Harwood, Gwen, #

Harwood, is an Australian poet born Gwendoline Foster, in Brisbane in 1920. She claims to have had a happy childhood, strongly maternal, with close relationships with her great grandmother, grandmother, mother, daughter and granddaughter - “a wild daughter of a line of independent women”. Women in her poems are fiercely independent; keen to be wiser, stronger and longer lived. Her relationship with her father was more nuanced, only reconciled later in life.

Gwen Harwood has vivid childhood memories of the world wide depression. She studied music, became organist of All Saint’s church and composed libretti. There are many references to music throughout her poetry imbued with musical and harmonious cadences.

During the war she worked for the War Damages Commission in administrative services, writing some sardonic letters mocking bureaucratic officialdom. Chris Wallis Crabbe, a personal friend describes her as a scally wag - she could be sardonically flippant, witty and satirical. Since her maiden name was Foster, she playfully claimed to be a foster child.

Harwood’s poetry could be called Bildungsroman, dealing with one person’s formative years of spiritual education, and learning about love.

Harwood represents the mid-twentieth-century homemaker. she was seen. as one of the best known of a self-proclaimed group of “trad wives,” who have used literary skills to make visible—and aesthetically enviable—the endless emotional and physical labor that was bemoaned by such feminist critics as Betty Friedan. But, unlike the writers and activists of the fifties, the enlistees of this contemporary “apron-clad army”) are happy to serve their husbands, care for their children, and, especially, document their domesticity.

Politics exists in any space where there is more than one person, especially if those people share duties and money. . . . Never mind your views on reproductive rights or financial independence: being a wife of any kind is a political act.” Harwood is not afraid to expose her secret desires and her vulnerability.

Ann Marie Priest in her biography My Tongue Is My Own, writes:

“that as a 17-year-old fresh from school, she had begun an affair with her 50-year-old married music teacher, the illustrious Dr Robert Dalley-Scarlett – a relationship she would later insist was entirely joyful.

Quite soon after this, she fell in love with a young curate, Peter Bennie, who occupied all her “thought, affection, hope and longing” for five years. When this did not develop, she entered an Catholic nunnery for 6 months. Nevertheless, she did not end her “pleasant” affair with Dalley-Scarlett for another couple of years.

Nor did Harwood hold herself aloof from other men in her social and professional circles (she was a musician), some of whom would later appear in her poems. Her dearest friend at this time was her former art teacher, Vera Cottew, with whom she was also very much in love – though this was not the way she would then have described the relationship. It soon became clear to me that there was nothing conventional about Harwood’s attitudes to love and sex. She was a sexual radical at 17, and would be one at 70.

She fell in love with an army officier, Thomas Riddell, who failed to return her affection, but the two shared a lifetime of close friendship. She dedicated most of her poetry to him and he introduced her to his close friend Bill Harwood, whom she married at the age of 25 in 1945, moving to cold Tasmania where he became a Professor of linguistics.

ANN-MARIE PRIEST writes, Gwen loved being a mother of four, 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. It is highly likely that his war experiences left him with PTSD. Gwen admits to occasional affairs.

Gwen obviously lives out the creed: Your life should encompass multiple interests, Passions in many areas and several relationships, if you are to avoid crowding your loved ones.

Cassandra Atherton on Deakin Research Online gives us the most reliable insights into Gwen’s life and works.

‘Too old to love, too young to die.’ Cassandra quotes from a poem titled ‘Group From Tartarus’ . Ageing and loneliness are two important ideas in Harwood’s poetry.

Atherton first read Harwood’s poetry in high school, not long after the publication of Blessed City, a collection of letters to Lieutenant Tony Riddell while he was posted to Darwin. Wartime Brisbane, the blessed city of the title, is a wonderful backdrop to the shenanigans going on in the Foster household and at the War Damage Commission where Foster worked.

Blessed City only chronicles Harwood’s letters; the responses from Riddell are not included. Harwood refers to some of his comments in her own letters, but Riddell remains largely silent. This is because John Harwood, Gwen Harwood’s oldest son, has long held charge of his mother’s estate. He has kept Riddell’s letters to his mother private and is renowned for being very protective of her public image.

Her emotionally charged letters (over many years) become particularly poignant when we discover that her passion is unrequited; Riddell is content to be associated with her only as her muse. Tony does introduce her to a fellow soldier, William Harwood. They marry and she moves from warm Brisbane to a colder Tasmania.

Bill Harwood and Gwen shared an admiration for the philosopher Wittgenstein for his ideas on humour and language. Her first poetry, at 30 years was submitted under male pseudonyms in order to be published. The male patriarchy ensured that cultural production remained the provenance of men, marginalising women until about the 1970’s.

Harwood, initially used many male pseudonyms, the first was W. W. Hagendoor (an anagram of her own name), others: Walter Lehmann and Francis Geyer, and then Miriam Stone. She was aware of the Angry Penguins hoax of the 1940’s, and in the 1960’s she engaged in her own hoax. Frustrated that only poems submitted by male pseudonym, Walter Lehmann, were published she became so furious that she sent two new sonnets to The Bulletin, penned by Lehmann, containing coded messages of abuse. When it was later exposed, Donald Horne, the magazine’s editor, poured scorn on the female poet.

“A genuine literary hoax would have some point to it”.

When an editor phoned her to ask why she did it, she feigned surprise, asked him to hold the line while she rummaged for the poem and came back to the phone and exclaimed, “what a surprise, I don’t how that happened!”

The Hobart Headlines referred to her as “Tassie Housewife in Hoax of the year” which she clearly found demeaning.


