What are the themes explored and the specific stylistic devices used to explore these themes in the poem "South of My Days" by Judith Wright?

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The poem “South of My Days” by Judith Wright starts as a reminiscence about a particular landscape, which the narrator describes as “part of my blood’s country”—that is, their homeland. The first stanza paints a picture of this landscape in winter. The vocabulary leaves no doubt about the harshness of...

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The poem “South of My Days” by Judith Wright starts as a reminiscence about a particular landscape, which the narrator describes as “part of my blood’s country”—that is, their homeland. The first stanza paints a picture of this landscape in winter. The vocabulary leaves no doubt about the harshness of the winter land: it is described as “wincing ... clean, lean, hungry country.” This description acts as a springboard to the other major themes of the poem. The first of these is memory and stories; the second is old age and death.

The second stanza shifts from description of the winter to memory of summer. The language used in this stanza conveys a sense of disbelief—in the face of the harshness of winter, it is hard for the narrator to imagine the return of summer, that it will one day “thrust its hot face ... to tell another yarn.” This is the first explicit mention of storytelling in the poem, and serves as an introduction to Dan, an old man who tells stories against the “black-frost night” of the winter.

After this, the voice of the poem shifts from that of the narrator to that of Dan, caught up in stories of cattle drives and old companions. Wright conveys this shift in tone both with vocabulary and narrative style. Phrases like “nineteen-one it was” and “it was the flies we seen first” are descriptive and informal in a manner befitting an old-timer spinning a yarn to distract from the cold night.

The last stanza returns to the old cottage and the winter, and the voice shifts back to the narrator as they listen to Dan’s stories. The tone again is as bleak and wintery as in the first two stanzas. The old man’s stories are described as “conjurer’s cards” that may not even be true, and as the cold settles further in, the narrator admonishes the old man to “wake” from his story-telling.

It is clear that the mythology of the land is of great importance to the narrator. Just as important, but more subtlety conveyed, is a preoccupation with encroaching death. The poem is set in winter and at night, two settings that are often symbolically attached to death, and the language throughout is unrelenting in its description of the harshness of the season. The stories Dan tells are filled with death, from that of the “yellow boy” attracting flies to the water-starved cattle driven to a dead river, and the musing that it is “cruel to keep them alive.”

The line that most conveys this theme, however, is in the last stanza:

Wake, old man. This is winter, and the yarns are over.

One may understand winter as the end of a life and yarns as the adventures of the past long since left behind. It is the following line that really hammers in this point. Only three words long, it echoes the chill and bleakness of the rest of the poem:

No-one is listening.

Yet even after saying this, the narrator is compelled to acknowledge the stories. The final line of the poem states that the country is “full of old stories that still go walking in my sleep.” While this does not lift the melancholy tone of the poem, it does offer a shred of comfort. After all, telling stories is a way to keep memories from dying. Even though old Dan must surely be gone, his stories remain.

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