The most famous poem written about Sydney.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008 11 responses

John Olsen (Australia, b.1928)
Five bells

oil on hardboard
264.5 x 274.0cm board
Purchased with funds provided by the Art Gallery Society of New South Wales 1999

Further Information
Five Bells is widely considered to be one of Olsen's most significant paintings, and yet it was hidden from public view for thirty-six years in the house of George and Eva Clarke, who commissioned the work. [Read more]

Five Bells

Time that is moved by little fidget wheels
Is not my time, the flood that does not flow.
Between the double and the single bell
Of a ship's hour, between a round of bells
From the dark warship riding there below,
I have lived many lives, and this one life
Of Joe, long dead, who lives between five bells.

Deep and dissolving verticals of light
Ferry the falls of moonshine down. Five bells
Coldly rung out in a machine's voice. Night and water
Pour to one rip of darkness, the Harbour floats
In the air, the Cross hangs upside-down in water.

Why do I think of you, dead man, why thieve
These profitless lodgings from the flukes of thought
Anchored in Time? You have gone from earth,
Gone even from the meaning of a name;
Yet something's there, yet something forms its lips
And hits and cries against the ports of space,
Beating their sides to make its fury heard.

Are you shouting at me, dead man, squeezing your face
In agonies of speech on speechless panes?
Cry louder, beat the windows, bawl your name!

But I hear nothing, nothing...only bells,
Five bells, the bumpkin calculus of Time.
Your echoes die, your voice is dowsed by Life,
There's not a mouth can fly the pygmy strait -
Nothing except the memory of some bones
Long shoved away, and sucked away, in mud;
And unimportant things you might have done,
Or once I thought you did; but you forgot,
And all have now forgotten - looks and words
And slops of beer; your coat with buttons off,
Your gaunt chin and pricked eye, and raging tales
Of Irish kings and English perfidy,
And dirtier perfidy of publicans
Groaning to God from Darlinghurst.
Five bells.

Then I saw the road, I heard the thunder
Tumble, and felt the talons of the rain
The night we came to Moorebank in slab-dark,
So dark you bore no body, had no face,
But a sheer voice that rattled out of air
(As now you'd cry if I could break the glass),
A voice that spoke beside me in the bush,
Loud for a breath or bitten off by wind,
Of Milton, melons, and the Rights of Man,
And blowing flutes, and how Tahitian girls
Are brown and angry-tongued, and Sydney girls
Are white and angry-tongued, or so you'd found.
But all I heard was words that didn't join
So Milton became melons, melons girls,
And fifty mouths, it seemed, were out that night,
And in each tree an Ear was bending down,
Or something that had just run, gone behind the grass,
When blank and bone-white, like a maniac's thought,
The naphtha-flash of lightning slit the sky,
Knifing the dark with deathly photographs.
There's not so many with so poor a purse
Or fierce a need, must fare by night like that,
Five miles in darkness on a country track,
But when you do, that's what you think.
Five bells.

In Melbourne, your appetite had gone,
Your angers too; they had been leeched away
By the soft archery of summer rains
And the sponge-paws of wetness, the slow damp
That stuck the leaves of living, snailed the mind,
And showed your bones, that had been sharp with rage,
The sodden ectasies of rectitude.
I thought of what you'd written in faint ink,
Your journal with the sawn-off lock, that stayed behind
With other things you left, all without use,
All without meaning now, except a sign
That someone had been living who now was dead:
"At Labassa. Room 6 x 8
On top of the tower; because of this, very dark
And cold in winter. Everything has been stowed
Into this room - 500 books all shapes
And colours, dealt across the floor
And over sills and on the laps of chairs;
Guns, photoes of many differant things
And differant curioes that I obtained..."

In Sydney, by the spent aquarium-flare
Of penny gaslight on pink wallpaper,
We argued about blowing up the world,
But you were living backward, so each night
You crept a moment closer to the breast,
And they were living, all of them, those frames
And shapes of flesh that had perplexed your youth,
And most your father, the old man gone blind,
With fingers always round a fiddle's neck,
That graveyard mason whose fair monuments
And tablets cut with dreams of piety
Rest on the bosoms of a thousand men
Staked bone by bone, in quiet astonishment
At cargoes they had never thought to bear,
These funeral-cakes of sweet and sculptured stone.

