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Harwood, Gwendoline Nessie (Gwen) (1920–1995)

by Alison Hoddinott

This article was published online in 2019

Gwen Harwood, by Virginia Wallace-Crabbe, 1992

Gwen Harwood, by Virginia Wallace-Crabbe, 1992

National Library of Australia, 24449263

Gwendoline Nessie Harwood (1920–1995), poet and librettist, was born on 8 June 1920 at Taringa, Queensland, elder child of English-born Joseph Richard Foster, secretary, and his Queensland-born wife Agnes Maud Markwell, née Jaggard, a former teacher. Gwen lived with her family in a small weatherboard cottage at Mitchelton, then a semi-rural suburb near Brisbane. Her maternal grandmother lived with them while her great-grandmother visited the family from her home in Toowoomba. Gwen would reflect that she had always felt part of a long line of strong, self-reliant Australian women.

Starting at Mitchelton State School, Harwood recalled these formative years in poems such as ‘The Violets’ and ‘Class of 1927,’ and in her short stories. When she was seven, the family moved to the suburb of Auchenflower. She attended Toowong State School until she was twelve and then Brisbane Girls’ Grammar School. A talented pianist, she studied music with Handel scholar Dr R. Dalley-Scarlett, and became his assistant teacher. She also played the organ at All Saints’ Anglican Church, Wickham Terrace. There she met Rev. Peter Bennie who became a great influence on her personal and intellectual development. Bennie introduced her to Thomas ‘Tony’ Riddell, a lieutenant in the Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve, stationed in Brisbane. He shared her love of music and poetry and she would dedicate most of her volumes of poetry to him.

Towards the end of 1941 Harwood entered the novitiate at a Franciscan convent at Toowong, before realising that she had no vocation for a religious life. For five months in 1942 she taught music at St Christopher’s Church of England School for Boys, Brookfield, and then worked as a clerk at the local branch of the War Damage Commission for the remainder of World War II. She recorded this period in letters written to Riddell, later published as Blessed City (1990). In September 1943 Riddell introduced Gwen to his friend Frank William (Bill) Harwood, also a lieutenant in the naval reserve. A graduate of the University of Melbourne (BA Hons, 1939; MA, 1940), Bill exposed Gwen to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus; his philosophical writing became an important source of thought and imagery in her poetry.

Gwen and Bill married at All Saints’ Church on 4 September 1945. Soon after, they moved to Hobart for Bill to take up a lectureship in the English department at the University of Tasmania. The Derwent estuary would figure prominently in her poetry, but her attitude to Tasmania was always ambivalent. Her poem ‘1945’ recalls her encounter with the icy winds blowing off Mount Wellington and her sense of dislocation. Brisbane as the ‘blessed city’ (Harwood 1990) of sunshine and colour was largely constructed in the greyer days of her exile. In Hobart, between 1946 and 1952, she became the mother of four children, including twins. She also had a stillborn daughter, whose birth and death she evokes in the poems ‘Dialogue’ and ‘Visitor.’

In the 1940s she began publishing in the Bulletin and Meanjin. Yet she questioned the competence of literary editors—aware that they were less likely to accept the work of an unknown Tasmanian housewife and that it was easier to get a poem published under a man’s name. In August 1961 the Bulletin printed two sonnets, ‘Eloisa to Abelard’ and ‘Abelard to Eloisa,’ that she had submitted under the pseudonym ‘Walter Lehmann.’ Read acrostically, they declared her farewell to the magazine and her forthright dismissal of all editors. To some, she is still best remembered for this hoax. Lehmann also appeared as the first ‘author’ of Harwood’s most widely known and frequently anthologised poem ‘In the Park.’

