(Aesthetics and Activism in the poetry of Judith
Beveridge & Sarah Day)
Dr. Trivikrama Kumari
Aesthetics is a term that immediately comes to mind the moment you
reach for the poetry book on the shelf. As a form of literature and art, poetry
has always had an expectation of delicacy, grace, sublimity and picturesqueness.
The difficulty inevitably is of individual responses - so very difficult to
predict or generalise - since poetry’s aesthetics play upon reactions that
derive from the instinct, the subconscious, conditioning, learnt behaviour,
socio-cultural norms, intellect. Yet, there is always the attempt to search for
an aesthetic in poetry. Especially if the poet herself avers, as Judith
A lot of my poems are motivated by a looking for a kind of beauty in
things. They are often driven by the aesthetic. A big driving force for me is
to try and capture the beauty of the essential world.
Indeed, it is in ‘beautiful’ works that a relatively wider applicable
aesthetic is most obvious; and both Judith Beveridge and Sarah Day offer a
combination of senses and emotions in their poetry that would appeal to an
aesthetic sense looking for pleasure and the joy of reading poetry. And also for
the aestheticism that wants a world cleansed of impurity.
Both poets, Sarah Day and Judith Beveridge, were born in London and
migrated to Australia. Both have won prestigious literary awards from their
first collections onwards. Poems of Judith Beveridge in this paper are taken
from her 1996 collection, Accidental Grace, and those of Sarah Day from
her 2002 collection, New & Selected Poems. Judith Beveridge’s poetry,
some of which formed part of the New South Wales HSC curriculum 1993 – 1995, has
been translated into various languages including Arabic, German, Chinese and
Spanish; while Sarah Day’s has been set to music by British composer Anthony
The two poets write about nature, and ‘nature poetry’ is all the
more subject to searches for the beautiful. The sublimity and idyll of the
Romantic and the Pastoral are always at the back of the reader’s mind. David
McCooey believes “the absence of an Australian romantic movement” has received
attention, citing the example of Paul Kane for whom “this historical absence led
to a preoccupation with romanticism that was ‘grounded in absence or
He also points out that the Pastoral tradition continues into contemporary
poetry with several poets returning to the land and country through periods in
literary history marked by various political, ethical and stylistic concerns,
Such a list notably lacks women. While Jennifer Rankin, Jennifer
Harrison, Judith Beveridge and Sarah Day are among women poets
attracted to pastoral, they have not taken on Wright’s or Harwood’s
pastoral-elegiac concerns with the same emphasis.
What is also obvious by the mere mention of names in comparison is
the fact that these poets write not in isolation but as part of a tradition
and aesthetic of poetry that has come down over more than a century.
Expressing the land is particularly significant in Australia. It began as an
attempt to understand a strange land with peculiar features; and since about the
1890s when a national character began to emerge as opposed to a ‘colonial’ one,
to convey this nationalism and connection with the land, as in the works of
poets such as Charles Hapur and Henry Kendall.
Among the several women poets who turned to nature, there were Mary
Gilmore, who wrote of women in the pioneering days, and Judith Wright who
“recast local subjects,” says Michael Ackland, “plumbing them for timeless
truths, and stressing the need for unison with the land”.
Dorothy Hewett reflected a bond - even communion - with her land in simple poems
such as “Early One Morning” in which she describes the “friendly conversation”
with a red fox hiding behind a sofa - a conversation that underlined not only a
lack of wary hostility but also complete understanding, not to mention small
observations on how the animal sidles, tests the air and lopes away to his own
‘space’ on the other side of a railway line.
These poets carried their love for the land into overt activism: ecology,
environment, dispossession of the original inhabitants of Australia and
Indigenous rights, war, Communism. Contemporary poets such as Coral Hull too
express intense feelings about human, environmental and animal rights issues.
Coral Hull’s poems based on nature, for example “Becoming Summer” about a little
girl’s anticipation of summer and “Frontyard Harvest” combining the
autobiographical with a drinking in of everyday nature endorse her own
clarification, “I don't believe that I romanticise about nature as I do find a
lot of it without empathy, but despite its horror there is something very
spiritual in it for me”.
A Romantic aesthetic is not always easy to find. In Judith
Beveridge’s case, if it is there it is more in the fine detailing of a scene
with the keen eye of an observer of nature, and in a sense of some sort of a
connection between the natural and the human world. She shares with Sarah Day
the projection of childhood as a state of innocence and purity closest to God.
Echoing Wordsworth’s infancy as a state in which we come “From God” “trailing
clouds of glory”
is the capacity of infants, Sarah Day believes, to offer adoring adults
a measure of possibility –
the Garden before the Fall, the unplucked fruit,
before the infants, out of “some premonition” suggested by the “shape of
those who loom in” ”turn away their heads”,
an admission of how the glory gets diluted as one grows up in this world.
