Floating Life 4/06 ~ 11/07

an archive

Friday Australian Poem #5: Judith Wright "For a Pastoral Family"

This poem is in the 1985 collection Phantom Dwelling, in a section labelled “Poems 1979-1980”. My correspondence with Judith Wright, who supported Neos from Issue 1, began in 1981. We exchanged only a few letters, but I really treasured them. Of “For a Pastoral Family” and the later poems, Ted Kennedy, late and famous Redfern turbulent priest, has written:

Tim Bonyhady, an art historian, asserted (Sydney Morning Herald 15/7/00) that Judith Wright’s poetry suffered in her distraction into activism. I found what he said disappointing, in that nowhere does he credit Judith herself with any opinion at all about the debate over the so-called tension between poetry and her impulse to fight social causes. It appears to me a tribute to the accuracy of her own self awareness that she could accept that her capacity to write poetry could not be divorced from her need to express shame and responsibility regarding Aborigines, and for the destruction of the environment. She saw herself as now “grown up”. In her maturity she developed a real concern for Aborigines and what whites had done to their race. She saw her activism as the expression of the one poetic sensibility where the same sensual passion was at work and all the different levels of concern played the same tune. “It’s communication and memorability that make a good poem. It’s got to be memorable enough to keep it with you,” she said.

There is in her early poems a marvellous innocence which soothes but also stuns the mind. So evocative of that high New England tableland where she was born, “South of my days’ circle, part of my blood’s country/ rises that tableland, high delicate outline,! Of bony slopes, wincing under the winter.” (South of My Days). And “Grass is across the wagon tracks/ and plough, strikes bone across the grass/ and vineyards cover all the slopes/ where the dead teams were used to pass.” (Bullocky)…

…In her “For a Pastoral Family” she called to her brothers for their awareness:

Our people who gnawed at the fringe
of the edible leaf of this country
left all the margins of action, a rural security
and left to me
what serves a base for poetry,
a doubtful song that has a dying fall.

The poem is in five parts — “To my Brothers”; “To my Generation”; “For Today”; “Pastoral Lives”; “Change”.  The stanza Ted Kennedy quotes is from Part I. You may find the whole poem in Judith Wright Collected Poems (1994) pp. 406-409. Here is Part II.

II To My Generation

 A certain consensus of echo, a sanctioning sound,
Supported our childhood lives. We stepped
on sure and conceded ground.
A whole society
extended a comforting cover of legality.
The really deplorable deeds
had happened out of our sight, allowing us innocence.
We were not born, or there was silence kept.

If now there are landslides, if our field of reference
Is much eroded, our hands show little blood.
We enter a plea: Not Guilty.
For the good of the Old Country,
the land was taken; the Empire had loyal service.
Would any convict us?
Our plea has been endorsed by every appropriate jury.

If my poetic style, your pastoral produce,
are challenged by shifts in the market
or a change of taste, at least we can go down smiling
with enough left in our pockets
to be noted in literary or local histories.

To cite Ted Kennedy again:

The same tap-root that transmits life to the summer blossom also provides the quiet sap for winter growth. “It takes emotional energy to write a poem”, she said. When the vitality of youth became dim, she stopped writing poetry. But love persevered when passion faded. Hope for the land and for its people brilliantly survives. “A poetic sensibility is one that responds to the world with kindness and hope,” she said.

“Every tree, ” she once said, “has a right to exist.” In one of her last poems she wrote, “I sit here now intent/ on poetry’s ancient vow to celebrate lovelong/ life’s wholeness, spring’s return, the flesh’s tune/ . ..there’s an essential music still, a moon/ where no man’s walked.” She died two weeks after participating in the Reconciliation Walk in Canberra.

Judith Wright is a poet capable of finding an audience in what may seem unlikely places. Take this writer: “I know I shall keep returning to Judith Wright, and can only hope I can form some more of my own ideas before they are presented to me in somebody else’s words.” To clarify:

Being from a country that cannot seem to stop boasting about its ancient legacies and from a family whose own history goes back seventy-five generations, I find it incomprehensible how any self-respecting nation could spend over a century looking outside of itself for a ‘heritage’. So an affinity with one who seemed to have the same disapprobation is natural. The Wrights and the Biggses, forefathers of Judith Wright, were originally British. However, she turned to her heritage that came down from 1827 when George and Margaret Wyndham first landed in Australia, caught in the cameo of her red-haired great-great-grandfather in ‘Old House’ and passing down through her father sitting with his tea, encircled by birds of all hues relating an anecdote in ‘Reminiscence’. She was impatient with those to whom ‘to plant a garden was to root out everything there already and replace it with roses, delphiniums and petunias and fence it with barbed wire and hedges of conifers’ (Wright 1999). Just as any ‘rooted’ person anywhere in the world would do and appreciate done, she set out to translate into action what Veronica Brady calls the ‘sense of noblesse oblige, a sense of duty’ she inherited from her ancestors.

