Kenneth Slessor Five Bells Essays

“A masterful poet conveys the complexity of human emotion through succinct, empathic, efficient, and powerful prose.” Do you agree with the above statement, and has your prescribed texts achieved these goals?

The poems of Slessor have provided me with various insights into how the human condition is questioned and undermined through the process of time. Through these philosophical experiences, the responder experiences the personal encounters with death, loss, and grief that Slessors laments in his poems. Two sterling examples of his poetry that achieve these goals are ‘Beach Burial’ (1944); where he laments the loss of life and waste of war,  and ‘Five Bells’ (1939); where again he mourns the loss of a friend and the diminishment of that loss with time. Through the analysis of his powerful use of language transfer the intensity of these emotions onto the responder, allowing them to empathise with Slessor on a personal level.

‘Beach Burial’ is an elegy for the soldiers who died near El Alamein in World War II and the composition of this war poem coincided with the lamentation and sorrow for the vast destruction of war. Through Slessor’s sophisticated language, the responder is able to empathise and mourn with the wastefulness of life and also appreciating the commonality of human existence. Slessor successfully creates a soft and sombre mood in the opening lines, where the soldiers, “sway and wander in the waters far under.” The composer’s consonance of the W along with the half-rhyme of “wander and sway” accentuates fluidness and helplessness of the soldiers in the vast ocean. Masterfully, Slessor is able to conceptually link the engulfment of the bodies to how soldiers have been consumed by time and death, thereby underlining the futility of war. Slessor elaborates this tragic loss by the onomatopoeia of in, “the sob and clubbing of the gunfire,” and the plosive of B creates a sense of brutality and allows the responder to relate gunfire to the modern context, where war is still present, such as the conflict in the Middle East. The composer successfully evokes pity in the responder by mentioning familiar sounds since society today still has not come to terms with the futility of war. This lack of realisation is reinforced by Slessor’s caesura in, “Someone, it seems, has the time for [burying],” understates the significance of respect for the dead, elucidating how destructive wars are able to undermine the significance of human life. The composer illustrates through with brevity how lamentation for the dead will foster the termination of wars as the futility of war is understood. The dead soldier’s names on the makeshift tombstone were, “Written with such perplexity, with such bewildered pity,” and Slessor’s scesis onomaton repeats the confused sentiments to emotionalise the responder, and ultimately accentuates the destruction of war and the abnormality of death. Slessor continues the futility of war in, “The breath of the wet season has washed their inscriptions,” where the personification of nature metaphorically demonstrates the ability of time in cleansing memories. Slessor allows one to learn through their lament of the soldiers how life should be otherwise spend more meaningful as death is already inevitable. Slessor further emphasises how life are much more meaningful than futile wars through his choice of diction in, “Enlisted on the other front,” which elucidates how individuals may seek wars with others, but in essence, humanity are bonded by their common fate of death. Thus, Slessor successfully positions the responder to lament the loss of life and the hollowness of conflict, thereby understanding the complexity of humanity’s emotions.

Through an appreciation of Slessor’s mourning for Joe Lynch in ‘Five Bells’, the responder is provided with an empathetic understanding of how the notion of time will depreciate the value of memories of an individual. Masterfully, Slessor juxtaposes human time, represented by the “little fidget wheels,” to meaningful memories symbolised by “the flood that does not flow” in order to accentuate how stagnant memories will eventually be relinquished into endless dynamic of time. The composer seeks to evoke pathos and cause responders to mourn for the dead and disappointedly accept the notion of mortality. However, Slessor’s life continues to be disturbed by his memories of Joe as demonstrated by the parallel sentence in, “Why do I think of you…Why thieve/These profitless lodgings…” positioning the responder to consider that Slessor’s memories of his friend have become ambiguous, in that they no longer sustain the clarity of his grief, only the emotional trauma. Despite Slessor’s prolonged entanglement within the memories of Joe, they are slowly, “leeched away/By the soft archery of summer rains.” The sibilant metaphor elucidates the smoothness of this ‘natural’ process of acceptance, metaphorically illustrating how both meaningful laments and human emotions are undermined by time, thereby expressing the dynamic nature of emotions. This is further reinforced by employment of the water motif as the inevitable passage of time in, “The tide is over you…As Time is over you…” accentuating the strength of capitalised “Time” by comparing it to the shifting sea and how vulnerable memories are. Finally, the climatic line, “Five Bells coldly ringing out,” employs the repetitive onomatopoeia bell effect to engage the audience through a rhetorical desire for ontological introspection, allowing responders to accept the inevitable decay of memory and the human experience.

The poems of Slessor have provided me with various insights into how the human condition is questioned and undermined through the process of time. Slessor’s discussion and evaluation of humanity’s mortality and the nature of laments through sophisticated and appropriate language have provided me with extreme levels of engagement on the notions of life, time and death and how they influence an individual’s emotions. The poems will continue to transcend time and impart higher levels of meaning to the modern world.

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Time And Tide: Kenneth Slessor's 'five Bells'

Kenneth Slessor was born at orange, N.S.W., in 1901, and educated in Sydney. He worked as a journalist on the staffs of several Sydney and Melbourne newspapers, becoming eventually editor of the paper Smith's Weekly. During the Second World War he accompanied the troops in Greece, North Africa and New Guinea as official war correspondent. In 1956 he became editor of the periodical Southerly. With the notable exception of `Beach Burial', Slessor wrote very little after 1944, the date of publication of a collection of his poetry entitled One Hundred Poems.

Philip Lindsay, in his autobiographical book I'd Live the Same Life Over, tells about the circumstances of Joe Lynch's death, in somewhat more detail than does Slessor in his elegy:

`Joe was a giant, lean and powerful, with red upstanding hair, and the most amiable of grins; but once he had fallen down, a habit he had when very drunk, he would lie contentedly on his back with a gentle smile and grin up at you while you tugged at shoulders, arms, and legs, and he softly explained that the whole police force with an elephant to help couldn't shift him an inch; and I'm afraid he was right.

`A splendid fellow, Joe ...was to disappear from life magnificently...Loaded with bottles, he had been off to some North Shore party...when, tiring of the slow progress of the ferry - or, perhaps, of life itself - he had sprung up, saying that he'd swim there quicker, and, fully dressed, dived overboard. A deckhand had leaped in after him, and life-belts had been thrown. They saw Joe...wave cheerily and strike out for Milson's Point; then he vanished in the moonlight. Perhaps a shark got him, or a mermaid - as some said - or the load of bottles in his greasy old rain-coat tugged him to the fishes. No one can tell, for the body was never found.'

So died `one of the finest young black-and-white artists' of his day. But this contemporary account of the episode is not all that relevant to the poem itself. The thematic centre of `Five Bells' is less Joe than certain riddles of time and death in general. Joe and HIS death provide a means of access to these riddles. Yet they are not a means separate from ends they serve, not a road that can be used to arrive at a destination and relinquished on arrival; but they are, or ought to be, a mode in which the riddles Slessor deals with may receive artistic form. If the poem is a really good one, they will be a NECESSARY mode - essential to the adequate delineation of Slessor's vision of these `riddles', essential to and integrated with a coherent structure of poetic meaning.

Slessor's poetic development charted a course from romantic or historical themes to an astringent realism, evoking the urban atmosphere of the Sydney metropolis in keenly observed images. For example in one of his later poems, `William Street', Slessor observes the city at night:

`The red globes of light, the liquor-green,

The pulsing arrows and the running fire

Spilt on the...

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