Moving away from the most tempting slots and labels of their
aesthetic, it is obvious that the artistic character of the poetry of Judith
Beveridge and Sarah Day is composed of different facets that together constitute
the whole. The first impression is of the artist painting a picture or of a
photographer capturing a scene. In Judith Beveridge’s Accidental Grace,
nature is observed and described with acuity. She talks of the “haunting music
round the bay” where the wind howls in the lanyard ropes, periwinkles are washed
from rockpools, spray hisses through blowholes and “infusorians wave their
delicate hairs” in seapools;
a preening peacock flashing its tail feathers decorated with what look like the
eyes of an adder; snails that deposit chrome stains as they slide through shade;
and a late summer evening where
the sun puts the scarlet note of
poinsettias into the depth of a quince-coloured
Sarah Day’s “Iris” is time-lapse photography in words:
A single tapered bud
[. . .]
Then it loosens.
Just a little;
relaxes the spiral
enough to see mauve
On the fourth day
purple spills out everywhere.
Nature has a majesty and influence beyond the ordinary description,
whether it is in the all-pervasive music of the bay or in the peacock who tries
to lift each feather
with equal weight, bending its head
as though given over to a deference
it does not fully understand,
When she hears the call of the “Hawkesbury Egret”, Judith Beveridge says
she is “churned in a vast / stream and polished into a set of rubies”
and transported into a space of sights, sounds and scenes that transcends her
present physical boundaries. “The Elephant Odes” is a paean embracing mythology
and religion to the mighty elephants, epic creatures with “Homeric eyelids”, who
“are the Hearers / of all / the poetry of the earth.”
In “Paeans”, Sarah Day describes the effect of the sun on the world as “New
lambs tilt worshipful”
towards it and “great fish are prophetic, / healers, moralists, teachers” in
whose eyes “eons are suspended”.
The artistic focus is broadened as the poems of Judith Beveridge
and Sarah Day move on to nature outside of Australia. The presence of
nature and man’s bond with it is beyond political boundaries and time periods.
In Accidental Grace while there is the kookaburra, there is also Hannibal
who speaks to his elephants urging them to withstand lances and move through
passages of ice, obviously in preparation for battle the next day; and it is
clear that the epic creature has a “species-memory”
that spans continents and eras. For Sarah Day, there are the Arum leaves and the
Southern Cross, the dead wallaby on the bitumen as well as Eden, the Appenines,
and hens and pigs that recall atavism and the American author E. P. Evans.
The observations and their communications utilise a blend of
senses and emotions accounting for their immediate and vivid apprehension.
As spring is awaited in Sarah Day’s “Paeans”, “anticipation ignites like
vermillion”. “Incense” in Accidental Grace has the fragrance all day “as
if the sun has lingered too long / over the bowl of old green apples”. It is a
fragrance that takes the poet back years as she hunts out the memory of her
father “In a confetti of ash and petals”,
and the poet enters “the blue agates” of the Hawkesbury egret’s call.
Images are delicate: in “Yachts” you are asked to “imagine brittle bells fiddled
with and shaken”, “hear a woman placing her earrings in a pearl shell” and get
to know “the little shovelfuls of laughter children scatter on the grass”.
The appeal stems not only from the importance Judith Beveridge gives
“objects from the natural world”, but also her attempt to concentrate on “the
music of words” and develop rhythms and a greater complexity of syntax”.
The style and expression therefore constitute the aesthetic as well. The
acuteness of the apprehension comes because for Judith Beveridge
objects are sensual things. And I love the physical world. I think it is
wonderful and I do try and get that into my poetry.
The poetry has grace, beauty, delicacy, finesse and vividness. It
is ‘aesthetically pleasing’. However, it is not a vacuous prettiness. It
cannot be denied that also part of the aesthetics of such poetry is the use
of these qualities to carry and convey content. Sarah Day agrees with the
observation that the “image is often a means to an end in my work, a vehicle for
an idea or discourse.”
Judith Beveridge emphasizes that she wants to “see all human beings have a
greater quality of life”.
In rising to essential human truths from observations of minute details, her
poetry defines identity and character, except now it is to do with human-ness
and humanity, transcending national boundaries. If in earlier poetry
Australia’s natural features were used to communicate the sense of a nation, the
kookaburra in Accidental Grace with its laughter that “Kafka could
invent” seems to say “death is life at its most burlesque.”
There is an all-pervading sense of all creation being woven together in
infinitesimal associations within creation so that the actions of one affect the
lives of others. Judith Beveridge stresses
Poems such as Yachts, How to love Bats and How to love Pythons try to use
metaphor and connections to build bridges between things and to suggest that the
world is not made of discrete separate units, but that we are all part of a
deeply connected set of relationships.
