Brophy, Kevin: Friday essay: Judith Wright in a new light

Brophy, Kevin

Friday essay: Judith Wright in a new light‘, The Conversation, 28 October 2016

Everyone loves Judith Wright [Brophy begins]. Her poetry was consistently brilliant and stunningly lyrical. She opened Australian eyes in the 1940s to the possibilities of modernism in poetry, she opened our eyes to the engagement poetry can have with philosophical ideas, with history, and with the guilt, racism, pride and violence in that history, she opened our eyes to our landscapes, our flora and fauna.

Brophy’s article is built around a review of Georgina Arnott’s recently published (and myth-testing) The Unknown Judith Wright and discusses a number of aspects of Wright’s life and works. (Another review by Susan Lever in Inside Story.) Arnott tries to ‘understand her [Wright] within her time — as both an extraordinary individual and as someone who (like each of us in turn) carried within her the limitations, prejudices and hopes of her generation and her class’.

Arnott’s book presents confronting aspects of the relations between Wright’s Wyndham forebears and the Indigenous people of the Hunter region. Arnott suggests that Wright’s The Generations of Men was easy on the Wyndhams but, in doing so, she makes the author a more human figure.

There are many gaps in the records of Wright’s early life (up to age 31) and Arnott has tried to fill them, with interesting results. Her overall judgement of Wright seems equivocal but then so does Wright’s own assessment of herself.

In the final poem in the Collected Poems, re-issued in 2016, Wright balances [says Brophy] a double-ness of thought in loose-lined couplets as she meditates on the meaning of darkness and light, survival and destruction, the life-giving light of the sun and that light’s presence in our lives in the form of nuclear missiles, light as a form darkness takes briefly, and the inability of any fact to shine as true and absolute, for whatever is born of fire will soon be possessed by darkness.

Honest History carries reviews (by Diane Bell) of Tom Griffiths’ recent The Art of Time Travel, one of whose subjects was Judith Wright and (by Christina Spittel) of Crucible, the novel by Jack McKinney, Wright’s husband.

The author of this note recalls that his father, born in the same year as Judith Wright, had a much-prized first edition of Wright’s The Moving Image (1946) from which he once read, in his sonorous voice, one of the poems, of which this is the first verse:


Tunnelling through the night, the trains pass

in a splendour of power, with a sound like thunder

shaking the orchards, waking

the young from a dream, scattering like glass

the old men’s sleep; laying

a black trail over the still bloom of the orchards.

The trains go north with guns.

Brophy notes Wright’s development to environmentalist and campaigner for Indigenous Australians. She also spoke to people who lived through World War II. As Brophy says, ‘it is important that we continue to re-read her, re-interpret her work, and re-investigate the life that gave rise to those poems’.

David Stephens


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