Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1816
The characteristic Australian poem is one in which there is just enough art to hold the job together: whether it gives voice to prophecy, belief or intimate emotion, it is unlikely to be remarkable for delicacy and precision.
In the midst of such a climate, Kenneth Slessor looks very much an odd man out. Reading his later poetry, in particular, one might easily believe that he had strayed to these shores from some more verbally sophisticated milieu, from the United States, say, or even New Zealand. And in surveying the full body of his work, as represented in Poems (1957), one could only be reinforced in such a judgement. For that collection charts the career of a man who acquired his artistic confidence first, and only slowly gained a measure of experience with which his art could be confronted. The verbal dandy appeared first: the poet followed after. (p. 342)
[In his early poetry Slessor] is already making of his diction a fine and flexible instrument which will be capable of transforming all manner of material into poetry. He is also, we might add, tightening his grasp on one thing he knows to be real, so that he may have some means of evaluating the ephemeral spectres of life. In the later poetry, one often feels that nothing but Slessor's verbal precision could salvage anything from the temporal flux.
Much of his early writing leaves an impression that we might define as painterly rather than poetic. In such poems as 'Pan at Lane Cove', 'Marco Polo' and even the more substantial 'Realities', the paraphrasable content is trivial and banal: Slessor's art here is found largely in his disposition of pictorial elements, of leaning statues, dark hedges, and formal pools touched by moonlight, or those remarkably intensified details which arrest the reader's attention in the first stanza of 'Pan at Lane Cove'…. Slessor is not interested in the respective values involved in the worlds of Pan and of Lane Cove; he is interested in the picturesque possibilities which their juxtaposition raises. (pp. 343-44)
Where the picturesque was his sole concern, Slessor's talents were undeniable. There is something of permanent value in the vividly patterned images of 'Nuremberg' and 'Next Turn', for all the remoteness of both lyrics. But where he sought to be explicit and give voice to an attitude, he merely revealed the crude simplifications of adolescent escapism…. (p. 344)
A much finer poem from this period is 'The Night-Ride'. It is successful not because Slessor has bluntly set out to find a viable analogy for his vision of life, but because it starts from a clear definition of local and specific perceptions. His magnificent verbal gifts are no longer wasted on the erection of pleasure domes in Neverneverland, but are devoted to recording the colours, shapes, surfaces of familiar things. (pp. 345-46)
We can account for the accelerating intensity of 'The Night-Ride' by regarding it as a sustained metaphorical account of Slessor's view of life as a process. His language focuses so hard on the train journey that the journey becomes the whole direction of a life…. And the direction is consistent with that which can be found in a great deal of Slessor's poetry: life is a rapid journey towards oblivion; other people and the bright surfaces of things are perceived through an intervening pane of glass; memorable experience consists of transient flashes amid a general obscurity of 'grey, rushing rivers of bush'.
The progression here, a progression from vivid perception towards a drugging sleep, is finally reversed—reversed, that is, without being negated—in one of Slessor's most brilliant...
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late poems, that rhythmical and syntactical triumph, 'Sleep'. The swaying, evocative lines of this lyric carry the developing logic of three kinds of human situation. A voice speaks with soothing authority,… and in the course of the poem the voice seems not only Sleep addressing the sleeper, but also woman to lover and mother to foetus. In all three cases, the implied listener is held, enveloped, in a harmony of pulsing forces. And in each case these forces are protectively maternal, holding the listener back from the harsh facts which await him, and which are realized in the new, stark rhythm of the last stanza:
Till daylight, the expulsion and awakening, The riving and the driving forth, Life with remorseless forceps beckoning— Pangs and betrayal of harsh birth.
Manifestly it is the best of all fates not to be born, not to be separated, not to wake up. In both these poems the most expressive passages reach towards the oblivion of the womb.
The threats of darkness and oblivion, transient phenomena and a baffled observer: from these preoccupations most of Slessor's poetry has been made, the flamboyant and the sardonic alike. The poems of his 'middle period', those first published in Cuckooz Contrey (1932), show little intellectual advance on the earlier work; they do however show that he has learned to use language with new precision and point. (pp. 346-47)
The unrealized fleshpots of yesteryear are giving way to wry monologues which eschew the excesses of Victorian Romanticism … without completely shedding its self indulgences. In 'Talbingo', 'Toilet of a Dandy', 'Metempsychosis' and particularly 'Elegy in a Botanic Gardens', the reader is aware of a familiar kind of alliance between weary disenchantment and a nervously alert wit…. The world of Tristan and the narratives of Courtly Love are no more than the faintest of echoes. A fine control of tone enables the poet not only to strike a balance between, but to fuse, his sense of emotional frustration and his unqualified delight in the objects of perception…. (pp. 347-48)
The finest thing in Cuckooz Contrey is also the most thoroughly original poem in that volume—'Five Visions of Captain Cook'. Here at last, especially in the magnificent fifth section, sharp observation and a fastidious fingering of words are involved in something of the first importance, because here at last Slessor's awareness of life has caught up with his mastery of language.
