Sanctuary – Judith Wright #

Judith Wright was concerned about the environment.  Like Gerard Manly Hopkins,** Binsey Populars, she realised our capacity to destroy our habitat. Many of her poems speak of the natural beauty of Australia and condemn the European exploitive imperialism of natural Australian lands. She also registered her concerns about  white Australia’s apathy towards the treatment of the Aboriginal people.

This poem is set near Tamborine Mountain in the hinterland of Queensland’s Gold Coast.  It plays with the multi-dimensional meanings of the English language.


* The road beneath the giant original trees*

* sweeps on and cannot wait. Varnished by dew,*

* its darkness mimics mirrors and is bright*

* behind the panic eyes the driver sees*

* caught in headlights. Behind the wheels the night*

* takes over: only the road ahead is true.*

* It knows where it is going; we go too.*

* Sanctuary, the sign said Sanctuary -*

* trees, not houses; flat skins pinned to the road*

* of possum and native cat; and here the old tree stood*

* for how many thousand years? that old gnome-tree*

* some axe-new boy cut down. Sanctuary, it said:*

* but only the road has meaning here. It leads*

* into the world’s cities like a long fuse laid.*

* Fuse, nerve strand of a net, tense*

* bearer of messages, snap-tight violin-string,*

* dangerous knife-edge laid across the dark,*

* what has that sign to do with you? The immense*

* tower of antique forest and cliff, the rock*

* where years accumulate like leaves, the tree*

* where transient birds and mindless insect sing?*

* The word the board holds up is Sanctuary*

* and the road knows that the notice-boards make sense,*

* but has not time to pray. Only, up there,*

* morning sets doves upon the power line.*

* Swung on that fatal voltage like a sign*

* and meaning love, perhaps they are a prayer.*


Compare this with GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS- Binsey Poplars

felled 1879

* My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,                  *(softened)

*   Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,               *(trapped by leaves)

*   All felled, felled, are all felled;                                         *(axe blows?)

*     Of a fresh and following folded rank*

*                 Not spared, not one*

*                That dandled a sandalled                                   *(dangled a shadow)

*          Shadow that swam or sank                                (*soft, interlaced)

* On meadow & river & wind-wandering weed-winding bank.*

*        *

* O if we but knew what we do*

*          When we delve or hew —                                        *(dig and chop)

*    Hack and rack the growing green!*

*           Since country is so tender*

* To touch, her being só slender,*

*        That, like this sleek and seeing ball*

*        But a prick will make no eye at all,*

*        Where we, even where we mean*

*                 To mend her we end her,*

*            When we hew or delve:*

* After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.*

*  Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve*

*     Strokes of havoc unselve                                             *(annihilate sense of)

*            The sweet especial scene,                                       *(unique)

*     Rural scene, a rural scene,*

*     Sweet especial rural scene.*

An evocative lament for what is lost by senseless destruction of nature for plunder. 

Hopkin’s use of Sprung rhythm, inscape and internal rhyme attempts to induce empathy with his suffering.  The many repetitions of alliterative sounds emphasises his deep distress.

Due to the curse of Adam and Eve, Joshua 9:23  “none of you be freed from being bondmen, and hewers of wood and drawers of water”.

inscape= a coinage of Hopkins meaning to describe the essence, rather than the appearance of things.