Kenneth Slessor Essays

Time And Tide: Kenneth Slessor's 'five Bells'

Kenneth Slessor was born at orange, N.S.W., in 1901, and educated in Sydney. He worked as a journalist on the staffs of several Sydney and Melbourne newspapers, becoming eventually editor of the paper Smith's Weekly. During the Second World War he accompanied the troops in Greece, North Africa and New Guinea as official war correspondent. In 1956 he became editor of the periodical Southerly. With the notable exception of `Beach Burial', Slessor wrote very little after 1944, the date of publication of a collection of his poetry entitled One Hundred Poems.

Philip Lindsay, in his autobiographical book I'd Live the Same Life Over, tells about the circumstances of Joe Lynch's death, in somewhat more detail than does Slessor in his elegy:

`Joe was a giant, lean and powerful, with red upstanding hair, and the most amiable of grins; but once he had fallen down, a habit he had when very drunk, he would lie contentedly on his back with a gentle smile and grin up at you while you tugged at shoulders, arms, and legs, and he softly explained that the whole police force with an elephant to help couldn't shift him an inch; and I'm afraid he was right.

`A splendid fellow, Joe ...was to disappear from life magnificently...Loaded with bottles, he had been off to some North Shore party...when, tiring of the slow progress of the ferry - or, perhaps, of life itself - he had sprung up, saying that he'd swim there quicker, and, fully dressed, dived overboard. A deckhand had leaped in after him, and life-belts had been thrown. They saw Joe...wave cheerily and strike out for Milson's Point; then he vanished in the moonlight. Perhaps a shark got him, or a mermaid - as some said - or the load of bottles in his greasy old rain-coat tugged him to the fishes. No one can tell, for the body was never found.'

So died `one of the finest young black-and-white artists' of his day. But this contemporary account of the episode is not all that relevant to the poem itself. The thematic centre of `Five Bells' is less Joe than certain riddles of time and death in general. Joe and HIS death provide a means of access to these riddles. Yet they are not a means separate from ends they serve, not a road that can be used to arrive at a destination and relinquished on arrival; but they are, or ought to be, a mode in which the riddles Slessor deals with may receive artistic form. If the poem is a really good one, they will be a NECESSARY mode - essential to the adequate delineation of Slessor's vision of these `riddles', essential to and integrated with a coherent structure of poetic meaning.

Slessor's poetic development charted a course from romantic or historical themes to an astringent realism, evoking the urban atmosphere of the Sydney metropolis in keenly observed images. For example in one of his later poems, `William Street', Slessor observes the city at night:

`The red globes of light, the liquor-green,

The pulsing arrows and the running fire

Spilt on the...

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Kenneth Slessor wrote the poem Beach Burial whilst he completed his occupation as the official Australian Correspondent in the Middle East. Due to Slessor’s observations of the war at close quarters he soon learnt about the horrific horrors of war. During Slessor’s stay in El Alamein which is a small village found on the Egypt Mediterranean coast he wrote the poem to describe the realities of war and what realistically happens after heroes are killed. Kenneth Slessor has used imagery and various poetic techniques to establish his purpose to the audience in his poem Beach Burial. Slessor has successfully conveyed his purpose to create a high depth of sympathy and pity for the soldiers who have washed up to the shore after being killed in action or died during the voyage at sea.

Slessor has used rhyme in his poem to create an intense emotional reaction to the audience. He has done this by using the rhyme pattern of ABCB. The use of Slessor’s rhyme creates a sense of flow to the audience. This particular statement works well with the beach scene featured in the poem and the amount of dead men continually sinuously into the beach. The line “the convoys of dead soldiers come” reinstates this idea. Slessor also proposes that war is inevitable and always continue just like the dead men.

Slessor’s purpose of half rhymes also creates a standstill in the poem, the audience stops for a moment to reflect on the realities of war and how dreadful and disrespectful the dead men are treated after they have fought and served for their country. We also meditate for what has happened to the men and what really happens after death at war. To reinforce Slessor’s purpose he uses the lines “wavers and fades, the purple drips, the breath of the wet season has washed their inscriptions as blue as drowned men’s lips.” This describes the way in which our men are forgotten and no longer required for the war effort. Slessor wants the responder to recognize this fact.

By using a somber tone Slessor has created a sympathetic feeling to arouse the audience. As the poem continues we build up pity causing us to think and even shed a tear. Slessor has used a powerful feel to create strong imagery in our minds. The mood expressed by Slessor has alluded to the memory of the men who have been buried unknowingly who they are and what they have done. The missing identity that Slessor has suggested is located in the quote”unknown seamen- the ghostly pencil wavers and fades, the purple drips.” This illustrates to the audience that men have died in vain and are being forgotten but Slessor is reuniting these circumstances with the audience. His influential language brings out our emotions and he attempts for us to relive the moments and memories of our loved ones who have passed away.

Through the living conditions and stress positioned upon Slessor his experiences have influenced his poetry to create this masterpiece. Slessor has successfully conveyed his purpose of displaying the realities of war and the realistic views on soldiers after they are no longer needed, through poetic techniques like rhyme and the mood and build up of tension and sympathy in his poetry.


old poetry, 7th July 2006Book Rags, 7th July 2006

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