Analysis of “Beach Burial” by Kenneth Slessor

‘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.

Reference

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.

12 Responses to Analysis of “Beach Burial” by Kenneth Slessor

  1. I must just say, This was very helpful with my studying and essays. Thank you very much, I love reading your work.

    • Casselise Rowe

      Dear Rheanon,

      Thanks for the kudos.
      I’m glad it helped you.
      I know, when I was writing about it, I was going crazy looking for material (there isn’t much is there?).
      I’m glad that this was helpful.
      Are you studying literature too?
      I hope it is going well.

      - C

      • Hey Casselise,
        I am so happy that someone posted up something that analysed everything in the poem. I needed some more help. Is there any way I can contact you?

  2. Thank you very much this immensely helped me to understand the poem

    • Dear Eranga,

      I’m glad it was helpful, and I’m glad you enjoyed the poem.
      When one analyses poetry, it can be hard not to be personally touched by the underlying meanings.

      Glad to be of help.

      - C

  3. Hi, thanks this was very helpful :)
    Just one question, is the poem about a specific war or just war in general?
    Id appreciate your feedback :)

    • Hi there Shane,

      This specific poem would have drawn from the poets experience of World War 2, as Slessor was a war correspondent during the war, and this was written shortly before the end. Having said that, like most poetry, and as is the way of all good poets, the metaphors and language of the poem are structured in such a way that it could be adaptable to any war. After all, the over-riding themes of death, needless end, search for peace, violence and tragedy are all themes that one would, and could adapt, to any war. This is the everlasting beauty of poetry, and why even such great giants of the field (such as Homer and his narration of the Trojan War) can be read for generations, and can be taken to be adaptable to any situation. This, for me, is the mark of brilliant poetry and writing in general, for, if written the right way, the words will always be relevant and relate-able to someone.

      I think it is safe to say the Slessor, in an obvious absence of reference to any kind of clear allegiance to a country or army within the poem, wrote the piece for all soldiers and all wars, because, at the end of the day, irrespective of side, every man is a son, a father, a brother, a husband.

      I’m glad the analysis was helpful.

      - C

    • Sorry for very late reply. It is unlikely of any use now, but I wrote it in 2013. I hope your assignment went well.

  4. thankyou SOOOOOO much for a quick and very haelpful reply. I really do appreciate it. :)

  5. That was an phenomenal analysis on the poem. You dug deep down and thought about all of the possible aspects of the poem.
    It was very good indeed.
    -corgi9

  6. Great analysis! I did an essay on Kenneth Slessor for an assessment at Griffith University. He’s one of my favourite Australian poets.

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