South of My Days

The first poem I will look at of Judith Wright’s is South of My Days, maybe because I see it as a part of her identity, born and brought up in Armidale.  To anyone who knows this region, even slightly, she invokes it in her poetry.  This is from Wright’s first anthology, published in 1946, in which she followed in the footstep of the pioneering bush poets.

Later, her biographer Veronica Brady quoted this poem, so much a part of her identity, calling her book South of My Days.  She talks all about her ancestors to the district, much as Wright did herself in her history book The Generations of Men.  Her Scottish ancestor originally changed his name to Wright from MacGregor, then fled to France in 1745, after that clan was outlawed {Brady 61}.

 

 

South of my days’ circle, part of my blood’s country,

rises that tableland,

Judith Wright is talking about her background here, as an Armidale girl.  Her birthplace is part of New England, which she refers to here, This is where her pioneer ancestors settled, where she spent her childhood.  No wonder she calls it her “blood’s country”.

 

. . .high delicate outline

of bony slopes wincing under the winter,

low trees, blue-leaved and olive, outcropping granite-

clean, lean, hungry country.

More poetic descriptions of Armidale.

 

. . .The creek’s leaf-silenced,

willow choked, the slope a tangle of medlar and crabapple

branching over and under, blotched with a green lichen;

and the old cottage lurches in for shelter.

She ends the first verse of the poem with a personification of the cottage, taking shelter,  Perhaps this refers to Wallamumbi, the home she grew up in which was cold and dark, because it was built facing south {Brady 22}.

 

O cold the black-frost night.

Now aint that the truth!  The first thing you notice in Armidale is the freezing air, particularly at night, but like a lot of mountain places, it is a pure cold.  Interesting that even someone who grew up in the area notices this.

. . .The walls draw in to the warmth

and the old roof cracks its joints; the slung kettle

More personifications, as if the walls and the roof were human to do such things.

 

hisses a leak on the fire. Hardly to be believed that summer will turn up again some day in a wave of rambler-roses,

thrust its hot face in here to tell another yarn-

There lines remind me a little of Shakespeare’s famous “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York”.   In cold weather we know that summer will return, but find it hard to believe, as she says in a way that you can almost smell those roses.  Wright then personifies the summer, suggesting it has a hot face.

 

a story old Dan can spin into a blanket against the winter.

Comparing Dan’s stories to spinning yarn, ie wool, which can be made into a warm blanket against the winter.

Seventy years of stories he clutches round his bones.

Seventy years are hived in him like old honey.

Perhaps everyone knows someone like old Dan.  The elderly certainly have their stories to tell, so you hope that someone will listen, will put it in a recording device for the future.

 

Droving that year, Charleville to the Hunter,

nineteen-one it was, and the drought beginning;

sixty head left at the McIntyre, the mud round them

hardened like iron; and the yellow boy died

in the sulky ahead with the gear, but the horse went on,

stopped at Sandy Camp and waited in the evening.

It was the flies we seen first, swarming like bees.

Came to the Hunter, three hundred head of a thousand-

cruel to keep them alive – and the river was dust.

 

Or mustering up in the Bogongs in the autumn

when the blizzards came early. Brought them down; we

brought them down, what aren’t there yet.   Or driving for Cobb’s on the run

up from Tamworth-Thunderbolt at the top of Hungry Hill,

and I give him a wink. I wouldn’t wait long, Fred,

not if I was you. The troopers are just behind,

coming for that job at the Hillgrove. He went like a luny, him on his big black horse.

Captain Thunderbolt’s name was Frederick Ward (1835-1870), but the meeting here can certainly be questioned.

 

Oh, they slide and they vanish

as he shuffles the years like a pack of conjuror’s cards.

Imagine living in those days, when entertainment didn’t mean the modern obsession with staring at screens, great and small.  They didn’t even have radios, which were common when she wrote this in the Forties.

In those days, the only entertainment you had out in the bush was old Dan, or some bush storyteller like him.

 

True or not, it’s all the same; and the frost on the roof

cracks like a whip, and the back-log break into ash.

Wake, old man. This is winter, and the yarns are over.

No-one is listening

Perhaps she is a bit harsh with old Dan, inconsiderate, when she was only a young poet.  She probably didn’t realize then that she would grow old too.  I wonder what Wright thought of these lines, when 85 years were hived in her like old honey?

 

South of my days’ circle

I know it dark against the stars, the high lean country

full of old stories that still go walking in my sleep.

The ending here show just how much Armidale and the New England region meant to her.  This is one of the poems in her first book The Moving Image (1946) and another with similar themes is For New England.

In some of her other poems in her first anthology, it seems that Judith Wright followed in the trails blazed by the bush poets, in the previous century.  These poems include South of My Days, then also Remittance Man and Bullocky.  These verses take you back to those Colonial times, a place that only exists in our collective imaginations now.

Something which was different, blazing her own trail, was Wright’s concern for the indigenous people.  This is shown in Bora Ring and also, surprisingly in her poem Niggers Leap, New England, which despite the title, shows compassion towards the victims of the alleged atrocity there.  This would become more evident in the future, along with her environmental activism.

So while we can call Judith Wright a bush girl, who became a 20th Century version of the bush poets, she was so much more than that.  Her philosophies show in her poetry, the more that you study it, which can be a fantastic journey.

 

 

WORKS CITED

Brady, Veronica.  South of My Days: A Biography of Judith Wright.  Angus & Robertson, 1998.

Wright, Judith.  Collected Poems.  Fourth Estate, 2016.

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One thought on “South of My Days

  1. Fantastic analysis of the poem Linda. Captain Thunderbolt was known to ride in areas south of Armidale, from Bendemeer in the south then up “Hungry Hill” over that last ridge is Uralla. I love the harshness of the landscape there. When things are dry the grass does not turn golden like other places but grey. The lakes and dams hold the dark mahogany colour from the tannin of surrounding trees. It’s hot in the Sun, but oh so pleasantly cool in the shade of big gums.
    Thanks for the memories.

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