‘The Glass Jar’, dedicated to Vivian Smith, is a narrative poem about a child’s fear of the dark, and reflects, as many of her poems do, Gwen Harwood’s knowledge and understanding of children. The poem can be read at a number of levels. At one level it is a story; at another it explores fears and taboos common to humankind, expressed in the language of myth or childhood fantasy; at a third level it addresses the struggle between good and evil from a Christian viewpoint, finally offering hope through Christ’s Resurrection, symbolised in the last stanza as ‘the resurrected sun’. The Christian perspective established early in the poem by words such as ‘disciples’, ‘host’, ‘monstrance’, ‘bless’, ‘exorcize’, and ‘holy’ contributes to the poem’s unfolding spiritual meaning. The child’s awareness of evil expressed in his fear, is a reminder of Adam and Eve’s loss of innocence, an act which condemned humankind to suffering and death.
Gwen Harwood counterbalances this universal loss of innocence with the boy’s naivety, captured in the poem’s first striking image when the child attempts to trap some of the sun’s light in a glass jar he plans to use later as a night light to scare away the demons of his dreams. The poem is overlaid with Christian imagery symbolising the struggle between good and evil implicit in the boy’s attempts to defeat his demons. Apart from the religious overtones, the language of the poem is also reminiscent of mythical stories of dragons and devils of the type a young boy might be expected to have read or know about. Many modern psychologists, following Freud, have inferred parallels between well-known myths and legends and the symbols which occur in dreams representing powerful instinctive impulses. The psychoanalyst Carl Jung developed the concept of the ‘collective unconscious’, the inheritance of humanity’s past experience which is embedded in the psyche of each individual. This collective memory consists of archetypes of primordial imaes which find their way into dreams, visions, motifs and the creative human imagination to be expressed in art, music, story and literature. Among primordial acts explored in literature are patricide and filial incest. The taboos on such behaviour as killing your father and marrying your mother are strong and deep, and common to many cultures.
The young protagonist of Gwen Harwood’s poem is in a state of conflict because of jealousy and resentment of his father. The distressing, fantastical creatures of his nightmares, which express ‘his most secret hate’, are ‘monsters and fiends’, archetypes such as Jung recorded. His conscious mind is unaware of the origins of these demons; the ‘sidelong violence’ of his unconscious is the source of the evil on which his fear feeds. It is his father whom he hates and fears; his father whom he sees as ‘his rival’ for his mother’s affection, his tormentor and the macabre fiddler of his nightmares. The boy’s dream becomes for the reader a mean of gaining further insight into the human psyche. The boy, however, is too young to learn the lessons his dreams can teach him. Even as a man he will have an imperfect knowledge of himself.
The echo of the ‘once upon a time’ opening a fairy tale in the first line of the poem, especially in the phrase ‘one summer’s evening’, is in keeping with the poem’s narrative style. The fantastic, poignant expectations the boy holds of capturing the sun’s light in ‘the glass jar’, continues the fairy tale quality. The use of the word ‘soaked’ suggests how desperate the boy is to trap as much light as possible and hints at the degree of fear his demons generate in him. Words such as ‘disciples’ and ‘host’ introduce the Christian symbolism. The poet creates a pun on the word ‘sun’ which in the poem is both a celestial body and a symbol for Christ, who as God’s son is the light or hope of the world in humanity’s struggle against the powers of darkness. Through His passion or sufferings on the cross and resurrection from the dead, actions motivated by love, Christ defeats death and offers hope for humanity. For the boy, his glass jar full of light is his hope or weapon against the dark, but as the poem develops we become aware that from a Christian viewpoint the boy’s hope is futile while he harbours ‘his most secret hate’. A further allusion to Christ is evident in the imagery of lines five-six of the first stanza. On the night before his arrest and crucifixion Christ went with his disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. His disciples slept, ‘the sun’s disciples cloaked in dream’, while Christ experienced great anguish anticipating the physical suffering of his road to Calvary. Just as his disciples slept through his suffering on the previous night so their fear kept them from his crucifixion – ‘from his passion fled’.