In Sarah Day’s poetry too there are delicate connections between
individual constituents of creation notwithstanding individual will
We separate like sea birds
on independent courses,
[. . .]
At the end of the day
the map of our tracks is a skein
on the sand. We cover the same ground
and come way from different places
recalling them in myths of arbour, palace, horse’s head.
Both writers choose their titles carefully. The central impression
from the selection of poems from Sarah Day’s A Madder Dance is that of
creation from disorder into order and patterning, a view of the disorder from
within and without, constituents in the nature of gyres, lemniscates, infinity
and “primordial swamp” - an image of mad swirling choreography drawn from
mythology, Latin and Greek antecedents, Zen Buddhism and seventeenth century
People are the evidence that of time,
distance, order is born
though in stepping back to view
the choreography, a foot may whirl
into the gyre of a madder dance.
It is a world in which there is chaos as well as a design manifested in a
mix of shapes and patterns, where in spite of diversity of choices, life and
paths there is a fundamental oneness. The title of Judith Beveridge’s
collection, Accidental Grace, is equally suggestive. Grace is a strong
but subtle omnipresence, even in the seemingly low creatures and tasks, blessing
and protecting just by being there rather than through deliberate calculation.
Life is walking along a path - a prettier path - down which various creatures
walk, recognizing a connection between all living creatures, observing, imbibing
so as to
find the path to make our walking sweet.
In many of these poems horror and unsightliness deliberately
forms a part of the aesthetic – the ugly aesthetic. That may sound an
oxymoron but the technique is particularly useful in conveying strongly felt
ideas through repulsion, or at the very least an awareness of these as part of
the world. So Judith Beveridge reminds us of that part of the natural world
subject to the hunter out to shoot a bird and the gardener who presses and
trowels snails into the soil as she landscapes her garden, and the context of
Hannibal’s whisperings to his elephants is war. Such reminders of
violence and death in an elegant world are subtle intertwining of harshness with
beauty. There are also the direct references to evils such as “the guns of
ivory hunters who in a single / decade halved your populations”
and the reactions to baffling slime in Venezuela in “A South American Tale”.
At the other end of the spectrum of exaltation, there is a faith in
something that comes from within despite the ugliness or toil of one’s life. The
poems state that even the seemingly repulsive and horrid - bats and pythons -
can be understood and loved perhaps with difficulty and practice. Small,
apparently dreadful tasks whether collecting cow dung, bearing corpses, training
vultures or bathing on a railway platform, are akin to penance. The poems place
intrinsic value on such rituals of penance, parallel to the ‘penance’ of
practising how to appreciate the horrible, ugly life forms of nature. ‘Low’
forms of life need to be understood and respected just as the mighty (elephants)
can inspire awe and humble existence has nobility.
For Sarah Day, the mini-world in a conservatory is testament to
Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which in turn may be applied to the larger
world - the “tough” “dialectic”, “gotta look after themselves” and the
result “that species survive or they don’t.”
“Undermining” condemns landscape “pitted and pocked” by digging and mines,
miners “ink-skinned, coughing and spitting”.
There are more political poems using animal characters such hens and pigs whom
the poet appreciates for their “conviviality”, “that atavistic sense of
well-being” they provide and the “reassurance” of “simple notions, like
In “Lex Talionis”, the poet questions notions of justice and law and the moral
right of humans to dispense it or impose their notions on the animal world that
comes across as having greater substance and closeness to profound truths than a
species that kills and maims in poems such as “Seventy Fathoms Up” and “Crossing
Over”, opening up an entire debate on notions of species, racial and ethnic
superiority. “Seventy Fathoms Up” is an account of the death of a Giant Crab,
drawing up to the moment the crab finds “the dry air barbs his gills”
Suddenly he is heavy
his flesh is waterlogged
but his legs scrape drily on the wooden deck.
As the crab is pulled seventy fathoms up
His stalk eyes, always staring, no longer see.
The orbs begin to dry.
The characteristic gentle details unfold as slowly, leisurely, carefully
as the trapped crab is hauled up to the boat. They end with the shock of a
majestic creature being killed, eliciting a sense of waste and a question at the
need for the extinguishing a life in this manner.
