Wright, Judith (Poetry Criticism)
Judith Wright 1915–
Australian poet, essayist, historical novelist, and critic.
One of Australia's most celebrated female poets, Wright has garnered critical acclaim for concise, traditional verse in which she demonstrates an intellectual awareness of European and American literary traditions and vividly evokes the landscapes and lifestyles of Australia. Although some critics fault her later poems for lyrical abstraction, vague mysticism, and opinionated political observations, Wright has been widely praised for her treatment of such themes as humanity's tenuous perception of time and reality, the struggle of the poet to attain permanence and security, and the need to overcome transience through love. For Wright, poetry "is a means of regaining faith in man" as well as "a way of finding a difficult balance" between internal and external reality.
Critics often attribute Wright's interest in Australian landscape to her childhood at "Wallamumbi," her family's sheep ranch in New South Wales. After spending her early years there, she left home at age thirteen, when she was sent to boarding school. From there she went on to study at the University of Sydney and later traveled through Europe with friends. Upon her return to Australia, she worked at various jobs before returning to Wallamumbi to help her father run the station during World War II. It was then that Wright reconnected with the land of her childhood, and found the poetic voice that informs much of her verse. While working as a clerk at the University of Queensland in Brisbane in the 1940s, Wright began to publish her poems in such literary magazines as Meanjin and Southerly. Many of these works were included in her first published collection The Moving Image in 1946. Wright married Jack McKinney, a philosophy writer, and the couple raised one child, Meredith. The poems about love and childbirth in Wright's book Woman to Man were drawn directly from her own experience, and her personal and public life have remained an important part of her poetry. She has been active in promoting the rights of Australia's Aborigines and conservation of the environment and has used these issues as topics for her verse. She also wrote children's stories and poems during her daughter's childhood, then stopped when Meredith was grown. Following her husband's death in 1966, Wright expanded her political involvement and became active in debates over the teaching and uses of poetry, in addition to environmental
and social issues. After living in the state of Queensland for many years, she now resides in New South Wales, Australia, near Braidwood.
In her first collection of verse, The Moving Image, Wright uses lucid, graceful lyrics to evoke a mythic dimension in her subjects. In the process, she conveys a vivid sense of the landscape and history of the New England region of Australia. Her second volume, Woman to Man, is a celebration of womanhood, offering insights into such topics as conception, pregnancy, and childbirth. Often regarded as Wright's most profound work, critics have found Woman to Man notable for its striking imagery and focus on love and chaos. Wright's next two collections moved away from personal and anecdotal material toward more metaphysical and universal subject matter. The Gateway shows the influence of William Blake and T. S. Eliot in its consideration of love, creation, and eternity. The title poem of The Two Fires explores two opposing infernos—one that metaphorically represents the love from which humanity originated and one that is the man-made atomic fire that might extinguish love. Amidst such solemn works, Wright also produced Birds in 1963, a collection of poems that comments on the characteristics of Australia's winged wildlife. She returned to metaphysical issues in many of her poems written in the mid-1960s, with The Other Half addressing the mystic relationship between the conscious and unconscious mind. Of a more worldly nature are the new works in Collected Poems, 1942–1970, several of which attempt to reconcile Wright's private and public roles as a poet. Likewise, Alive: Poems, 1971–1972 also deals with temporal matters as Wright contrasts the natural beauty of her Queensland home with urban ruin, using this comparison to comment on the destruction of the Australian wilderness. In the 1977 collection Fourth Quarter and Other Poems, Wright interweaves childhood reminiscences with observations on old age, but also addresses contemporary political and sociological issues. The book also demonstrates Wright's abilities as a free verse poet, and employs a more relaxed tone than some of her other works. After a lengthy break from publishing poetry collections, Wright's Phantom Dwelling appeared in 1985. In this volume, she brings new light to bear on the themes that dominate so much of her poetry, particularly man's relationship with nature and death. The book also demonstrates Wright's continuing experimentation with a more relaxed, often ironic, poetic style.
