Documenting a Life

Judith Wright's Biography: A Delicate Balance between Trespass and Honour / Veronica Brady

What is life? Life itself, as you will realise if you consult a dictionary, is hard enough to define. But what is a life? And why does it matter? For itself (a question of honour)? Or for what one can make of it as a biographer (which may mean trespass)? I am old-fashioned enough to believe that it matters for and in itself. But what precisely is it that I am trying to honour and how do I do that?

To put it very simply, over simply in fact, I am trying to write about someone who is primarily a poet and an activist but it is mainly because she is a poet that I want to honour her. (She probably would not agree, although she might when I spell out what I mean by 'poet', which I will do shortly.) The way I am trying to do this is by capturing the 'flavour' of the life, the 'character', the particular perspective that affects her opening to the world of people, things, ideas and values, and which she brings to bear on them; the uniqueness Hopkins writes about that makes her who she is:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves-goes itself; myself it speaks and spells;
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came. [1]

Essentially Judith Wright's self has been oppositional. She has played a match against the current of the times, against technology and the destruction of the environment, against war and its violations of our common humanity and against the historical amnesia that condemns the past and the original inhabitants of this country to oblivion. You might think, therefore, that she has lived in response to the question Heidegger put, 'What Are Poets For?' It is possible that she and her philosopher husband, Jack McKinney, had read this essay, although they would have been suspicious of Heidegger's Nazi affiliations. The answer Heidegger gave was that in an age he saw as 'destitute' - as Wright and McKinney did also - because 'the gods (that is, the sense of the sheer privilege and panic of mortality) have fled' [2 ], the poets are those who 'stay on the gods' track' [3] not by flights into pious abstraction but by keeping us 'capable of our mortality' [4], reminding us despite the concealments and evasions of our culture of 'the unconcealedness of the nature of pain, death, and love' [5].

These, of course, are the central concerns of Wright's work. They underlie all its other activities, especially, I think, her political activities, the committees, lobbying, public meetings and public statements, defending the environment, opposing war, most especially the horrors of nuclear war, and demanding justice, respect and admiration for Aboriginal people. However, these activities come, I believe, from a sense of reality which is essentially contemplative, an intuition that the really important events are those observable by some 'inner eye' which nevertheless looks onwards as well as inwards. This looking inwards involves an awareness of the tragic nature of existence, of what Rilke - a poet she and Jack admired - called 'unshieldedness' [6], the full privilege and panic of mortality. In this sense, for all her concern with history, her perspective is 'unhistorical', the perspective Jung - another writer they admired - characterised as 'truly contemporary', the point of view of someone

estranged from the mass ... who lives entirely within the bounds of tradition ... [having] come to the very edge of the world, leaving behind all that has been discarded and outgrown, and acknowledging that [she] stands before a void out of which all things may grow. [7]

My problem, of course, is to present this life - to capture what I believe to be its epic and passionate quality - without ignoring or distorting the Australian matter-of-factness out of which it grew, at the same time honouring Wright's gift for love, friendship and the whole range of bodily experience and the passionate honesty which animates her still, even in old age, and is expressed for instance, in the later poem 'Rockpool':

I hang on the rockpool's edge, its wild embroideries:

admire it, pore on it, this, the devouring, the mating,
ridges of coloured tracery, occupants, all the living,

the stretching of toothed claws to food, the breeding
on the ocean's edge. 'Accept it? Gad, madam, you had better.' [8]

How to bring this person, this life, alive? And where do its energies come from? I am no psychologist, and I am not silly enough to try and explain away the mystery. But description can be a beginning of explanation. Similarly explaining more means describing better [9], so I have been trying to find some kind of narrative unity to understand what holds the life together: 'to say what an action is is to say why it is done' [10]. As I see it, one of the keys to a life, at least to this life and to a narrative is imagery. So I have been reflecting on the recurring images which the life, or reflection on the life, throws up.

