Kenneth Slessor’s poignant poem, ‘Beach Burial’ contemplates on the improper and unfair burial that the Australian soldiers, who were at war with the Germans during World War 2, receive as a result of the fact that they could not get back home. The main idea that the poet was trying to get across was that as a result of the soldiers not being able to get a proper burial, they are not able to be recognized and are considered to be just another casualty of war: without honor or recognition. The poem emphasizes sadness on the completely useless waste of life; they are simply left how they had died and are now cared by only nature. In the poem, it appears as if these men are soldiers fighting a war at sea and as a result of a shipwreck in which they had died, or had simply been washed up on shore, they are left in the ocean being carried by the water back and forth. Slessor successfully shows this through techniques of assonance, onomatopoeia, rhythm and alliteration along with vivid images of bodies buried in burrows, using these techniques to transfer the emotions of calamity and sadness.
The poet represents his poem with a very ironic title, “Beach Burial.” The reason for which this is shown to be ironic is because of the connotations that come with each word: “Beach” representing happiness and family, whereas the connotations with “Burial” are quite the opposite: tragic, death and sadness. The poet uses these words because he wishes to express his idea of how war is slowly destroying our happiness and replacing that with sorrow; this clearly showing his discontent. Within the poem, the poet successfully illustrates the way that the sailors are being carried by the sea by using alliteration, shown by how the soldiers “wander in the waters far under,” (3) the ‘w” sound and assonance emphasizing the bodies being caressed and swaying without control in the ocean. It also portrays the dead soldiers to be helpless and lost because of how they are not in control of anything. The second line,” The convoys of dead sailors come,” (2) uses stresses syllables to show the inevitable movement of the bodies towards the beach. The first two lines combine to illustrate the back and forth movement of the ocean and to give an idea of what is happening to the soldiers. Alliteration is shown as well when the gunfire is personified as “sobbing”(5) and “clubbing,”(5) yet this time to show the brutal and barbaric state of war and to successfully allow the reader to hear the sound of the gunfire by using onomatopoeia (b-b-b-).
The interesting use of the word “sobbing”(5) expresses sadness within the poet as a result of the unnecessary spilling of blood. Continuing, Slessor also expresses a sense of peace and calamity in the poem shown by the opening sentence, “Softly and humbly to the Gulf of Arabs,”(1) a very subtle choice of words to create a peaceful atmosphere to emphasize how calm the sea is. This, however, contrasts with the description used to show the destruction of the war, or possible boat crash, emphasizing the destruction being caused by violence. This is shown by, “And each cross, the driven stake of tidewood,”(9) a harsh use of assonance to describe the brutality of war. This specific sentence also supports the theme of there being a boat crash and, as a result, practically all of the soldiers died. Finally, the use of rhythm shows the rocking waves of the ocean, shown by how the soldiers “sway and wander.” (3) Slessor comments on how life has been wasted by using a specific choice of words, such as “nakedness” (8) to show how vulnerable all of the soldiers, and their common humanity, have become. The use of the word “stake”(9) implies evil and destruction because of all of the destructive connotations that come with that word, commenting on what Slessor truly thinks of war. It seems to describe his desperation to end fighting and to move to a more peaceful and united era by preventing the waste of lives in pointless wars.
Evil is also shown by the use of the word “ghostly” as if to show how the soldier’s ghosts haunt the land because of their tragic and unnecessary deaths. Continuing, the poem refers to all of the dead soldiers as one person, not referring to anyone in particular. This tries to illustrate how entering a war causes you to lose your identity and make you become nothing but part of a machine; it is tried to be shown as a waste and a pity. Also, Slessor attempts to give recognition to those men who have the kind enough heart to try to give the dead soldiers a proper burial in “burrows”(7) in such a bitter time full of conflicts. Even though they do this in “bewildered pity,”(11) because of their lack of understanding for the purpose of war, they have the decency to show respect for the men by making tombstones from “crosses”(9) and “tidewood”(9) without questioning it, this showing how Slessor has not completely lost faith in mankind.
He contemplates on the point that, even during war, complete strangers are able to show compassion, this being shown by the phrase “ Someone, it seems, has time for this.” (6) Within the poem, Slessor expresses how fortunately, despite the war and the spilling of blood, all of the soldiers are eventually united by the one force which none are able to conquer: death. They are eventually joined, yet it is expressed to be quite unfortunate that it takes a force of death to unite countries: we should be able to stay united and work together without needing to fight. However, this point made by Slessor is shown to be very ironic because of how the men are eventually united when they are meant to be opposing each other; united by both death and the sand on the beach. Slessor also develops on the idea of a lack of identity in the fourth stanza: “unknown seaman,”(13) showing how all the soldiers are referred to as one person and that they are never able to receive the recognition they deserve.
To conclude, it is evident that the techniques used by Slessor were successful to portray his idea on war: barbaric and an unnecessary loss of life. In my opinion, the overall impact that someone receives when reading this poem is that it is generally an anti-war poem with a peaceful ambiance created by the descriptions of the ocean swaying back and forth. I believe that the most effective technique used by Slessor was his choice of words because these are the things that truly express Slessor’s motif for writing the poem: to show his distaste for it and to show how it ends with nothing but misery. Yet, it is not shown anywhere that this is a completely anti-war poem, but there is evidence shown throughout that Slessor generally did not support the idea of violence. Furthermore, there is proof for the fact that the poet wishes to try to achieve a much more ‘understanding’ state of mind: the structure. Even though his ideas reflect the chaos of war, the structure seems to be very organized, showing how he wishes to change his state of mind from confusion to being able to understand. Regarding his poem, however, Slessor had successfully portrayed his ideas of war and his personal beliefs by using several poetic techniques and expressive language.