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 outlineThis 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.
of bony slopes wincing under the winter,
low trees, blue leaved and olive, outcropping granite -
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,There is a contrast built into these lines between the Australian "low trees, blue leaved and olive "and the very European willow and crabapple.
willow choked, the slope a medlar and crabapple
branching over and under, blotched with green lichen;
and the old cottage lurches in for shelter.
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 warmthIn 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.
and the old roof cracks its joints: the sling kettle
hisses a leak on the fire ...
Judith grew up in a village world.
South of my days' circleAs they do for me too.
I know it dark against the stars, the high lean country
full of dark stories that still go walking in my sleep.