Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1220
To fully grasp the context of Kenneth Slessor’s “William Street,” it is important to first visit the Australian genre of poetry known as “bush ballads” or “bush poetry.” Originating in the late nineteenth century, bush ballads were written in traditional rhyming verse and celebrated life in the Australian countryside or “bush.” The most famous of these are popular even today—such as “Waltzing Matilda” by Banjo Paterson, in which a swagman is caught red-handed eating the meat of a sheep he stole.
Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong
Under the shade of a Coolibah tree,
And he sang as he watched and waited till his “Billy” boiled,
“You'll come a-waltzing, Matilda, with me.”
Like many ballads, the tone of some bush poems could be sentimental, with verses tending towards unquestioning valorization of rustic themes. Slessor, a professional journalist profoundly influenced by imagism and modernism, was critical of what he considered bush poetry’s preoccupation with the pastoral. Slessor’s views have since been debated, especially because the oeuvre of bush poems, an indigenous Australian genre, goes far beyond Slessor’s assumptions. However, his radical departure from the prevailing poetic climate in Australia in the early twentieth century led Slessor to create some of the most inventive Australian poetry of his time, as seen in “William Street.”
“William Street” is conceptualized as an ode to the city and an antidote to the rustic tone of bush ballads. The city in question is Slessor’s beloved Sydney, and William Street is an actual alley that leads to Sydney Harbor. In “Notes on the Poems,” Slessor’s own commentary on his poetic works, the poet affirms that “William Street” was intended as a “defense of metropolitan fascinations against those who considered the city ‘ugly’ and found beauty only in the outback.” Slessor’s strategic use of syntax, form, and poetic devices in “William Street” illustrates this defense beautifully.
The poem’s use of rhyme creates melody, but this melody is more improvisational and jazz-like than regular—as if to mirror the city’s milieu, which keeps throwing surprises. Following a roughly abac rhyme scheme, each four-line stanza (or quatrain) ends with an internal rhyme in the refrain “You find this ugly, I find it lovely.” Although this refrain lends the poem a relatively formal quality (as in a villanelle or other repetitive poetic forms), the matter-of-fact assertion contained in the line neutralizes the structured effect. The poem’s meter follows an irregular iambic pattern and often digresses into the spondaic—as seen in the refrain, where two stressed or long syllables follow each other (“You find” and “I find”). Such variations deviate from the lulling heartbeat like effect of iambic pentameter, an impression reinforced by the poem’s use of stark sounds, such as “rasping” and “hiss” in stanza 3, and its use of figurative language.
Slessor opens the poem with a description of the city street come to life.
The red globe of light, the liquor green,
the pulsing arrows and the running fire
spilt on the stones, go deeper than a stream;
You find this ugly, I find it lovely.
In the lines above, streetlights are “globes,” little illuminated worlds, and the variegated lights of the city’s billboards and electric signs shoot like “arrows,” “spread” like fire and “split” on the stones. By animating light till it “pulses” and “runs,” the poet invigorates the cityscape in one swift motion. In stanza 3, the personified grease “blesses onions with a hiss,” adding an unusual layer to the idea of benediction.
Slessor also utilizes synesthesia as a poetic technique: for example, in the opening stanza, the metaphor of light as water evokes this mixing of senses—the light can be seen, while water is felt—and adds to the impression of a common street as a far richer, more complex place than assumed. Another striking example of synesthesia occurs in stanza 3, where smells are described as "rasping,” a quality associated with sound. The city blurs the senses, much as nature does in other poems, hence the repeated use of synesthetic descriptions.
Slessor’s reference to the stream in line 3 is also significant, since the poet uses water imagery extensively in his work to depict themes of time. In popular poetry, the city is often seen as temporary and artificial, while the countryside is timeless and organic, but Slessor radically departs from this view. The poet suggests the city’s lights too are like deep waters, home to collective human memories and aspirations.
Smells rich and rasping, smoke and fat and fish
and puffs of paraffin that crimp the nose,
of grease that blesses onions with a hiss;
You find it ugly, I find it lovely.
Additionally, the poem is designed as a sense-experience to immerse the reader in the rich, physical reality of the urban landscape. One way the poet achieves this immersion is through the use of aural devices, such as alliteration—“rich and rasping,” “fat and fish,” “puffs of paraffin”—to create poetry out of subjects sometimes thought to be non-poetic. The onomatopoeia of the “hiss” created by the frying onions amplifies the sensorial world of the street, while the concise, monosyllabic sounds of “fat,” “fish,” “puffs,” and “nose” paint a sharp, precise picture of Slessor’s subject: the lovely, ugly city.
The themes of loveliness and ugliness are not juxtaposed in the poem; rather the poet asserts that what others find ugly, “I find ... lovely.” Slessor’s descriptions of the city are rooted in a very specific milieu—that is, Sydney during the years of the Great Depression (1929–1939). The poem contains multiple references to its time period. In stanza 2, the “ghosts’ trousers” hanging in pawn shop windows invoke the secondhand garment stores popular in Sydney during the 1930s, while the “dips and molls” refer to pickpockets and sex workers that once thronged William Street. As Slessor himself later notes, this milieu was specific and short-lived, and “the old fish-shops and ‘21 meals for £1’ cafes have given way to pizza-counters and American hamburger-bars, and second-hand clothes no longer hang in pawnshop windows.”
Understandably—and despite the poet’s defiant celebration of the city’s beauty—the pall of the Great Depression hangs heavy over the poem, as can be seen in the following examples. The clothes seen through shop windows can be mistaken as trousers worn by ghosts, the poet says, yet he asserts no condemned or hanged person sways inside them. The tone of this image is supposed to be jaunty, yet the odd allusion to the gallows infuses it with bleak humor. This duality converges in the final stanza.
The dips and molls, with flip and shiny gaze
(death at their elbows, hunger at their heels)
ranging the pavements of their pasturage;
You find this ugly, I find it lovely.
The flippant “flip and shiny gaze” of the pickpockets and sex workers contains within itself, in literal parenthesis, death and hunger. Thus, the poet draws attention to the somber, impoverished reality of life on William Street. The use of the archaic, formal word “pasturage” in the third line of the stanza is a riff on both Romantic poetry and the idea of William Street as a lush, green pasture. Ultimately, Slessor marks the perception of beauty—even in what is often regarded ugly—as a matter of perspective and careful attention.