G Gwen Harwood

Suburban Sonnet by Gwen Harwood

‘Suburban Sonnet’ by Gwen Harwood is a powerful poem about a woman’s struggles with motherhood. It explores the mundane elements of her life and her lost dreams.

Suburban Sonnet‘ was written in the 1960s and explores some of the subject matter Harwood is best-known for. This includes the struggles of motherhood. She often highlighted the truth of what it meant to be a mother in her contemporary period, physically, emotionally, and psychologically. ‘Suburban Sonnet’ is filled with powerful images and examples of metaphors. 

Suburban Sonnet by Gwen Harwood


Summary

‘Suburban Sonnet’ by Gwen Harwood is a poem about the difficulties of motherhood and the mental and emotional struggles of a housewife.

In the first lines of ‘Suburban Sonnet,’ the speaker describes a housewife who spends her time practicing a fugue, a specific type of musical composition. She knows that it doesn’t matter to anyone whether or not she plays well, but she continues to. There are two children in the room, screaming at one another. This forces her to stop playing until she can quiet them down. Suddenly, another one of her duties as a housewife calls:  a pot on the stove is boiling over. She suddenly feels completely overwhelmed, sick, and in pain. 

The poet compares the woman’s happiness to the soap running down the drain. This leads to another personal music-related image. Her children are looking at a dead mouse in a trap, feeling scared despite it being dead. She disposes of the creature with an article featuring bread recipes. 

You can read the full poem here.

Themes

Throughout this poem, Harwood engages with themes of motherhood, mental health, and the past/future. The latter themes are seen through her desire to continue playing music, something she’s been doing for a time. She plays despite the fact that no one cares how skilled she is or isn’t. Harwood presents this feature of the woman’s personality as a hanger-on from her past. It’s a habit of a time in which she was freer and had her own passions and dreams. It’s continually interrupted by her children’s screaming and the duties of a mother/housewife. She is suffering under the burden of their mundanity and the loss of a life she could’ve had. 

Structure and Form 

‘Suburban Sonnet’ by Gwen Harwood is a sonnet. This means that it contains fourteen lines and is contained within one stanza. The liens follow a rhyme scheme of ABABCDCDEFGEFG. Here, readers can find elements of a Shakespearean sonnet, which usually follows the rhyme scheme of ABABCDCDEFEFGG. The end rhymes of the sonnet are pretty consistent, aside from the slant/half-rhyme of “stove” and “love,” in lines five and seven. Having imperfect rhymes in a poem is not an unusual feature. 

The poem is also almost entirely written in iambic pentameter, the most common rhyme scheme for sonnets. The lines contain five iambs, or sets of two syllables, the first of which is unstressed and the second of which is stressed. One of the best examples can be found in line four. The words “then scream and fight” are a great demonstration of the meter. 

Literary Devices 

Harwood makes use of several literary devices in ‘Suburban Sonnet.’ These include but are not limited to: 

  • Caesura: occurs when the poet inserts a pause in the middle of a line. For example, “then scream and fight. She hushes them. A pot.”
  • Metaphor: seen through the image of the mouse, the boiling pot, soapy water, and even the stale bread at the end. 
  • Alliteration: seen through the use of the same consonant sounds at the beginning of words. For example, “children chatter” in line three and “soapy” and “scours” in line eight.


Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-4

She practises a fugue, though it can matter

(…)

then scream and fight. She hushes them. A pot

In the first lines of ‘Suburban Sonnet,’ the speaker begins by describing a woman. The reader quickly learns that she’s a mother and a housewife. She’s alone at home with her children while attempting to focus on something she cares about, playing music. She’s playing a fugue, or, as defined by Oxford, “a contrapuntal composition in which a short melody or phrase (the subject) is introduced by one part and successively taken up by others and developed by interweaving the parts.” This composition also shares its name with a period of loss in which one loses awareness of one’s identity. It’s impossible to ignore this connection and how it relates to the woman’s current state of being. 

There are two children on the floor near her. They’re screaming and fighting with one another, something that is not unusual. The simple statement “She hushes them” makes the situation feel commonplace in her world. The fourth line of this quatrain is enjambed. The reader has to go down to line five to find out what’s happening with the pot. In the woman’s world, the only eventful occurrences are those like a pot boiling over. 

Lines 5-8 

boils over. As she rushes to the stove

(…)

drain out with soapy water as she scours

The pot boils over, and the mother has to rush into the kitchen. Unfortunately, she’s too late, and the whole series of events brings on a wave of nausea. The poet is used as a metaphor, with its contents and the soap used to clean it running down the drain. This represents all the “love” that she had for her life before as well as the hopes related to her non-existent musical career. 

Lines 9-14 

the crusted milk. Her veins ache. Once she played

for Rubinstein, who yawned. The children caper

(…)

featuring: Tasty dishes from stale bread.

She looks back on her life while her veins ache in her skin and remembers playing for Rubinstein, a classical pianist. He was bored by what he heard and yawned. This powerful memory comes and goes quickly, and she’s back to her home and her children. They’ve since found a dead mouse in a trap, something they’re scared of. She has to get rid of it. The mouse is a powerful symbol for the woman’s life. She, too, is dead, trapped in a life she can’t get out of. And just like the mouse, she walked into it herself. 

In the final lines, she gets rid of the creature in a newspaper with “Tasty dishes from stale bread.” This final mundane image can be interpreted in different ways. The image of stale bread can be easily related to how her life has grown old. But, the fact that it’s been reincorporated into “tasty dishes” makes the whole thing seem absurd. Becoming a new food item is all that is possible for the bread. There are no other outlets or paths to walk. 

FAQs 

What is suburban sonnet? 

‘Suburban Sonnet’ is a fourteen-line poem that Gwen Harwood wrote in the 1960s. It explores motherhood. 

When was ‘Suburban Sonnet’ written?

The poem ‘Suburban Sonnet’ was written in the 1960s.

What is ‘In The Park’ by Gwen Harwood about?

‘In The Park’ is another sonnet about motherhood. It depicts the complex relationship a mother can have with her children. 

What are the themes of ‘Suburban Sonnet?’ 

The major theme in ‘Suburban Sonnet’ is motherhood. 

What is a sonnet? 

A sonnet is a fourteen-line poem. It usually conforms to either a Shakespearean or Petrarchan rhyme scheme and uses iambic pentameter. 


Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed ‘Suburban Sonnet’ should also consider reading other Gwen Harwood poems. Including: 

  • In The Park’ –  a complex, negative depiction of motherhood and contemplation of one’s life choices. 

Other poems that might be of interest include: 

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About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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