Judith Wright has long been recognized as an outstanding modern Australian poet; she can also be claimed as the leading woman of letters of her time. Her work as an essayist is a major contribution to the understanding of Australian culture.
Wright’s first full-length collection, Preoccupations in Australian Poetry (1965), is devoted to the main figures in Australian poetry from colonial times to the 1950s, with most attention focused on Charles Harpur, Henry Kendall, Adam Lindsay Gordon, Barcroft Boake, Christopher Brennan, Hugh McCrae, John Shaw Neilson, Kenneth Slessor, R.D. FitzGerald, James McAuley, and A.D.Hope. There had been fcarlier survey histories and articles on Australian poetry, but no poet before Wright had turned to the Australian theme with such intense commitment. She was the first modern poet to write with passionate engagement about the colonial poets; she stimulated a whole new generation to look in depth at the work of Harpur and Neilson and to reread and write Australia afresh.
Preoccupations sprang out of her acute consciousness of what she called “Australia’s double aspect.” In these essays she was moved to explore ways in which “a society of transplanted Europeans in a new country started to make their separate contribution in the world.” She examines the ways in which Australian poets coped with the problems facing them in their time and place, in relation to both their own country and its emergence into nationhood, and the main stream of Western thought and writing. She shows, for instance, how Charles Harpur was influenced by Wordsworth, what Kendall owed to Harpur, and the growth and meaning of the bush in Australian writing. Her opinions are subtle, forceful, and pointed: “Kendall…is not the ‘first Australian poet’…but the poet of his own desperate struggle and final self mastery”; O’Dowd “gives no hint of possessing a pair of eyes.” She notes in McCrae “an inability to grow beyond his own youth”; and of poets before Brennan, “their Australianism was inescapable, a straitjacket.” Each essay is full of sharp particular judgments and probing insights.
Wright explores two impulses in early Australian writing and experience. One sees Australia as a place of exile, remote from the old world and the source countries from which Australians have come; the other sees it as a land of opportunity for the development of a radically new kind of society. No other book on Australian poetry has covered so much so fully in so concentrated a space. Wright believes that “the true function of art and culture is to interpret us to ourselves, and to relate us to the country and the society in which we live.” Since Preoccupations was published, much more scholarly work has appeared on all the poets dealt with, and a whole new generation of poets of the quality and variety of Les Murray, Geoffrey Lehmann, and Kevin Hart has emerged, but it is not the kind of book that can be superseded.
As a leading poet and intellectual, Wright was frequently asked to lecture, and in 1975 she collected her addresses and speeches in Because I Was Invited. She returns again and again to the poets who have most engaged her—Harpur, Brennan, and Neilson—but ranges widely from Australian poetry after Pearl Harbor to the voices of Aboriginal poets. There are also essays on the teaching of poetry in which Wright criticizes universities and schools for their failure or inability to introduce students to the pleasures of the poetic text.
Wright believes the poet should be concerned with national and social problems. Her urgent commitment to questions of ecology and conservation and the questions of Aboriginal Australia and the need for a land treaty have been the focus of her most recent concerns. New ways of reading the past and a fuller understanding of Aboriginal Australia are important aspects of present-day culture: Judith Wright’s essays have been at the forefront of its development.
Judith Arundell Wright. Born 31 May 1915 in Armidale, New South Wales. Studied at Sydney University, from 1934. Traveled in Britain and Europe, 1937–38. Secretary and clerk, 1938–44; university statistician, University of Queensland, St. Lucia, 1944–48.
Married J.P.McKinney (died, 1966): one daughter. Commonwealth Literary Fund Lecturer, Australia, 1949 and 1962; Honors Tutor in English, University of Queensland, 1967. Began fight to conserve the Great Barrier Reef, 1967, and continued conservation campaign work. Member, Australia Council, 1973–74.
Awards: several fellowships;
Grace Leven Prize, 1950, 1972; Australia-Britannica Award, 1964; Robert Frost Memorial Award, 1977; Australian World Prize, 1984; Queen’s Medal for Poetry, 1992;
honorary degrees from seven universities.
Essays and Related Prose
Charles Harpur, 1963
Preoccupations in Australian Poetry, 1965
Henry Lawson, 1967
Because I Was Invited, 1975
The Coral Battleground, 1977
The Cry for the Dead, 1981
We Call for a Treaty, 1985
Born of the Conquerors: Selected Essays, 1991
Going on Talking, 1992
Other writings: many collections of poetry, a collection of short stories, and books for children.
Walker, Shirley, Judith Wright, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1981
Strauss, Jennifer, Judith Wright, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1995
Thomson, A.K., editor, Critical Essays on Judith Wright, Brisbane: Jacaranda, 1968
Walker, Shirley, Flame and Shadow: A Study of Judith Wright’s Poetry, St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1991
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