A. C. W. Mitchell

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1381

Close examination shows that Slessor's poetry is in fact characterized by … the grotesque, an element which appears in the early poems … as a garish and superficial ornamentation, a precious style, and a deliberate search for the unconventional, but which he learns to control and utilize with considerable effectiveness about the time he writes 'Captain Dobbin'.

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A likely origin of this grotesque element can be found in Slessor's association with the 'Vision' school, despite the fact that he himself discounts the significance of this association. His poetry shows the influence of this school in a number of ways. One of the dominant influences on the group was the art of Peter Rubens …, and it becomes evident that Slessor's imagery is in part a conscious imitation of the grotesque as it appears in Rubens's paintings and consequently in [works by Slessor's associates]. (p. 131)

[Much] of Slessor's imagery can be understood as a poetic rendering of the grotesque, not in any concern with a play on conventional imagery, although there are examples of this, but in the incongruous combination of 'unlikely elements'. And while the following discussion tends to concentrate on Slessor's imagery, his themes can also be considered in the light of the grotesque. In his imagery we can see this effect operating in two distinct ways. The profusion or agglomeration of images characteristic of his early poetry is in many cases grotesque, but more significantly many of the individual images are grotesque in themselves, either from the association of incongruous ideas as metaphors, or from the combination of such ideas in a symbol. Of course it might be argued that this use of imagery is in fact the use of conceits. But the point is that Slessor's conceits … are conceits with a difference. There is something in their content, in the way they are used, that is peculiar to Slessor. Although he is attempting to be ingenious, he is not so much concerned with being fantastic; with him this is not, ultimately an affectation.

Many of the early poems, such as 'Thieves' Kitchen', 'The Ghost', and several of the series entitled 'Music', seem to exist only as a profusion of images without much coherent intellectual content, apart from that imposed somewhat desultorily in the final line or two. Of all the early poems it may be said that they exist primarily in so far as they express through their imagery that peculiar animated gaiety associated with the 'Vision' school…. Even Slessor's later, maturer poems, such as 'North Country', 'Last Trams', 'William Street', and especially 'To the Poetry of Hugh McCrae', rely heavily on the sudden fusion of unusual components in the images for their effectiveness.

At its worst, his poetry is a succession of images with little connection other than that of a robustious animalism. 'Earth-visitors' is one such poem. Princes, barons, kings of old Tartary, archdukes, and postboys; viols, gold vapours, crusted stones, cambric, cloth of gold, gold rain, and warm guineas of love—the profusion is facile. The element of grotesqueness is introduced when this proliferation begins to be felt as a surfeit, an excess of richness…. In this particular poem the images are conducive to 'a confusion of sharp dreams', which is the point of the first four stanzas, and which is inconclusively related to the following lines where a luminous Venus comes 'knocking in the night', something like an adult version of Wee Willie Winkie.

In 'The Ghost' we are confronted with the grotesque achieved in much the same way as Rubens achieved his effects. The six quatrains present a number of images of luxuriousness and pleasure in the act of living, just as Rubens fills his canvas with crowds of lively courtesans and gallants, and ornaments denoting richness. Slessor builds up his...

(The entire section contains 1381 words.)

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