Father and Child
By Gwen Harwood
Harwood’s poem is divided into two sections, and explores themes of power, authority and guilt through a depiction of the relationship between the eponymous “Father and Child.”
In the first part of the diptych, the child takes the father’s gun at night and shoots an owl, but the shot does not kill the animal. The child is excited at the beginning of the poem – “I knew my prize.” But he recognises the power the gun wields, as it makes him “master of life and death.” He shoots the owl, which “swayed, / ruined” and is horrified. The child mourns “for what I had begun.” Here, we see Harwood address the topic of death as a process, rather than a single moment in time. Hearing the shot, the father arrives in the barn and makes the child kill the animal before he is allowed to leave. The father is described almost in abstract, as a forceful source of authority – “an old No-Sayer.” The child does what his father commands, but is traumatised. It is this moment that informs the basis of the child’s understanding of mortality. It is important to acknowledge that while the child is overcome with guilt for what he has done, he is still presented as harbouring his childhood innocence, especially when contrasted with the brutish authority of his father. The child is not a violent murderer, but rather a young person who has accidentally corrupted themselves.
The second part of the poem, “Nightfall,” charts the father’s gentle descent into death. The title of this part is symbolic of the process of death, to which there can be no resisting, though the speaker does fantasise “Let us walk this hour / as if death had no power.” The poem ends with a reflection on the reality that nothing can be done to prepare one for death, whether it be their own or someone else’s.
In composing a diptych formed by perspectives removed by decades, Harwood foregrounds time and its impact on the titular child as both a child and an adult. In ‘Barn Owl,’ the first poem, after shooting the owl they had ‘prized,’ the child observes the owl, as ‘He swayed, / ruined, beating his only / wing, as I watched, afraid’, with this visual imagery conveying both the physical pain caused by the first shot to the owl, and the visual horror experience by the child. Having been told to fire a second shot, the child mournfully ‘Wept, / owl blind in early sun / for what I had begun,’ juxtaposing the child’s original excitement with their newfound guilt. ‘Nightfall,’ the second poem, shifts death from the owl to the father and sees the now-grown child wrestle with his impending death. The simile ‘Let us walk for this hour / as if death had no power / or were no more than sleep’, demonstrates the child’s temporary rejection of their father’s future, and instead focuses on their present and their paternal connection despite this coming, final reality.
‘Let us walk for this hour / as if death had no power / or were no more than sleep.’
focus on present rather than future, present embrace of paternal connection
‘Who can be what you were?’
evocation of memory and meaning
‘Wept, / owl blind in early sun / for what I had begun’
juxtaposition, mournful tone
contrast from original excitement
‘He swayed, / ruined, beating his only / wing, as I watched, afraid’
pain of owl and worry of child
‘I knew my prize’
motivation for child