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The Surfer by Judith Wright

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Kate G

on 12 March 2014

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Transcript of The Surfer by Judith Wright

The Surfer
He thrust his joy against the weight of the sea;
climbed through, slid under those long banks of foam-
(hawthorn hedges in spring, thorns in the face stinging).
How his brown strength drove through the hollow and coil
of green-through weirs of water!
Muscle of arm thrust down long muscle of water;
and swimming so, went out of sight
where mortal, masterful, frail, the gulls went wheeling
in air as he in water, with delight.


What key/overarching concerns or devices should we be looking out for?
- The use of an Australian stereotype
The Surfer by Judith Wright
Before we read...
Here is some background information on the author Judith Wright:
- She lived in Queensland
- She was an environmentalist, most distressed by the way white Australians had ruined the Australian landscape
- Spent a lot of her life campaigning for the conservation of the Great Barrier Reef
We are now going to go through an in depth analysis line by line...
Turn home, the sun goes down; swimmer, turn home.
Last leaf of gold vanishes from the sea-curve.
Take the big roller’s shoulder, speed and serve;
come to the long beach home like a gull diving.

For on the sand the grey-wolf sea lies, snarling,
cold twilight wind splits the waves’ hair and shows
the bones they worry in their wolf-teeth. O, wind blows
and sea crouches on sand, fawning and mouthing;
drops there and snatches again, drops and again snatches
its broken toys, its whitened pebbles and shells.
But first!
- The change in tone and style of the poem as it progresses - reflected in both the sea and the surfer
- Interconnection of all nature: water, land, and humanity
- Personification/simile/zoomorphism - imagery and relationships
- Freedom in the sea, trust of the sea, healing power of the sea
- Consider potential greater meaning/significance to the poem
Let's get started!
Hopefully you now have a much deeper understanding of Wright's "The Surfer". So let's take a look back...
Judith Wright is from Queensland, so her interpretation of the Australian stereotype plays to the Gold Coast stereotype: tanned, muscular surfers. Most importantly it reflects an overarching stereotype of Australia that we don't have a lot of regard for consequences. We are careless, happy and (sometimes) drunk. We are not a seriously risk-calculating society. She utilizes this stereotype without making it offensive or cartoonish. By doing so she may be critiquing our carefree happiness, potentially commenting that this recklessness can be dangerous. It also means we are perhaps unable to deal with more serious issues. Another reason Wright may have used the stereotype is that it makes the poem more relatable to Australians, the imagery and warning is one that is both familiar and relevant to our lives.
The tone of the poem is the most obvious change from stanza to stanza, the poem begins in a light hearted manner before becoming dark and dangerous. The style of the poem also begins to change. The first stanza is fairly literal, using descriptive imagery to present the movement of the surfer. Although personification and simile are used, the diction mostly relates directly to the sea or the surfer (ie muscles, gulls) and any imagery of a stereotypical summer beach day. In the the third stanza, the imagery is much more symbolic and metaphorical. The sea is likened to a wolf which is not a creature of the sea, but rather the stuff of childhood nightmares. The poem finally returns and links back to the literal descriptions of the first stanza by finishing with "whitened pebbles and shells". Not only do the poetic devices change throughout the poem, but the description of the surfer and the sea do as well. The surfer slowly loses the grace and skill of his sport and is degraded to a desperate swimmer. The sea slowly loses its healing quality and is reduced to a ravenous beast. The whole poem also literally shifts its focus from the surfer in the first stanza to the sea in the second stanza. This could be reinforcing the change of hierarchy as the day turns from night to day.
Wright seems to reinforce the idea of connection between sea and land through her use of simile. Multiple times she likens the sea to nonaquatic plants, (hawthorn hedge, leaves). The sea is likewise given human qualities that make man and water indistinguishable at some points of the poem (muscle of arm, muscle of water). The surfer is also connected to the land because it is described as his "home" his place of safety, although this is a questionable interpretation by Wright's persona. By doing this Wright sends a message to the reader that the universe is all connected, and that in the hierarchy of the universe, humanity is at nature's mercy. This is particularly relevant given her political stance.
Wright utilizes personification and simile not only for imagery but also to reinforce the aforementioned topic of trust and freedom. On a basic level, it is a descriptive poetic feature that allows the reader to picture the ocean's change more effectively. But more than this, it can highlight and allow the reader to understand the relationships between man and water and it can give insight in to the their "personalities". If the water is seen to have more human like qualities though personification, the blurring of man and ocean and the trust is more believable. This also allows the reader to be more empathetic with nature, it feels as we feel therefore we should not destroy it. Similarly, the water being compared to a wolf makes the reader believe more readily that the ocean is dangerous and vicious.
Although we cannot be sure of the exact greater meaning behind this poem, there are certainly many potential messages that Wright was trying to portray. First, an element of caution, especially given the carefree Australian stereotype. We cannot live constantly in such a cavalier fashion, as it can make us particularly vulnerable to any harm or serious issues. Second, we cannot master nature. Nature will always dominate humanity and never the other way around. Even though humans spend their lives fighting for power and control, nature is the one thing that we must accept as ungovernable. Destroying nature does not give us power over it. We take advantage over the natural world, but then do away with it whenever it is not convenient. Wright suggests this is unacceptable. In this poem, she highlights that nature is just as capable of destroying us, and therefore we should take caution. This is probably the most likely meaning as Wright was a dedicated land conservation activist. Finally, no degree of skill or confidence can truly ensure our position in life. There will always be environmental or situational factors to push us back that we must be prepared to face. Some waves will carry us forwards and other waves will take us back, so resilience is as strong a character trait as skill.
The trust, freedom, and healing power of the sea are major topics in the first stanza of this poem. The freedom that the sea provides is clear through the simile Wright uses to compare the surfer to gulls flying, and his ability to disappear out of sight. The surfer is able to trust the sea because of its human like quality and its ability to support him even unguided. This fact that he can be free in the waves adds to the reason why he trusts the sea. Finally, the sea has a healing quality for the surfer, able to provide an outlet a homely feel, accentuated by the color symbolism of "green" and the simile to hedges. Wright could be suggesting that we take advantage of the beauty of nature, we use and sometimes destroy it, but we are not willing to accept it when its not convenient for us, when it begins to change.
So how does this connect to Judith Wright's other poems?
Many of Wright's poems possess similar environmental themes and use the personification of nature that is characteristic of "The Surfer". A prime example of this is Wright's "Flame-Tree in a Quarry":


