Kenneth Slessor was an Australian poet whose writing was known for its vivid imagery, verbal exuberance, and individualism. However, his works were also often touched with disillusionment and a melancholy atmosphere. The poems "Wild Grapes" and "Gulliver" exemplify his vivid imagery and energy, but they also both highlight dark and challenging aspects of the human experience.
In "Wild Grapes," the narrator begins with a description of an old orchard that has been abandoned and left to fall into decay. Once the orchard contained delicious cherries and apples, but now only small acidy black wild grapes remain.
As the narrator eats the grapes, they remind him of a dark-haired girl named Isabella. She is now dead, and it is not clear exactly what their relationship was, but the memory seems to be bittersweet like the taste of the grapes. Here, Slessor is commenting on the human experience of time and memory. As we go through life, things that were important in the past are now lost in the passage of time, and as the poet points out: "Who remembers now?"
In "Gulliver," Slessor alludes to the famous novel Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift, in which Gulliver is washed ashore after a shipwreck and captured by the Lilliputians. To restrain him, they pin his hair to the ground and fasten many tiny ropes around his body.
The narrator of the poem "Gulliver" speaks of being bound by "this tyranny of sinews," "a hundred ropes of nerve and bone," and "strings too many." He complains that when he breaks one hair, there are still many more. He longs for a simple confinement of a chain, a wall, a tunnel, or a dungeon. Then he would have hope of escape. However, with all these tiny strings he is hopelessly confined.
He makes clear, though, that he is not physically imprisoned but rather confined by "love, hunger, drunkenness, neuralgia, debt, cold weather, hot weather, sleep, and age." These are difficulties common to everyone. So what Slessor is saying in this poem is that he feels bound by the human condition, in which these difficulties are ubiquitous, just as Gulliver was bound as a captive of the Lilliputians. Taken individually, these problems may be small, but when put all together, they pose a daunting challenge to human well-being.
In "Gulliver," the speaker talks about all the things that limit and confine him, that keep him from experiences real freedom. He lists just some of the "ten thousand" small "hairs" that entwine him and prevent him from moving around freely or doing just what he likes:
Love, hunger, drunkenness, neuralgia, debt,
Cold weather, hot weather, sleep and age—
If I could only unloose their spongy fingers,
I'd have a chance yet, slip through the cage.
All kinds of things limit us and challenge us. Emotions can tie us to other people, hunger can weaken us—even basic needs can restrict our actions—and our own bad decisions or human weaknesses (like drunkenness) can adversely affect us; we can also be affected by pain and disease and by the debts that we incur (either financial or otherwise). Human experience is fraught with all kinds of limits, not the least of which is death itself, as we see in "Wild Grapes." People, families, are "drowned in earth," while another "dead girl" called Isabella was either "Kissed here—or killed here," but no one can remember. We struggle throughout life, meeting challenge after challenge, as we see in "Gulliver," until we eventually meet a challenge that we cannot possibly overcome: our own mortality. And then we are forgotten.
The ways in which Kenneth Slessor’s poetry shapes one’s understanding of the human experience is fairly subjective. There’s plenty of potential for your thesis, but there’s so much happening in these poems that you might benefit from narrowing your scope. Here are a few reflections on how some of the imagery of the poems could support your viewpoint.
Both “Gulliver” and “Wild Grapes” offer bleak landscapes that seem to reflect the mood of the era in which they were written. The provocative imagery in both poems leaves the reader with the sense of how negative the human experience can be. In “Gulliver,” an unnamed force prevents the narrator from escaping captivity, perhaps a psychological prison. A desperate narrator appears to be trapped in their own body, experiencing “lashe[s] of a hundred ropes of nerve and bone,” entwined by “ten thousand hairs” and the strangling fingers of “love, hunger, drunkenness, neuralgia, debt, cold weather, hot weather, sleep and age” (lines 5–16). The human experience is likened to a prison in which the only relief is death, and the personification of the “chains” in these images might suggest that the narrator’s prison is more psychological than physical.
“Wild Grapes” offers a similarly dystopian environment, but here the narrator expresses sorrow rather than rage or desperation. The line referring to “the old orchard, full of smoking air” paints a bitter and blurry psychological landscape. The narrator reminisces about “Mulligans” and “Hartigans, long drowned in earth,” deceased characters who once maintained the cherry orchard. Now not even birds graze the orchard, and the narrator is left haunted by the memory of “Isabella, the dead girl” (3–13). Images of confusion and death regarding “the dead girl” persist through the final line, where the grapes represent Isabella, who loved, died, and is remembered only by the narrator.
Contextually, it's not surprising that these post–World War I poems play with themes of alienation, suffering, and death. If you follow the thread of your initial thesis, a look into the historical significance of World War I, industrialization, Australian history (especially colonial/Indigenous relationships), and T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” should offer some support for your argument. Looking at the poem through the lens of historicism, modernism, Marxism, or post-colonialism might also provide a fruitful vantage point for approaching the poems.