Harwood’s ‘Home of Mercy’ focuses on the ideas of oppression, youth and punishment by using an abundance of literary and poetic techniques. All of the above highlight the strict and rigorous nature of the Catholic Church, thus portraying Catholicism in a negative manner.
Oppression through the perversion of the Christian doctrine is one of the key themes in the sonnet. The first description that the reader gets of the girls is that they are “ruined.” The word ‘ruined’ is a high modality word, and exemplifies the fact that these girls cannot be fixed no matter how hard one tries.
This creates a sense of pity as the word “girls” represents youth. There is also a sense of order and routine that is demonstrated in the way “the girls are walking at the neat margin of the convent grass.” The word “neat” and the religious imagery associated with the word “convent” depict a strict order.
Grass is also associated with the colour green, which represents fertility.
The fact that the girls are “walking at the neat margin of the… grass”, shows that they are not allowed to be mothers. The girls are then “counted as they pass.” This establishes a sense of anonymity as we are looking at the girls as a whole group and not as individuals, which they are. This conveys that they are not cared for individually, and that they are in a harsh environment. The sonnet’s form is also directly related to the subject matter, as it is written in iambic pentameter which diegetically exposes the oppression of the young girls as of it’s strict rule.
Through the use of many poetic devices, such as imagery, the theme of oppression by religion is established whilst sticking to a strict form.
Youth also plays a large role in this poem, as it highlights their innocence and innate desires. The second stanza says that the girls “smooth with roughened hands their clumsy dress. “ The juxtaposition of the word “smooth” and “rough” bring attention to the reader, as girls hands are not rough by nature, but rather delicate. This indicates that their youth is being taken away, resulting in the reader having feelings of hopelessness and sadness. This line then continues with the words, “that hide their ripening bodies.” The word “ripening” is related to fertility, and the girls hiding their “ripening bodies” establishes that they should be shameful of having ‘sinned.’ The way they are hiding their bodies is similar to how the Church is hiding them away in these Magdalene Laundries.
The last line of the second stanza is particularly disturbing for the reader, due to the manner in which the girls are described as, “mischievous children in distress.” ‘Mischievous’ is a term of endearment and when combined with the word “distress” connotes a feeling of worry and despair. In the final stanza of the sonnet, the girls are in chapel, however whilst they are supposed to be praying for repentance they are instead dreaming. This is embodied by the quotation, “with prayer its sad recourse to dream and flight.” This shows that the only time the girls are free is in their thoughts. Therefore, the nature of youth is explored throughout the sonnet through the use of literary devices such as juxtaposition and metaphors.
Punishment of these girls is also a significant factor and is expressed by irony, and the cyclical nature of their daily routine. The girl’s work is tiresome and straining and is referred to as “their intolerable weekday rigour.” The word “rigour” has a harsh “g” as does the word “vigour” which is mentioned later on. This is cacophonous, and is diegetically representing what their work and life is actually like. Their punishment is also very ironic, as they are laundering “for their sin, sheets soiled by other bodies.” They are washing sheets in which other people have had sex, and that is the fundamental reason that they are in the Magdalene Laundry. Their punishment is also cyclical, as seen by the quote “each morning”, with the word each embodying a sense of routine.
The washing machine also embodies a cyclical routine, therefore emphasising the nature of the girl’s punishment. The last line – “angels will wrestle them with brutish vigour” is arguably the most disturbing line in the whole poem, because of the contrast it demonstrates. The word “angels” has a light sound, and symbolises happiness, and peace, whereas in this instance the word is used completely differently.
The word “wrestling “ has sexual connotations, thereby making it possible that this is a rape scene. The last line of this sonnet is very powerful and vividly portrays that these girls are never free, and that they will forever remain ‘Fallen Woman.’ For the aforementioned reasons, punishment is of vital importance in this poem as it gives both the poem and the girls structure.
In summation, oppression by Catholicism, the nature of youth and punishment are all prevalent themes in this sonnet. Harwood uses many techniques, which manifest themselves into these three thematic concerns.