Judith Wright (1915-2000): Australian Poet & Prophet

Gerard HALL

Published in National Outlook (November 2000)



For over half a century the poetry of Judith Wright provided Australians with words to explore the spiritual dimension of their land, its people and history. In this she was no sentimentalist. In her poem, At Cooloobah (1955), she speaks for all European peoples who have inhabited Australia: "I'm a stranger come of a conquering people." This sense of Australian alienation from the land and victimization of its first peoples is dominant throughout her writing and actions. Writing for the Tasmanian Wildnerness Calendar (1981) she states: "the love of the land we have invaded and the guilt of the invasion have become a part of me." In her last public act, only weeks before her death, she led the reconciliation march in Canberra.

Yes, Judith Wright was a political poet. She mixed words with deeds. She saw the poet as a public figure with responsibility for challenging negative social forces and inhumane attitudes that demean human life and the environment. She was an outspoken and passionate critic of nuclear power, environmental devastation, injustice towards Aboriginal peoples and the excessive materialism that she judged to be bleeding the Australian soul of spiritual power.

In the sixties, Wright was among the first and foremost campaigners for the protection of the Great Barrier Reef. Equally, her voice was loud and clear in protest against sand-mining on Fraser Island. In the wake of environmental destruction of the rainforest, she co-founded the Queensland Wildlife Preservation Society. In the mid-seventies, Wright left her home at Mount Tamborine partly in protest against governmental collusion with big business and conservation-insensitive development. Subsequently, in a final act of condemnation of a government whose social and environmental agenda she deplored, she returned her honorary doctorate to the University of Queensland on learning that a similar award was being made to Joh Bjelke-Petersen!

Wright's first book of poems, The Moving Image (1946) celebrated the New England tableland of her childhood, her "blood's country . . . full of old stories that still go walking in my sleep" (South of My Days). This mystical quality of her relationship with the land never leaves her. Ever mindful of the European world "we have lost and left behind," this new but ancient land is full of questions and tricks: "Where do the roads lead? It is not where we expected" (Country Town). Land and story are woven together: the remittance man, bullock driver, stockman, bushranger, returned soldier, idler, half-caste girl, metho drinker, and old Dan whose "seventy years of stories he clutches round his bones."

In the opinion of her biographer, Veronica Brady, Wright's way of writing about the landscape transformed the tradition of Australian writing (The Australian, 27th June). Another poet and critic, Kevin Hart, says that her poems taught him how to see the country for what it is and its people for who they are. He adds, "whether we know it or not, we all live inside her poems" (Sydney Morning Herald, 29th June). Her landscapes are not those of green, fertile England. Nor is this land to be tamed. The tree-frog and dingo, rainforest and seacoast, stark cliffs and eroded hills, bushfire and flood, dust and drought, wind and rain, flame-tree and cicadas, gum tree and cyclone all exhibit a peculiarly Australian sense of mystery and power quite at odds with the presuppositions of European settlers. It is a different kind of beauty--and a different kind of terror.

Judith Wright's second anthology Woman to Man (1949) is better known for the freshness of her approach in examining until-then taboo subjects of sexual desire and especially women's sexuality. Such economical though passionate poems as Woman to Child and Woman to Man, apart from confounding thousands of adolescents in their final school-year examination papers, provided a new language for exploring the sacredness of sexual union, pregnancy and birth. Even these poems, considered by many among the best of modern Australian poetry, demonstrate an earthiness at once sparse and tender: "I am the earth, I am the root, / I am the stem that fed the fruit, / the link that joins you to the night." The ambiguities of pleasure and solemnity in physical love-making climax in the conclusion to the other of these two poems: "Oh hold me, for I am afraid."

Love and fear often come together in Wright's poetry. So too do love and guilt. This is especially evident when she engages with the issue of European 'invasion': "I know that we are justified only by love, / but oppressed by arrogant guilt, have room for none." The ambiguity extends further when she confirms the lesson admitted by cultural anthropologists: the conquerors become the conquered!