'Five Visions' is a concentrated drama of enterprise, action, memory, decay, and death…. [The] weight of the poem primarily reinforces our awareness of the flux and variety of life. (p. 348)
The poem ends with the memory of Cook's death and the image of Home's decline, for this is how life itself ends. And in the poem at large, as in the old man's consciousness, the fulness of life is vividly displayed while the 'vague ancestral darknesses' exist no more than slenderly. Home lives in the past because this is to live with Cook's (and his own) vital exploits: and if he is now a fuddled old man, those exploits are still not cancelled out. The five visions are, as little in the early poetry was, visions of a world of experience; Cook's Endeavour is not 'a painted ship upon a painted ocean' but a familiar ground of human action.
The verse in part V has become a robust and flexible medium. Slessor is now capable of setting down a human situation in bold, concise outline…. Irony here is not a device to permit detachment; it represents a simple plea for human justice. Every detail … is completely functional.
Where the earlier gaudiness makes an appearance, it serves a new kind of purpose…. The brilliancies of Home's vision make a sharp contrast both with the tawdry inn and with the real Pacific Ocean…. The blind man's memory is throwing up wishful fantasies in which air, trees, water, birds, all are transformed into jewel-like emblems whose only life is a factitious one. Their very brilliance is a measure of the degree of escapism involved.
But this is not the whole story, for Home's sustaining memories are composed of facts as well as fantasies, of lived conflicts as well as halcyon days. Within a few lines we are caught up in a recapitualated narrative of violent physical action. The different quality of the old man's memory at this point is made clear by the rhythmical tightness that is achieved: there is in the verse a sense of flexed muscles and abrupt shocks. Half-line jolts against half-line, phrase against phrase, in the rush of events leading to Cook's death in the Sandwich Isles. Action is here presented without a rhetorical pattern or a false logic being superimposed…. [On] Cook's death, the memory fades and peace settles down once again, accompanied by the inexorable flow of the sea. (pp. 348-50)
Among the poems which Slessor published after 1933, there are four which can be said to mark the climax of his career. In these four poems, 'Sleep', 'South Country', 'Beach Burial', and 'Five Bells', the poet is completely at ease in the shaping of his experience. All the slack of his talent is taken up, his talent no longer dissipating itself in merely virtuoso effects.
It is surely no accident that these poems are among the last that Slessor wrote before falling silent. All four are marked at least by despair and frustration, perhaps by 'a faint ground-bass of disgust with life'. Two are elegies, one depicts life as a betrayal and the fourth ['South Country'], a masterpiece of expressionist landscape, ends with a strange, anthropomorphic vision…. 'Five Bells' is generally, and rightly, acknowledged to be Slessor's greatest achievement. After a few loose gestures in the first three stanzas, it is hard to find a flaw in the poem's shaping. The form is musical, organic, even to some extent cyclic; like a more famous poem that was perhaps being written at the same time, Eliot's Four Quartets, 'Five Bells' demonstrates the possibilities of this kind of form for metaphysical meditation. For the poem is far more than an elegy for a dead friend: it is an intensely dramatic meditation in which Slessor gathers up all his previous suggestions about time and flux and the value of life in a godless universe. (pp. 350-51)
The whole movement of the poem, its meditative undulation, embodies this vision of time, 'the flood that does not flow'.
It is the paradox of a 'flood that does not flow' which stands at the heart of 'Five Bells'. The structure is both progressive and cyclic; Joe both is and is not recalled from oblivion; life is both meaningful … and meaningless. On the one hand, Slessor creates meaning in the act of commemorating Joe's death; on the other, the elegy is saturated with premonitions of his own extinction…. Towards the end, empathy with Joe has become so complete that the poet's own fate comes to be the real concern of the poetry…. (pp. 351-52)
'Five Bells' is the final triumph of Sleesor's powers of language. He has made his world fully articulate and has thus set the seal upon his small but distinguished oeuvre. (p. 352)
Chris Wallace-Crabbe, "Kenneth Slessor and the Powers of Language," in The Literature of Australia, edited by Geoffrey Dutton (copyright © Penguin Books Pty Ltd, 1964), Penguin Books, 1964, pp. 342-52.