The Guardian July 5, 2000


Judith Wright

by Joan Williams

Australia lost a great poet and a great Australian when Judith Wright died 
on June 26 of a heart attack, still vigorous at the ripe age of 85. Through 
her poems, steeped in passionate love of her country and its people, she 
became the voice and conscience of the nation.

To the end she refused to give up and continued her public commitment to 
reconciliation with the indigenous people by leading the historic walk 
across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which could be seen as endorsement of her 
efforts over three decades for Aboriginal land rights, a Makarrata 
(treaty), preservation of our indigenous heritage and reconciliation.

"It is sad to lose somebody like Judith Wright, but the spirit doesn't 
die," said her biographer Dr. Veronica Brady in an interview with The 
Guardian. 

"She was born into a pastoral family who expected her to become a grazier's 
wife and just bear children, but she was determined to become a writer. She 
was a woman who simply went her own way. Nobody was going to stop her and 
she did what she wanted to."

"Her poems were not descriptive eulogies of nature or heritage buildings, 
but took sides and put the blame for neglect, ignorance or destruction 
where it belonged," Dr Brady said. In one of her more recent poems At a 
Public Dinner, she wrote: "I am not eating because they are eating my 
country..."

"Her compassion showed even as a child when she saw the Kaiser being 
branded with hate and cried out "Oh save him!" She had a real sense of 
being responsible for other people, and was very troubled by the sight of 
young men tramping around the country seeking work during the Depression. 
She was moved by the suffering of the people in the Spanish Civil War 
against the fascist Franco, having seen for herself what Hitler was doing 
in Germany. 

"She had an unerring feeling for human beings  and was appalled by the 
dropping of the A-bomb on Hiroshima and by what capitalism is doing to the 
earth. Always passionate about social history and its environmental and 
political background, she worked with the Whitlam Government to create the 
National Estate.

"Her poem We Call For a Treaty had touched a chord in the conscience 
of the nation," Dr Brady concluded.

Judith Wright wrote bitterly on past crimes against the First Australians:

"Did we not know their blood channelled our rivers
and the black dust our crops ate was their dust?"

Her passion, anger and joy expressed in her poems, had been taken to the 
hearts of her people. Her feminism was expressed as part of the human 
condition in her portrayal of love, birth and death, and celebration of the 
joy in life.

"The love of the land we have invaded and the guilt of the invasion have 
become part of me," she wrote in the Tasmanian Wilderness Calendar 
in 1981.

Her stand for peace and horror of war became explicit in her famous 
Christmas Ballad.

"... the Musak angels sang above.
A long way off was the napalm war..."

And the reception to a returning Vietnam veteran:

"You wasn't here when the Cup was run
You don't say much. Cat got your tongue?"

Judith Wright wrote perceptively of the development of poetry in Australia 
in her foreword to A Book of Australian Verse in 1968, looking at it 
with awareness of the economic and political forces at work. From the 
unfavourable climate due to the reliance of early poets on the British 
tradition, she saw the stirring of national feeling in a movement that 
culminated in Federation, and a new kind of radicalism expressed in the 
poetry of Lawson and O'Dowd.

She saw the significance of the great increase in technology in the 1940s 
and the swing from country to city. Although the early ballads were 
influenced by the harsh landscape and empathy with the drovers and workers, 
she regretted the lack of any living link with the land itself until 
recently.

Judith Wright is not a romantic, but makes her judgement on changes in the 
economy and lifestyle, the growth of industry and the swing from country to 
city. In her own way she has taken a step further for us in the expression 
of Australian national, spiritual and environment values in her poetry.

Judith Wright is survived by her daughter Meredith McKinney, to whom we 
extend sympathy.

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