‘Request To A Year’ is an unusual poem in which the speaker expresses an ardent wish—to be more like her great-great-grandmother. Her reasoning is somewhat unusual, perhaps leading to different interpretations of her intentions. Wright’s piece is written in free verse and uses several literary devices that help make the poem as successful as it is.
Explore Request To A Year
In the first part of the poem, the speaker suggests that maybe the “year” would like to give her a gift. Her preference would be an attitude like her great-great-grandmother’s. The speaker expands on what she means in the following stanzas by referring to an event in her ancestor’s life. This involves the near-death of her great-great-grandmother’s second son and how he was saved from plummeting to his death by a walking stick. All the while, her great-great-grandmother sketched the scene as it played out.
You can read the full poem here.
In ‘Request To A Year,’ the poet engages with themes like admiration, memory, and art. Throughout this piece, the speaker expresses her wish to develop an attitude similar to her great-great-grandmother’s. She wants it so much, she feels as though it would be a gift if the “year” chose to bestow it upon here. Her admiration for her grandmother is depicted through a memory. It’s central to her understanding of how her ancestor dealt with tough situations. Although the memory is not her own, she’s inherited it through the art piece her great-great-grandmother created around it.
Structure and Form
‘Request To A Year’ by Judith Wright is a six-stanza poem that is separated into five stanzas of four lines, known as quatrains, and one final stanza of two lines, known as a couplet. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The lines range in length from around thirteen syllables down to around six. Although there is no single pattern of meter, the majority of the lines are around the same length.
Wright makes use of several literary devices in ‘Request To A Year.’ These include but are not limited to enjambment, alliteration, and an apostrophe. The latter is an interesting literary device that occurs when the speaker addresses something or someone that’s incapable of hearing their words or responding to them. In this case, the speaker addresses “Year.” This occurs most obviously in the final two lines where the speaker asks the year for a specific kind of present.
Alliteration is another important device, one that occurs when the poet uses the same consonant sounds at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “painting pictures” in the second line of stanza two and “difficult distance” at the beginning of stanza three. This device often helps to increase the rhyme or rhythm in a piece, especially one that’s written in free verse.
Enjambment is a formal device, one that appears when the poet cuts off a line before the conclusion of a sentence or phrase. For example, the transition between lines two and three of the first stanza as well as that which occurs between the last line of the second stanza and the first line of the third stanza.
Stanzas One and Two
If the year is meditating a suitable gift,
I should like it to be the attitude
sat one day on a high rock
beside a river in Switzerland
In the first stanza of Request To A Year,’ the speaker begins by suggesting that maybe the “year” might be meditating on a gift for her. This is a surprising and engaging way to begin a poem, one that includes an example of personification and metaphor. She speaks about the year as something that capable of considering what “gift” the speaker might want and then giving it.
If she gets one, the speaker adds, she wants it to be her “great-great-grandmother’s” attitude. The first thing the reader finds out about the grandmother, aside from the fact that she has an admirable attitude, is that she was a “legendary devotee of the arts.” It’s not entirely clear what the speaker means by this statement at first, but the following stanzas clear it up.
The second stanza brings in more detail about who this woman was and what it is about her that the speaker admires so much. She had “eight children” and, therefore, “little opportunity for painting pictures.” This sets up a very specific event that made her artwork all the more impactful in the speaker’s eyes.
and from a difficult distance viewed
that struck rock bottom eighty feet below,
After explaining the setting at the end of the second stanza, “beside a river in Switzerland,” the speaker adds more details. She describes how her great-great-grandmother’s second son walking and balancing on a small ice flow in the river. This creates what’s known as foreshadowing. The pause at the end of the second line of the third stanza allows the reader to pause and consider what might happen next. Unfortunately for this son, the ice “struck rock bottom eighty feet below” the bottom of a waterfall.
while her second daughter, impeded,
(which luckily later caught him on his way).
In the fourth stanza, the speaker explains how the second daughter tried to help but was “impeded” by her petticoats. They were so large and cumbersome that she couldn’t move. But, luckily, she did “stretch…out a last-hope alpenstock.” The word “alpenstock,” which is uncommon in everyday speech as well as in poetry, refers to a metal-tipped walking stick. In parentheses, the speaker adds, as if it’s an afterthought, that the son was saved by the walking stick. This is an interesting choice, one that confirms for the reader that the speaker and the great-great-grandmother were more interested in the climax of the event before the son’s safety was confirmed.
Stanzas Five and Six
Nothing, it was evident, could be done;
And with the artist’s isolating eye
Reach back and bring me the firmness of her hand.
In the final quatrain, the speaker describes how from the grandmother’s perceptive, there was “nothing” that could be done. So, she sat there, “with the artist’s isolating eye,” and sketched the scene hastily. She did it as quickly as she could so as to capture the moment before it was lost. It’s thought the sketch that the story lives one. The speaker admires this. She reiterates her desire to take on her great-great-grandmother’s attitude toward life.
The woman made the best she could of the situation. She knew she couldn’t help her son, so she memorialized the incident for generations to come. She had a “firmness of her hand” and a strong sense of what she should do when.
Readers who enjoyed this piece should also consider reading ‘Artist’s Life’ by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, ‘Now Art Has Lost its Mental Charms’ by William Blake, and ‘For My Grandmother Knitting’ by Liz Lochhead. The latter is a charming, repetition-filled poem in which the poet depicts an older woman seeking to remain relevant in the modern world. In ‘Now Art Has Lost its Mental Charms’ the speaker discusses, with an angel, the value of art. In Wilcox’s poem, the speaker describes the personal and emotional connection a speaker has to Strauss’ composition, “Artist’s Life.”