Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 768
Australian poet Kenneth Slessor’s 1926 poem “Realities” is made up of fifty lines, most of which adhere to a blank verse form. Many of the lines contain end rhyme, but there is no set scheme to such rhymes. Instead, the poem alternates freely between couplet rhymes, abab rhyme patterns, and lines without end rhyme. Rhetorical devices such as apostrophe (“O, happy shapes, / O, shining ones!”) contribute to a sense of formal organization as well. These unconventional formal qualities, coupled with the poem’s rapidly shifting and irregular rhythm, give “Realities” a dramatic sense of pace and tension.
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Ultimately, this effect suits the equally unusual premise of Slessor’s poem. In brief, “Realities” describes the contents of a sculpture garden bordering a lake. The inanimate statues of Roman gods and goddesses populating the garden are imagined by the speaker to awake and become animate.
“Realities” starts with an epigraph dedicating the poem “To the etchings of Norman Lindsay.” Slessor’s fellow Australian Lindsay was an artist and writer who produced not only the etchings the poem references, but sculptures as well. Some of Lindsay’s artworks take as their subjects the same Greco-Roman mythology featured in “Realities,” with its references to figures like Venus, Mercury, Jove, and Apollo. The lofty diction of Slessor’s poem suits its mythological themes: the poem frequently uses extravagant imagery (such as “The trees come suddenly to flower with moonlight” instead of simply “the moon shines on the trees”) and exuberant metaphors (“Breaks in a rain of stars” instead of simply “the stars come out”).
More significantly, with its references to mythically-themed sculptures, “Realities” is a work of ekphrastic poetry, or works that describe visual art in verse. Ekphrastic poetry can be said to bring visual art to life on the page, and Slessor’s “Realities” indeed vivifies its subjects, animating inanimate statues, as expressed in lines like:
And Mercury whispering to some little graven Boys.
And Venus with Venus is walking in a misty grove,
Their mouths breathless with great lies of Jove,
A flute of ivory shines—it is Apollo come to swim!
The situation described in “Realities” simultaneously draws on two related rhetorical devices: irony and paradox. Language is ironic when it expresses a meaning that opposes the matter at hand. Broadly speaking, in “Realities,” the ironic situation is the animation of the statues, since statues are in reality lifeless things. The poem delivers ironic language throughout its references to the statues. For instance, consider these lines:
But a stone Faun, clawed to the branches overhead,
Could hold his breath no longer, downward slides,
And crashes in a storm of leaves.
Slessor imbues the statues with life and breath, as in the faun who “Could hold his breath no longer.” Likewise, whereas statues are inherently silent, “Realities” imaginatively grants them musicality. For instance, the gardener hears “music of copper shaking,” and “there is laughter like bells in air” and “A rushing wind of music.”
Contradictory language in “Realities” paves the way for another key rhetorical device: paradox. Paradox refers to a contradictory situation, when something that appears blatantly false or absurd ultimately proves the opposite—or at least the possibility of the opposite. The poem’s situation prompts the question: can inanimate statues of ancient mythological figures paradoxically contain liveliness, or at least some semblance of life?
The speaker of the poem expresses this paradoxical possibility. Realism is often characterized as a mirror, a reflection of life, which the speaker of the poem describes as “broken.” Instead, the speaker celebrates the non-living statues’
...mouths that have never spoken, ears that have never heard,
Eyes that have never seen, speak now, and hear, and see.
Taking this idea one step further, the speaker paradoxically finds these inanimate statues to be more enduring, more meaningful, and more tangible than fleeting life:
And I, who have climbed in these unrooted boughs
Behind the world, find substance there and flesh,
Thoughts more infrangible than windy vows,
Love that’s more bodily, and kisses longer,
And Cythera lovelier, and the girls of moonlight stronger
Than all earth's ladies, webbed in their bony mesh.
In this sense, Slessor’s “Realities” echoes another ekphrastic poem, John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Keats’s ode celebrates the figures and scenes decorating an ancient Greek urn, which the speaker says will outlast our time. He concludes with the famous assertion that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” The use of paradox gives Slessor’s “Realities” its own memorable assertion: the statues—inanimate representations of life—are found to be more real than “real life,” as suggested by the poem’s title.