Study Guide

Judith Wright

Judith Wright Essay - Wright, Judith (Poetry Criticism)

Wright, Judith (Poetry Criticism)

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

Poetry

The Moving Image 1946

Woman to Man 1949

The Gateway 1953

The Two Fires 1955

Birds 1962

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

Henry Lawson (criticism) 1967

Because I Was Invited (essays) 1975

The Coral Battleground (nonfiction) 1977

The Cry for the Dead (fictional biography) 1981

We Call for a Treaty (nonfiction) 1985

Criticism

Philip Lindsay (essay date 1950)

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...

(The entire section is 1277 words.)

R. F. Brissenden (essay date 1953)

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...

(The entire section is 4981 words.)

Robert Ian Scott (essay date 1956)

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...

(The entire section is 2974 words.)

William Fleming (essay date 1958)

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...

(The entire section is 1607 words.)

G. A. Wilkes (essay date 1965)

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...

(The entire section is 2873 words.)

John K. Ewers (essay date 1968)

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...

(The entire section is 6860 words.)

James McAuley (essay date 1968)

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...

(The entire section is 4722 words.)

Devindra Kohli (essay date 1971)

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...

(The entire section is 3798 words.)

William H. Pritchard (essay date 1978)

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...

(The entire section is 820 words.)

Alur Janakiram (essay date 1981)

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...

(The entire section is 3962 words.)

Shirley Walker (essay date 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 6655 words.)