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...
(The entire section is 620 words.)