Last Updated on January 1, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 755
Kenneth Slessor’s poem “Five Bells,” published in 1939 in a collection of the same title, addresses questions of mortality, the fleeting nature of experience, and the unreliability of memory. The poem is an elegy for Slessor’s friend Joe Lynch, who had died more than ten years earlier. In this elegy,...
(The entire section contains 755 words.)
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Kenneth Slessor’s poem “Five Bells,” published in 1939 in a collection of the same title, addresses questions of mortality, the fleeting nature of experience, and the unreliability of memory. The poem is an elegy for Slessor’s friend Joe Lynch, who had died more than ten years earlier. In this elegy, the speaker considers the interrelation of time and loss and considers the ways memory keeps the dead with us. Given the details of lived experience that permeate the poem, the speaker seems to be strongly identified with the poet himself. The impersonal passage of time is captured in the motif of the five soundings of nautical bells, as they ring out at mechanical intervals rather than in response to human actions. That rigidity is strongly contrasted to the speaker’s vivid impressions of Joe as a talkative, opinionated, sociable man.
Water is an important motif that recurs throughout the poem. The element of water binds together two of the poem’s key elements: the ships’ bells that the speaker recurrently evokes and the memory of Joe’s death by drowning in Sydney Harbor. The speaker’s present-day meditations draw on imagery of the harbor intermixed with visions of the drowned man below its waters. In the speaker’s memories, the element of water presents itself in the form of rainstorms.
From the outset, the speaker contrasts his own experience of time, which constantly flows, to that of Joe, for whom time’s flow has ceased. The speaker contemplates what lies beneath the water, such as a “dark warship,” as he observes what is reflected upon the surface. Looking up at the night sky, he sees the “moonshine” dissolve as the beams reach the water and observes that the harbor seems to be floating. From the sky, the Southern Cross constellation is seen reflected, and apparently upside down, on the water’s surface. This indirect evocation of the Christian crucifix inverts the holy symbol, suggesting the speaker’s lack of a religious means to cope with his grave loss.
The speaker not only remembers the deceased Joe but speaks directly to him. He wonders why he feels compelled to pull Joe back into the present, when his place is in the past, “anchored in time.” He wonders at the distant, almost nameless quality Joe has taken on, and notes that some illusory trace of him remains beneath the water. He imagines Joe trapped in a sunken vessel. These musings give way to a direct address to Joe, whom he implores to speak:
Are you shouting at me, dead man, squeezing your face
In agonies of speech on speechless panes?
Cry louder, beat the windows, bawl your name!
As this image of the speechless “dead man” fades away, the speaker acknowledges that Joe cannot answer: “I hear nothing but bells.” The speaker relegates Joe once more to memory, which in turn allows him to remember what he was like in life. “Your echoes die, your voice is dowsed by Life…” The physical person is now bones beneath the sea, but the essence of the man remains. The speaker also laments Joe’s lost memories, erased by his death, but he attempts to rekindle his own memories of Joe:
but you forgot,
And all have now forgotten - looks and words
And slops of beer…
The speaker evokes times after Joe’s death when Joe seemed to be with him in essence. The speaker describes a stormy night when he could hear but not see Joe alongside him. This night may be a literal one or a figure for a difficult period of grief, or both. He remembers the kinds of impassioned speeches Joe used to make, declaiming on topics including royalty, “the Rights of Man,” and women—both from Tahiti and from Sydney. The voice the speaker hears produces mismatched words and resounds like a chorus that even the trees listen to:
fifty mouths, it seemed, were out that night,
And in each tree an Ear was bending down.”
That difficult, stormy night, with lightning cutting through the sky, brings insanity to the speaker’s mind:
bone-white, like a maniac's thought,
The naphtha-flash of lightning slit the sky...
These flashes produce “deathly photographs,” a figure that evokes the succession of memories that fill the speaker’s mind. He concludes that only the poorest, neediest people would be out on such a night, “Five miles in darkness on a country track…” The speaker himself is one such person, impoverished and needy in the depths of his grief.