I think I have not hated any man. -- Dark Rosaleen.
David McKee Wright once told me that he tried to make his poems "simple, sensuous, and sweet." It was an accident of memory, as well as a natural bias, that made him substitute sweetness for passion in the Miltonic trinity, but all readers of "An Irish Heart," his most important published collection, will agree that he achieved remarkable success in his aim. Simplicity is everywhere, in the definite outlines, the honest thought, the dreams that unfold like green leaves the clear expression. And no less noticeable is the profusion of his sensuous imagery that makes us see, hear, and touch what he describes -- for example, theWinged palace of delight,
Against the pale sky lifting green
Its soaring peaks of malachite;
And the whisper and murmuring mirth when --The tall trees talk
Where the dry leaf laps the stalk,
And the summer wind goes by,
Making a laugh and a sigh;
And the light touch of soft lips when the fairy was gracious to blind Ryan--
Och, she kissed like a butterfly's wing,
When it touches a weed on the wall.
And sweetness seems the most essential of all his poetic qualities, for it is the constant expression of what was naturally in his heart. It is in his quiet love of beautiful things, his tender humour, his faith in human nature, his hopes for the future of mankind, and the musical modulations of his verse. And sweetness does not exclude passion; but, in Wright's poetry, is often the fine savour of the heady wine. Passion with him is not violent, however deep, however exquisite. Everything seems to be magically softened and transfigured, and realities have the charm of what is at once remote and familiar, like fresh and clear reflections, or memories recovered and represented in dreams. He can be forceful, but he never lacks artistic delicacy. He handles words with the same sure and caressing touch with which I have seen him lifting and turning the unset gemstones which he loved for their colour and form and lustre.
As a metrical artist, he made an exceedingly valuable contribution to our national literature. The Australian muse had been too often slatternly, a virago carelessly singing a heartstirring strain in an uncultivated voice. Wright was skilled and careful, and could take liberties with his metres without clumsily doing them injury. Influenced definitely by the modern school of Irish poets, chiefly W. B. Yeats, he could vary stress and quantity in weaving a lovely wavering pattern of words. And sometimes as the voice lingers over a series of long syllables, one feels how he must have delighted in the sounds that he dropped with that reiterated emphasis:'Tis far away and far to keep,
And winding is the road,
And I have fifty fields to reap
With white corn sowed.
Those who have heard him repeat or read verses that he appreciated will know just how the music of his own poems can best be rendered. A soft voice was his, answering consciously to every wave of the verse as an exultant swimmer feels himself rise and fall to the full rhythm of the sea.
Perhaps from his Irish fairies he learned something of his suave manner and his insidious speech, for, city-dweller though he was, there was something of the faun about him. Irresponsible, impulsive, warm-hearted, and humorously tolerant, he moved among men, but how different was their world generally from his. Where they saw stone walls and rigid barriers, he ran with the shee over the green hills and felt the freedom of the wind. Holding the leafy wealth which is given to those who have kissed the lips of the good people, he was careless of worldly riches. An indefatigable worker, producing vast quantities of marketable literary and journalistic ware, he was able to win money though he could never keep It. Meticulous in his handling of verse, he was blithely careless of his handling of money. One afternoon, when I was lunching with him rather late, he cashed a cheque for me to save me the trouble of going to the bank. That, for him, was the end of the transaction. He forgot about it. Many a long month afterwards he sent me the cheque. Imploring me to tell him how it had come Into his possession, and apologising for having neglected to apply it for some charitable purpose. Those who knew him will understand. He was well paid for his work, and he was lavish in reward of those who did him service. So genorous a man must needs die poor, for he lived as though he possessed the purse of Fortunatus. He has left a fine heritage for all Australians, no doubt; but it is in the delicate workmanship of precious verse.
First published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 11 February 1928
[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]