These images are an expression of attentiveness, the kind Wright herself practices in her own poetry and commends in her essay 'The Writer and the Crisis', in which she quotes the following from poet Francis Ponge:

You have but to fix your attention on the first object to hand; you will see immediately that no-one has ever examined it, and that the most elementary things about it remain to be said ... I propose ... the opening of trap-doors in [the] inner self [ ... ] an invasion of qualities ... Thus the best path to take is to consider all things as unknown...and begin again from the beginning. [11]

Truth in biography - and even more in autobiography on which I rely a good deal - is not synonymous with mere fact. Rather, as Nietzsche realised, it has to do with

a movable host of metaphors, metonyms and anthropomorphisms ... a sum of human [and I would add, cosmic, taking into account the importance, for Wright, of Jung's thinking and indeed of her country childhood in which the land seems in some sense to have replaced her invalid mother fading away in the cold dark house; Euridyce, if you like, while the child became Peresphone] relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred and embellished. [12 ]

These metaphors, metonyms and anthropomorphisms, then, take us back to these origins. According to Kant there are two kinds of beginnings: one is the beginning of the world and the other is a beginning in the midst of the world [13]. Wright's is of the second kind. She was born into a pastoral family whose roots in this country go back to the 1830s when they were granted large tracks of land in the Hunter Valley, and before that in England they go back through a long line of country gentry on one side and Scots Rebels on the other. As she put it in 'For a Pastoral Family':

A certain consensus of echo, a sanctioning sound,
supported our childhood lives. We stepped
on sure and conceded ground. [14]

There was the land, too, 'part of my blood's country', the New England tableland,

... high delicate outline
of bony slopes wincing under the winter,
low trees blue-leaved and olive, outcropping granite -
clean, lean, hungry country. [15]

All of this, then, was the script already written for her. However, the crucial thing about her life is that she has insisted on rewriting it on her own terms. From her ancestors - and she has written a great deal about them - she has drawn her sense of social obligation and her feeling for the land and its Aboriginal inhabitants. She alas also learned from them a sense of noblesse oblige, a sense of duty which makes her profoundly suspicious and often contemptuous of the merely mercenary motives of so many of the early settlers, to say nothing of politicians and business leaders today. It is also worth noting that her father had an Aboriginal nurse and that she learned from him many Aboriginal stories of the land, and she also sensed in him a profound uneasiness about their fate.

Her beginnings were here in this world of the family and in New England. However, as she retells her life in her autobiography - and, as Kierkegaard says, we live our lives forwards but understand them backwards - from the beginning she was determined to be her own person. So it is a life which has always been dialectical not monological; multiple, polyphonic even, not unitary; argumentative but also ambiguous. The key moment of this argument is, I think, the one which opens the autobiography. It is a moment of what Ricoeur calls 'attestation', one in which one says 'me voici', 'it's me here' [16]. Perhaps three years old, she had wandered away bored from a family gathering to climb the woodheap - something she had been forbidden to do. Halfway up, however, a long splinter pierced her hand and blood spurted everywhere, over her socks and the best white dress in which her mother had dressed her. She recalls this moment, intensely in 'The Marks' a poem written nearly 60 years later.

The world went scarlet with shock
and shook with appalling noise
like the yell of a branded calf. [17]

The shock was her realisation of her vulnerability, and the response, as she put it in her autobiography: 'I has hurt myself' [18].

It is a moment of pure self-consciousness, but conscious of herself as embodied, vulnerable, the consciousness Descartes' 'cogito' ignores. Implicitly she realises that, as one philosopher puts it, 'possessing bodies is precisely what persons do indeed do, or rather what they actually are' [19], and that these bodies are vulnerable as well as powerful - a central intuition of her life and work, of course. It is this fragility and this possibility, however, that give her her claim on life, giving it weight and gravity. Ever after she refuses, despite everything, to dissolve into 'the intolerable lightness of being', the flight into abstraction which is the great threat of our times, insisting on her relations with her own body, the bodies of others and with history.

In retrospect, she reasserts this responsibility, prepared to be who she is, to stand on the ground of a self that is vulnerable and vulnerable precisely because it insists on being itself:

It was the sudden knowledge of my separateness from everything else that was making me howl so loud. I had been enclosed in what I might now describe as a space-time continuum which included myself: now I was alone, in pain and trapped in a single limited person. There I would have to stay until I was old and died - as old as my grandmother. [20]

She has stayed, of course, and continues to stay despite everything: bereavement, disillusionments, misunderstandings, long and exhausting battles for causes which never seem to be concluded, much less won, and the loneliness of growing old. She has lived her own life, never the one others posited for her, and she kept her own way of 'looking aslant on the world', to borrow a phrase from Emily Dickinson.