With few exceptions, critical response to Judith Wright's first two collections of poetry has been overwhelmingly positive. Employing a traditional lyric style, Wright was lauded for her fresh treatment of the subject matter in both volumes. Appraising The Moving Image, Vincent Buckley argued that "Judith Wright surpasses all other Australian poets in the extent to which she … reveals the contours of Australia as a place, an atmosphere, a separate being." Similar praise was echoed by other critics as The Moving Image established Wright as one of Australia's major poets. Her second volume, Woman to Man, was credited with giving a uniquely female perspective to poems dealing with love, creation, and the universe. Elizabeth Vassilief contended that in this collection Wright exhibits the "the ability to re-create the meanings of common words with every new usage; to refresh, deepen and invigorate the language…. And in this power I think she has no equal among Australian poets." The collections published since Woman to Man have split critics into two general camps. Many contend that her increasingly metaphysical focus, coupled with forays into rather literal protest poetry, diluted her ability to distill universal and poetic images from common events. Her departure from the more traditional style of her early verse has also been scorned by some observers. Others, however, have characterized her excursions into politics and mysticism, and her stylistic experiments with free verse, as the explorations of a serious poet, who, not content to rest on her laurels, continues to redefine herself and her subject matter as she matures.
The Moving Image 1946
Woman to Man 1949
The Gateway 1953
The Two Fires 1955
Five Senses: Selected Poems 1963; revised edition 1972
Judith Wright (selected poems) 1963
City Sunrise 1964
The Other Half 1966
Collected Poems, 1942–1970 1971
Alive: Poems 1971–1972 1973
Fourth Quarter, and Other Poems 1976
The Double Tree: Selected Poems 1942–76 1978
Phantom Dwelling 1985
Other Major Works
King of Dingoes (juvenilia) 1958
The Generations of Men (fictional biography) 1959
The Day the Mountains Played (juvenilia) 1960
Range the Mountains High (juvenilia) 1962; revised edition 1971
Charles Harpur (biography and criticism) 1963; revised edition 1977
Country Towns (juvenilia) 1963
Preoccupations in Australian Poetry (criticism) 1965
The Nature of Love (short stories) 1966
The River and the Road (juvenilia) 1966; revised edition 1971...
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SOURCE: "Poetry in Australasia: Judith Wright," in Poetry Review, Vol. XLI, No. 4, July-August 1950, pp. 207–11.
[In this essay concerning Wright's Woman to Man, Lindsay asserts that Wright is the first woman poet to speak of love with a truly female voice.]
Of Judith Wright's poetry it might well be said that she is the only woman who has kissed and told. Other women have sung of love, but apart from Sappho—and she, after all, was a man in female skin—none have written honestly and without shame of their desires. Usually we find that women poets were sexually inexperienced ladies, transmuting their desires into religious or metaphysical ecstasies, as with Emily Brontë and Christina Rossetti, or, like Emily Dickenson, they have had to invent a lover on whom they could pour the passion of their starved hearts. The last thing I wish is to start a discussion on this question, and, of course, exceptions can be found, but it remains broadly true that sexual repression has commonly been the inspiration of women's art. When I was an art-student, I was surprised to notice how many girls showing genuine promise abandoned their work once they were married. It was as though a hitherto unsatisfied yearning had found completion and the substitute of painting was no longer needed. This is often true also of poetry. Elizabeth Barrett certainly continued to write after her marriage but she might as well...
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SOURCE: "The Poetry of Judith Wright," in Meanjin, Vol. XII, No. 3, September, 1953, pp. 255–67.
[Here, Brissenden examines Wright's first three volumes of poetry. The critic praises many aspects of the poet's work, but worries that the metaphysical panderings in the third volume, The Gateway, denote a shift in Wright's focus, "away from the personal, the particular and the dramatic towards the abstract and the impersonal. "]
When Judith Wright's first book, The Moving Image, appeared it was greeted by the critics with enthusiasm, one writer going so far as to declare that its publication was 'the most important poetic event of 1946'. Another claimed that 'no book of poems has received such an enthusiastic reception here since O'Dowd's The Bush.' Since then she has brought out two more collections of verse: Woman to Man and The Gateway. The growth of her reputation has kept pace with her output of poetry: it would be quite safe to say that she is now widely regarded as one of our leading poets; and there are some who would even support Mr. H. M. Green in placing her 'among the principal poets writing in English today' [Modern Australian Poetry, 1952].
