Kenneth Slessor

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T. Inglis Moore

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2256

Among Australian poets Kenneth Slessor emerges today as the finest craftsman of them all. He has mastered poetic form most completely, using it with the greatest brilliance and originality. In his skilful hands it moves like a gentled brumby, still vibrant with high mettle yet responsive to the light touch on the rein or the pressure of the knee. In his Five Bells each poem has its own individual shape and moves to its own distinctive rhythm. These fit the conception so closely that we feel the poem could have been written in this way only, and in no other. Subject and treatment have merged into the happiest of unions, integrated seamlessly, compelling us into conviction that the unity is indissoluble. (p. 113)

[Slessor enjoys] a variety of qualities. Gifted with an exceptional acuteness of the senses, he renders both inward feelings and outward objects with a nervous sensibility or intensity of perception akin to those of D. H. Lawrence. He gives even the inanimate chronometers of Captain Cook an almost Dickensian vitality by witty and vivid re-creations. As a satirist he can compass a Swift-like savagery. As a lyricist he modulates his rhythms to novel yet fitting effect, catches the tempo of colloquial speech, and launches his lines off with dynamic dactyls. He surprises with wholly original images, and delights with the sharp pungency of pictorial words…. Finally, we have Slessor the tragic poet of disillusionment, for ever pressing his face vainly against those earthly windows allowing him to see a reality of beauty which the glassy barriers prevent him from passing beyond to have and to hold. (pp. 113-14)

Slessor's poetry is most striking in its inherent sense of form. He is an architect building his constructions with a special genius for poetic design. This is only to be expected, perhaps, since no other Australian poet has concentrated on experimenting in form as continuously and effectively as Slessor has done throughout his poetic development, drawing on all the resources quarried by modern techniques. Certainly none has displayed such creative originality in constructing novel forms fitting their special functions so felicitously.

Here my conviction is deepened, too, by the absence in his best work of any birth-marks tokening the pangs of poetic travail. The poem arrives as if without labour, as if it were a Topsy that had not been born at all but 'just growed'. Each piece is idiosyncratic, bearing eyes, hair, and quirk of nose different from the features of other children sprung from the fertile marriage of Slessor's intellect and sensibility. Yet there is no doubt about their ancestry. Other influences have entered into their composition, as varied family strains enter into any child, but these have been absorbed. The poems are Slessor's own, stamped with his individual idiom. No other poet in this country—or elsewhere, for that matter—would have so worded, shaped, and cadenced such striking achievements as his 'Five Visions of Captain Cook', the superb evocation of 'Sleep', or that surprising and satisfying elegy, 'Five Bells'.

His genius for form shows itself undeniably, moreover, in the fact that he is always in the Five Bells collection the master, and not the servant, of his form. In the earlier Earth-Visitors and Cuckooz Contrey volumes he had often, like Browning, let the verse run away from him and cut its own pyrotechnic capers for the sheer fun of the fireworks. In these first and middle periods of development he makes the preoccupation with form too patent, and even when the subject is treated with robust exuberance one senses that the performance is dictated by the head,...

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not the heart. The influences on the formal side, too, are noticeable. In these respects Slessor never attained the natural gusto combined with extraordinary originality of poetic design which made Browning unrivalled in all English poetry as the master of creative originality in verse form and treatment. Slessor borrowed, adapted, and combined until he finally wrought out his own constructions. Browning never had need to borrow, and invented his own verse patterns with a fecund singularity. Slessor worked his way towards a similar singularity, arriving at the highly individual patterns of theFive Bells pieces via the experiments in Cuckooz Contrey. In the later poems, his cometary rockets, his roman candles and catherine wheels, fly, whirl, and blaze in gallant display, but now he touches them off, not for their own brilliant sakes, but to use that brilliance to illuminate some subject in the most suitable fashion. Thus each piece is more than a brief burst of bravura flashing; it is also, and intrinsically, an illumination. It is a memorable revelation, with the form made one with the theme, whilst the earlier intellectual detachment has disappeared to give place to the quivering sensibility of passion and a deeply felt philosophy of tragedy. (pp. 114-15)

