Father and Child Barn Owl & Nightfall #
One of Harwood’s central recurring concerns is youth contrasted with our sense of ageing with its losses and encroaching loneliness.
This is a diptych poem - in that it has two poems facing each other as in photos connected by a hinge. The poet juxtaposes the perspective of a young child’s relationship with her father, contrasted with her as an adult and her helpless father in his old age.
The first poem deals with a young girl, who on impulse, furtively takes her sleeping father’s gun to shoot an owl roosting in their barn. This appears an act of rebellion or defiance of an old “nay-sayer” father whose power over her has been robbed by sleep. A rebellious child defies her father by taking the gun and shooting an owl in the barn.
The diptych traces the movement from innocence to experience; from ignorance to knowledge; from childhood to adulthood; and interweaves the past and the present. Our thin veneer of humanity shrouds a raw instinctive primitive blood thirsty violence – “ragged in tooth and claw”.
The contrast of the owl, which returns at day break to waste the daylight hours in sleep is contrasted with humans. Harwood tends to use the image of daylight to represent good and night as evil.
Father and Child #
Part I. Barn Owl
Daybreak: the household slept.
I rose, blessed by the sun.
A horny fiend, I crept
out with my father’s gun.
Let him dream of a child
obedient, angel-mindold no-sayer, robbed of power
by sleep. I knew my prize
who swooped home at this hour
with day-light riddled eyes
to his place on a high beam
in our old stables, to dream
light’s useless time away.
I stood, holding my breath,
in urine-scented hay,
master of life and death,
a wisp-haired judge whose law
would punish beak and claw.
My first shot struck. He swayed,
ruined, beating his only
wing, as I watched, afraid
by the fallen gun, a lonely
child who believed death clean
and final, not this obscene
bundle of stuff that dropped,
and dribbled through the loose straw
tangling in bowels, and hopped
blindly closer. I saw
those eyes that did not see
mirror my cruelty
while the wrecked thing that could
not bear the light nor hide
hobbled in its own blood.
My father reached my side,
gave me the fallen gun.
‘End what you have begun.’
I fired. The blank eyes shone
once into mine, and slept.
I leaned my head upon
my father’s arm, and wept,
owl blind in early sun
for what I had begun
Part II: Nightfall
Forty years, lived or dreamed:
what memories pack them home.
Now the season that seemed
incredible is come.
Father and child, we stand
in time’s long-promised land.
Since there’s no more to taste
ripeness is plainly all.
Father, we pick our last
fruits of the temporal.
Eighty years old, you take
this late walk for my sake.
Who can be what you were?
Link your dry hand in mine,
my stick-thin comforter.
Far distant suburbs shine
with great simplicities.
Birds crown in flowering trees,
sunset exalts its known
symbols of transience.
Your passionate face is grown
to ancient innocence.
Let us walk for this hour
as if death had no power
or were no more than sleep.
Things truly named can never
vanish from earth. You keep
a child’s delight for ever
in birds, flowers, shivery-grass -
I name them as we pass.
“Be your tears wet?” You speak
as if air touched a string
near breaking point. Your check
brushes on mine. Old king,
your marvellous journey’s done.
Your night and day are one
as you find with your white stick
the path on which you turn
home with the child once quick
to mischief, grown to learn
what sorrows, in the end,
no words, no tears can mend.
Analysis Father and Child #
Harwood plays on the contrariness of life by use of contradictions; though the child is blessed and rose at dawn, like Christ, she is a horny fiend, out to perform a senseless evil deed. The play on words; ´I, - eye” transitions from innocence to awareness, a moral and ethical blindness. Religious language and symbols are juxtaposed with evil. Her attitude of rebellion is directed to a severe father - a life denying force, who is robbed of power by sleep.
A strange mix of cowardice and bravado is reflected in: the contrast of “urine scented hay” with her hollow claim of “master of life and death” illustrating her vanity. Has her terror just caused her incontinence?
Owls too, are predators. They are swift and efficient killers, (death comes instantaneously; either a talon pierces a vital organ or the shock finishes off their prey. Serrated wings dampen the sound of its swoop. They Kill, Fly on, Kill, Fly on…. Their nocturnal habits foster a mystique. “The owl by day/If he arise, be mocked and wonder’d at." Henry V.
Her pretence of “a wisp- haired judge whose law/ would punish beak and claw” is not fulfilled. Her punishment is not instant and clean.
The fallen gun (nightfall) could also refer to “The Fall” of the Garden of Eden - our race memory of causeless, harming of innocence – My prize. Finish what you have begun.
That it is her father who rescues her is the final irony. Her defiant act has failed and she must find solace in his arms.
Owls are considered a symbol of wisdom, yet with little evidence. Hegel refers to the owl of Minerva taking flight as a time of enlightenment, yet crows display more intelligence. Owls have a sinister reputation. The bible claims they are unclean to eat. They are the auguries of death or wickedness. “The owl shrieked at thy birth”, an evil omen, *Shakespeare’s Henry VI says to Richard III.
