Kenneth Slessor

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A. C. W. Mitchell

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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'.

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...

(This entire section contains 1381 words.)

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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 effects with a number of images conjuring up a world of wild revels: old Spanish wine, pasties in pyramids, flagons with silver lids, fuming platters, and dim chambers, maidens in dark passages, wenches with tousled silk, and beds of milk under carved canopies…. There is something strikingly effective in the contrast between the sumptuousness and moist luxuriousness of the dining and wenching, and the ghost's spareness and dryness as conveyed by the simile: 'Like a white leaf'. One can possibly account for this by the inversion of light—the scene within being emphasized as dim so that the stark whiteness of the ghost's face against the dark pane stands out in a most startling way—and perhaps also by the underlying hollowness of the situations each side of the glass. The effect of this is to create an undercurrent of irony in the transition between the two situations; the actual grotesqueness stems from the suddenness of the transition from the tumbling of wenches to the motionless, lifeless face of the ghost at the window. Moreover, it depends heavily on the concentration of close contrasts between the two situations. They are almost an exact inverse of each other. (pp. 133-35)

[Venus appears as] an emblem of physical desirability rather than a symbol of beauty (considered as an abstraction), and consequently when she occurs in an image we get a peculiar tension set up between the physical and the ideal, which in effect is that characteristic of Slessor's imagery we have been calling the grotesque. This tension can be seen in the following lines from 'Earth-Visitors':

    She is there suddenly, lit by no torch or moon,
    But by the shining of her naked body.
    Her breasts are berries broken in snow; her hair
    Blows in a gold rain over and over them
    She flings her kisses like warm guineas of love….

Some of these images come dangerously near to being ridiculous, but if we accept Victor Hugo's contention that 'La grotesque est le germe de la comedie', this serves only to support the thesis that much of Slessor's imagery is to be understood in terms of the grotesque.

It should be emphasized that the grotesque is not necessarily repulsive, nor is it necessarily ludicrous, although traces of these qualities are often detected in it. It is not in the least unsuccessful art…. Its particular value to the poet is that it 'startles into new awareness', and when Slessor uses the grotesque to advantage, he transcends the merely surprising or startling to give fresh insights into the experience he is presenting…. (pp. 136-37)

It is noticeable that the recurrent Venus-image becomes less persistent in the later poems, though it by no means dies out. in his maturer phase, Slessor began to exploit two symbols that had intrigued him from his earliest poems, namely stone and the window…. Both carry implications of death: stone as either a gravestone or the emblem of fixity, sterility, and therefore a spiritual of living death; and the window (as we have seen in 'The Ghost') as the 'pygmy strait' between life and death…. The point to be made here is that the individual image becomes vivid and poignant only when the symbolic interpretation is combined with the literal statement, and this is startling or grotesque in the way we have defined it only because the symbols are somewhat grotesque in themselves (though this is truer of the window than it is of the stone). We are reminded time and again of 'the world of dead men staring out of glass', so that the insistence on glass in 'Captain Dobbin', as windows, flasks, bottles, and his reading-glass, takes on special overtones not only of exclusion or remoteness from a full and active life, but also of the brittleness of life itself. (p. 137)

Slessor advances from the mere exploitation of the grotesque for its own sake in his imagery, to a mature and considered exploration of its usefulness as a technique for startling us into new awareness, into fresh perceptions of the experience he presents to us. One may feel that this imagery, 'written with such perplexity', reveals a concern for the merely spectacular and sensational which leads to a fundamental shallowness in his themes…. But Slessor's 'considered breaking of the rules', his 'experiments in anarchy', seem to be vindicated by such poems as 'Five Bells' and 'Beach Burial'. (p. 138)

A. C. W. Mitchell, "Kenneth Slessor and the Grotesque," in Critical Essays on Kenneth Slessor, edited by A. K. Thomson, The Jacaranda Press, 1968, pp. 131-38.


T. Inglis Moore