As an adolescent her favourite book was Miles Franklin's My Brilliant Career: like Sybylla in that book she saw writing as her way out into the larger world, and followed it, having decided so early on who she was and who she would be. But where does the concern for others, and the sense of social responsibility which have also been essential, come from? How is it that she has avoided the drift towards private and non-public reference to which such precocious self-designation so often leads? [21]

That is one of the many questions I am unable to answer. Family influence, the sense of noblesse oblige inherited from them, may have something to do with it. Her father, for example, had a long and distinguished public career, president of the Hereford Society of Australia for over a decade, prominent member of the New State movement in New England and of the campaign to establish the University of New England of which he was the second Chancellor. However, I believe that this sense of responsibility, of solicitude, if you like, for other human beings, for the rest of creation, was also a matter of personal realisation and choice. This realisation goes back, I think, to the second image in her autobiography, the second of what Jung calls the 'islands of consciousness' of early childhood. This one, however, is associated with a public event, with the end of World War I and possibly also with Guy Fawkes Day.

Born on 31 May 1915 only a few weeks after the landing at Gallipoli she had 'absorbed the idea of war from [her] beginnings ... it haunted my early childhood' [22] and now it had come to an end. Her mother's two brothers were in the Air Force; one was taken prisoner by the Turks and the other served in France. Her father, unable to enlist since he was responsible for managing all the family properties, had nevertheless campaigned vigorously for the 'Yes' vote in the conscription referendum and he went to Sydney to work as a volunteer to keep the war effort going during the 1917 strike. To them, as to most Australians of their class then, the Imperial connection, loyalty to all that was English and hostility to all the King's enemies, was an article of faith [23]. But somehow, even as a child of four, Judith seems to have had a different view, some 'very queer and special sort of seeing eye' [24] which was peculiarly her own, of 'looking aslant on the world'.

In this scene, however, the central image is not blood but fire - another of the recurrent images of her work and life. Since 1945, for instance, she has been haunted by the fires of Hiroshima and before that by the bushfires which ravaged so much of Australia in the late 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s. And the creative fires of love also burn through her life:

This world [as the epigraph (from Herakleitos) to the 1955 collection, The Two Fires put it], which is the same for all, no one of gods or men has made; but it was ever, is now, and ever shall be an ever-living Fire, with measures of it kindling, and measures going out. [25]

At this stage, however, the fires are less exalted and there is more of the clown than of Shiva in the figure she sees in the midst of them. Nevertheless it is an experience even more urgent than the earlier moment because it is transpersonal, an initiation into the mystery of relationship as responsibility, of ethics as the first philosophy (to use a phrase of Levinas).

A great vivid wall of flame springs up into a darkness of shifting shadows and wincing leaves, sending out flights of sparks and volumes of rolling smoke. Over it wobbles, with a terrible moustached grin, a white giant. Fire licks his bulging stomach, eats into his glowing slowly spitting guts of straw, springs up to balance on his shoulders. Surely someone will save him?

I bury my face in something, perhaps my mother's skirts, crying for the poor ugly old giant now bowing, grinning still, into the flames. But everyone around is laughing and talking, and nobody makes a move to rescue him. It's only the old Kaiser, they say, we're burning the Kaiser because it's the end of the war, and your uncles can come home. [26]

She is moving away from the commonsense of our culture even further here. This is a moment of extreme exposure, at point blank range, to the mortality glimpsed earlier, but here it is the mortality of others as well as her own. It also offers an insight into the nature of the power on which the position of her family, indeed our whole settler society, rests. Here, I think, is the source, on the one hand, of her hatred of war and totalitarianism - she travelled through Germany and through Austria into Hungary in 1937 - and, on the other hand, of her profound sense of obligation to Aboriginal Australians. The figure the others are triumphing over as the defeated enemy summons her to compassion. His suffering is her business and becomes in a sense her fate also.