Opinions and concerns include thoughts on humanity, creativity and
the spirit, motherhood, religion, justice, ethics, war, death and killing, and
environmental matters. Thus, children, gardens and fishermen, traditional
symbols of innocence closer to God (Blake, Wordsworth) and Christianity combined
with direct and indirect (web, wheel, kite) references to the Buddha and
principles of Eastern spiritualism in Accidental Grace suggest a
merciful, benign, delicate grace in spite of violence in this world. Sarah Day
refers to Eden, Adam, Calvinism and Protestantism, an innate soul or spirit, the
Christian symbolism of fish as well as their mythic and ancient dimensions, the
(white) horse with a range of associative properties (Pegasus, Apocalypse, Kalki
of Indian mythology), and a fundamental oneness. The poet says
While the aesthetics of form, style, aural qualities are fundamental to
my appreciation of reading and writing poetry, increasingly in my most recent
books, I am wanting some of my poems to engage more actively with current ideas
The impact of the work of both poets is of firm and energetic beliefs
in favour of or against certain issues, beliefs more vigorous than their
being presented wrapped in pretty kid gloves implies.
Thus, the two poets weave together grace with horror, and in the
observations of the former along with allusions to the latter if not a direct
mention, emerges the activism. The beauty of the scenes, of the words, the
images and the tone is not only to please the senses, but also to highlight the
reality of the world and to arouse in the emotions and thoughts awareness,
anger, horror, repulsion. At times, it is the contrast between the decorous and
the harsh that jolts one into reaction. At other times, it is the solace of the
graceful and the beautiful in spite of everything that soothes yet inspires a
wish that corruption be removed. Significantly, the influences on such poetry
in terms of style and content are from Australia and abroad. Ideas, to be
polished by each poet’s dexterity and individuality, are triggered by events or
observations within and outside Australia. Likewise, the work is communicated
through the various means available in today’s world to a much larger audience
than previously, conveying this blend of aesthetics and activist thought –
and getting reactions from - across borders. It is probably this brand of
broadly appealing ‘activism’ that strongly uses the aesthetic, indeed becoming a
part of it, which confirms the truth of David McCooey’s observation: “Younger
poets such as Sarah Day, Judith Beveridge and Jemal Sharah also show that
formally decorous (though not mild) lyric poetry retains its authority.”
Judith Beveridge, A Woman’s Voice: Conversations with Australian
Poets, Jenny Digby, St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1996,
David McCooey, “Contemporary Poetry,” The Cambridge Companion to
Australian Literature, Ed. Elizabeth Webby, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge
University Press, 2000, 160.
McCooey, The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature, 171.
Ackland, The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature, 95.
Dorothy Hewett, “Early One Morning,” Atlanta Review, Australia
Issue, 2000, 8 February 2000 <
Coral Hull, interview with Rebecca Seiferle, The Drunken Boat,
New Mexico, U. S. A., 2000, 15 June 2006
William Wordsworth, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections
of Early Childhood,” l. 64 – 65, Representative Poetry Online,
ed. Ian Lancashire, Department of English, University of Toronto, 18
March 2006 <http://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poem/2352.html>.
Sarah Day, “Premonition,” New & Selected Poems (UK: Arc
Publications, 2002) 58.
Judith Beveridge, “There is a Haunting Music Round the Bay,”
Accidental Grace, St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1996, 3
Beveridge, “On an Evening in Late Summer,” Accidental Grace, 21.
Day, “Iris,” New & Selected Poems, 16
Beveridge, “The Peacock on the Lawn,” Accidental Grace, 6.
Beveridge, “Hawkesbury Egret,” Accidental Grace, 25.
Beveridge, “The Elephant Odes,” Accidental Grace, 55.
Day, “Paeans,” New & Selected Poems, 30-31.
Day, “Paeans,” New & Selected Poems, 33.
Beveridge, “The Elephant Odes,” Accidental Grace, 52
Beveridge, “Incense,” Accidental Grace, 11-12.
Beveridge, “Hawkesbury Egret,” Accidental Grace, 25.
Beveridge, “Yachts,” Accidental Grace, 56.
Beveridge, A Woman’s Voice: Conversations with Australian Poets,
Beveridge, A Woman’s Voice: Conversations with Australian Poets,
to the author, 22 March 2007
Beveridge, A Woman’s Voice: Conversations with Australian Poets,
Beveridge, “Kookaburra,” Accidental Grace, 68.
Beveridge, e-mail to the author, 14 May 2006.
Day, “Handles to the Invisible,” New & Selected Poems, 36.
Day, “Chaos,” New & Selected Poems, 25.
Beveridge, “The Walking,” Accidental Grace, 19.
Beveridge, “The Elephant Odes,” Accidental Grace, 52.
Day, “Natural Selection,” New & Selected Poems, 11.
Day, Undermining,” New & Selected Poems, 61.
Day, “Hens,” New & Selected Poems, 73 - 74.
Day, “Seventy Fathoms Up,” New & Selected Poems,
14 – 15.
Day, e-mail, 22 March 2007.
McCooey, The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature, 175.