Pelicans – Judith Wright – Analysis

Seen at the NSW south coast

Pelicans
Funnel-web spider, snake and octopus,
pitcher-plant and vampire-bat and shark–
these are cold water on an easy faith.
Look at them, but don’t linger.
If we stare too long, something looks back at us;
something gazes through from underneath;
something crooks a very dreadful finger
down there in an unforgotten dark.
Turn away then, and look up at the sky.
There sails that old clever Noah’s Ark,
the well-turned, well-carved pelican
with his wise comic eye;
he turns and wheels down, kind as an ambulance-driver,
to join his fleet. Pelicans rock together,
solemn as clowns in white on a circus-river,
meaning: this world holds every sort of weather.
Judith Wright (1915 – 2000)

The first sentence of the first stanza covers some of those creatures, insects and plants that have known to be of some concern to human inhabitants. And in some cases humans have died due to their venomous nature. The intent is perhaps to promote fear in their name. It is worth noting that snake, octopus and pitcher-plant can be harmless but quite beautiful. But what I think JW is trying to emphasise is that nature can be a dangerous place if you look beyond the surface.

An easy faith would be a superficial faith believing in the positive side of all life; perhaps giving little consideration to the negative. The first stanza ends telling us up not to ponder on this darker side of nature. Don’t look too much on this because it is dangerous; and something will look back at us. The implications here are that we should not dwell on the negative aspects of nature, and indeed life; dwelling on the negative is dangerous in itself. And this proclamation flows into the first sentence of the second stanza.

Look up to the sky and consider the pelican. The pelican is used as a contrast to give a positive to nature. But JW would not have known how brutally murderous pelican siblings are to each other.

But apparently a 16th century Christian would consider a Pelican as a symbol of the redemptive sacrifice of Christ. Using this knowledge gives a more meaningful perspective on this poem. And it is nice to know that the Pelican is well tuned, well-carved and wise; clearly attributes that are associated with Christ.

And of course the Pelican is a water bird so presumably escaping God’s anger and the need to enter Noah’s Arch by the fact of flight. There is another side to the Pelican mentioned above so kindness is a bit of an oversight. But Christ is somewhat of an ambulance driver in the provision of healing to the world.

The poem ends with the closing proclamation that the world is inflicted with great variety of weather. Whether we know how to deal with such climatic conditions is another matter; and also whether we believe God is involved in anyway to help.

This poem is in Judith Wright’s Birds publication. Her daughter, Meredith Mckinney, commented on this collection … ‘Despite the joy reflected in the poems, however, they also acknowledge the experiences of cruelty, pain and death that are inseparable from the lives of birds as of humans’.

Judith Wright on Wikipedia