There can be no doubt that her work stands well out from the great mass of Australian poetry—indeed from much of the poetry which fills the pages of literary journals in England and America....
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SOURCE: "Judith Wright's World-View," in Southerly, Vol. 17, No. 4, 1956, pp. 189–95.
[In the following essay, Scott places the philosophical underpinnings of the poet's work within the context of a Platonic worldview, noting her dual views of nature: on one hand it represents the immediate world and worldly concerns, while on the other it symbolizes an unchanging cosmos that is sensed unconsciously and idealized as Eden.]
Most of the 155 poems in Judith Wright's four books make manifest love and birth and death, which are abstract ideas having in themselves no single form, in terms of such concrete particulars as lovers, old people, little children and Australian landscapes. These subjects, love and birth and death, are shown as all inter-related and aspects of time, and as provoking questions we continue to ask, but never finally answer, about what and why we and life and time are.
Our philosophies are formed in part by what we read, and the epigraphs of Judith Wright's books suggest what world-view her poems present. The epigraph of her first book, The Moving Image (1946), is from Plato's cosmography, the Timaeus: "Time is a moving image of eternity". Plato based his philosophy on, among other things, the ideas of three earlier Greek thinkers, Pythagoras, Herakleitos and Parmenides. Pythagoras (or his followers) held that our souls and consciousnesses are identical,...
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SOURCE: "Keeping the Home Fires Burning: Australian Poetry, Judith Wright," Shenandoah, Vol. IX, No. 3, Summer, 1958, pp. 33–9.
[In the following essay, Fleming takes issue with the generally warm response Australian critics have given Wright's poetry. He methodically attacks both the "content" and the "form" of Wright's works, and decries what he terms her "paucity of imagination."]
Some verse is made to be sung, some intoned, some declaimed, some spoken—and some mumbled. Judith Wright's belongs to the last category. Compare this
Fra bank to bank, fra wood to wood I rin,
Ourhailit with my feeble fantasie
Lik til a leaf that fallis from a tree
Or til a reed ourblowin with the wind
Mark Alexander Boyd (1563–1601), Sonet
Sanctuary, the sign said. Sanctuary—
trees, not houses; flat skins pinned to the road
of possum and native cat; and here the old tree stood
for how many thousand years? that old gnome—tree
some axe-new boy cut down. Sanctuary, it sad:
but only the road has meaning here. It leads
into the world's cities like a long fuse laid.
Judith Wright, "Sanctuary"
It is necessary to be thus unhandsome at...
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SOURCE: "The Later Poetry of Judith Wright," in Southerly, Vol. 25, No. 3, 1965, pp. 163–71.
[Here, Wilkes defends Wright's third and fourth volumes of poetry, The Gateway and The Two Fires, contending that the two collections represent an expansion in Wright's poetry, an attempt "to reach beyond the immediate experience, to probe its significance. " Additionally, Wilkes examines the significance of two later collections, Birds and Five Senses, in Wright's body of work.]
The Recognition so quickly won by Judith Wright's early work, in The Moving Image (1946) and Woman to Man (1949), has proved strangely prejudicial to her later verse. The Moving Image was a volume in which sense perceptions were held and explored, the titles of the poems reading like a series of talismans—"Trapped Dingo", "Bullocky", "The Surfer", "Nigger's Leap: New England"— and their impact coming from the sheer individuality of perception:
South of my days' circle, part of my blood's country,
rises that tableland, high delicate outline
of bony slopes wincing under the winter;
low trees blue-leaved and olive; outcropping granite—
clean, lean, hungry country.
The same immediacy and vitality was felt in the lyrical poetry of her second book, in the set of love poems on...
