Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Kenneth Slessor’s poem “Country Towns” evokes the leisurely, timeless life of small-town Australia, which appears to have changed very little over the decades. Each stanza opens with a rhyming couplet, then drifts into a less formal rhyme scheme, casually using the final line to pick up a rhyme in the fourth line of the stanza (all of which have six lines, except the second, which has seven). The meter is similarly relaxed, with most lines being nine syllables long and employing frequent variations from iambic rhythm. The initial couplet is usually smoother than the rest of the verse, with the notable exception of the second stanza, which opens:
At the School of Arts, a broadsheet liesSprayed with the sarcasm of flies ...
Here, the word “sarcasm” is emphasized by the metrical irregularity which trips the reader’s tongue with its incongruity. The flies alone fail to participate in the leisurely courtesy which characterizes the atmosphere of the small town.
The poem opens with a picture of the willow trees and public squares that typify the layout of a small Australian town. The farmers come into town on horseback, as they presumably always have. Mechanization and other signs of the twentieth century are conspicuously absent, making the poem hard to date and adding to its timeless quality. The public houses were founded in the middle of the nineteenth century, but the wooden buildings are already yellow with age—something which might, however, happen quite quickly in the bright Australian sunlight. In any case, the reader has the impression that little has changed since 1860, when the signs were put up. The name of “Hogan,” so quintessentially Australian that the poet describes its bearers as a mysterious race, is attached to the general stores. Already, we seem to be seeing one town through the characteristics of many, something like the Platonic ideal of the country town.
The second stanza further emphasizes the slow pace of life in a small town. The School of Arts still displays fly-blown old posters “Dated a year and a half ago” with extravagant descriptions of acts that have long since departed. The flies detract from whatever greatness “The Great Golightly Family” once enjoyed, but the importance of quixotic courtesy in small-town life is emphasized by the curious unwillingness of those who run the School of Arts to simply throw the posters away. They remain as a testament to performers once received as honored guests.
Sleep is the keynote of the third stanza:
Verandas baked with musky sleep,Mulberry faces dozing deep ...
The word “baked” suggests the intensity of the heat, which paralyzes life and activity in the small town so that even the dogs “Lower their ears and drowse” in sympathy with their owners by the end of the stanza. The “Mulberry faces” are a natural image for the deep red of faces burned by the same intense sun that sends them to sleep, and which are perhaps reddened as well by consumption of the beer alluded to in the next stanza.
The “schooner bees” in the first line of the final stanza constitute a double reference: both to the preternaturally large insects to be found in rural Australia (bees like schooners) and to the largest size of beer glass widely available, the schooner, filled with refreshing nectar on a hot, drowsy afternoon (though the beer that initially refreshes ultimately contributes to the drinker’s drowsiness). The poem ends with the following lines:
Drown me with syrups, arch your boughs,Find me a bench, and let me snore,Till, charged with ale and unconcern, I’ll think it’s noon...
(This entire section contains 775 words.)
at half-past four!
The syrups denote all the substances that ooze out of Australian trees but also refer to the drinks which will send the poet to sleep. In this context, with the aural combination of “Drown” and “boughs,” the line irresistibly recalls the “drowsy syrups” of Shakespeare’s Othello:
Not poppy, nor mandragora, Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world, Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep Which thou owedst yesterday.
The poet, unlike Othello, is fortunate enough to enjoy sweet sleep—to the extent that he forgets the time completely, losing track of the hours as the town itself seems to have lost track of the years and decades.
These details, together with the informality of the meter and diction, contribute to the creation of a unique atmosphere: slow, drowsy, rustic and simple but gentle and civilized in manners and customs. The leisurely charm of these small country towns draws the poet’s memory back to their common features, which blend into one to create an amalgam of nostalgia.