The poetry of Gwen Harwood #2

Poem: Father and Child: Barn Owl by Australian poet Gwen Harwood

            I was devastated by the incident related in this poem. I am a birder (the more modern term for ‘birdwatcher’) and take every opportunity to go out and observe birds. I have written a blog about birds for over three years. This blog now numbers over 800 articles – with photos – about birds. I have over 600 enthusiastic readers every day from all parts of the world. I love birds. To deliberately and coldly shoot such a beautiful creature as a Barn Owl is unthinkable to me. The thought turns my stomach like the day, as a young man in the wrong company, I was urged on to shoot a kangaroo. Viewing the remains devastated me and I cannot recall having picked up a gun ever since.

            Harwood relates a similar devastation at seeing her own horror at what she had done reflected in the bird’s eyes: ‘I saw/ those eyes that did not see/ mirror my cruelty.’ Her father orders her to ‘end what you have begun,’ and she shoots again to finish off the bird, weeping at what had been done. It was an act of defiance on the part of an innocent child, an innocence shattered by that one gun shot at daybreak.

            There is a sequel to this poem. It is a two part poem, the second part being called Nightfall. It relates an incident forty years later when her father is eighty, blind and near death. The solid father/child relationship forged in the barn that morning when the owl was shot is stronger than ever. Now, however, it is the father who is the innocent one: ‘Your passionate face is grown/ to ancient innocence.’

            Both poems are written in seven stanzas of six lines. Both are in iambic trimeter with a regular rhyming pattern (ababcc).


  • Harwood, Gwen, 2001, Selected Poems. Penguin, Camberwell.



4 Responses to “The poetry of Gwen Harwood #2”

  1. Nalda Kingston says:

    Whenever I need to reach some of my unwittingly desensitised students of the 21st century in my literature class I reach for Gwen Harwood’s “Barn Owl” – it never failed to leave the class in stunned reflective silence. How humbling an experience for the neophyte of poetry appreciation and analysis. That she lived is a gift to humanity.

  2. Trevor says:

    Hi there Nalda,

    Thanks for visiting my site and for leaving these insightful comments.

    In my 35 year teaching career I only taught in primary school, but my daughter teaches senior high school students and she often uses the poetry of Harwood in her units of study.

    I am a relatively recent convert to Harwood’s poetry and I am in awe at her skills as a poet.

  3. Nalda Kingston says:

    Hi Trevor, you must think me some figment of the cyberspace as I have failed to respond to your reply in 2010. I must explain. One month following that entry I migrated to America and things have been in constant flux since. Also, I am not very bog literate – that’s slowly changing.
    To the point – I happened on your site thismorning from here in California and was thrilled to know you are now a Gwen Harwood follower. She – you would no doubt know – lived in Tasmania for many years and much of her poety in later years was the product of her experiences in a place called Kettering where I have Harwood relatives. Her work has long been an inspiration to me.
    I also note you live in Murray Bridge where I stopped off on evening in 2001) when driving from Melbourne to Adelaide to visist my neice. The weather so terrible it made driving dangerous.

    So interesting to read of your journey through Gwen Harwood’s life through her poetry. The more one reads the more one is aware of her depth as a human being. Her poem Nightfall also sent many a student of mine to my desk for a tissue ( boys and girls alike – all seventeen/eighteen – her power to connect with her audience lives on).

    Kind regards Nalda

  4. Nalda Kingston says:

    I have also just noted it is exactly 1 year to the day that I first contacted you – now that is quite spooky is it not? – I am wondering if Gwen has something to do with this !