Saturday, September 01, 2007

The Poetry of Judith Wright - South of My Days

Photo: Here, in the misty rain, Cooney Creek rises out of its bed and passes behind the old cottage. Gordon Smith. Cooney Creek crosses Waterfall Way, the main road linking Armidale to the coast, just to the east of the city.

In his Friday Australian poetry series, Neil (Ninglun) featured Judith Wright's South of My Days. This is a magnificent poem that, like all good poetry, stands alone independent of context.

While the poem does stand alone, the language and content of the poem are also deeply imbued by the world in which Judith grew up. I know and love this world, so I thought that I might continue my irregular series on the poetry of Judith Wright by placing this poem and its language in a context.

I am not going to repeat the poem in full. If you are interested, I suggest that you read Neil's post first, perhaps printing the poem off. At the end of the post I have added links to some of the other posts I have written on the Wrights
The Wrights and the associated Wyndhams are one of the great New England pastoral dynasties whose story encompasses the rise and later fall of New England itself.

The story begins in the Hunter Valley in 183o when George and Margaret Wyndham purchased "Annandale", renaming the property "Dalwood" and building Dalwood House as a home. From there the family spread, acquiring a chain of properties along the eastern edge of the New England Tablelands and then stretching up into Queensland. Judith's own book, Generations of Men, captures the early history of the family.

Wallamumbi, the home property for Judith's branch of the family, lies on Waterfall Way to the east of Armidale just before that road plunges into the rough country of New England's Snowy Mountains. Look north, and the rolling green hills are all Wallamumbi.

The poem begins: "South of my day's circle, part of my blood's country,".

As Neil notes, Judith was then living to the north in Queensland. The spare elegance of these words captures location and love of country. Blood can be read in two ways, both her blood and that of her family. The poem goes on:

rises that tableland, high delicate outline
of bony slopes wincing under the winter,
low trees, blue leaved and olive, outcropping granite -
This is high country. Coastal hugging Australians know the eastern escarpment mainly as a distant blue range seen from a car window. Some venture as far as the national parks along the rim, the Barrington Tops, Oxley Wild Rivers, Dorrigo, New England. Far too few venture further in.

High country means cold. The "black-frost night" is a term Judith uses a little later in the poem. Snow is not uncommon, frost very common. The worst frosts, the black frosts, crisp the ground itself. This can actually crunch under your feet as you walk.

Much of the New England Tablelands is also granite country, especially in the west.

Granite takes many forms. The water-streaked dome of Bald Rock is the largest single granite rock in Australia. It's 750 metres long, 500 metres wide and 200 metres high. Sometimes you have several major boulders together such as Thunderbolt's Rock south of Uralla where Captain Thunderbolt used to watch for the gold coaches. Sometimes the granite forms flattish sheets.

Granite makes for poor soils. Trees are low, smaller, struggling. This can be, as Judith says, "clean, lean, hungry country." Hungry country carries two linked meanings: country that has to be fed if it is to be productive; but it also means country that can suck the spirit, the life, from the settler.

The poem goes on:
clean, lean, hungry country. The creek's leaf-silenced,
willow choked, the slope a medlar and crabapple
branching over and under, blotched with green lichen;
and the old cottage lurches in for shelter.
There is a contrast built into these lines between the Australian "low trees, blue leaved and olive "and the very European willow and crabapple.

The early European settlers planted to remind them of home. With time, these plantings (run wild) became part of the landscape. Here, as in Judith's poem The Hawthorn Hedge, the plantings form a sometimes complicated link between past and present.

The old cottage" lurches in for shelter" continues the theme of "wincing under winter." This continues in the next verse:
O cold the black frost night. The walls draw in to the warmth
and the old roof cracks its joints: the sling kettle
hisses a leak on the fire ...
In the early period, cooking was done over an open fire. There was often a bar over the fire on which hung kettles, pots and pans. To avoid the problem of fire, kitchens were often separated from the main house by a covered walk-way.

In all places, the kitchen became the place to gather for warmth. At home in Armidale, my girl friends used to stand with their backs to the fuel stove, hitching their skirts up to capture the warmth.

The poem now changes direction with the introduction of old Dan with his "seventy years of stories". Now we come to something that is different from the modern metro atomistic society.

Judith grew up in a village world.

Tablelands' society was far more stratified than today. Yet properties then employed far more people, so Judith would have known and listened to the older hands. In my case, I remember old Mr Wallace who did the weekly gardening at our place and used to tell me stories about the clearing of the tall trees on the Dorrigo plateau.

In Judith's case, the stories would have resonated because of her own family past. So when Dan spoke of droving cattle from Charleville to the Hunter - "nineteen one it was, and the drought beginning" -she would have remembered stories from her own family experience.

In all this, Judith captures an idiom that is still familiar to Australians today despite all the changes. describing Thunderbolt: "He went like a luny, him on his big black horse."

The poem finishes. To quote Neil: And that closure: wonderful.
South of my days' circle
I know it dark against the stars, the high lean country
full of dark stories that still go walking in my sleep.
As they do for me too.

Entry Page for Posts about Judith Wright's poetry.

Linked stories:


ninglun said...

What a brilliant supplement to my post. Thanks, Jim.

Jim Belshaw said...

Tis my pleasure, Neil. Who knows,we may get some more readers. Your you tube video, by the way, comes from a year 12 literature students. I suspect that there is something there that you could use in our continuing discussions!

Henry Lawson said...

Hadnt known Judith Wright's poetry until now. Really like South of My Days. It stirs up all sorts of visualisations and feelings. Thanks for the information.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jim Belshaw said...

I removed a comment by accident! Blow.

Anonymous said...

I'm in year 12 and studying this poem. Your insight has been most helpful.

Jim Belshaw said...

Sorry for the totally slow response and thanks Anon. I'm glad that it was helpful.

Peter D. Tillman said...

Thanks for the photo, and comments. The Texas novelist Larry McMurtry used an excerpt from the poem as the collophon to his second novel, "Leaving Cheyenne", and the photo looks a fair bit like an old north Texas farm in the winter rains. And the poem itself could be about the American Southwest, my home country. I'll have to read more of her stuff.

The Australian frontier experience wasn't too different from ours - I grew up in Oklahoma, in a part that was opened to white settlers in the late 19th century. Plus, you guys wear cowboy hats, and drive pickup trucks too -- OK, utes. Even if you drive on the wrong side of the road ;-)