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SOURCE: "The Genius of Judith Wright," in Westerly, No. 1, March, 1968, pp. 42–51.
[Using his review of The Other Half (1966) as an occasion to write a retrospective of Wright's career, Ewers traces her development from regionalist to universalist, and concludes that she is a mystic with a poetic voice.]
Before attempting to come to terms with Judith Wright's latest volume, The Other Half, I propose, first to take a brief sampling of what critics and reviewers had to say about her earlier work as it appeared, and then to examine it in more detail as a whole. This will enable us to establish her poetic background, to mark some common factors to be found in all her poetry and the differences that emerge from time to time.
Much credit is due to C. B. Christesen, editor of Meanjin in which a number of her poems had already appeared, for publishing her first book, The Moving Image (1946). This brought nothing but praise from the critics. Professor S. Musgrove said [in Southerly 8, No. 3 (1947)]: "This book confirms what we have for some time suspected from Judith Wright's periodical pieces, that she is the only poet among the younger Australians who can challenge the stature of R. D. FitzGerald." Nan McDonald, herself a poet, wrote: "After wading through many books of verse where only a faint glimmer of poetry haunts the bog of words, the reader can ask...
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SOURCE: "Some Poems of Judith Wright," in Australian Literary Studies, Vol. 3, No. 3, May, 1968, pp. 201–13.
[McAuley was an Australian poet, critic, and educator who influenced his country's literature through his emphasis on traditional poetic forms and techniques and his opposition to the nationalistic tendencies of some Australian writers and critics, including those in the "Jindyworobak" movement that championed native Australian elements in the arts. In the following analysis of several of Wright's poems, McAuley studies both content and mechanics to contrast what he considers Wright's better poetry with her less successful work. He concludes that Wright's best poems are endowed with a consonance of form, content, and purpose that the others, while successful on certain levels, lack.]
I want to consider first of all some of the very good poems in Judith Wright's first two volumes. A few of these stand out in an order of excellence of their own, though surrounded by others of considerable interest.
In The Moving Image (1946) the poem 'Bullocky' has proved most durable in general liking and critical estimation. It is an evocation of the pioneer past of the Hunter River district. In the first stanza the word 'widdershins' catches the mind with its unexpected Tightness:
Beside his heavy-shouldered team,
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SOURCE: "The Crystal Glance of Love: Judith Wright as a Love Poet," in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. VI, No. 1, June, 1971, pp. 42–52.
[Here, Kohli contrasts Wright's work with the more overtly sensual poems of Indian poet Kamala Das. Kohli argues that words and communication have a higher value in Judith Wright's poetic vision of love than they do in the poetry of Das, whose emphasis on passion "makes words irrelevant." The critic also maintains that Wright's work depicts love as a source of contentment and completion.]
Robert Graves describes our age as one of 'lovelessness' and asserts that true poetry comes from 'the state of being in love'. His vision is much more comprehensive and complex than it appears to be for the intensity with which his man-persona does homage to the Woman who is 'the more important partner in this difficult relationship' has a sense of terror and doom in it—perhaps because it grows out of the landscape of war. It is useful to turn to Judith Wright, whose love poetry, besides being a delicate and truthful communication of Woman to Man, is a distinct and fruitful assimilation of the darkness and light of the Australian landscape. 'The writer', says Judith Wright, 'must be at peace with his landscape before he can turn confidently to its human figures'. It is her strength that she writes poetry which has the physical richness of her landscape...
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SOURCE: A review of The Double Tree, in New York Times Book Review, November 26, 1978, pp. 62, 64.
[In this review of Wright's retrospective collection The Double Tree, Pritchard notes an increasing flexibility in Wright's poetic tone, comparing her work to that of D. H. Lawrence and W. B. Yeats.]
