Judith Wright’s poem `The Killer’ explores the relationship between Humans and Nature, and provides an insight into the primitive instincts which characterize both the speaker and the subject. These aspects of the poem find expression in the irony of the title and are also underlined by the various technical devices employed by the poet.
The construction of the poem is in regular four-line stanzas, of which the first two stanzas provide the exposition, setting the scene; the next three stanzas encompass the major action; and the final two stanzas present the poet’s reflection on the meaning of her experience.
In the first stanza, the poet seems to be offering a conventional romanticized view of Nature:
The day was clear as fire
the birds sang frail as glass
when thirsty I came to the creek
and fell by its side in the grass.
The consistent pattern of metrical stresses in this stanza, along with the orderly rhyme scheme, and standard verse structure, reflect the mood of serenity, of humankind in harmony with Nature. It is a fine, hot day, `clear as fire’, when the speaker comes to drink at the creek. Birdsong punctuates the still air, like the tinkling of broken glass. However, the term `frail’ also suggests vulnerability in the presence of danger, and there are other intimations in this stanza of the drama that is about to unfold. Slithery sibilants, as in the words `glass’, `grass’ and `moss’, hint at the existence of a Serpent in the Garden of Eden. As in a Greek tragedy, the intensity of expression in the poem invokes a proleptic tenseness, as yet unexplained.
In the last line of the second stanza, the subject enters dramatically, accompanied by an abrupt change in the rhythm of the poem:
I saw him tu…
… Nature, including human beings, is `red in tooth and claw’; we are all `killers’ in one way or another. Also, the fear which inhabits both human and snake (allowing us, generally, to avoid each other), and which acts as the catalyst for this poem, also precipitates retaliation. Instinct, it seems, won’t be gainsaid by morality; as in war, our confrontation with Nature has its origins in some irrational `logic’ of the soul. The intangibility of fear, as expressed in the imagery of the poem, is seen by the poet to spring from the same source as the snake, namely the earth – or, rather, what the earth symbolizes, our primitive past embedded in our subconsciouness. By revealing the kinship of feelings that permeates all Nature, Judith Wright universalises the experience of this poem.
Wright, Judith. WOMAN TO MAN (Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1967)