TONE : Her early poems can be angry and uncompromising, however she eventually became more subtle and varied - mocking, sardonic, ironic, humorous, witty, melancholy, with direct pathos, reflective, meditative, pondering. Her voice often harsh - critical rather than mellifluous.

Her poems are infused with the power of thought rather than language. They are personal poems of domestic and family life in the suburbs dealing with the transition from innocence to knowledge. She generalises and universalises situations - people are often not named.

Colleen Keane portrays her work as elusive and playful. She denied the direct personal connection and description of her work as “confessional poetry”, saying instead that her poetry is about “enchantment and illusion”. But the entity “Gwen Harwood” is complicated and heterogeneous, reading and interpreting her poetry is a potent experience and rich challenge, and gender is an intriguing dimension.

Harwood was influenced by the personal confessional poetry of Larkin and Lowell. While the poems are detached, they could be a thinly veiled fictionalised portrayal of her life. There are many religious references to the Anglican Hymn Book & Book of Common Prayer. Like John Donne her witty poetry displays similar iconoclasim and evidence that she too is a rescusant.


Sometimes inflated, dramatic, human, colloquial and approachable. Religious connotations and resonances. Full of nuances

Images - complex, elaborate, sometimes not allowed to speak for themselves.


Philosophical poems - Harwood does not always show her hand. Asks the questions but does not provide the answers. Influenced by Wittengstein -

We should love the questions rather than look for the answers”.

Keane feels she examines the dialectic between the transcendent and the everyday, the mystical and the domestic, and the constructive, generative and evocative role of language in poetry and experience.

Locating herself solidly within European culture and the Romantic tradition and tracing a more masculine lineage of inspiration, and confidently taking on historical forms and masculine modes, Harwood also plays with them, “writing against” them in a layering of varied registers.

It is in her strikingly intimate poetry and her embrace of ordinary women’s subjectivity that her gender as a poet is most evident, with a distinctive and powerful feminine voice.

Her topics include intimate personal family and domestic relationships juxtaposing youth and experience.

She has a contempt for pedestrian materialism and academic posturing, sending up intellectualism, pomp, pageantry and pretentiousness. Though an intellectual, she despises academic posturing.

Her anti-intellectualism counter balances appeals by Charles Harpur, A.D. Hope, Patrick White and others who advocate for a more learned approach to life.

Love, memory and death are some of her enduring themes.


Personal and domestic life in the suburbs.

  • Restrictions of a woman trapped in domesticity. There is conflict between her role as supporting caring wife and nurturing mother, and her own intellectual and spiritual needs.

  • Nagging sense of feeling of life wasted - unlived life, unfulfilled. “In the Park”, “Violets.”,

  • Sense of a divided self - not having achieved potential trapped. ”Alter Ego” “Hospital Evening”

  • Appearance and reality. Mocks pomposity and hypocrisy

  • Poetry of middle age_ (maturity) yet it explores the transition from innocence to knowledge. “Too old to love; too young to die”. She appears concerned about ageing loneliness.

  • need to speak out - protest?

  • reflective, memories, nostalgia, musings, reveries, the interplay of moments, overlapping past and present. The ability to interweave past and present is Harwood’s most striking feature. Most of the poems deal with the transition from innocence or naivety to maturity.

Memory often controls movements and moments and transforms the consciousness of the present. Memory is unreliable, subjective, fickle, capricious.

Later in life accused herself of a “chronic morbid nostalgia”

  • acutely aware of exhaustion, death, negation

  • yet positive — struggles to impose a sense of order, purpose, meaning to ordinary events.

Over riding concerns:

Sharing of deeply realised moments of spiritual recognition. Function of poet to give a permanent form to transient human relationships. The poems trembling on the edge of quiet ecstasy/pain, sharing the fragility of such moments; intensifying the pain, ache, the suffering.

Music - a creative form; releases us from ourselves to a more perfect, ordered world. ” Words can never say as music the unsayable grace that leaps like light from mind to mind". Harwood came from a musical family, with early piano lessons, and became an organist in the Anglican Church. Much of her poetry refers to music and has a musical tempo.

Other Techniques #

  1. Recurring images of: light (half-light) darkness, air, water

  2. Contrasts: pain and beauty, joy and sorrow, light and dark, sexuality and spirituality.

  3. Early poetry influenced by religion, the Bible, Prayer Book but later she suffered an ‘unconversion’ to belief in the world and human love and friendship.

  4. A sense of Humour combined with a love of playing with words.

  5. Dreams are frequently used to express and reveal the visions and repressed memories. Poems: Krote, Glass Jar, Prize-giving

  6. Moves from the: concrete to the abstract/philosophical, particular/singular to the universal.

Sayings of Wittgenstein

The limits of my language means the limits of my world.

It is the deceit of words and sleight of hand which may not involve any deliberate falsehood, but inferentially manipulates our perceptions, what Wittgenstein calls

the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language and eristic argument.

Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.*

Like everything metaphysical the harmony between thought and reality is to be found in the grammar of the language.

If people never did silly things nothing intelligent would ever get done.

A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes. Ludwig Wittgenstein …………

Students choose from of the following poems on this site:

‘At Mornington’, ‘Prize-Giving’, ‘Father and Child (Parts I & II)’, ‘The Violets’, ‘Mother who gave me Life’. In the Park, The Glass Jar.

For a good Biography of Gwen Harwood, http://sinisterfrog.com/writings/gwen_harwood

Honest sexuality by Ann Marie Priest: