Request to a year is a poem by Judith Wright that reflects on the passage of time and the changing seasons. The speaker addresses the year, asking it to slow down and stay with them a little longer. They acknowledge the fleeting nature of time, but still, long for a way to hold onto it. Read the full analysis of the poem below:
- Legendary: someone who or something which is exceptionally well known and is looked up to or discussed often
- Devotee: a person who has a profound admiration for a specific individual or is very engaged in a particular topic
- Ice-floe: a large chunk of floating ice
- Impeded: cause something to work less well, prevented the progress or success of something
- Petticoats: o a woman’s lightweight and loose-fitting undergarment that is worn below a skirt or dress and hangs from the shoulders or the waist – an old fashioned item of clothing
- Alpenstock: a sturdy staff equipped with a point made of iron that mountain climbers use.
- Isolating: (Line 18) “And with the artist’s isolating eye,” In this context, the word refers to selecting or concentrating on one aspect out of several possible options
- Scene: a break in a play’s act or one significant event occurs in a play or novel, such as a fight scene.
STORY + SUMMARY
If the year is thinking about a suitable gift that it could give to the world, I should like it to be the attitude of my great- great- grandmother, a legendary follower and supporter of the arts,
who have eight children and not much time or chance for painting pictures, sat one day on a high rock beside a river in Switzerland
and from a challenging distance she saw her second son, balanced on a small ice sheet in the water, drift down the current toward a waterfall that struck rock bottom eighty feet below,
while her second daughter, hindered, no doubt, by the petticoats and awkward female clothing of the day, stretched out a last-hope alpenstock (which luckily later caught him on his way down the river, before he hit the waterfall).
Nothing, it was evident, could be done to change the situation, And so with the artist’s isolating eye, My great-great-grandmother hastily sketched the scene. The sketch survives to prove the story by.
Year, if you have no Mother’s day present planned, Reach back and bring me the firmness of my great-great grandmother’s hand.
SPEAKER + VOICE
The speaker in the poem is a person who is asking for a specific memory to be returned to them. This persona is likely someone who is feeling nostalgia for a particular time in their life and is using this poem to express that longing – we could call this anemoia, where the speaker is experiencing a longing for a time that she didn’t personally live through – as she wouldn’t have been alive to see her great-great grandmother in person, yet the stories passed down through her family of this woman’s life have inspired her and clearly made a great impact on her own existence and life choices to become a writer. The fact that the speaker of the poem presents her request for the year as a Mother’s Day gift leads readers to the reasonable conclusion that she is, too, a mother – continuing the family bloodline forward, as she thinks back to her ancestors.
Personification: The speaker opens the first stanza of “Request to a Year” by speculating that the “year” is perhaps contemplating a present for her. In this case, the year is personified as a conscious entity, which is able to conceive of a gift to give the persona.The title reflects this notion, stating that the entire poem is dedicated ‘To A Year’.
Foreshadowing: “beside a river in Switzerland” – the narrative centre of the poem implies that an important event in the speaker’s family history took place in this setting. The speaker tells us how the second son of her great-great-grandmother walked and balanced on a thin ice flow in the river – initially, we expect there to be a disaster, as the mention of a ‘waterfall’ creates narrative tension. One of the daughters saves the boy with “a last-hope alpenstock/ (which luckily later caught him on his way)”, so the great-great-grandmother then takes the opportunity to sketch the whole scene and preserve it in the family’s memory.
Alliteration: (Line 9 of the poem) “and from a difficult distance viewed” In this line, the poet employed alliteration to provide a melodic and lyrical impact that accentuates the trouble which is about to occur.
Metonymy – the ‘artist’s isolating eye’ is the defining characteristic of the poem’s subject – the great-great-grandmother is not officially trained in art, yet she has an intuitive sense for when something is an important source of inspiration which needs recording and preserving through being turned into a work of art. The speaker, too, has inherited this tendency – she in turn preserves the strength and keenness of her ancestor with the poem she creates, which is dedicated to her memory.
STRUCTURE + FORM
Quatrains: The six-stanza poem “Request to a Year” by Judith Wright is divided into five quatrains – regular four-line stanzas, although the line length is varied.
Couplet: The poet presents the poem’s last stanza as a couplet. A couplet is two consecutive lines of poetry joined together by rhyme, rhythm, or the presence of a self-contained phrase – in this case, the rhyming couplet finishes off the end of the poem with a sense of love and harmony, reaffirming that it is intended as a dedication to the speaker’s ancestor.
Rhyme scheme: There is no consistent rhyme pattern in the poem. The poem reads initially like prose, which is appropriate given the contemplative tone and narrative form, where it is recounting a story. However, the poem falls into an ABCB pattern in the third, fourth, and fifth stanzas, ending with a rhyming couplet. This unusual structure may be an attempt to capture the fallibility and imperfection of memories and stories.
Wright’s nationality is Australian; she devotes much of her poetry to the landscape in which she grew up. However, this poem is about her ancestors, who lived in Europe before emigrating to Australia – the poem therefore allows Wright to explore her own European heritage – the family in the poem are presumably on holiday in Switzerland because Wright’s personal heritage is Cornish, her ancestors moved from Cornwall, England, to start a new life in Australia.
The majority of the events described in the poem took place by a river in Switzerland some decades before the speaker was born. Presumably, the family are on holiday, or perhaps on a work trip out there. The great-great-grandmother sits on a “high rock” that is located adjacent to this river in the hopes of producing some artwork while she is there. Due to the high altitude (likely the family are in the Swiss Alps mountain range), the temperature is low enough that pieces of ice are floating in the river, which is heading towards a waterfall that is 80 feet high. The great-great-grandmother of the speaker watches “from a terrible distance” as her son is carried away by one of these ice chunks and comes dangerously close to losing his life. In the same way that the speaker of this poem utilizes “the artist’s separating eye” to “hastily” capture the “scene” that is in front of her, as the great-great-grandmother does, the speaker of this poem brings the scene to life for a second time on the page.
The poem “Request to a Year” was written by Judith Wright and published in her ninth book of poetry, The Two Fires, in 1955. In her lifetime, the Australian novelist Judith Wright (1915-2000) authored nearly fifty novels. In addition to her poetry work, she is renowned for her short tales, literary criticism, and advocacy for ecology and Aboriginal land rights. Her poetry often examines the conflicts between humans and the natural environment and between Australian colonists and indigenous cultures.
The speaker experiences nostalgia because she is pining for her great- great-grandmother and thinking warm thoughts about her. As she relates the story of her legendary great-grandmother, she references the past and the historical period in which she lived – references such as ‘petticoats’ demonstrate that this was from another time, likely the mid-Victorian era. The longing for a period of time which a person has never directly experienced is a specific kind of nostalgia, called ‘anemoia’.
The speaker admires her great-great- grandmother’s artistic hand—that is, the capacity of her ancestor to create art despite the enormous challenges she faced—also suggests that the speaker – likely Judith Wright herself, as the poem feels quite personal and autobiographical – is a creative person. It’s possible that she’s facing a challenging circumstance at the moment or that she’s having trouble juggling the responsibilities of parenthood with her artistic pursuits (given that she seems to empathize with her grandmother having “little opportunity for painting pictures” due to caring for her eight kids). The speaker wishes she had her ancestor’s “attitude,” which indicates that she is in some ways a different kind of person than her great-great-grandmother. The speaker does not seem to believe that she now has that same “attitude,” which caused her ancestor to immediately seize the opportunity to create art, but she hopes to acquire it in the future. Lastly, it is evident that the speaker places a high value on both art and family; the speaker has written this poem to carry on the heritage of her great-great-grandmother.
Family traits are passed down – the poem invites us to consider the nature of creativity and artistic expression on a wider level – some intuitive instinct compelled the grandmother to draw the scene in front of her; although she was never a professional artist, she just had a knack for capturing the right moment. We feel that Wright owes her grandmother a debt of gratitude, because this type of instinct was passed down to her and she was in a more privileged position, where she was able to utilise her artistic instinct and turn it into a career. This helps us also reflect upon the different opportunities afforded to women in the past, vs the present day, as we feel that Wright’s ancestor was not given enough freedom in life to properly pursue her artistic inclinations.
|TASK: Write a short poem about a shocking or important event that happened to you in your life. Try to focus on the artistic and poetic quality of your language, and include imagery and symbolism.
Reflect on your piece – did you learn anything about your own sense of artistic expression? Did you enjoy the process or find it hard? Why did you choose that particular moment?
- Life and death
- The past (personal, historical).
- What are the mood and tone of the speaker in this poem? Use evidence to support your answer.
- Why did the poet choose to use the term “Request To A Year” as the title for her poem?
- Identify two instances of enjambment in the poem – for each one, write why you think the poet used it.
- Are you an artistic person? Why / why not? Reflect on your own thoughts about creativity – do you think people are naturally born creative, or is it a skill that can be nurtured and encouraged in anyone? What do you think are the benefits to being a creative person?
- Discuss Wright’s attitudes to memory and the past, as evidenced in the poem.
- Discuss the role of parenting and the parent/guardian ‘children relationship as portrayed in the poem.
- To what extent do you think that the subject of the poem (the speaker’s great-great-grandmother) was a good role model for her children?
- How does the poem explore deeper tensions about history and colonialism, via the contrast between Wright’s Australian heritage and the European setting of the poem? (Advanced)