Margaret Atwood’s “Morning in the Burned House” and Gwen Harwood’s “Mother Who Gave Me Life” both contain similar themes that incorporate melancholic nostalgia for remembered days and look at childhood from an adult perspective. The speakers are not so much reliving their childhoods as they are remembering the past as having implications in the present. Both poems also focus on rehearsing familial history.
Harwood’s “Mother Who Gave Me Life” focuses on the narrator’s mother, who has passed away. Although the mother is no more, the narrator lives and operates as if her mother is ever-present. The memory of her mother and their life together dictates the way the narrator lives in the present. She asks for her late mother’s forgiveness for not learning what she should have and pines for former days with “Anguish: remembered hours” and regret.
As Harwood’s narrator lives in the continual presence of her dead mother, in Atwood’s “Morning in the Burned House,” the narrator continues to exist in a house that no longer stands, “the burned house.” Although “everything // in this house has long been over,” having been destroyed by fire, the narrator sees “every detail clear”—as if she is always there, always living with the implications of the past. Like Harwood’s “mother,” Atwood “house” is ever-present.
Both poems also rehearse a connection to familial history. Harwood’s “Mother” not only presents connection with the narrator’s long-deceased mother, but it also reveals an interconnectedness to family in a genealogical sense, “women bearing / women,” a palpable connection with a distant past. Similarly, Atwood’s “Morning” wonders where those family connections have gone, “brother and sister, / mother and father.” Both poems relate an interconnectedness to things and people that may not be physically present but still remains very alive and immediate.
Margaret Atwood is a poet, novelist, and critic. Gwen Harwood is primarily a poet. Atwood and Harwood are both known for their examination of themes of womanhood. In their respective writings, both explore the traditional roles of women, the ways in which women sometimes feel trapped in those roles, and what happens when women try to transcend those traditional roles.