Slessor'S Five Bells

Slessor Five Bells #

I. Context & Subject Matter #

This is a poem written some ten years after the death of a friend whose haunting memory recurs whenever the persona hears the ships ringing Five Bells. Slessor writes much about the harbour; water as seen from a distance, from the safety and comfort of a harbourside home - likely that of his uncle, a relationship through marriage to Captain Francis Bayldon, who lived at Darling Point who had a magnificent nautical library.

FIVE BELLS” refers to the 12 hours of a ship’s day or night are divided into watches of four hours counted from midday or midnight. After the first half hour there is a bell, after the hour two bells, and so on until eight hells and the four-hour watch. Five bells sound at 10.30 am. or 10.30 p.m. This poem, written between 1935 and 1938, refers to the death of a friend and colleague who died in 1927. It is obvious that the death of Joe Lynch had a traumatic effect on Slessor.

Here are two accounts of the night of Joe Lynch’s death, both colleagues, the first, Phillip Lindsay and the second Kenneth Slessor’s in an interview.

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, who was to disappear from life magnificently.

I shall never forget the night of his death, for I was working late, seeing a newspaper to bed, when a drunken pal, Frank, staggered, weeping, into the office to announce the tragedy. We were damnably busy, on the point of going to press, but these tidings were so appalling that I snatched at telephone and rang the morgue, the police, the harbor authorities, all without result.

Loaded with bottles, he had been off to some North Shore party with Frank 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 lifebelts had been thrown. They saw Joe, Frank said, wave cheerfully and strike out for Milsons Point; then he had vanished in the moon light.

Perhaps a shark got him, or a mermaid — as some said — or the load of bottles in his greasy old raincoat tugged him to the fishes: no one can tell, for the body was never found.

(From: I’d Live the Same Life Over, Philip Lindsay.)

JOE LYNCH was black and white artist, whom I first met when I was working for a magazine called Punch in Melbourne in 1925. We became friends then. I liked his mad Irish humour and his mad Irish rages.

We did talk about blowing up the world, as I think it’s somewhere mentioned, really didn’t want to blow up the world, but he was quite serious about it.

We little realised, of course, that it wouldn’t be long before men did devise means of blowing up the world.

Then after Punch had finished, I met him again in Sydney when he returned here.

He eventually fell off a ferry-boat and was drowned. Or at least he was assumed to have drowned. His body was never found, I believe.

(From a radio interview Kenneth Slessor gave to John Thompson.)

There is no evidence that Slessor was with Lynch the night he disappeared in 1927, however John Olsen, who painted the mural in the Sydney Opera House, informs us that Slessor told him that they were all drinking in a pub on Philip Street that night when someone announced a party in Mosman. Joe Lynch filled his coat pockets with beer bottles and they set off to catch the ferry. As they rounded Bennelong Pt., a larger ferry passed, rocking their ferry and Joe disappeared.

The poet’s mind is perplexed: why should the memory of a man who had drowned ten years earlier return every time he hears the ringing of five bells? There is no very strong and continuing tie between the poet and the dead sailor, for the poet says that the scattered memories of him are “profitless lodgings”. The dead man has gone from earth— Yet something’s there, yet something forms its lips And hits and cries against the ports of space, Beating their sides to make its fury heard.

II. Sound Effects #

Read the poem aloud. Comment on the Sound Effects, verbal music. It’s rhyme. Rhythm and melody. Assonance, alliteration. Onomatopoeia. etc. (Blending repetition patterns. slow/fast movement, harsh, discordant, sibilance, sotto, allegro, Rhapsodic, lyrical, elegiac, upbeat, blue, staccato, dirge, ode, Melody. tone. mood. atmosphere. voice.

Poets can make words sing by blending meaning and using sound to convey mood in an emotive and suggestive manner. Some poets deliberately use incantation and repetition in an attempt to cast a spell over their readers, allowing them to escape reality and enter the world of dreams, imagination and fantasy. The subtle repetition of vowel sounds (rhyme, assonance) can create a distinctive mood or ambience. The repetition of consonants (alliteration) can also obliquely affect the emotions of the responders.

As a pensive, reflective and melancholic poem we would expect a lot of solemn elegiac comforting or consolatory sounds. However we are confronted with the meditation of tortured, tormented, recurring memories who has spent the last ten years trying to “move on” without success.

The querulous attitude is demonstrated by the number of question marks throughout in the poem:

Why do I think of you dead man, why thieve
These profitless lodgings from the flukes of thought
Anchored in Time?

Not only is the poet confused, his anger is reflected in the violence of the sounds throughout the poem:

Rip of darkness

Hits and cries against the ports of space

Talons of rain

Voice that rattled out of air

Naptha-flash of lightning

Argued about blowing up the world

I felt the wet push its black thumb-balls in,

The night you died, I felt your eardrums crack

This is not a consoling poem, rather a rage against the darkness of life.

III. Themes, Issues, Values, Concerns #

Through this double midnight the poet tries to recall his drowned friend, detail by detail; but the picture changes to:

the night we came to Moorebank in slab-dark
So dark you bore no body, had no face

and even the words the two had spoken were “bitten off by the wind” so that

all I heard was words that didn’t join
And fifty mouths, it seemed, were out that night,
And in each tree an Ear was bending down
When, blank and bore-white, like a maniac’s thought,
The naptha—flash of lightning slit the sky, knifing the dark with deadly photographs.

It is easy to miss, in admiration for this passage, its deeper significance in the poem. This is not just random recollection of a night spent with the dead man; it is itself a symbolic statement of the poem’s theme, which is the fragmentariness of communication with the living; its incoherence, incomprehensibleness and the loss of communication in death.

Slessor here, as in other poems, is questioning the purpose of our existence and the fragility of human relationships. Though he was close to Joe Lynch, he really knew little about him.

