‘Beach Burial’ is a harrowing elegy about loss of life through war. The rhythm of the poem is constructed in such a way as to confront the reader, and the language used throughout the poem changes from being very soft and comforting, to blunt and shocking. The image of the beach is also particularly important, as beaches represent beauty and purity. Even though this poem was written from an Australian author’s perspective, it does not pledge allegiance to aspecific country or cause, and it does not boast of heroism or victory (Lilley, 1997), Rather, it is a poem written for all soldiers, regardless of side, and sends the ironic message that, in death, all are joined together as one.
Even though it soon becomes evident that the writer is writing about the death of soldiers, the opening language of this poem is still quite comforting, and is not language that one would typically associate with the image of war; words like ‘softly, humbly, sway’ and ‘wonder’ (1 & 3). It seems as though the writer utilises this language to convey a sense of silent peace to the reader, in preparation for the following verse, which is slightly more confronting, and tends to catch you off guard.
The use of onomatopoeia in the next verse is an awakening to the reality of what has occurred. The words ‘sob’ and ‘clubbing’ echo in the ears of the reader and assist to conjure images of violent death (5). Once the soldiers are buried from the ‘shallows’ to the ‘burrows’, certain attention is paid to their nakedness under the sand (8). I do not believe that the nakedness of the soldiers is meant to be interpreted literally, but rather as a metaphor for human vulnerability, and the loss of dignity which comes from such needles and abundant death. The image of the beach itself, commonly considered a place of beauty and purity, being soiled with the dead bodies of unknown soldiers, helps outline the fingerprints that such an event can leave on a place, or indeed, an entire country.
The image of a ‘stake of tidewood’ is clearly supposed to represent a kind of cross which has been utilised to mark the graves; crosses being universal images of death and sacrifice (9). However, the use of the words ‘driven stake’ dictates a very violent and terrible end which is synonymous with cold blooded murder (9). This subtle composition encourages the reader to consider the realities of war, and the fact that murder, whether it is committed within the confines of war or not, is still an evil and unjust end for any individual.
The following verse of the poem deals with the anonymity of the soldiers, which further bolsters the horror of their deaths; that they are nameless in their sacrifice. The words ‘unknown seaman’ are etched onto the tidewood stakes, but the rains soon wash these inscriptions away (13-16). This image outlines the wasteful sacrifices of the soldiers, and the coming of the rain represents the turning of cycles. The world will move forward, and the gravity of their sacrifice will be lost and forgotten, just as their names are unknown.
The final stanza of the poem is perhaps the most powerful, and ironic. Now that the soldiers are dead, their allegiance is irrelevant. They have passed from one world to the next and must all search for the same absolution (17). Their race, their country, their objectives are no longer important, because they are all men, and they have all passed. This is ironic when you consider the attitude of war and the expectations of soldiers to uphold the cause for which they are fighting, often as enemies; a cause which condemns them to death and inevitably joins them as one (Kinross-Smith 1978). However, the final line of the poem suggests that the soldiers journey is not over as they are ‘enlisted on the other front’ (20). This haunting conclusion represents the possibility that even in death, peace needs to be fought for.
Kinross-Smith, Graeme: ‘Kenneth Slessor’, The Westerly Journal; vol 23, No. 2, June 1978, pages 51-59. Obtained online from: http://www.austlit.edu.au/common/fulltext-content/pdfs/brn8153/brn8153.pdf
Lilley, Kate: ‘Living Backward’: Slessor and Masculine Elegy; University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1997, pages 246 264. Obtained online from: www.austlit.edu.au/common/fulltext-content/pdfs/…/brn296236.pdf
Slessor, Kenneth, Poems (1972), ‘Beach Burial’, (Sydney: A&R), p. 127. Taken from Unit LCS32 readings dossier; Griffith University.