Forty years later, roles are reversed and she now is the carer to a man nearing his end - *“in time’s long-promised land”. * Two quotes from King Lear where he “crawls towards death”, - “ripeness is (plainly) all” and later - “be your tears wet” equate their situation with that of Cordelia and Lear. Lear is confronted by his own mortality, he emptiness of social convention and the trappings of power, and his guilt in exiling Cordelia.
Edgar to Gloucester:
Men must endure
Their going hence, even as their coming hither;
Ripeness is all: come on.
The persona feels inadequate for her duty - *“who can be what you were?” * He continues to be “my stick thin comforter”.
The end of life is represented by a number of images: Nightfall, season, ripeness, eighty years, distant suburbs, birds crowding in tress, sunset, journey’s done, Your night and day are one.
She acknowledges her mischievous youth but realises the futility of
mending the past - “no words, no tears can mend.
KING LEAR: Be your tears wet? yes, ‘faith. I pray, weep not:
This is a poignant farewell of someone who, though has never had a close relationship with her father now feels the pain of loss. The French philosopher, Marie Frenchfinds it intriguing that many people feel a sense of guilt about their parents.
” I had no idea that’s an issue for so many people. It’s a question of duty and guilt.” We take them for granted for so long, but once they are gone, we suddenly realise the inadequacy of our gratitude.
We owe our parents a debt that we can never repay - except by living the life they showed us how to live and by fostering the same in our children and grandchildren.
For more on King Lear see: Dr Christie Carson, Royal Holloway University of London, http://www.bl.uk/works/king-lear
Youth And Age #
MUCH did I rage when young,
Being by the world oppressed,
But now with flattering tongue
It speeds the parting guest. William Butler Yeats
Too old to love; too young to die. *Gwen Harwood
“Youth is happy because it has the capacity to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.” ― Franz Kafka
Youth is beauty and beauty is youth,
that is all Ye know on earth,
and all ye need to know.” Kafka and Keats.
“Anybody can look at a pretty girl and see a pretty girl. An artist can look at a pretty girl and see the old woman she will become. A better artist can look at an old woman and see the pretty girl that she used to be. But a great artist-a master-and that is what Auguste Rodin was-can look at an old woman, protray her exactly as she is…and force the viewer to see the pretty girl she used to be…and more than that, he can make anyone with the sensitivity of an armadillo, or even you, see that this lovely young girl is still alive, not old and ugly at all, but simply prisoned inside her ruined body. He can make you feel the quiet, endless tragedy that there was never a girl born who ever grew older than eighteen in her heart…no matter what the merciless hours have done to her. Look at her, Ben. Growing old doesn’t matter to you and me; we were never meant to be admired-but it does to them.” ― Robert Heinlein
“In youth, it was a way I had,
To do my best to please.
And change, with every passing lad
To suit his theories.
But now I know the things I know
And do the things I do,
And if you do not like me so,
To hell, my love, with you.” Dorothy Parker, The Complete Poems of Dorothy Parker**
“Youth is wasted on the young.” ― George Bernard Shaw
“hold on to sixteen as long as you can” *John Cougar Mellencamp
*“What a weary time those years were – to have the desire and the need to live but not the ability.” * ― Charles Bukowski, Ham on Rye
“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
*William Shakespeare, Sonnets
Quotes on Fathers #
A father has to be a provider, a teacher, a role model, but most importantly, a distant authority figure who can never be pleased. Otherwise, how will children ever understand the concept of God? -Stephen Colbert, I Am America
“I know, from the three visits I made to him, the blended composite of love and fear that exists only in a boy’s notion of his father.” - Donald Miller
“He promised us that everything would be okay. I was a child, but I knew that everything would not be okay. That did not make my father a liar. It made him my father.” - Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
“A man who is not a father to his children can never be a real man.” *- Mario Puzo, The Godfather
“My father gave me the greatest gift anyone could give another person; he believed in me."* *** **Jim Valvano
“One of my hardest jobs as a father, one of my greatest duties, was to realize that my own dreams, my own goals and wishes, are secondary to my children’s.”- Rick Riordan, The Red Pyramid
“I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us." - Umberto Eco
"‘There’s no shame in fear,’ my father told me, ‘what matters is how we face it.'" George R.R. Martin, A Clash of Kings
“My father didn’t tell me how to live; he lived, and let me watch him do it." Clarence Budington Kelland
“My dad used to say that living with regrets was like driving a car that only moved in reverse”. Jodi Picoult
“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years." ** Mark Twain**
“the kindest words my father said to me ‘women like you drown oceans’”. Rupi Kaur, milk and honey
Always buy the last round of drinks, even if you bought the last round*. *** Holly Spencer quoting how her father Steve, taught her generosity.
“My father had taught me to be nice first, because you can always be mean later, but once you’ve been mean to someone, they won’t believe the nice anymore. So be nice, be nice, until it’s time to stop being nice, then destroy them." Laurell K. Hamilton
Parenting by the numbers: 33% - wondering who broke/did/killed something 33% - yelling 33% - tripping over shoes 1% - eating grilled cheese crusts.