Recently we have been studying Gwen Harwood’s poem “Barn Owl” which tells the story of a child who leaves bed at sunrise and shoots a Barn Owl that lives in the barn. The Barn Owl comes home to the barn every morning to sleep. The child expected the owl to die immediately he shot it but it didn’t; instead it was badly hurt and the poem describes how it fell from the beam and was tangled in its own inards. The child’s father came to the barn when he heard the shot and told the child to finish what he started and put the owl out of its misery.
Revision of the points we discussed while analysing the poem –
- the poet does not tell us if the child is a boy or a girl. Most of the class thought the child was a boy but others imagined a girl
- most students thought the child was about 12. The poet doesn’t tell us.
- the poem is set at sunrise on a farm
- there are only two characters in the poem – the child and father – plus the Barn Owl
- The poem begins when the child gets out of bed and goes to the barn to kill the owl. No reason is given in the poem for this. We don’t know why he/she wanted to kill it. As a class we discussed what could have happened before the poem started and what prompted the child to want to do this. There were various ideas about what happened before hand. Through the poet’s choice of words we can see this is a poem about power. For example before he shoots the owl, he describes himself as “a horny fiend” “master of life and death” and “a wisp-haired judge whose law would punish beak and claw”.
- Who is involved in the power struggle? In the poem the child talks about the his father dreaming of ” a child obedient, angel-mild, old no-sayer, robbed of power by sleep”. This suggests the child is angry with his father and wants to show him he is not an obedient angel and because he is going to shoot the owl very early in the morning, his father won’t have a chance to say ‘no’.
- After the owl has been shot, the child describes himself in a different way – “lonely” “afraid” “cruel”. Something has changed. The owl did not die immediately, it suffered terribly and he didn’t know what to do. The feeling of power has gone.
- When his father came in and told the child to “end what you have begun”, he shot the owl and cried on his father’s shoulder.
- In class we talked about why the father made him kill the owl and most students said the reason was to put the owl out of its misery. However, the father could have done that. Perhaps the father needed to teach the child a lesson about growing up.
- This may be the message the author is trying to put across in the poem?
- We also discussed in class about gaps in the poem. In particular who’s missing? The mother is nowhere around. There are no siblings either. Why?
Task 1 is to re-write the poem as a story, filling in the gaps, starting the story before the poem begins and ending it afterwards. Use your imagination to write a story explaining why mum is missing, why the boy is angry and wants to show his dad he has power, and finishes the story off for us.
Example: You might think that mum is sick and in hospital; the father went hunting rabbits and would not allow the child to go along. In anger, the child decided to show his father he could hunt. After the owl was killed, the father realised how much it meant to the child to go with him, so he allowed him to go along but only after teaching him about how to be responsible around guns.
Task 2 – write a story about a time you did something you regret.