Five Bells clinched Slessor's claim to the front rank of Australian poets as a whole. The One Hundred Poems stands alongside R. D. FitzGerald's Moonlight Acre: these two volumes are the most important in our contemporary poetry. They show that FitzGerald and Slessor are the two practising poets in Australia today who have a calibre clearly higher than those of their contemporaries. (p. 115)

In reaching … maturity of thought and expression, Slessor went through three stages which displayed, along with separateness and progression, a common thread of continuity, so that we watch the unfolding of an active, experimental mind. (p. 116)

In the first (or Earth-Visitors) stage, the young poet of twenty-five years is largely romantic in theme and literary in diction. The luxuriance comes in his spirit and subject, however, rather than in treatment, since he displayed from the first a gift for craftsmanship and a disciplined sense of design. Indeed, the instinct for form creates effectiveness for pieces slight in content. The best poems here show traces of workmanship, but move easily and decisively, giving us the vivid painting of 'Rubens' Innocents', the skilful blending of single rhyme, double off-rhymes, and internal assonance…. (pp. 116-17)

If the strength of the Earth-Visitors stage lies in its form, the weakness is equally apparent in its content. As an intellectual Slessor is in revolt against Georgian romanticism; his dramatic poem 'The Man of Sentiment' uses the figure of Laurence Sterne to flay sentimentalism. He indicates his alternative when the singing girl Catherine tells Sterne she will leave him for lustier lads who will clip her with hotter lips. Thus sentimentalism is rejected for sensualism, and this first stage of Slessor is a sensual one, with stress on the erotic. (p. 117)

Far more significant in Earth-Visitors are the verses revealing Slessor as the modern artist, the first gleanings of the lode which was to pay most richly in later workings. Even at this first voluptuous feast in the halls of Vision the poet was deeply conscious of the skull grinning mouthlessly on the banqueting table, and this grim memento mori is the constant element in all his work, giving it an undercurrent of bitter continuity. The images of death—the skull, bones, and ghosts—are favourite motifs reappearing at every stage of his progress until they culminate in Five Bells. (pp. 117-18)

In his second stage, represented by Cuckooz Contrey and covering the years 1927–32, Slessor is essentially the intellectualist, and the satiric note grows stronger to stress the constant theme of frustration. Instead of McCrae and Lindsay, the influences have become those of Swift in regard to outlook and of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot in respect to form. (p. 118)

In the section of Cuckooz Contrey called 'The Old Play' Slessor uses a favourite image of the world as a theatre and life as a stale farce in the spirit of cynical sophistication used by Pound and the earlier Eliot. Every now and then, however, the real Slessor bursts into this nonchalance and smashes its brittle elegance with a passionate cry of despair. Thus the unity of this section is cleft by the incongruity between attitudes fundamentally contradictory—the flippant cynicism which is a negation of feeling in its treatment of life as a sorry jest of frustration and the deeper disillusionment which utters a vibrant Swift-like protest at its sorriness. (pp. 118-19)

Easily the best poems of Cuckooz Contrey, to my mind, are those in the Captain Cook series, 'Captain Dobbin', and such realistic pieces as 'Country Towns'. Here Slessor tackles life at first hand, although the romantic element enters in with stories of an adventurous past in exploration of perilous seas and strange shores. Here, in a highly flexible free or blank verse, romance and realism are blended to make a new and potent draught. Here the old frustration, cynicism, and bitterness are gone; instead a fresh, strong wind of healthy purpose and hard-won achievement blows through these tales of hardy mariners….