Harwood uses light/dark symbolism in a traditional Christian way in this poem: light represents good, dark represents evil. In other poems the fading or dispersal of light can signal a movement into the past, as in ‘The Violets’ when the onset of twilight triggers the memories of the poet’s childhood. In ‘Alter Ego’, ‘light’s lingering tones disperse’ to allow the poet to remember the first time she experienced the power of love. These journeys into reverie are learning experiences for the poet, part of the lifelong journey of self-discovery. The boy in this poem is at the beginning of his journey and cannot as yet decipher the symbolism of his dreams nor recognise his part in creating his own nightmares.
Gwen Harwood is very interested in the artistic potential of memory and dream and uses both as a resource for her art. The two are closely linked as a dream becomes a remembered experience in the waking world. In ‘The Glass Jar’ the boy’s dreams are graphic stories. Full of monstrous creatures with ‘trident and vampire fang’, and dramatic action, they:
…reached and came near
to pierce him in the thicket of his fear.
The boy’s dream, when he wakes and recalls it, becomes a new conscious memory. When he fails to gain comfort from either ‘the glass jar’ or his mother, it becomes the source, later in the poem, of a more terrible nightmare with his father as the gruesome skeletal fiddler, a character borrowed from Saint-Saens’s ballet, Dance Macabre, the Dance of Death.
The metaphor of a ‘wood’ as the setting of the boy’s nightmares is threaded throughout the poem, expressed variously as ‘intricate wood’, ‘holy commonplace of field and flower’, ‘the thicket’ and ‘the last clearing’. The wood acts as an allusion to the Garden of Eden where the first conflict between good and evil was enacted yet it is also used to link the boy’s nightmares with his life by day. When he wakes from the monster-world of his dreams and finds no light in his jar he seeks comfort but must cross ‘the last clearing’ of his parent’s bedroom to reach his mother, ‘his comforter’. He is barred from crossing the threshold to his parent’s bedroom by taboo, by fear and resentment of his father and by his childish inability to understand the nature of his parent’s love, especially its physical aspects which he interprets as ‘gross violence’ done to his mother by his father.
The reader is encouraged to empathise with the boy’s plight and his vulnerability, both of which are due to his lack of understanding of adult behaviour. Gwen Harwood’s art makes her insights into the fears, pain and confusion of childhood pognantly realistic, with words such as ‘trembling’, ‘grope’ and ‘sobbing’ being partcularly evocative in the context of the boy’s experience.
Children appear frequently in Gwen Harwood’s poems and in each a distinctive facet of being is explored, illustrating her grasp of the complexity of youth. In ‘The Glass Jar’ she shows her knowledge of the psychology of childhood through the boy’s naive faith in the power of his ‘glass jar’, his dreams and his jealousy of his father. In the two other poems set for study in which children appear, they are given a different treatment by the poet. In ‘In the Park’ children are presented negatively as whining creatures who have sapped their mother’s life, whereas the titian-haired schoolgirl in ‘Prize-Giving’ is presented as intuitive and dynamic, possessing knowledge beyond her years and offering Eisenbart an enlightening image of himself.
The boy, through his simple faith in the power of his ‘glass jar’, reveals his innocence; he thinks and acts as a child yet quests for an understanding of the world as would an adult. Even as an adult however, he will see ‘through a glass darkly’ as the disciple Paul explains in Chapter Thirteen of his first Epistle to the Corinthians, suggesting that whatever self-knowledge he acquires will be incomplete, an imperfect reflection of his true self. As on ‘Alter Ego’, a knowledge of the whole self comes at the end of life’s journey.
The implications of St Paul’s Epistle are relevant to both poems. In stanza four of ‘The Glass Jar’, when the boy discovers the truth about his ‘jar of light’, his hope falls ‘headlong from its eagle height’. In his Epistle, Paul discusses the relative value of faith, hope and love and concludes that faith and hope are of little worth without love. As the boy is motivated by fear and hate his attempt to defeat his demons from a Christian perspective is doomed.
