Kenneth Slessor was born at orange, N.S.W., in 1901, and educated in Sydney. He worked as a journalist on the staffs of several Sydney and Melbourne newspapers, becoming eventually editor of the paper Smith's Weekly. During the Second World War he accompanied the troops in Greece, North Africa and New Guinea as official war correspondent. In 1956 he became editor of the periodical Southerly. With the notable exception of `Beach Burial', Slessor wrote very little after 1944, the date of publication of a collection of his poetry entitled One Hundred Poems.
Philip Lindsay, in his autobiographical book I'd Live the Same Life Over, tells about the circumstances of Joe Lynch's death, in somewhat more detail than does Slessor in his elegy:
`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 ...was to disappear from life magnificently...Loaded with bottles, he had been off to some North Shore party...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 life-belts had been thrown. They saw Joe...wave cheerily and strike out for Milson's Point; then he vanished in the moonlight. Perhaps a shark got him, or a mermaid - as some said - or the load of bottles in his greasy old rain-coat tugged him to the fishes. No one can tell, for the body was never found.'
So died `one of the finest young black-and-white artists' of his day. But this contemporary account of the episode is not all that relevant to the poem itself. The thematic centre of `Five Bells' is less Joe than certain riddles of time and death in general. Joe and HIS death provide a means of access to these riddles. Yet they are not a means separate from ends they serve, not a road that can be used to arrive at a destination and relinquished on arrival; but they are, or ought to be, a mode in which the riddles Slessor deals with may receive artistic form. If the poem is a really good one, they will be a NECESSARY mode - essential to the adequate delineation of Slessor's vision of these `riddles', essential to and integrated with a coherent structure of poetic meaning.
Slessor's poetic development charted a course from romantic or historical themes to an astringent realism, evoking the urban atmosphere of the Sydney metropolis in keenly observed images. For example in one of his later poems, `William Street', Slessor observes the city at night:
`The red globes of light, the liquor-green,
The pulsing arrows and the running fire
Spilt on the...