately depressed that the daylight she lost will not come back.
As well memory is a significant motif throughout Harwood’s poetry. Memory can be subjective, fickle and unreliable as demonstrated in ‘The Violets’. The memory process is so powerful as to superimpose images of the past on to the present colouring a faded and melancholy world. By stating that “years cannot move nor death’s distorting scale distort those lamplit presences”, Harwood suggests that the memory of Violets as a symbol of faithfulness, constancy and modesty can constantly fulfil.
The language techniques used by Harwood to convey her messages strongly emphasize the distinctive themes of her poems. In ‘The Violets,’ powerful emotive language such as ‘scold’ and ‘stolen,’ are used to enhance the child’s depressed and tearful state of having the day light taken away from her. A sense of mystery is established through the repetition of ‘Ambiguous,’ in ‘The Violets,’ ‘Ambiguous light, ambiguous sky.’
Another striking feature of Harwood’s normally formal language is the intrusion of the colloquial “you goose”. Integral as the language is to addressing a young child, its use in formal poetry is unexpected.
As we have seen Harwood is a personal and subjective poet who depicts characters and situations clearly and accurately. Her life as a daughter, wife, mother and grandmother has enabled her to reflect on life in a detached yet engaged manner revealing the fears, anxieties, frailties, complexities and ambiguities of youth in their formative and developing years. Her poems reveal the traumas of young people coming to terms with their inner lives and developing methods of coping with reality.