In ‘Alter Ego’, because the poet accepts the path of ‘love and pain’ in life, she seems assured of gaining complete self-knowledge, of meeting her other self ‘face to face’ at the end of life’s journey. The boy has not consciously acknowledged the existence of another self and is unaware of the lessons his spirit self can teach him, so he must continue to struggle. He gropes for connections between his conscious and unconscious, between the darkness of his dreams and the light of his waking hours, between hatred for his father and love for his mother. It is only in sleep when his conscious mind is at rest, that the spirit self exerts its power. What it reveals is the boy’s inner darkness:
…His sidelong violence summoned
fiends whose mosaic vision saw
his heart entire.
This is very different from ‘Alter Ego’ where the adult poet consciously recognises that her spirit self:
knows what I was, will be,
and all I am…
The poem concludes on a hopeful note despite the boy’s anguish. The boy will outgrow his fears and in adulthood will grow to understand the many facets of his psyche. The boy’s final nightmare of ‘perpetual dance’ ends with the sunrise, a symbol of hope, to a ‘fresh morning’.
There is also a feeling of hope to be gleaned from the Christian symbolism of the final stanza. Christ, ‘the resurrected sun’, atoned through his life, death and resurrection for man’s sins, and defeated death and evil, offering an alternative way to live and a promise of eternal joy to those who choose to follow his example. In her reference to ‘the resurrected sun’ of the final stanza;
triumph through flower-brushed fields would fill
night’s gulfs and hungers…
the poet alludes to the hope Christ offers, ‘night’s gulfs and hungers’ symbolising life’s suffering and sturggles. The abandoned ‘glass jar’ and ‘crumpled scarf’ allude to the boy’s futile attempts to defeat his fear while the sun rises to ‘wink and laugh’, expressing his future hope.
An early opponent of the war in Vietname (in which Australia fought for years alongside the USA), Dawe responded to that bloody conflict with typical compassion. 1968 was the year of the Tet offensive (a major push by the Viet Cong) and the beginning of the end for Western intervention in the region. American troops were suffering about 1000 casualties a week. Our losses were proportionately almost as high and included a large number of conscripts. These were the young men compelled by the law of the time to join the armed services because their birth dates corresponded to certain numbers drawn by lottery.
Dawe wrote this poem after viewing a photograph of a US tank returning base with dead and dying men draped over it. He had also read a report of how US troops were flown to Vietnam in transport planes, and how those same transport planes served to ferry home the latest corpses. This macabre shuttle service focused his mind on the chilling waste of life involved.
Note the irony of the title. ‘Homecoming’ suggests a celebration, something in which family and friends can share, a joyful reunion. Indeed, it is the term used by citizens of the US to describe the return of the warrior on. The typical hero’s homecoming would involve a parade down the street, with drums and marching girls, red white and blue banners waving and the whole citizenry out in force. There are similar rites of passage for the return of the Homecoming Queen, the favoured daughter who has gone away to college and who is now returning. All these are the typical associations with a homecoming. Now these same boys are coming home to a different kind of ‘Homecoming’, to families frozen in grief.
Never was the sheer monotony, the boredom and soulless regimentation of army life so well captured in a poem. Marrying the idea of ‘doing things by the book’ to the business of zipping up bodies into ‘green plastic bags’ gives a chilling edge to the poem. Like some great sausage factory, some industrial corporation, neatly and without any feeling whatsoever, the army must dispose of that which it once clothed, fed and trained. The anonymous ‘they’re’ occurs ten times in as many lines. It does not seem to matter who is living and who is dead. ‘They’ who are dead could just as easily be doing the ‘bringing’, the ‘picking up’, the ‘zipping’, ‘the tagging’. Perhaps, yesterday, they were. All roles are interchaneable in this vast machinery of death.