Her delight in the subterfuge—‘I like wearing masks’ (Ward 1978, 7)—led her to create further fictional alteregos, each of whom expressed one part of her personality. ‘Francis Geyer’ was a refugee from Europe at the time of the Hungarian uprising. He created the character of Professor Kröte and wrote of exile, music, and frustrated love. ‘Miriam Stone’ was a housewife and mother who penned angry poems about domestic imprisonment. ‘Timothy Kline’ was a young Tasmanian clerk who protested against social injustice and the Vietnam War.

Publication of her poetry drew Harwood out of seclusion. Embarking on the literary circuit of conferences and readings, she met and became friends with other Australian poets including Vivian Smith, James McAuley, Vincent Buckley, and A. D. Hope. In 1963 she published her first collection, titled Poems. That year she met the composer Larry Sitsky and collaborated with him, writing libretti for the ‘Fall of the House of Usher,’ ‘Lenz,’ and ‘The Golem.’ She also wrote libretti for other composers–James Penberthy, Ian Cugley, and Don Kay. From early 1964 Harwood worked for several years as a medical secretary and receptionist for a Hobart eye specialist. Her poem ‘Naked Vision’ records one experience from that time.

In 1976 the Harwoods moved to a five-acre property at Kettering on the D’Entrecasteaux Channel. There Bill built boats and Gwen went fishing, kept poultry, and wrote some of her finest poems. She was awarded the Grace Leven prize (1975), the Robert Frost medallion (1977), and the Patrick White literary award (1978), and a fellowship from the Australia Council (1973–76). Appointed AO in 1989, she was made an honorary doctor of letters by the universities of Tasmania (1988) and Queensland (1993), and by La Trobe University (1994). Her volume Bone Scan (1988) won the C. J. Dennis prize at the Victorian Premier’s literary awards (1989) and the John Bray award (1990). Blessed City was the Age Book of the Year for 1990. Her final collection, The Present Tense (1995), was posthumously shortlisted for the John Bray award in 1996.

In January 1985 the Harwoods had returned to Hobart. That year Gwen underwent a successful operation for breast cancer. She remained a productive poet and in 1989 became president of the Tasmanian branch of the Fellowship of Australian Writers. In 1995 a further, inoperable, cancer was diagnosed. Survived by her husband and their three sons and one daughter, she died in South Hobart on 5 December that year and was cremated. At her request, her ashes were scattered over the Brisbane River. A poetry prize was named after her in 1996 and she was inducted into Tasmania’s Honour Roll of Women in 2005.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Bennie, Angela. ‘The Many Voices of Gwen Harwood.’ Weekend Australian, 31 December 1988–1 January 1989, 9
  • Beston, John. ‘An Interview with Gwen Harwood.’ Quadrant, October 1975, 84–88
  • Frizell, Helen. ‘Putting It Down Like Vintage Wine.’ Saturday Evening Mercury, 25 November 1978, 22, 31
  • Harwood, Gwen. Blessed City: The Letters of Gwen Harwood to Thomas Riddell, January to September 1943. Edited by Alison Hoddinott. North Ryde, NSW: Angus & Robertson, 1990
  • Harwood, Gwen. ‘Lamplit Presences.’ Southerly 40, no. 3 (1980): 247–54
  • Hoddinott, Alison. Gwen Harwood: The Real and the Imagined World. North Ryde, NSW: Angus & Robertson, 1991
  • Hoddinott, Alison. ‘Serious Poet with a Zest for Laughter.’ Australian, 12 December 1995, 17
  • Lear, Anne. ‘Interview with Gwen Harwood.’ SPAN, no. 26 (April 1988): 1–11
  • Sellick, Robert, ed. Gwen Harwood. CRNLE Essays and Monographs Series no. 3. Adelaide: Centre for Research in New Literatures in English, 1987
  • Ward, Peter. ‘The Poet as a Prize Winner.’ Australian, 17 November 1978, 7

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Citation details

Alison Hoddinott, 'Harwood, Gwendoline Nessie (Gwen) (1920–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/harwood-gwendoline-nessie-gwen-22407/text32138, published online 2019, accessed online 24 July 2019.

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