This poem has been a favourite of mine for over forty years. It brings back nights by a roaring fire listening to old relatives out in Wellington NSW telling their young city cousin tales of the old days, as only these country people could: shuffling “the years like a pack of conjuror’s cards.” Thunderbolt (Fred Ward) was a bushranger of the New England area. That’s him on the right.
Wright shows a rare skill in this poem capturing an authentic Australian speaking voice and making poetry out of it in such a way that the more clearly poetic frame of the story both stands out yet also blends in. The voice of old Dan gains resonance from its setting. And that closure: wonderful.
The title: Judith Wright was living in Queensland when she wrote this poem during World War II. First published in Meanjin around about the time I was conceived 😉 it appeared in Wright’s first book, The Moving Image, in 1946. New England* was thus “South of her days” at the time.
South of my Days
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 creek’s leaf-silenced,
willow choked, the slope a tangle of medlar and crabapple
branching over and under, blotched with a green lichen;
and the old cottage lurches in for shelter.
O cold the black-frost night. The walls draw in to the warmth
and the old roof cracks its joints; the slung kettle
hisses a leak on the fire. Hardly to be believed that summer
will turn up again some day in a wave of rambler-roses,
thrust its hot face in here to tell another yarn —
a story old Dan can spin into a blanket against the winter.
Seventy years of stories he clutches round his bones.
Seventy summers are hived in him like old honey.
Droving that year, Charleville to the Hunter,
nineteen-one it was, and the drought beginning;
sixty head left at the McIntyre, the mud round them
hardened like iron; and the yellow boy died
in the sulky ahead with the gear, but the horse went on,
stopped at the Sandy Camp and waited in the evening.
It was the flies we seen first, swarming like bees.
Came to the Hunter, three hundred head of a thousand —
cruel to keep them alive — and the river was dust.
Or mustering up in the Bogongs in the autumn
when the blizzards came early. Brought them down; we brought them
down, what aren’t there yet. Or driving for Cobb’s on the run
up from Tamworth — Thunderbolt at the top of Hungry Hill,
and I give him a wink. I wouldn’t wait long, Fred,
not if I was you. The troopers are just behind,
coming for that job at the Hillgrove. He went like a luny,
him on his big black horse.
Oh, they slide and they vanish
as he shuffles the years like a pack of conjuror’s cards.
True or not, it’s all the same; and the frost on the roof
cracks like a whip, and the back-log breaks into ash.
Wake, old man. This is winter, and the yarns are over.
No-one is listening.
South of my days’ circle
I know it dark against the stars, the high lean country
full of old stories that still go walking in my sleep.
Judith Wright (1946)
NOTE: I have corrected the version I found on the Internet which had quite a few errors.
I believe Judith Wright was one of the major English language poets of the 20th century, in any country. Here is an interpretation of some lines from this poem by lit2007 on YouTube, with music by Peter Sculthorpe, one of Australia’s finest composers.
Here is another example of her work, in a different vein.
Woman to Child
You who were darkness warmed my flesh
where out of darkness rose the seed.
Then all a world I made in me;
all the world you hear and see
hung upon my dreaming blood.
There moved the multitudinous stars,
and coloured birds and fishes moved.
There swam the sliding continents.
All time lay rolled in me, and sense,
and love that knew not its beloved.
O node and focus of the world;
I hold you deep within that well
you shall escape and not escape-
that mirrors still your sleeping shape;
that nurtures still your crescent cell.
I wither and you break from me;
yet though you dance in living light
I am the earth, I am the root,
I am the stem that fed the fruit,
the link that joins you to the night.
* Link to Jim Belshaw’s New England Australia blog, where you will find entries on Judith Wright and other New England writers.
Jim Belshaw has written an excellent post on “South of My Days” today. Don’t miss it!