Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Kenneth Slessor’s poem “Beach Burial” consists of five quatrains which are irregular in meter. The second and fourth lines of each quatrain are shorter than the first and third, and they end in half-rhymes—”come” and “foam," “men” and “begin.” The longer first and third lines of each quatrain are unrhymed.
The poem opens with the jarring statement:
Softly and humbly to the Gulf of Arabs
The convoys of dead sailors come . . .
Having “wander[ed] in the waters” by night, now “morning rolls [the dead sailors] in the foam.” Softness and humility are not qualities usually associated with death at sea, but the sailors’ bodies—lately full of life and violence—have adopted the ocean’s rhythms. The whispering sounds of the sea are reproduced in the alliteration, assonance, and half-rhyme of the onomatopoeic “sway and wander in the waters far under.” The swaying motion calls to mind the involuntary movement of seaweed and sea creatures too small to resist the currents.
Someone, in the second stanza, has time to bury the bodies, even amidst the onomatopoeic “sob and clubbing of the gunfire.” The last two lines of this stanza are unusually long and ceremonious:
To pluck them from the shallows and bury them in burrows
And tread the sand upon their nakedness . . .
The internal half-rhyme of “shallows” and “burrows” is technically half a feminine rhyme, since it involves both the stressed and unstressed syllables of each word. It gives the line a stateliness which is reinforced by the biblical phrasing and imagery of the following line; together, these lines lend dignity to the ritual of burial. In the midst of battle and with no materials for an elaborate funeral, the bodies are nevertheless treated with ceremony and respect.
Instead of marble or granite headstones, the graves in the third stanza are marked by "stake[s] of tidewood" that has washed up like the sailors. Notes are written on the wood in fading blue pencil “with such perplexity, with such bewildered pity” that “the words choke as they begin.” The writers may be physically choking as they write, but the word also refers to the unsteadiness of the writing and the emptiness of the information it conveys.
The pencil of the uninformative legend “Unknown seaman” on the tidewood is described in the fourth quatrain as “ghostly,” equating the faintness of the writing with the death it fails to classify. The connection is augmented by the color of the writing, which turns “As blue as drowned men’s lips” when buffeted by the “breath of the wet season,” just as the sailors have been buffeted—and perhaps were drowned—by their journey through the sea.
The final quatrain refers to the trope of death as a leveler and the end of all battles. Two ideas are juxtaposed which join the enemies together in death. First, in death, the souls or spirits of the seamen have “gone in search of the same landfall,” regardless of the side they fought on in life. Second, the sand joins their bodies together with a similar lack of discrimination, enlisting them together “on the other front.”
The importance of respectful burial is practically a cultural universal. It is a major theme of one of the most influential works of ancient Greek literature, Sophocles’s play Antigone. Its protagonist, Antigone, insists that her brother is entitled to a decent burial even if he fought as an enemy of the state. Necessity forces this perspective onto those who bury the sailors in Slessor’s poem, since they have no way to identify the sailors or the side on which they fought. The sailors lie side by side, connected by the sands of the beach, identifiable only as human beings.