To see them go by drowning in the river –
soldiers and elders drowning in the river,
the pitiful women drowning in the river,
the children’s faces staring from the river –
that was his cross, and not the cross they gave him.
To hold the invisible wand, and not to save them –
to know them turned to death, and not to save them;
only to cry to them and not to save them
knowing that no one but themselves could save them –
this was the wound, more than the wound they dealt him.
To hold out love and know they would not take it,
to hold out faith and know they dared not take it –
the invisible wand, and none would see or take it –
all he could give, and there was none to take it –
thus they betrayed him not with the tongue’s betrayal.
He watched, and they were drowning in the river;
faces like sodden flowers in the river
faces of children moving in the river;
and all the while he knew there was no river.
Judith Wright (from the ‘Woman to Man’ sequence 1949)
The title Eli, Eli (Eloi, Eloi) … suggests those words spoken on the cross by Christ – ‘… why have you forsaken me’
Looking at the poem stanza by stanza …
S1 … it seems that everyone is drowning in the river … interesting that the children aren’t drowning, they are caught up in the river though, but they are not drowning, they are staring – watching what is going on in a fixed state
… the last line defines the ‘cross’ given to Christ in terms of this scene … to watch the world drowning (or staring) in the river … and this is not the cross given to him (the crucifixion cross) … but it is not until later that this is clarified
S2 … Christ had (has) the ‘invisible wand’ the ability to intervene … note that it is an invisible power … but JC can only cry … he does not save them – a contrast with the view of Christ=Saviour … the key is in the fourth line – it is up to the each person to save themselves the pain is that JC must watch when he knows they have the ability to be saved … and the last line suggests that this pain is greater than the physical pain
S3 … the details of the ‘invisible wand’ are stated in terms of the gifts of love and faith … but these have been ignored … the message of Christ has not been heard … all that he had to give … the people not hearing – not taking up the power of the wand … in doing this they have betrayed him far more than a lip-betrayal.
S4 … so JC is watching the drowning in the river … interesting that the children are not drowning but moving in the river … then we have that powerful last line … there is no river … the river is a creation of humanity = all those things that stop us truly living
…and the children moving in the environment of the negative adult world – ( … unless you become like little children comes to mind … age corrupts perhaps).
This poem gives a new dimension on that final crucifixion scene. Christ looking out on the crowd. Christ in pain because his message is not headed. Christ recognizing children … and we like sodden flowers.
In summary – a very spiritual poem with great understanding on how Christ works. One of JW’s excellent early poems.
“Eli, Eli lema sabatchthani?” – “My God, My God, why did you abandon me?”