From the broken bone of the hill
stripped and left for dead,
like a wrecked skull,
leaps out this bush of blood.
Out of the torn earth's mouth
comes the old cry of praise.
Still is the song made flesh
though the singer dies—
flesh of the world's delight,
voice of the world's desire,
I drink you with my sight
and I am filled with fire.
Out of the very wound
springs up this scarlet breath—
this fountain of hot joy,
this living ghost of death.
Can someone offer one way this relates to "The Surfer"?
1. The use of personification in describing the land. (Diction of "bone, blood, skull"). Makes us empathetic.
2. The progression of the tone of the poem. In this poem, the landscape begins barren and finishes with the growth of life
3. Discusses the similar topic of environment versus human spirit. In this poem, the human spirit is able to break a seemingly desolate landscape. In "The Surfer", it is the environment that alters the skill and confidence of humanity.
It also relates to the poem "Life-cycle" by Bruce Dawe:
Both poems play on a stereotypical aspect of Australian life; one on surfing and the other on Australian Rules Football. They are similar because they take potentially cartoonish stereotypes and provide insight into more poetic and detailed realization of these images. "Life-cycle" also follows a similar structural flow to "The Surfer", progressing as time progresses and then linking back to the beginning of the poem at the end in a circular motion.
Any final thoughts?
He thrust his joy against the weight of the sea;
climbed through, slid under those long banks of foam -
(hawthorn hedges in spring, thorns in the face stinging).
How his brown strength drove through the hollow and coil
of green-through weirs of water!
and swimming so, went out of sight
where mortal, masterful, frail, the gulls went wheeling
in air as he in water, with delight.
Turn home, the sun goes down; swimmer, turn home.
Last leaf of gold vanishes from the sea-curve.
Take the big roller's shoulder, speed and swerve;
come to the long beach home like a gull diving.
For on the sand the grey-wolf sea lies snarling,
cold twilight wind splits the waves' hair and shows
the bones they worry in their wolf-teeth. O, wind blows
and sea crouches on sand, fawning and mouthing;
drops there and snatches again, drops and again snatches
its broken toys, its whitened pebbles and shells.
The Surfer
Full transcript