The poem is a lament, and like any song of lamentation, it requires rhythm, repetition, moments of urgency and quieter moments. Listen carefully to the repetition of the present continuous verbs in that memorable opening (‘bricking…picking…bringing’). The create a long continuous drone which seems to capture the reverberations of the big aircraft, as well as the grinding numbness of spirit such sights always induce. Contrast them with those quieter moments, as the relentless urgency of the poem eases for a millisecond; such as:
they’re picking them up, those they can find, and bringing them home
Those moments of pause renew our terror, giving us just time enough to ponder fresh horrors, before more are piled upon us. Like the soldiers themselves, we feel that a veritable flood of corpses is being unleashed. It is almost a relief when the nightmarish parade eases.
Yet while the dead remain anonymous, Dawe gives us very specific details about everything related to them: the green plastic bags, the ‘deep freeze lockers’, the ‘tarmac at Tan Son Nhut’. But of the dead men themselves – nothing. Their identity is reduced to various categories of hair colour and style. They are ‘curly heads, kinky hairs, crew-cuts, balding non-coms’. There is a kind of forensic taxonomy about this roll-call. Yet, paradoxically, it might be the only way a mother could idenity a son in death, his larrikin features shattered but still recognisable her carrot-topped boy.
In ironic contrast to their silent baggage, the living and all they touch seem charged with energy. The poem moves at a blinding speed through the variety of chores which they must undertake. We can almost hear the drill sergeant shouting: Move em out, move em out! The business of war is too relentless, the momentum too great for anyone to be distracted by a moment’s grief. Even the ‘noble jets’, those behemoths of the sky, are ‘whining like hounds’. They sniff the night air. It’s time to ho home! They have an energy which will not be impeded. Yet these silent corpses, frozen in their bodybags, have no one to speak for them. They are simply the obscene detritus of war. Not until they are released to their families will there be time for emotional release.
The long flight home then begins. With great economy Dawe tracks the movements of the jet planes ‘over the land, the steaming chow mein’ of the paddyfields, their shadows ‘tracing the blue curve of Pacific’ and then the planes diverge, ‘heading south, heading east’, some to Australia, some to America. From the wider theatre of war, from the globe’s furthest reaches, the action now narrows perceptibly. Line fourteen declaims ‘home, home, home’ in he moment of homecoming is at hand, the arrival of a dead son to those humble souls waiting in suburbia.
In those last six lines, Dawe paints a stunning portrait of fear, grief and longing. The dogs on ancient verandahs howl at sunset for their lost masters. Like lone sentinels it is their muzzles which are raised ‘in mute salute’, rather than any jingoistic flag. Then on to the ‘wide web’ of anonymous suburbs, where ‘telegrams tremble like leaves from a wintering tree’, an oblique reference to the suffering of their families in whose trembling hands the fateful messages are cradled. Finally, the last image of the ‘spider grief’ which ‘swing in his bitter geometry’. Before such a extraordinary metaphor we are virtually mute. It simply refuses to budge, to yield to critical analysis. Yet we feel that we have been touched at the very limits of imagination, where words are almost out of reach. One critic has said that, once written, there is a kind of inevitability about such images which seem ‘reached at the intersection of thought, feeling and language’.
Unless we consider it carefully, the last line might seem something of a let-down. But ‘bringing them home’ takes us back to the first line and, by this deliberate contrivance, reminds us of the idea of homecoming. The interpolated ‘now’ is what we are left with. Here they are now, presented to us and to their families. By their sheer physical presence they pronounce their fates to us. They are forever suspended in a kind of ‘now’ time. Too late to have avoided their bitter fate, too early for a ‘proper’ (living) homecoming, one that might salute their endeavours with joy and with dignity.
Dawe’s opposition to the Vietnam war never gets caught up in the trivial politics of either side. It focuses instead, with overwhelming force, on the essential tragedy of all wars: the senseless death of young men, the terrible indifference to human life which is the central onscenity of war. This poem is justly one of his most famous.