Whether or not it happened quite like this in reality, in retrospect Wright understands here that, as Levinas puts it,

[her] being-in-the-world or [her] 'place in the sun', [her] being at home, have ... also seen the usurpation of spaces belonging to the Other ... whom I have already oppressed or starved or driven out into a third world. [27]

This is an insight which is not only deeply subversive but also dangerous in a personal as well as public sense to anyone born into any kind of privilege. Here, too, we are close to another source of her life and her art, to her readiness to put herself at risk for others. The great relationship of her life, with Jack McKinney, represented for instance, in its beginnings especially, a relationship which was profoundly daring and even dangerous - he was a man, who for all his wit and charm, stood on the edge of things socially, physically as well as intellectually, and in living with him she defied the properties and conventions in which she was brought up.

There is no space here to explore this relationship or, indeed, any more of her life or work. What I have been trying to reflect on is the quality, the flavour, if you like, of the person herself by looking at two incidents from childhood, suggesting that these represent a key to understanding the life, being primary moments of initiation into the person she was to become - or perhaps was already? (This is certainly not the place to explore such quasi-theological questions.)

Implicitly my assumption is, to revert to an earlier point, that for Wright the truth of existence does not consist in reflection on commitment to it, but is to be found in the commitment itself: for her humanity and nature also are not and never have been something general, but are individual and singular. They demand personal response and commitment. That, I believe, is why her life has been so deeply involved with the pain of the world and of people but also why few have written so powerfully as she has done about the intensities and splendours of love, child-bearing and relationships with others and the living world around us. That, I suspect, is also one of the reasons why she has had such affinity for Aboriginal people and their culture - Oodgeroo Noonuccal, she says, was perhaps her dearest friend.

It is a life, then, whose centre of gravity is not bound up with external events or even with genealogy - despite the attention she pays to it in her books about the family - but lies elsewhere in some sense of the larger movements of life beyond history, although not abstractly either, rather essentially bodily and earthly. How to render this and also to find readers who will be sympathetic to this attempt is, of course, the question: metaphysics and mystery are distinctly unfashionable words today unless you want to swim in the lukewarm sentimental waters of New Age spirituality - which I do not. Nonetheless I am convinced that this is a life which is profoundly attractive, ceremonious and ceremonial, and of profound significance for and to all of us; a matter of events of the soul, events which, to quote Levinas again, 'resemble mystery rather than spectacle, and whose meaning remains hidden to whoever refuses to enter into the dance'. [28]


1. Gerard Manley Hopkins, Poems. London: Oxford University Press, 1948, p. 95.

2. Martin Heidegger, Poetry and Thought. London: Harpur Colpha Books, 1975, p. 91.

3. ibid, p. 94

4. ibid, p. 96

5. ibid, p. 97

6. ibid, p. 99

7. Judith Wright, Collected Poems 1942-1985. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1994, p. 419.

8. Judith Wright, A Human Pattern: Selected Poems. Watsons Bay, NSW: Imprint, 1996, p. 235.

9. Paul Ricoeur, Oneself As Another. London: Chicago University Press, 1992, p. 63.

10. ibid

11. Judith Wright, Because I Was Invited. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1975, p. 173.

12. Ricoeur, p. 21.

13. ibid, p. 105.

14. Judith Wright, Collected Poems 1942-1985. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1994, p. 407.

15. 'South of My Days', Collected Poems 1942-1985, p. 20.

16. Ricoeur, p. 21.

17. 'The Marks', Collected Poems 1942-1985, p. 373.

18. Unpublished manuscript, p. 1.

19. Ricoeur, p. 33.

20. Manuscript, p. 1.

21. Ricoeur, p. 32.

22. Manuscript, p. 21.

23. The National Library of Australia exhibition (1996-97) For King and Country was about why Australian volunteers flocked to the battlefields of World War I, and about persuasion. The exhibition featured Australian propaganda for the World War I recruitment campaigns which dominated the lives of Australians between 1914-18. A teachers' kit based on the exhibition and the National Library's collections of World War I materials is available while supplies last. To request a free copy email

24. Elizabeth Anscombe, quoted in Ricoeur, p. 73.

25. Judith Wright, Collected Poems 1942-1985, p. 118.

26. Manuscript, p. 2.

27. Sean Hand (ed.) The Levinas Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993, p. 82.

28. ibid, p. 67.

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