This is a poet who, true to the spirit of paradox, found beauty in seemingly insignificant, even unbecoming, things in pursuit of an identity for her own country — an ‘Australian’ identity as opposed to a Eurocentric or an English one. Hers were the pictures and idiom of ‘Australia’ born of a deep and abiding bond — again something that strikes a chord irrespective of physical distance. She addressed a cultural and natural heritage that Australian ‘types’ breathe life into: a returned soldier, the half-caste girl, the drover and inevitably, Old Dan; the bush (no longer an enemy as it had been in earlier bush poetry), a flame-tree, the tree frog, the Australian spring which ‘is always the red tower of the may-tree, / alive, shaken with bees, smelling of wild honey’ (‘Child’, Wright 1999), the death of a dingo in a trap and cicadas. Besides, in Preoccupations in Australian Poetry she reaffirmed the bloodline of ‘Australian’ poetry with due deference to predecessors Charles Harpur and John Shaw Nielson.

Trivikrama Kumari Jamwal: “Judith Wright in Jammu” (Cordite Poetry Review Tuesday, December 7th, 2004.)

Do explore her work.


This pair of skin gloves is sixty-six years old,
mended in places, worn thin across the knuckles.

Snakes get rid of their covering all at once.
Even those empty cuticles trouble the passer-by.

Counting in seven-year rhythms I’ve lost nine skins
though their gradual flaking isn’t so spectacular.

Holding a book or a pen I can’t help seeing
how age crazes surfaces. Well, and interiors?

You ask me to read those poems I wrote in my thirties?
They dropped off several incarnations back.


Jim Belshaw has added some useful context on Judith Wright’s later work.

6 Responses

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  1. Interesting post, Neil, if also challenging. As you might expect, I am inclined to do a companion post. In this context, searches on Judith Wright are the single biggest group on the New England blog. There is real interest out there, partially year 12 driven.

    The difficulty in these later poems is that we are dealing not just with her activism, but also her disappointments, including at the end of her life the decline of her own family and the loss of the properties that she had loved.

    I am not sure how to handle some of this, given some of the personal links.

    Jim Belshaw

    September 7, 2007 at 10:49 am

  2. Do you have her Collected Poems? The poems I refer to are not on the Internet, and I was hesitant about including more for copyright reasons; I am trusting what I have done is “fair dealing”.

    Another element too is Judith Wright’s long and very close friendship with Oodgeroo (Kath Walker).

    …the poem Two Dreamtimes (1973). This poem was expressly written for Wright’s friend, fellow-writer and fellow-activist, Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker) described as “one of the dark children I wasn’t allowed to play with.” This is a poem about spiritual apartheid in which the life of the imagination and the human spirit is ruined by blind prejudice, dying children, raped women, white guilt and misguided righteousness. The result: “If we are sisters, it’s in this–our grief for a lost country” since “we too have lost our dreaming.” Conqueror and persecuted alike are “raped by rum and an alien law, progress and economics.”

    I find it fascinating that Judith Wright followed a line of thinking about such things as the environment and Aboriginal Australia before such things really became “fashionable”. You could say her poetry led her down that path.

    Like most people, I was more familiar with her earlier work, but as I have grown older myself I have appreciated her late work more and more. She was, as I have said before, a very fine poet.

    We truly have been “dialoguing” today. There was I commenting on your blog just as you were commenting on mine!


    September 7, 2007 at 11:01 am

  3. I don’t have her collected poems here, so I cannot check the full text.

    The environmental line is not surprising. Created largely by her father’s efforts, the New England National Park, part of the New England movements that I talk about, was I think the second national park created in NSW.

    More later, including a response to your comment on PR.

    Jim Belshaw

    September 7, 2007 at 11:14 am

  4. You must go to Dymocks then, Jim. I think you would enjoy browsing her poems.


    September 7, 2007 at 11:18 am

  5. Much later.

    I have a number of her books still, including Five Senses. But now for our dialogue I do need a much more complete set so that I can look properly at the evolution of her writing.

    I am very glad that you are extending the JW thread. Not only do I like her writing, but I can do something helpful with context.

    Jim Belshaw

    September 7, 2007 at 5:08 pm

  6. Neil, I have put a post up on this now.

    Jim Belshaw

    September 8, 2007 at 12:46 pm

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