‘Barn Owl‘ is one of the poet’s best-known. It has been widely anthologized since it was written and taught in schools around the world. ‘Barn Owl’ is filled with symbolism and unforgettable images that make this poem an important read for students and fans of poetry of all ages.
Explore Barn Owl
‘Barn Owl’ by Gwen Harwood is a poem about a child who kills a barn owl and learns an important lesson about life and death.
This narrative poem begins with the speaker describing how one morning when the family was asleep, they stole their father’s gun and snuck outside. They admit that they aren’t the best-behaved child but are happy to have their family think they are. The speaker goes to the old stables with the intention of killing a barn owl. The speaker describes how the owl sleeps uselessly through the day and how they felt the power of life and death as they moved through the barn. The first shot hit the bird but didn’t kill it. It bled all over the ground, and the speaker looked into the owl’s eyes and saw their own mirrored back.
The father appears in the final lines of the poems and tells the speaker that now they have to finish what they started, despite the fact that they seem to be regretting their choice by this point. The speaker fires the gun again, and the owl dies. The young speaker cried in their father’s arms and mourned the loss of the owl. It took seeing death up close and knowing that the owl had a life and mind of its own to fully appreciate what it means to take life.
You can read the full poem here.
Throughout this poem, Harwood engages primarily with the theme of coming of age. Life and death are also important to consider. The speaker makes what feels like a rash decision to take a life. They steal a gun and shoot a barn owl, injuring it with the first shot. It’s with this shot and a look into the owl’s eyes that the speaker realizes that they don’t want the owl to die. They see their own eyes reflected in the owls and feel connected to its pain and fear. It’s a living, breathing creature that has just as much right to live as the speaker does.
This is an incredibly important coming of age experience for the speaker. They no longer feel the same desire for power over life and death. Death is something horrible that they no longer want to inflict on the owl. But, because they’ve injured it, they have to take responsibility and put it out of its misery.
Structure and Form
‘Barn Owl’ by Gwen Harwood is a seven-stanza poem that is separated into sets of six lines, known as sestets. The stanzas follow a consistent rhyme scheme of ABABCC, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. There are a few moments in which the pattern shifts, but this is not an uncommon occurrence in poetry. There are a few slant rhymes, like “could” and “blood” at the ends of lines one and three of stanza six. These words only partially rhyme and could’ve been used in order to emphasize the change coming over the speaker as they observe the owl’s death.
Throughout this piece, Harwood uses lines of a similar length, around six or seven syllables each. But, there is no consistent metrical pattern, such as iambic pentameter or iambic tetrameter.
Throughout this poem, Harwood makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. Harwood uses this technique in order to create some kind of rhythm in the poem. This is a way to control how fast the reader moves through the text and where the emphasis falls without using a metrical pattern—for example, the transition between lines three and four of the first stanza.
- Alliteration: seen through the repetition of the same consonant sounds at the beginning of words. For example, “fiend” and “father” in lines three and four of the first stanza, as well as “shot struck” and “swayed” in line one of the fourth stanza.
- Symbolism: the most important symbol in this poem is the owl. Its existence and death at the hands of the speaker symbolize the speaker’s loss of innocence. It’s with the death of the owl that the speaker moves into adulthood.
Stanzas One and Two
Daybreak: the household slept.
I rose, blessed by the sun.
with day-light riddled eyes
to his place on a high beam
in our old stables, to dream
In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker begins by telling the listener that they got up in the middle of the night to find “A horny fiend.” This is a reference to a barn owl the speaker is setting out to shoot with their father’s fun. They steal the gun, actively acknowledging that they aren’t as good of a child as their father thinks they are. This is something they seem to revel in at this point. Stepping out against their father makes them feel as though they’re in control of their life. This is something that’s reflected in the speaker’s broader intentions to kill the owl.
The speaker is well-aware of what they need to do and where they’re going. They’re determined to kill an owl they know will be swooping “home” at this time of the night/morning. Readers might notice the use of enjambment in these lines. This helps the poem maintain a conversational tone despite the consistent rhyme scheme.
Stanzas Three and Four
light’s useless time away.
I stood, holding my breath,
in urine-scented hay,
child who believed death clean
and final, not this obscene
In the next stanzas, the speaker describes standing in the barn and the various images and scents that there around them. This is a great example of how the poet use imagery in order to make a scene feel more real. Readers should be able to imagine what it would be like to be in this child’s position.
The speaker feels power over life and death at this moment. They have control over the situation exactly as they wanted to. They shoot and strike the owl where it’s resting in the barn’s rafters. So far, everything is going to plan. The gun falls out of their hands, shocking the child and bringing them back to reality. Suddenly, the moment loses its allure. Death is present and very real.
Stanzas Five and Six
bundle of stuff that dropped,
and dribbled through the loose straw
gave me the fallen gun.
‘End what you have begun.’
The owl drops to the floor, and blood start to run down into the loose hay. It’s a gory and terrible scene, especially for a child who didn’t really know what to expect when they fired. Suddenly, while looking into the owl’s eyes, the speaker sees their own. This is a powerful moment that serves as a reminder that all creatures are alive with intentions of their own. The child is reflected cruelly in the owl’s eyes.
The father appears from behind, giving the child back the gun and telling them to finish what they “begun.” There is a good example of internal rhyme in this line that helps to emphasize what a learning experience this was. It likely changed the way the speaker saw life from here on out.
I fired. The blank eyes shone
owl blind in early sun
for what I had begun
The final lines feature the speaker shooting the owl again, killing it, and ending the light in its eyes. They weep in their father’s arms. The final lines reemphasize the connection between the child and the owl. They are blinded by the light of the morning when they step outside, now feeling more like a creature of darkness than of light.
This poem was written in 1975 and is one of Harwood’s most widely anthologized.
The setting is on a farm. The poem starts in the speaker’s home and then moves outside to the stables in the early morning. It’s smelly and dirty in the stables.
It’s unclear who the speaker is in ‘Barn Owl.’ All that’s known is that they are telling a story that happened in the past when they were a young child. They use that perspective but make use of the past tense. The reader shouldn’t assume the speaker is Harwood herself.
This poem is part of a longer poem called ‘Father and Child’ It was published in Selected Poems is followed by ‘Nightfall,’ the second part of ‘Father and Child.’ The entire piece was inspired by Harwood’s upbringing in Tasmania in rural Australia.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Barn Owl’ should consider reading some other Gwen Harwood poems. For example:
- ‘In the Park’ – a brutally honest poem about the stresses of motherhood depicted through a brief scene in the park.
- ‘Suburban Sonnet’ – a poem about the difficulties of motherhood and the mental and emotional struggles of a housewife.
Some other related poems that could be of interest include:
- ‘The Black Walnut Tree’ by Mary Oliver – an autobiographical poem that describes the pros and cons of selling an important black walnut tree.
- ‘Wild Geese’ by Mary Oliver – expresses what one must do in order to lead a good life.