Where have you gone? The tide is over you,
The turn of midnight water's over you,
As Time is over you, and mystery,
And memory, the flood that does not flow.
You have no suburb, like those easier dead
In private berths of dissolution laid -
The tide goes over, the waves ride over you
And let their shadows down like shining hair,
But they are Water; and the sea-pinks bend
Like lilies in your teeth, but they are Weed;
And you are only part of an Idea.
I felt the wet push its black thumb-balls in,
The night you died, I felt your eardrums crack,
And the short agony, the longer dream,
The Nothing that was neither long nor short;
But I was bound, and could not go that way,
But I was blind, and could not feel your hand.
If I could find an answer, could only find
Your meaning, or could say why you were here
Who now are gone, what purpose gave you breath
Or seized it back, might I not hear your voice?

I looked out my window in the dark
At waves with diamond quills and combs of light
That arched their mackerel-backs and smacked the sand
In the moon's drench, that straight enormous glaze,
And ships far off asleep, and Harbour-buoys
Tossing their fireballs wearily each to each,
And tried to hear your voice, but all I heard
Was a boat's whistle, and the scraping squeal
Of seabirds' voices far away, and bells,
Five bells. Five bells coldly ringing out.
Five bells.

Kenneth Slessor
Dave's Place

Kenneth Slessor.Photo: Glen Mccurtayne

FIVE BELLS, Kenneth Slessor's elegy for his friend Joe Lynch, who drowned in Sydney Harbour in 1927, is arguably the most famous poem written about Sydney.
But Slessor's own rarely seen notebook, meticulously written in his neat handwriting and recording every change of phrase, reveals his masterpiece was very nearly called Six Bells.
Likewise, another document which vividly highlights the frustrations of the creative process is the visual diary kept by the artist John Olsen between 1971 and 1973 while painting his massive mural, Salute To Five Bells, for the Sydney Opera House - a work inspired by the Slessor poem. [Read more]

The conundrum of Slessor's sixth bell
Steve Meacham
June 3, 2008

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11 responses: to “ The most famous poem written about Sydney. so far...

  • Azure Islands Designs 24.6.08

    A stunning painting I love the splashes of blues/white and green...


  • Mariuca 25.6.08

    Hola Kim! I've visited Melbourne twice but have yet to visit Sydney. Hope to do so one day! :)

  • Kim 25.6.08

    it's lovely Heather....
    John Olsen's work is panoramic and this is definitely one of my favourites :)
    the colours are very aquatic aren't they :)

    you must visit Sydney Mariuca...
    it's a wonderful city :)
    and when you do you will have to drop in at my place..about 1 1/2 hours north of Sydney :)

  • Bluetooth Dongle 26.6.08

    This poem is fabulous.Sydney is truly a vibrant, dynamic city and that is the reason it has attracted so many tourists year after year.Some of the spectacular landmarks including the Harbour and its Harbour bridge, the Opera House, and bondi beaches are fantastic places to visit. But I don't think anyone could have described the city better as you did. Cheers!!!

  • Azure Islands Designs 26.6.08

    Morning Kim...I noticed your new banner yesterday and wanted to say I think it looks great on your site!!!

    Grumpy Cow has some very unique blog designs a well...I was considering one but I don't have the time right now to set everything up...:0)

    PS...I love anything aquatic!

  • Kim 27.6.08

    hi Bluetooth
    I didn't write this poem...if only :)

    hi Heather...
    visiting Grumpy Cow is like going to the lolly
    too many lovely things to choose from...
    installing the new template took me one evening and the banner a couple of minutes :)
    the time consuming part was transferring all my widgets which I'm still working on :)

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  • Mortgage Rates Predictions 30.6.08

    hi..nice blog here..
    i'm doing my round here..
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  • Kim 1.7.08

    hi Anil..Michael and MRP...
    will check out your blogs today for link exchange :) :)
    thanks for calling by :)

  • dheeru 10.2.09

    I will say that FIVE BELSS is one of the wonderful poems i have ever read. I am going to share this with my friends.