‘In The Park‘ was published in 1961. It’s a dark piece that presents a less than ideal image of motherhood. When Harwood published this piece, she used a male pen name, something that kept her out of the public spotlight and didn’t risk her reputation. This image of motherhood in ‘In The Park’ is one that no woman at the time would admit to feeling or thinking about. Now, the poem is read as a complex admission of how complicated motherhood really is. It’s a thoughtful and truthful vision of reality.
Explore In The Park
In the first lines of the poem, the speaker begins by describing a woman sitting in the park. They note her out-of-style clothing and her children arguing around her. They’re irritating her, bickering with one another. While sitting there, someone the woman once loved walks by. This happens quickly, and she is unable to act fast enough to pretend she doesn’t know him. While the man exchanges pleasantries with her, she feels like he’s thinking about how lucky he is to have escaped from a life with her and her kids. They talk while the children run around, feigning pleasure at their voices and actions. When the man leaves, she speaks to the wind, saying that her “children have eaten” her “alive.”
You can read the full poem here.
Throughout this poem, Harwood engages with themes of motherhood. The narrator describes the scene in clear and unflinching detail. She does not try to soften the mother’s view of her life and children, nor does she depict them in any sort of positive light. It’s easy to feel the mother’s stress and strain in these lines. She’s clearly considering what her life would’ve been like without her children. In the final lines, she dejectedly admits that her children have consumed her life. They’ve taken any sort of freedom she might once have had.
Structure and Form
‘In The Park’ by Gwen Harwood is a three-stanza poem that is separated into two sets of four lines, known as quatrains, and one final set of six lines. The fourteen lines take on some aspects of a Petrarchan sonnet and some of a Shakespearean sonnet. The stanzas rhyme ABBA CDDC EFGEFG. ‘In The Park’ also loosely follows iambic pentameter, the metrical pattern most commonly associated with sonnets.
Throughout ‘In The Park,’ Harwood makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Caesura: occurs when the poet inserts a pause in the middle of a line. For example, “‘How nice,” et cetera. “Time holds great surprises.”’
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses especially clear and evocative language. For example, “They stand a while in flickering light” and “Two children whine and bicker.”
- Alliteration: seen through the use of the same consonant sounds at the beginning of words. For example, “sits staring” and “grace” and “God.”
- Hyperbole: can be seen in the final lines when the mother says that her children have “eaten her alive.” This is a clear exaggeration but one that evokes the mother’s helpless feelings.
She sits in the park. Her clothes are out of date.
Someone she loved once passed by – too late
In the first stanza of ‘In The Park,’ the narrator begins by describing a woman, someone only referred to as “she” or “her.” She goes nameless, yet another way that her identity has altered by her role as a mother. The narrative continues, with the poet using very clear and easy-to-understand language. Readers shouldn’t have a hard time following what’s going on or figuring out that this is not an ideal situation.
The mother and her three children are visiting a park, something that should evoke joy but is instead bringing out the mother’s sorrow and feelings of dejection. Someone the mother once loved passes by. This is someone from her past, from a time that was likely quite different from the present moment.
to feign indifference to that casual nod.
a small balloon…”but for the grace of God…”
It was too late, the speaker says, for the women to “feign indifference.” meaning, before she had the time to decide to ignore him and pretend she didn’t know him, she’d already nodded at him. Readers should also consider the poet’s use of enjambment in these lines. The transition from line four of the first stanza to line one of the second is quite interesting.
The two had a brief conversation, one that was filled with simple pleasantries that fall flat among the screams of the mother’s children. The line that stands out here is “Time holds great surprises.” This connects to the narrator’s assumption that the man is counting his blessings that he didn’t maintain his relationship with the woman. But for the grace of God, he got out of it.
They stand a while in flickering light, rehearsing
the children’s names and birthdays. “It’s so sweet
To the wind she says, “They have eaten me alive.”
In the final stanza, the speaker describes how the two had more small talk about the children’s names and birthdays. Then, the mother says something that she doesn’t appear to mean. She suggests that hearing the voices of her children brings her pleasure, as does watching them grow. But, after the man leaves, she’s able to admit to herself and the reader that it’s far more complicated than that. They have “eaten [her] alive.” Meaning, that the children have consumed her life. Now, her will is dominated by theirs.
Gwen Harwood wrote ‘In The Park’ in 1961.
It is about a mother’s relationship with her children and how they changed her life.
It is an important poem in the way it approaches a difficult subject, especially considering the time period in which it was written.
The themes are motherhood and the impact of life choices.
Readers who enjoyed ‘In the Park’ by Gwen Harwood should also consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘Her First Week’ by Sharon Olds – reveals both sides of motherhood and the many facets of feeling and emotions that come along with having a baby. Read more Sharon Olds poems.
- ‘Nick and the Candlestick’ by Sylvia Plath – a poem about new motherhood. The speaker talks about the child she’s caring for and what the experience means to her. Explore more Sylvia Plath poems.
- ‘Morning Song’ by Sylvia Plath – is a powerful poem about motherhood. The speaker explores the emotions related to it as well as its implications.