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.