Those dark-skinned people who once named Cooloolah

knew that no land is lost or won by wars,

for earth is spirit: the invader's feet will tangle

in nets there and his blood be thinned by fears. (At Cooloolah)

This poem from The Two Fires (1955) deals with black-white relationships from a new angle. Earlier poems in the forties lamented the sadness of a people dispossessed of land and culture:

The song is gone; the dance

is secret with the dancers in the earth,

the ritual useless, and the tribal story

lost in an alien tale. (Bora Ring)

Or, in the case of Nigger's Leap, New England, the lament is for an historical massacre. What increasingly enters her poetry from the fifties onwards is focus on the impact of colonization on the souls of the conqerors: "I'm a stranger come of a conquering people."

The total failure of assimilation as a political and social policy for dealing with 'black Australia' is most evident in poems such as The Dark Ones (1976).

On the other side of the road

the dark ones stand.

Something leaks in our blood

like the ooze from a wound.

More poignant still is the poem Two Dreamtimes (1973). This poem was expressly written for Wright's friend, fellow-writer and fellow-activist, Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker) described as "one of the dark children I wasn't allowed to play with." This is a poem about spiritual apartheid in which the life of the imagination and the human spirit is ruined by blind prejudice, dying children, raped women, white guilt and misguided righteousness. The result: "If we are sisters, it's in this--our grief for a lost country" since "we too have lost our dreaming." Conqueror and persecuted alike are "raped by rum and an alien law, progress and economics."

On the public-political front, Wright had first reluctantly but soon enthusiastically taken a position with the Australia Council at the time of the Whitlam Government. She appreciated the new spirit of the times in which there was commitment to--and money for--the arts, environment and Aboriginal issues. Her influence on the declaration of the Great Barrier Reef as a Marine National Park is a matter of public record. Another environmental victory for which she had long campaigned, the end of mining on Fraser Island, also came to pass in the mid-seventies.

Less successful was her campaign for a treaty with Aboriginal people. This idea, like so many others, seemed well before its 'political' time. Nonetheless, as a member of the Aboriginal Treaty Committee formed by "Nugget" Coombs in the late seventies, she authored the title document: "We Call for a Treaty." Another critical, historical work of this time, called "The Cry for the Dead," reviewed the history of white settlement and its impact on the land and Aboriginal people. As the title indicates, this was a book full of sombre, often dark, truth. It was her way of presenting the shadow side of colonization in essay form. Throughout the eighties and nineties, she remained actively involved in conservation issues as a member of the Australian Conservation Foundation.

Wright's critics suggested she was abandoning her poetry for politics. However, the truth of her life is that she was both artist and activist; the values celebrated in her poetry are the same values she fought for in the political arena. She was always the "ethical prophet," calling Australia and Australians to renounce "pride, greed and ignorance" in favour of a spiritual vision since, as she put it, "without a vision a nation perishes."

Although strong in her denunciation of economic rationalist principles that were undermining the social fabric of Australian life in the eighties and nineties, she remained committed to a world of other possibilities--to see "what the human eye was meant to see /. . . knowing the human ends in the divine" (Vision). Integral to this vision is a profound respect for the sacred dimensions of ordinary life and ordinary Australians: "Living is a dailiness, a simple bread / that's worth the eating" (Grace). The ethical and gracious sense of human dignity is integral to her worldview.

Artist and activist, poet and prophet, Judith Wright's images have become part of the fabric of our nation. She is the political poet dancing between the mystical experience and the demands of justice. She leads us to shed our too-European eyes to see and not despoil the strange beauty of the Australian landscape. Equally, she leads us to name the fear and guilt that go hand-in-hand with a colonizing people. She invites us to the experience of justice and reconciliation in which the splendour and the terror of our nation's history and all its peoples are acknowledged, celebrated, redeemed. The mystical and the political are intertwined in Wright's poetry and life. Deaf in her final years, she continues to challenge Australians to hear the spirit of their land and its first peoples if they are to traverse the path to a more just and humane future. "For earth is spirit."

Judith Wright's Annotated Poems & Writings:

Judith Wright's Biography & Awards:

Dr. Gerard HALL, Head of School of Theology

McAuley Campus