With its unremarkable blue binding this slim volume might easily go unnoticed on a shelf jostling with extroverted dust covers. There is nothing to suggest the book‘s importance in the Australian literary canon, nor its fascinating intersections with a network of poets, artists and publishers who were members of the vibrant Sydney cultural scene in the middle years of the 20th century.
The anthology by poet and journalist, Kenneth Slessor (1901-1971), is significant for containing the first publication of his iconic poem ‘Five Bells’, widely regarded as one of the most eloquent in Australian literature. The work is a meditation on time, stirred by the memory of his drowned friend, cartoonist Joe Lynch who fell off the Manly ferry whilst drunk in May 1927 and sank to the harbour floor weighed down by bottles in his coat.
The child of an urbane German mining engineer and an Australian mother, Slessor grew up in cultured home in which the children spoke only in French at meal times. After excelling in English literature at school, and with several published poems and poetry prizes to his credit, Slessor took up a cadetship with the Sydney Sun in 1920. As his career bourgeoned he wrote for the Herald (Melbourne), Punch (Melbourne) and Smith’s Weekly (Sydney), was an official war correspondent in the Second World War, and edited literary journals including Southerly (1956-1962).
Five Bells was published by bookseller Frank Johnson (a wildly successful producer of Australian comics in the 1940s) and illustrated by Norman Lindsay with six woodcuts incorporating his signature Siren motifs. Both were friends of Slessor from the 1920s when they founded the arts and literary magazine Vision together.
Slessor dedicated the collection to promising contemporary, John Alexander McKellar (1904-1932), who died suddenly of an embolism aged 27. McKellar’s literary legacy included his first volume of poetry Twenty-six (1931) and a cache of unpublished poems posthumously printed in Southerly (1944) and in his Collected poems (1946).
This copy is also noteworthy as it is signed by Slessor with his distinctive capital letter ‘K’ in Kenneth. It seems likely he gave the book to another associate, eminent Australian literary historian, H.M. Green, who in turn inscribed his name on the front flyleaf. A journalist, writer, lecturer, broadcaster and all round man of letters, Henry Mackenzie Green (1881-1962) brought an exceptional dynamism to his position as University of Sydney Librarian (1921-1946). Green’s immense contribution to scholarship includes the seminal two-volume work A History of Australian Literature Pure and Applied (1st edition, 1961) to which his second wife, Dorothy, was an insightful contributor and editor.
Digital Collections | Library (2nd Sep 2020). Five bells : XX poems. In Website Digital Collections | Library. Retrieved 18th Oct 2021 05:23, from https://digitalcollections.library.unsw.edu.au/nodes/view/3077