Beach Burial – Kenneth Slessor – Analysis


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.

Your word in my ear ...

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