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"Five Bells" by Kenneth Slessor

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,
I have lived many lives, and this one life
Of Joe, long dead, who lives between five bells.

Deep and dissolving verticals of light
Ferry the falls of moonshine down. Five bells
Coldly rung out in a machine's voice. Night and water
Pour to one rip of darkness, the Harbour floats
In air, the Cross hangs upside-down in water.

Why do I think of you, dead man, why thieve
These profitless lodgings from the flukes of thought
Anchored in Time? You have gone from earth,
Gone even from the meaning of a name.
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.

Are you shouting at me, dead man, squeezing your face
In agonies of speech on speechless panes?
Cry louder, beat the windows, bawl, your name!

But I hear nothing, nothing ... only bells,
Five bells, the bumpkin calculus of Time.
Your echoes die, your voice is dowsed by Life,
There's not a mouth can fly the pygmy strait -
Nothing except the memory of some bones
Long shoved away, and sucked away, in mud;
And unimportant things you might have done,
Or once I thought you did; but you forgot,
And all have now forgotten - looks and words
And slops of beer; your coat with buttons off,
Your gaunt chin and pricked eye, and raging tales
Of Irish kings and English perfidy,
And dirtier perfidy of publicans
Groaning to God from Darlinghurst.

Five bells

Then I saw the road, I heard the thunder
Tumble, and felt the talons of the rain
The night we came to Moorebank in slab-dark,
So dark you bore no body, had no face,
But a sheer voice that rattled out of air
(As now you'd cry if I could break the glass),
A voice that spoke beside me in the bush,
Loud for a breath or bitten off by wind,
Of Milton, melons, and the Rights of Man,
And blowing flutes, and how Tahitian girls
Are brown and angry-tongued, and Sydney girls
Are white and angry-tongued, or so you'd found.
But all I heard was words that didn't join
So Milton became melons, melons girls,
And fifty mouths, it seemed, were out that night,
And in each. tree an Ear was bending down,
Or something had just run, gone behind grass,
When, blank and bone-white, like a maniac's thought,
The naphtha-flash of lightning slit the sky,
Knifing the dark with deathly photographs.
There's not so many with so poor a purse,
Or fierce a need, must fare by night like that,
Five miles in darkness on a country track,
But when you do, that's what you think.

Five bells

In Melbourne, your appetite had gone,
Your angers too; they had been leeched away
By the soft archery of summer rains
And the sponge-paws of wetness. the slow damp
That stuck the leaves of living, snailed the mind,
And showed your bones, that had been sharp with
The sodden ecstasies of rectitude.
I thought of what you'd written in faint ink,
Your journal with the sawn-off lock, that stayed behind
With other things you left, all without use,
All without meaning now, except a sign
That someone had been living who now was dead:
'At Labassa. Room 6 x 8
On top of the tower; because of this, very dark
And cold in winter. Everything has been stowed
Into this room - 500 books all shapes
And colours, dealt across the floor
And over sills and on the laps of chairs;
Guns, photoes of many different thmgs
And different curioes that I obtained....'

In Sydney, by the spent aquarium-flare
Of penny gaslight on pink wallpaper,
We argued about blowing up the world,
But you were living backward, so each night
You crept a moment closer to the breast,
And they were living, all,of them, those frames
And shapes of flesh that had perplexed your youth,
And most your father, the old man gone blind,
With fingers always round a fiddle's neck,
That graveyard mason whose fair monuments
And tablets cut with dreams of piety
Rest on the bosoms of a thousand men
Staked bone by bone, in quiet astonishment
At cargoes they had never thought to bear,
These funeral-cakes of sweet and sculptured stone.

Where have you gone? The tide is over you,
The turn of midnight water's over you,
As Time is over you, and mystery,
And memory, the flood that does not flow.
You have no suburb, like those easier dead
In private berths of dissolution laid -
The tide goes over, the waves ride over you
And let their shadows down like shinimg hair,
But they are Water; and the sea-pinks bend
Like lilies in your teeth, but they are Weed;
And you are only part of an Idea.
I felt the wet push its black thumb-balls in,
The night you died, I felt your eardrums crack,
And the short agony, the longer dream,
The Nothing that was neither long nor short;
But I was bound, and could not go that way,
But I was blind, and could not feel your hand.
If I could find an answer, could only find
Your meaning, or could say why you were here
Who now are gone, what purpose gave you breath
Or seized it back, might I not hear your voice?

I looked out of my window in the dark
At waves with diamond quills and combs of light
That arched their mackerel-backs and smacked the sand
In the moon's drench, that straight enormous glaze,
And ships far off asleep, and Harbour-buoys
Tossing their fireballs wearily each to each,
And tried to hear your voice, but all I heard
Was a boat's whistle, and the scraping squeal
Of seabirds' voices far away, and bells,
Five bells. Five bells coldly ringing out.

Five bells


This poem by Kenneth Slessor is one of his last poems, and was finished and first published in 1939.  Slessor started writing it in the early 1930s in response to the death of a friend, Joe Lynch, who was a black and white cartoonist with whom Slessor had worked.  Lynch had drowned in the 1920s when he jumped off a Sydney ferry believing he could beat it to shore.  While “Five Bells” is certainly an elegy, and has been described by P.K. Elkin as the only worthwhile poem of its genre written by an Australian poet, it does not focus on recounting the details of Lynch's life nor does it act as a tribute to Lynch.  Rather, Lynch is taken by Slessor as a symbol through which to reflect on the poem's main themes.

Judith Wright refers to “Five Bells” as an extraordinary technical achievement, and most critics concur with her, despite the poem having some flaws.  There are a lot of critical commentaries on the poem, and there has been debate amongst critics as to the meaning of the line “the flood that does not flow”.  Some have interpreted this as time, others as memory, and others still have ascribed the line to both.

The poem starts with water imagery to describe two different kinds of time: the usual time which is measured by a clock, and psychological time, which is the world of imagination and memory.  The poem's narrator sits in a room above Sydney Harbour looking at water through a window, where the ship's clock can be heard sounding out five bells.  This leads to thoughts of the dead man at the bottom of the water, and how time has covered and erased Lynch's life.  The imagery then goes to the window image where the glass is a barrier between the past and the present.  The imagery here is also used in other Slessor poems, such as the windows in “Last Trams”.  The poem concludes with the idea that nothing can stop time from erasing individual identity. 

“Five Bells”, therefore, is about annihilation, and is imbued with a sense of despair over the failure of memory and imagination to bring back Lynch.  The ringing of the five bells is a reminder that a whole life can be imagined in the space of a ring of a ship's bell.  The poem offers no answers to the meaning of life, especially individual lives.  If anything, the overall theme is the questioning of the meaning of existence, and is toned with a sense of failure, loss and desolation.  It seems that neither Lynch's art, nor the art of the poem, can defy death.


Simon and Delyse Ryan ACU National