Country Towns – Kenneth Slessor – Analysis

Country Towns

Country towns, with your willows and squares,
And farmers bouncing on barrel mares
To public houses of yellow wood
With ‘1860’ over their doors,
And that mysterious race of Hogans
Which always keeps the General Stores….

At the School of Arts, a broadsheet lies
Sprayed with the sarcasm of flies:
‘The Great Golightly Family
Of Entertainers Here To-night’–
Dated a year and a half ago,
But left there, less from carelessness
Than from a wish to seem polite.

Verandas baked with musky sleep,
Mulberry faces dozing deep,
And dogs that lick the sunlight up
Like paste of gold – or, roused in vain
By far, mysterious buggy-wheels,
Lower their ears, and drowse again….

Country towns with your schooner bees,
And locusts burnt in the pepper-trees,
Drown me with syrups, arch your boughs,
Find me a bench, and let me snore,
Till, charged with ale and unconcern,
I’ll think it’s noon at half-past four!

Kenneth Slessor

S1 … Willows and squares typify the Australian country town which is often the centre of a rural community. And in Slessor’s day farmers would come in on horseback and it is easy to picture a farmer bouncing on the back of a rather plump horse. The public house being a main attraction and in this case perhaps going back to a building at the time the town was first settled; the wood having yellowed with age. The name Hogan goes back to the beginnings of Australian settlement; for me it has association with the film ‘Crocodile Dundee’ and Paul Hogan so maybe it is part of his family history!

S2 … You can imagine the ‘School of Arts’ building being unlocked and still having old posters hanging around. It is summer time and flies abound and here they are congregating on the faces on the poster. ‘The Great Golightly Family’ becomes tarnished somewhat not being able to shoo them off. Nobody is willing to remove the poster out of respect and the organiser hasn’t bothered to clean up after the event; quite typical in the laid-back country life in Oz. Any way it’s only a year and a half ago so there’s plenty of time.

S3 … this sets the slow ambience of a sleepy afternoon as the veranda holds those that have had a few drinks and are now in that contented alcoholic after state … the mulberry faces may be from alcohol and or sunburn and the musky smell denotes the smell from the old building … dogs licking sunlight up – perhaps this is what happens when the sun catches them asleep and they start to pant before being forced to move to a shady spot … and at times they may hear the noise of buggy-wheels nearby causing the raising of an ear to see if it is of some concern … but then lazily drifting back to sleep again … again setting the time-stop slow drift of the afternoon

S4 … a schooner is three quarters of a pint, the largest size glass that can be bought … and when full of beer contains golden nectar … just as bees are the vehicle for the golden nectar of honey (apparently this text actually refers to a large variety of bee that looks like a schooner boat)… locusts are the cicadas that are burnt by the sun and pepper trees are a commonplace home (burnt might also refer to the incessant shrill drone that cicadas make in summer).

But now the urban visitor wants some of the county town syrup – like a medication from urban busyness perhaps … and an arched bow to give a place of shade – perhaps it is unfitting for him to sit on the veranda with the other locals … but he can join in and participate with a little alcohol and then a doze and in that way time may just stop for him, or a little while anyway … and note he will forget all his worries too (the worries of his urban life) … charged with beer and unconcern

Rhyming scheme aabcdc

Kenneth Slessor on Wikipedia

Beach Burial – Kenneth Slessor – Analysis

SeaGrave

This memorial is dedicated to the men and women lost at sea from merchant vessels in war and peace. The photo was taken in the grounds of the National ANZAC Centre. Albany Western Australia. It was from Albany that the first fleet of vessels left carrying Australian and New Zealand troops for WWI battlefields, leaving on the first of November 1914. A second fleet of vessels left in December of that year. (ANZAC = Australian and New Zealand Army Corps).

Beach Burial

Softly and humbly to the Gulf of Arabs
The convoys of dead sailors come;
At night they sway and wander in the waters far under,
But morning rolls them in the foam.

Between the sob and clubbing of gunfire
Someone, it seems, has time for this,
To pluck them from the shallows and bury them in burrows
And tread the sand upon their nakedness;

And each cross, the driven stake of tidewood,
Bears the last signature of men,
Written with such perplexity, with such bewildered pity,
The words choke as they begin –

“Unknown seaman” – the ghostly pencil
Wavers and fades, the purple drips,
The breath of wet season has washed their inscriptions
As blue as drowned men’s lips,

Dead seamen, gone in search of the same landfall,
Whether as enemies they fought,
Or fought with us, or neither; the sand joins them together,
Enlisted on the other front.

El Alamein

Kenneth Slessor

I think this is one of the most moving and well-constructed of all Australian war poems. Look at the construction of the third line in each stanza. For example … At night they sway and wander in the waters far under – ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^^ ^ ^ ^^ ^ ^^ thirteen syllables, a long line reflecting the action of the drifting dead over time, internal rhyme and alliteration with a bobbing rhythm.

Apart from a quiet, muted, sad voice in the choice of apt but simple words one thing that gives added poignancy is the fact that it is an after the event poem … the outcome of war set against the background of the action … a reversal of the theatre … and easily visualised by beach oriented Australians. And in the end, despite the many differences, the coming together of humanity entering the afterlife as one.

Isn’t it sad too that they were lost in the waves and then after burial their inscriptions are lost too by the rain.

In a lecture to students Kenneth Slessor did explain his intent by the last words of the last line … the other front. I have no record of this but my interpretation is that all humanity may be regarded as enlisted by the creator. In other words created for a common purpose involving action. The nature of the other front is up to debate but my take involves the path to eternity.

Footnote …

Here is a link to Kenneth Slessor on Wikipedia.

Some have labelled his work lacking … Judith Wright for instance uses the terms “skeletal” and “lacking in content” (from Preoccupations in Australian Poetry 1965). I do not find him so … maybe there is confusion between poetry and philosophy.

We should not let the philosophy of a person colour the way we view the work … I find his Five Bells poem for instant over-flowing in a desire to find out a reason behind life and in this way full of content. Apparently he wrote some light verse which I have not seen … in contrast to the well-known Five Bells and Beach Burial.

Note – El Alamein was really the turning point in the second World War. It was the first major battle that the Allies won. Although the battle was fought on the sands of Egypt there were plenty of losses at sea. Rommel was desperate for supplies of oil and ammunition and two crucial relief merchant ships were sunk at the time of the battle in October 1942.