Gwen Harwood: Gender Analysis
The patriarchy of the society within the context of which poet Gwen Harwood constructed her poetry, is observed, sometimes criticized and often challenged in the collection of poems found in the text ‘Gwen Harwood, Selected Poems’. The representation of the images of men, women and gender differences to which a society consciously or unconsciously subscribes are captured through her writings. Harwoods construction of the poems ‘Prize Giving’ and ‘Night Thoughts: Baby ; Demon’ exemplify some of the techniques used by the poet in illustrating the tendency of society to categorize the roles and expectations of the male and female. In focusing on the egotistic values of the stereotypical male in ‘Prize-Giving’, Harwood draws on the self-destruction of Eisenbarts character and the reversal of roles and possession of power to accentuate societys conditioning and subscription of the male and female gender. In the poem ‘Night Thoughts: Baby ; Demon’, the reader is positioned to automatically associate the baby to the ignorant, undemanding, innocent female, and the clever, deceitful demon and dominating persona to the male. These assumptions are presented as society’s unconscious way of assigning roles and expectations to each gender.
In ‘Prize-Giving’ the arrogance and self-importance of the central character, Professor Eisenbart, illuminates the distinction and ‘hierarchy’ of which males are heralds of in a patriarchal society. When asked to attend a girl schools award ceremony as an ‘honoured guest’ the professor
‘rudely declined; but from indifference agreed, when pressed with dry scholastic jokes, to change his mind, to grace their humble platform’.
The utilization of submissive language in describing the female gender mirrors the powerful, assertive words in describing the Professor. By placing the male gender on a higher grounding, this represents the way in which the patriarchal society favours this gender over the disempowered and ignorant female.
The use of metaphor in placing the headmistress and the girls in the same levels as birds and insects suggest the deprivation of the female gender in equating them to less than human. The presentation of these ‘airy’ movements prove contrast to the ‘Rodin’s Thinker’ of the Professor. Again the association of the male to sophistication and confidence shine through in the patriarchal culture constructed, reinforcing the marginalism of the female. By presenting such contrasting concepts of both genders, the poet exhibits the way society consciously and sometimes unconsciously constructs the privileging of the male.
In representing the dichotomy of arts and science as typical of each gender, the poem deals with the academic and logical resident of the male in opposition to the passionate ‘whimsicality; of the female. The empowerment of usually hidden traits in society such as music and femininity enforce a ridiculed reading of the stereotypical male, Eisenbart. In his arrogance and inability to accept passion and feeling over logic and intellect, this character has been portrayed as being entrapped by his own ignorance. When Eisenbart sees the girl with titian hair he is hypnotized and confused by her seduction and his lust for her. This conveys the power of female sexuality in a patriarchal society, and enforces the concept of some power residing with the usually helpless and lower gender.
The freedom and passion of the piece of Mozart played by the girl is also overwhelming, and a celebration of art, music and the feminine over the scientific masculine is attained. The entrapment of Eisenbart and the reversal of roles and possession of power, illuminated by the destruction of the character’s rational, and of course patriarchal, values, exemplify the presentation of the power and domination of ‘naturally’ submissive traits. That is, society subscribes the arts and music as natural interests of a feminine audience, and of less importance than the scientific and mathematical realm in which Eisenbart has been constructed. When Eisenbart’s world has been turned around, a challenge of societys views are illustrated.
‘his image upside down: a sage fool trapped
by music in a copper net of hair’
Hence a reversal of roles accentuate the marginalising and deprivations of the female gender, yet at the same time presents the omnipotence and ability of the feminine to conquer the masculine.
The association of the ‘baby’ to a female gender and that of the ‘demon’ to a male role in ‘Night Thoughts: Baby & Demon’ silhouettes the immediate ways that a patriarchal society label the two genders. That is, the female as a social construction is the nursing, submissive, innocent, caring gender, where the male is conveyed as being powerful, strong, wise, deceitful.
‘Baby I’m sick. I need
nursing. Give me your breast’
By juxtaposing the two opposites baby and demon alternately, the poem is a flickering of light and dark, innocence and evil, male and female. Hence the images presented in this poem of the feminine traits of innocence and ignorance are unconsciously accepted by the patriarchal society, and the opposites of those being guile and wisdom are natural traits of the male.
The integration in the form of a lullaby in the poem provides familiarity and rythmn, and the poet also uses the lyric poem ‘A Red Red Rose’ by Robert Burns paradoxically.
‘And drink your juices dry, my dear,
and grind your bones to sand’
By doing this, the love and romance of the original poem and the innocence of the lullaby are, perhaps, ridiculed and traded for the lust of the persona in ‘Night Thoughts: Baby ; Demon’. This positions the male persona to be portrayed as being wanting ‘everything’, and hence associates the masculine gender with greed and egotistical values. The marginalising of the female character as merely an object of desire and comfort for the male persona also reflects the disempowering of the female gender in a patriarchal society.
Hence by constructing images of the male and female genders as an observation of the patriarchal society, the poet reinforces society’s subscription of the male gender as being dominating, empowered and associated with academic, intellectual and sophisticated values. However, the poet also reflects the power of the female through seduction and art and their ability to dominate over the ignorance and arrogance of the male gender. The aspects of innocence, ignorance, animalism and submission are also portrayed and represented in association with the female role. The more traditional, perhaps, writing of ‘Night Thoughts: Baby & Demon’ reinforce the concept of the male as ‘demonish’ and the female as angelic (hence baby), by observing the associations made by society. Thus literary texts are constructed in ways that can represent the images of both genders and their differences, and have the ability to reflect on society’s conscious or unconscious subscription of gender roles.