Geoffrey Dutton
Kenneth Slessor: A Biography
Viking   337pp

Australian Book Review   Feb-March 1991, pp. 34-35.

Geoffrey Dutton will not concentrate. Information relevant to his subject reminds him of other tidbits, as in this cascade of irrelevancies. McKee Wright deserves the credit for having first published Slessor, and he published a remarkable number of women poets. However, some of his favourites among the latter might have been better left in obscurity. Marie E. J. Pitt, for example, in the issue for 10 July 1919:

Oh, take me, take me, little wind that blows
Ere the young moon
Blossoms in heaven like a mystic rose,
And the stars swoon
Down languorous aisles of Night’s enchanted noon!

(‘Noon” for ‘midnight’, incidentally, is the old usage sanctified by Tennyson ‘Night hath climbed her peak of highest noon.’)

In a biography of Slessor, Dutton should have made the first comma a full stop, unless the point was to let us know that Dutton knows his Tennyson.

Dutton is no stranger to self-control. In discussing the name of a boarding house mentioned in ‘Five Bells”, he stops just short of a history of the National Trust.

So busy does he become supplying us with wayward trivia that he forgets which ones he has already provided. Christopher Koch’s tenuous connection with the aforementioned boarding house is told twice, as are the death of Ruby Lindsay and Slessor’s practice of hiring a boat during the Christmas holidays.

On other occasions, Dutton is so anxious to provide us with the breadth of his experience that he misrepresents the material upon which he wants to hang his hat. The Adelaide Register in 1923 accused Vision of containing language that “would shock if merely scribbled on the fence of a bush pub.” Dutton comments parenthetically at the improbability of so genteel a public house: “What, no four-letter words?” Obscenities might have been used around the bar but no, not scribbled on the outside fence.

Had Dutton collated his comments on Douglas Stewart’s critical remarks about Slessor’s verse, there would have been no reason for yet more amazement at Stewart’s inability to comprehend the theme of “time”. For all Stewart’s eloquence on Slessor’s use of “bubbles” as a verb, Dutton is the surer guide to the poems and the life.

Where Stewart was inclined to see Normal Lindsay as a positive influence on Slessor, Dutton is aware that something was wrong with the sage of Springwood but lacks the subtlety to appreciate Lindsay’s attractiveness for male artists:

Lindsay is always full of surprises. Who would have thought that he was so familiar with Donne that he would casually use a phrase from the Third Satire at the end of his letter …?

The answer is anyone who had done his homework. Because Dutton remains surprised at Lindsay’s talents, his importance for Slessor’s development is left at accusations about holding the poet back from his full achievement.

Dutton labels the present work a biography, having analysed the verse in a earlier book for an educational publisher. Dutton reminds us of what other critics have missed. He is able to quote himself saying so.

Notwithstanding this ability to perceive more than most, Dutton is an uncertain guide. If Stewart was dim-witted about Time, Dutton exposes his own superficiality by attempt to link “Five Bells” with the current fad for chaos.

Careless phrasing compounds Dutton’s difficulties. In discussing the unpublished “Ophelia”, he writes that Slessor “had been looking at Pre-Raphaelite paintings? Where had he seen originals in 1919? Dutton does not ell us. Perhaps he meant reproductions?

The treatment of Slessor’s style would have been improved if Dutton had paid more attention to what he was writing. As a youth, Slessor learned “Patience” and a lot of other Gilbert and Sullivan by heart. Further down the same page, we are told that Slessor’s headmaster stressed “analysis of rhythm and metre, the interweaving of vowels and constants to establish the sound of poetry, and the poet’s search for the mot juste”. Dutton concludes that these concerns “are all intensely relevant to Slessor’s work.” Indeed, they are, but they can also be learned from G&S, a possibility which Dutton cannot consider because it opens the question of how we should interpret Slessor’s commitment to comic verse.

Dutton worries a lot about why Slessor stopped publishing, blaming the lack of critical support. Is any torrent of praise ever sufficient for a poet? Dutton is indignant that “the first significant essay on Slessor should have to wait until 1939!” And yet 1939 was the first year in which Slessor published an indisputably significant poem, “Five Bells”.

The problem of Slessor’s silence needs to be stood on its feet. How did someone with so limited an output acquire so great a reputation? One of the three missing chapters in Dutton’s biography is an inventory of the inflated assets of Slessor Promotions Pty Ltd. Other themes in need of exploration are a study of Smith’s Weekly to match Sylvia Lawson’s account of Archibald’s Bulletin as a print circus, and an even less hearty consideration of Slessor’s sex life.

Dutton faces up to Slessor’s failure as a husband, a father, a lover, as editor of Southerly and in some respects as a war correspondent, but not as a poet.