“Barn Owl” is part one of Gwen Harwood’s poem “Father and Child.” Harwood’s language in this piece often embraces the tension of opposites in order to demonstrate the complexity, dynamism, and contradiction of human experience. The first two lines utilize opposing language to convey emerging familial divergence.
Daybreak: the household slept.
I rose, blessed by the sun.
The household sleeps. The child rises, symbolizing the child’s first steps towards independence from the family. The close proximity of these opposing descriptors, “slept” and “rose,” suggests that coming-of-age moments can be abrupt. In “Barn Owl,” coming of age is a major theme.
Another theme is the innate brutality of life. This theme pervades much of Gwen Harwood’s work. The author demonstrates the point of view that brutality exists not just in the adult world: it manifests in childhood as well. The child is, in fact, the source of brutality in this poem. The owl suffers when the child goes after it with the gun. And the child realizes how brutal she has been.
those eyes that did not see
mirror my cruelty . . .
The realization points to another theme in this poem: loss of innocence. The child is both young and inexperienced; simultaneously, though, she is powerful enough to inflict suffering and end a life.
A wisp-haired judge whose law
would punish beak and claw.
In a single sentence, the child is at once both “wisp-haired” (a youthful descriptor) and a “judge,” an enforcer of law and punishment. This is another example of language that features proximal opposition.
The linguistic and thematic coexistence of opposites comes full circle in the final stanza of the poem. In the first stanza, the child is “blessed by the sun.” The child perceives the sun as pure and positive. It is a youthful, innocent perspective. Conversely, in the final stanza, the sun ultimately contributes to the demise of the owl:
owl blind in early sun
for what I had begun.
The child transmutes her own blessing into destruction, a final diametric nod to the loss of innocence.