Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 822
Kenneth Slessor’s poem “Winter Dawn” is an aubade or morning-song. Slessor’s poem begins in the traditional spirit of the aubade, as the speaker shakes off sleep to view the freshness of early morning with brilliant clarity. The act of clearing the mind of sleep is mirrored in the first line by the physical act of rubbing condensation from the window, where the mist hanging over the harbor looks like “water breathing in the air.” The air is misty and opaque enough that the sun is indistinct, “a golden stain.” The poem is particularly rich in similes and metaphors, and here Slessor uses a metaphor and a simile together: the sunlight is “a golden stain” which floats “like a glassy sea-fruit,” an indistinct term that evokes the scene’s incomprehensibility to the waking mind.
The stanza continues to combine incongruent similes, further mimicking the morning mind’s inarticulate grasp of the brilliant sight outside the window. The golden stain and the single “bead of winter-red” light provide the color in a symphony of whites and light grays, with “mist everywhere” and ice in the harbor dull “like plated stone.” The sun is a cold sun, its fire “a crystal fire.”
The poem is divided into four stanzas of ten lines each. Its rhythm might be described as “disrupted iambic pentameter.” Take, for example, the first line:
At five I wake, rise, rub on the smoking pane...
The eleven-syllable line trips up the reader’s tongue. The word “rise” brings a halt, given that the word wants to be stressed but lands on an unstressed syllable. This halt is followed by the quickened pace of “on the,” with its extra unstressed syllable. Altogether this line replicates the uncertain movement of a newly-awakened sleeper.
The rhyme scheme is ababccdefd, with some use of half-rhymes, such as a and c in the first stanza. The second stanza alters this pattern, bringing the central couplet to the beginning and repeating the word “up” at the end of the penultimate line for a rhyme scheme of aabcbcdead. The initial couplet emphasizes the main event of the sunrise, an effect intensifies as:
The sun gilds the dead suburbs as he rises up,
Diamonds the wind-cocks, makes glitter the crusted spikes
On moss-drowned gables.
The dazzling display is made even more active and dynamic by the idiosyncratic use of “diamond” as a verb. The heat of the sun is evoked obliquely as solid objects are rendered as liquid: roof-tiles, “scarlet-wet,” are “watery mirrors,” swimming with rivulets, though the melting ice is still “Acid and cold.” Beneath this melting ice, the houses and their inhabitants are described through metaphors of the graveyard and the mausoleum: “mummied Kings… embalmed in stony coffins.” Soon the suburbs will rise, but now, at five in the morning, they lie in the deep sleep that comes just before waking, rigid as corpses in sarcophagi.
In the third stanza, the poet apostrophizes the people in the houses, sleeping the sleep of the dead. He is separated from them by his wakefulness, suspended in another world:
Marooned and lonely in this bitter air…
This is a description of the vertiginous, exhilarating terror of looking down. The suburbs beneath him are not only separated from the poet by the insensibility of their inhabitants. They are small and frozen, below him and infinitely far away. He loses all connection with them: “earth falls in clouds away.” In the second half of the stanza, the sense of disconnection becomes increasingly profound. The city below him “dissolves to a shell of bricks and paper.” The sleeping men, “buried dolls” at the beginning of the stanza, dwindle to “ghosts unknown.” Even their tombs are broken. The stanza can be read as one in which the speaker temporarily embodies the sun that looms over the sleepers, disdainfully choosing to “deny your frozen town, / Renounce your bodies.”
These ghostly sleepers give way to descriptions of frozen flora. It may not be unexpected for a poet to write of flowers or to juxtapose the beauty of nature with the emptiness of cities, even to the extent of rhyming “towers” with “flowers.” These, however, are winter flowers—specifically, the flowers of a winter dawn, turned to “crystal” and “silver” by the frost. They are further distanced from conventional pastoral poetry by being compared to man-made objects, “antic china” and “a bright penny on the lawn.” The diction of dryness, blindness and extinction constantly insists on the deadness of the cities and their towers, which are:
Dried to a common blindness, fainter than flowers,
Fordone, extinguished, as the vapours break,
And dead in the dawn.
The oxymoron of “O Sun that kills with life” intensifies the sense of the sun’s power, as do the dual apostrophes to the personified Sun and Dawn. The speaker begs them for the very vivacity and wakefulness denied to the ghosts in the tombs of the dead city spread out below.