Judith Wright is an Australian poet, author of 10 books of verse from which the present selection [The Double Tree] has been made. Assuming that American readers need help with work that comes out of an unfamiliar country, she provides an introduction telling us a bit about Australia, of where she was born and brought up (the New England Country of New South Wales), and of her life during World War II and after, her founding of a society for wildlife conservation, her membership on a government committee of inquiry. It is an odd way to introduce one's poems, and in fact although I am unfamiliar enough with dingoes and wagtails, or with "the whipstick scrub on the Thirty-Mile Dry" (these occur in "Drought Year"), she surely overestimates the remoteness of her experience and materials. Especially since she writes in a forcefully direct manner, has no interest in obliquities or ambiguities of expression and finds English syntax fully adequate to her concerns.
These concerns are no less than typically human ones—observations about nature and human nature, birds and...
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SOURCE: "Judith Wright and the Colonial Experience: A Selective Approach," in The Colonial and the Neo-Colonial Encounters in Commonwealth Literature, edited by H. H. Anniah Gowda, Prasaranga, University of Mysore, 1983, pp. 173–86.
[The following essay was delivered as a seminar in 1981. In this analysis, Janakiram examines and applauds Wright's struggle, in both poems and in life, to create a relationship "to be won by love only" between the European settlers of Australia, the Aborigine population and culture, and the land itself. Jankiram maintains that Wright uses this relationship to achieve a true Australian identity, not as an exile or a conqueror, but as a native at peace in her homeland.]
As Leonie Kramer has noted [in "Judith Wright, Hope, Mcauley," Literary Criterion, Vol. XV, Nos. 3–4, 1980], Judith Wright, A. D. Hope and James Mcauley form a major trinity, who together with R. D. FitzGerald, Douglas Stewart and David Campbell, "virtually wrote the history of Australian poetry" in the period after the world war II. "Their work represents", according to Kramer, "not so much a renaissance in Australian poetry as a first full flowering, which established poetry as a form able to challenge what had hitherto been the dominance of fiction." Whatever poetry is or may be, it has its springs in the human condition and reflects the personal and social aspirations of a particular milieu that...
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SOURCE: "Alive, Fourth Quarter and Phantom Dwelling" in Flame and Shadow: A Study of Judith Wright's Poetry, University of Queensland Press, 1991, pp. 176–205, 210.
[In this excerpt, Walker argues that Wright's collections Fourth Quarter and Phantom Dwelling represent a growth in the poet's already estimable talent and vision. Walker contends that in these books Wright brings a variety of new influences and insights to bear on old themes, answering with clarity questions left open by old poems, and finding peace through reconciliation where once she found conflict.]
The poems of Fourth Quarter represent a break-through into a newer and more vigorous poetic world; an expression of that acceptance which [the poem] "Shadow" anticipated, but which the poems of Alive did not quite achieve. This is one of the most thematically unified of Wright's volumes, for the collection as a whole is a celebration of the feminine principle, of intuition, imagination, love and creativity. The central symbol is the moon in its different phases and various aspects, for the moon controls the ebb and flow of the tide, the mysterious cycles of the feminine, and the "salt blood" of humanity which betrays its marine origin. The sublunary world is the world of physical change and flux, and in these poems Wright reaffirms her earlier commitment to it. Moreover the moon, as muse, inspires...
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Walker, Shirley. Judith Wright. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1981.
Primary and secondary bibliography extensively covering the years 1925 through 1979, and partially covering 1980. Critical material is subdivided into the following categories: books and theses, general articles, lectures and verse; shorter references; brief notes; and specific review.
Smith, Graeme Kinross. "Judith Wright 1915–." In Australia's Writers, pp. 289–96. Melbourne: Thomas Nelson Australia, 1980.
Biographical consideration of Wright's poems and politics.
Bennett, Bruce. "Judith Wright, Moralist." Westerly, No. 1 (March 1976): 76–82.
Examines both Wright's poetry and prose to expose the "unifying principle of love … as the basis of a constructive and life-enhancing moral outlook."
——. "Judith Wright: An Ecological Vision." In International Literature in English: Essays on Major Writers, edited by Robert L. Ross, pp. 205–21. New York: Garland Publishing, 1991.
Traces the recurring themes of conservation and ecological responsibility through the entire body of Wright's...
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