Judith Wright in summing up Slessor’s work writes:

For Slessor, in the end, experience is rendered meaningless by its discontinuity, and communication between human beings is momentary, limited, and corrupted by time and death. Only the moment’s world can hold beauty and freedom and changelessness; and the moment is no more than a moment; it is not, as it is for Eliot, the guarantee of anything beyond itself


Structure*: linear, circular, episodic, flash backs, climatic.
Images: (visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, gustatory) figures of speech: similes, metaphors, personification, analogy, synecdoche, contrast, antithesis, unity, irony, Allusions, etc*

As most of his poems, Slessor is an objective outsider (seeing the harbour from the security of his house) attempting to make sense of a situation.

This poem begins and ends with a picture of Sydney Harbour, drenched in moonlight, warships riding at anchor, ships’ bells marking the passing hours. It concerns itself chiefly (or so it seems) with the evocation of a character Joe, long dead who now lives again for the author between five bells.

In “Five Bells” Time becomes

“the flood that does not flow”, where midnight confuses the depth of water with the height of the sky and “night and water/Pour into one rip of darkness”.

At first we are led to believe the tide that does not flow is merely the watery grave, but later it becomes evident that it also refers to memory, though static, continually changes.

But also this poem has throughout the two motifs - the bony knife of Time that “runs us through”, and the water imagery, sleep or unconsciousness - are interwoven. All the imagery in fact, is taken up, altered, re-echoed; sometimes from earlier poems. The “deathly photographs” with which the lightning “knifes the dark” are like the vision of human life seen in lighted windows, in “Last Trams”. The flashes of lightning suggest flashes of insight.

Much of the meaning in this poem is gleaned through its use of ambiguous imagery and symbolism. Never trust a critic who rigidly or adamantly contends that a symbol has a clear unmistakeable meaning. Generally symbols communicate by association and will convey subtle nuanced meaning to different responders. A good example is *“the cross hangs upside down in water” * which likely signifies the southern cross, but could also be read as King’s Cross or the crucifixion cross.

As a meditation on a dead colleague, a lot of the imagery is dark – almost morbid. We have:

  • “dark warships”

  • Night and water Pour to one rip of darkness, lightning.. knifing the dark, and finally

  • the persona “I looked out of my window in the dark”

This is contrasted with “dissolving verticals of light….the falls of moonshine and later the naptha-flash of lightning.

The poet is tormented by the fact that the body has not been found so speculates on

“memory of some bones long shoved away, and sucked away in mud;”
You have no suburb, like those easier dead
In private berths of dissolution laid-“


While Slessor laments the fact that Joe Lynch has no grave with a permanent “funeral-cakes of sweet and sculptured stone.” he has been immortalised in Five Bells.

Recorded history or song is more durable than stone, a fact noted by Juvenal:

“a name that might/ Cling to the stones that guard their ashes, those stones the barren/ Fig tree’s malicious strength is capable of shattering,” Satire X The Rewards of Fame and Eloquence. 166 - 168.

John Donne wrote about building “sonnets in little rooms”. Literature can have more staying power than the grandest monuments made of durable stone.

Shakespeare too claims, in Sonnet 55: “Not marble nor the gilded monuments/Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme….”

The fact that this poem lives on seventy years later illustrates what Auden said about Yeats;

the death of the poet was kept from his poems”.


Approach*: Subjective/Objective, Attitude or Tone, Audience, Style: diction, word play, puns, connotative/denotative, emotive (coloured biased,) /demotive, (technical, dispassionate) clichés, proverbial, idiomatic, expressive, flat, Jargon, euphemisms, pejorative, oxymoron. Gender biases. Register: formal, stiff, dignified or Colloquial; relaxed, conversational, inclusive, friendly or Slang; colourful, intimate, Rhetorical devices; Questions, exclamations, cumulation, crescendo, inversion, bathos, repetition, 3 cornered phrases.*

As a requiem poem, Five Bells uses sombre dignified language to eulogise the passing of his co-worker and friend who died ten years earlier.

Slessor appears traumatised by the recurring memories of Joe Lynch.

Time that is moved by little fidget wheels
Is not my Time, the flood that does not flow.
Between the double and the single bell
Of a ship’s hour, between a round of bells
From the dark warship riding there below,

Nostalgia is referred to as “the golden undertow of time” (Out of Time)

The querulous attitude is demonstrated by the number of question marks throughout in the poem:

Why do I think of you dead man, why thieve
These profitless lodgings from the flukes of thought
Anchored in Time?

“Where have you gone?
“…why were you here
Who now are gone, what purpose gave you breath
Or seized it back,….?.”

The first question is that of a tormented man who craves peace of mind, while the second question is an eternal mystery of life after death and the third raises the age old existential question “why are we here?”

As most great artists, Slessor fails to deliver the answers but stimulates us to search for our own.

VI. Evaluation: #

This is a closely linked and complete poem; and it is to all intents and purposes Slessor’s last important communication.

The Poem has become a major artefact of the Australian canon and has spawned a number of major creative responses including John Olsen’s panoramic depiction in a foyer of the Sydney Opera House overlooking Sydney Harbour as well as inspiring numerous novels.

As Slessor’s poetry matures, the veil of imagery thins, the darkness becomes more and more insistent. Darkness, isolated glittering lights, and emptiness - this is the background scenery of “Five Bells”; the Harbour itself, the “midnight water” that covers the bones of the dead men and is scarcely distinguishable from the air. And the darkness with its scattered lights seems also symbolic of the loneliness of men whose contacts are so transitory and far apart. This makes the final image of the harbour-buoys, “tossing their fireballs wearily each to each” so obscurely moving - more moving than the bells themselves with their double reference, to time to mortality.