If the varied themes and forms of Cuckooz Contrey denote a Slessor still trying out his powers, in Five Bells he sails into his home port triumphantly bearing his own idiom. In his first stage he was partly derivative, despite his good craftsmanship, while there was weakness in subject matter; in his second he was brilliant but artificial, frankly experimental, responsive to influences until he charted his own passage in the Cook series of poems; in the third stage he is completely himself, rich with assurance in his subjects and master of his medium. The two trends … are seen in their fulfilment: realism of theme and incisiveness of treatment. (p. 119)

Five Bells represents a culmination of previous work: the climax of a varied but gradual development. It hardly contains a poem which does not have affinities in idea or form with previous poems….

This last volume shows Slessor as two poets with two dominant moods and themes, both developed from earlier work in a natural continuity. One is the sensualist, translating sense impressions into words with a fierce intensity and a delicate precision. But this time the perceptions are realistic excerpts from experience instead of excursions into imaginary worlds. Now he writes of William Street, local trams, and Sydney Harbour instead of Tartary courts and Cuckooz Contrey. The other poet is the intellectualist who has matured into a grim philosopher of time and death. The macabre touch, always present, has become stronger. The sense of desolation, again, is sharpened by the fact that it is aroused by actualities. The philosophy is not only asserted, but felt and expressed in amazingly concrete terms; the hard clarity of the intellect works in images and sense-words burning with emotional heat.

If Five Bells is notable as a continuation which is also a progression, it is even more striking in the felicity and originality of the forms employed. Each of the verses is forceful with its own freshness of form…. (p. 120)

[Slessor possesses] the easy command of a wide variety of forms, modernist and traditional alike, and the technique used to such effectiveness in 'Last Trams', 'Sensuality', and the poem to McCrae. However dazzling its virtuosity, each technique is always ancillary to the poem's purpose, convincing us that the formal dress is the only right wear for the thought. Equally striking is the assurance of the rhythms, expanding and contracting, curved or cubed at the stress of the emotional intonation, compassing a strength and flexibility beyond those of any other Australian poet. This rhythm is dynamic and sinewy, often launching off with explosive dactyls, shunning the conventional anapaest like the plague, avoiding both the metrical sing-song of romantic verse and the rhetorical roll cultivated by Wilmot and Baylebridge. In nothing is Slessor more contemporary, too, than in the colloquial character of his later rhythms, since many of the later poems are not songs but colloquies—dramatic monologues charged with Browningesque ease and liveliness. Since rhythm derives from emotion, moreover, Slessor's rhythmic vitality is an undeniable testament of his sincerity of feeling….

Another quality of Slessor is his continuous and admirable concreteness of language, rich in colour sense, highly pictorial, tinged with sensuous imagery. Like Blake, he abhors the abstract in Spectre or Emanation; he practises the belief of Benedetto Croce that 'Art is Life within the four corners of an image'. (p. 122)

Finally, turning from those elements of style and form in which Slessor so excels, we come to his philosophy and find that his work reveals, first, an acute relish of life with its beauty and love, and second, a sense of frustration which passes into resentment, and finally an angry despair at the victory over life won by time and death, a victory which reduces reality to an irrevocable nothingness. Each of his three main volumes ends in pessimism: Earth-Visitors, after all the roistering and wenching, closes with frustration, the dissolution of life, and the passing of the bells of Music; Cuckooz Contrey finishes with a desolate appeal to the man-made gods not to leave us 'crying in emptiness'….

[The] pursuit of death is Ken Slessor's main preoccupation as a poet; it ends in nescience, and he emerges as a grim nihilist…. [He] is essentially a tragic poet, beset by doom, and his finest poem is the elegy, Five Bells, where the tension so finely maintained throughout is clenched at last on predestined emptiness…. [Slessor] finds no comforting defiance or immortality in his night of disillusionment and despair; there is only the tortured bitterness of a realistic, clear-eyed acceptance of the annihilating dooms wrought on man by time and death. (p. 123)

T. Inglis Moore, "Kenneth Slessor," in Critical Essays on Kenneth Slessor, edited by A. K. Thomson, The Jacaranda Press, 1968, pp. 113-23.


Judith Wright


A. C. W. Mitchell