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In different cultures, societies and lives, language and certain words can have many different meanings and connotations. Gwen Harwood uses this factor of language to shape meaning in her poems, including “Home Of Mercy” and “The Lion’s Bride”. In “Home Of Mercy” (HOM), the use of language conjures religious atmospheres which clash against the use of antonymic language which creates uncomfortable imagery. Juxtaposed against each other, Harwood allows us to make a meaning of the poem, in which the text aims to criticize the religious views and ideologies around unwed pregnant mothers and invites us to reconsider the way we view unwed mothers as well. She says through this text that in that period of time, a change was needed in the way societies look at unwed mothers and to consider the dynamic between genders in such situations. In “The Lion’s Bride” (TLB), the use of language synonymous with the description of meat and animals allows us to make meaning of TLB, in which the poem aims to expose marriage as a facade for a vicious process and consumption of a women’s livelihood and identity. Harwood successfully manoeuvres the connotations of certain words and language to communicate clearly to all readers, different readings but the same messages and values.
Firstly, in Harwood’s HOM, there is a contrast between connotations created which allows us to successfully create a meaning and message out of the poem. In HOM, there is use of certain words and language which generates a religious connotation and vibe to it. Her use of words and phrases like “neat” “convent” “chapel” “old nun” “burn like incense” “spirit” “prayer” and “angels”, when considered by themselves are words synonymous with religion. When people think of religion they also consider holiness, general benevolence and goodwill. However when Harwood also pairs these words alongside language and phrases such as “ruined” “silence” “roughened hands” “ripening bodies” “memories burn” “weekday rigour” “for their sin” and “angels will wrestle them with brutish vigour” it adds another level of depth to the atmosphere of this poem and allows us to make a greater reading.
The latter set of phrases mentioned brings up imagery and connotations of general uncomfortableness and pain. Some of the phrases mentioned even pair “religious” and “painful” imagery next to each other for great effect, e.g. “old nun who silences”, “memories burn like incense” and “angels will wrestle them”. The contrast and juxtaposition between the two connotations of the antonymic language and phrases used in the text links religion with some sort of malevolent will and helps us establish a meaning out of the text. By taking into account narrative, context and combining it with the connotations perceived we as readers are able to make meaning of the poem and read from it that Harwood is criticizing the ways religious institutions view unwed mothers. More specifically the meaning is that churches and religious societies in general are subjecting unwed mothers to pay for their “sins”, but fail to lend empathy towards them or contemplate the role of males in this “sinful behaviour” and can thus also produce gendered and religious readings of the text. All in all, it is the religious and antonymic connotations of the language used in HOM that shapes the meaning of the text for readers and allows us to understand that Harwood was trying to invite us to consider religious and general societal views on unwed mothers and how we treat them.
In Harwood’s TLB, connotations have a large role to play as well in shaping meaning of the poem. In TLB, words such as “softness” “warm” “faithful” “love feast” “tender” create a connotation of warmth and love. Contrasting language like “icy spectre” “ripped” “engorged” “bones” and “ghost” create a completely different atmosphere of coldness and hate. Contrasted against each other, the connotations from each set of language in their own individual stanzas help to cement a change in moods and therefore supports the meaning shaped in text. The contrast in moods generated by connotation, allows us to see the effect marriage has, as seen through Harwood’s eyes. The transition from warm love to cold feasting between the two stanzas is a motif for the livelihood of women that men devour in the process of marriage, when taking into account the use of marriage symbols and context. The use of connotation therefore shapes meaning in the poem and for readers, on the views of Harwood on marriage and gender roles of that time.
Not only do they generate contrasting connotations but also, another layer of meaning. These words can all be loosely used to describe meat, namely “warm” “tender” “icy” and “bones”. The carnivorous connotations of these words helps lend support to Harwood’s depiction of men in marriages as lions or beasts, because they unearth an unconscious desire to devour while describing their marriages. Zoomorphism is also carried through use of connotations, such as in the words “muzzle” “human” “cafe” “keeper” and “brute king”, further characterising males as brute beasts in marriage. The use of meat-like adjectives and zoomorphism support the depiction of men as beasts, and the overall meaning of the text. Harwood goes to say with this use of language and connotations that men desire to devour women whole in marriage and “engorge the painted lips that breathed”.
Harwood successfully uses the connotations certain words have to help us shape meaning of her poems and clearly understand the values and messages she was trying to communicate and reflect on. The use of contrasting religious and torturous language and connotations in HOM allows readers to construct meaning in her poem and reflect on the dynamic between Christian and gender values and how they clash when it comes to unwed mothers. In TLB, the pitting of warm against cold language and use of zoomorphism and carnivorous language allows us to create the meaning that Harwood sees men as ruthless beasts who consumer the livelihood of their brides to be. Although while the connotations of language used is not the stand alone factor of how we make meaning from a text, it is certainly key to understanding the values of a writer and the society they came from.
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