Last Updated on January 14, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 913
Kenneth Slessor’s poem “Captain Dobbin” is part of his 1932 collection Cuckooz Country and is one of several works he wrote with nautical subjects (such as one of his most famous poems, “Five Visions of Captain Cook”). “Captain Dobbin” does not rhyme, and its lines of varying length are written in free verse and without regular meter. Instead of rhyme and meter, this long poem relies on its sequence of comparisons to give it structure and form.
The mood of “Captain Dobbin” is wistful; it describes the musings of the retired captain as he reflects on his past days at sea. Generally, the diction of the poem reflects everyday language, with two exceptions. First, the many lines of “Captain Dobbin” are rife with nautical terminology and references, as suits its subject. The poem refers to everything from “Messageries Maritimes” (an old French merchant shipping company) to “hydrostatics” (the study of pressure on liquids) to “Stormalong” (a folk figure from tall tales of the sea).
Second, “Captain Dobbin” makes use of figurative language to vividly portray the nautical world. Its figures of speech often take the form of similes, comparisons which use “like” or “as.” For instance, Dobbin views the harbor hanging “Like a fog against the glass” of his windowpane, boats are “Lugged down the port like sea-beasts taken alive,” and the lights of a ship appear “like a great fiery snake.” Similes are especially important for drawing comparisons, because they make clear what elements are being compared while still allowing for a vivid image, like boats as sea-beasts.
One simile that immediately follows the examples above is key to the overall structure of “Captain Dobbin.” The retired captain, land-bound after so many years in his element at sea, reminisces about the mementos of his voyages that he keeps “like old letters.” Reflecting on the importance these mementos have for the Captain, Slessor employs a metaphor, suggesting that they are “What you might call a lock of the sea’s hair.”
The poem continues to use figurative language to describe how the sea has been encapsulated for the retired captain, drawing explicit comparisons between the active experience of life at sea and the way that it has been frozen in inanimate objects. For example, “Captain Dobbin” again employs metaphorical language to define these objects—“Like a flask of seawater, or a bottled ship”—as part of an “urn-burial, a chest of mummied waves.” Likewise, “the sweet dangerous countries / Of shark and casuarina-tree” have been “Stolen and put in coloured maps,” thus drawing a marked contrast between the lively and the lifeless.
For Captain Dobbin, the essence of the sea is captured in writing just as much as it is in inanimate objects. The poem describes how, in a “ledger sticky with ink,” the captain makes nightly
Entries of time and weather, state of the moon,
Nature of cargo and captain’s name,
For some mysterious and awful purpose
Using another rhetorical device—irony—Slessor makes something that would be an ordinary part of a captain’s duties at sea (keeping a daily log) part of an almost absurd land-bound ritual that has no clear purpose. This irony gives the poem’s depiction of the retired captain a melancholic tone, once again using metaphorical language: while in his heyday, Dobbin boldly sailed the seven seas, in retirement he merely “sails from shelf to shelf” each night to make his fruitless entries and reminisce over his mementos.
In yet another use of irony, Slessor suggests that Dobbin has a vivid, almost physical response to his memories. The poem captures this point of view by using language that is sensuous: poring over his old maps and charts with his magnifying glass, Dobbin
. . . felt the barbèd rush
Of bubbles foaming, spied the albicores,
The blue-fined admirals, heard the wind-swallowed cries
Of planters running on the beach . . .
Staring at an inanimate and extreme abstraction of the sea—a map—Dobbin nevertheless feels, sees, and hears it. The poem derives a powerful rhetorical effect from the contrast between the stunted realities of what the map depicts and the vividness of Dobbin’s memories.
Nevertheless, the speaker marvels that Dobbin’s past is “Dead with the rest, remembered by no more” than a mere “scratch on a dry chart.” Furthermore, as Dobbin looks over photos of his old shipmates and thinks about great heroes of the sea like Magellan and Cook, the poem asserts that they were “Companions of no cruise by reading-glass”—which is what Dobbin has been reduced to.
In its closing lines, “Captain Dobbin” draws one final rhetorical contrast to dramatically juxtapose the captain’s life of adventure and his life in retirement. Looking out his window at the sea, the captain reflects on the dead that are “anchored” on the ocean floor:
The ships went over them, and bells in engine-rooms
Cried to their bowels of flaring oil,
And stokers groaned and sweated with burnt skins,
Clawed to their shovels.
But quietly in his room,
In his little cemetery of sweet essences
With fond memorial-stones and lines of grace,
Captain Dobbin went on reading about the sea.
The first four lines of this passage feature dramatic imagery: noisy bells in engine rooms, bright burning oil, stokers shoveling fuel into hot engines in an almost inhuman way. The language of the final four lines, however, is quieter, more placid, peaceful, and even “sweet.” The effect of this contrast emphasizes the world of Captain Dobbin, living his final days in reverie.
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