HSC Notes: 2 Unit General English: Kenneth Slessor

Captain Dobbin

Extract from book 'Kenneth Slessor', Herbert C. Jaffa, pub. Angus and Robertson 1971.

"But for Captain Dobbin, reading and remembering and arranging time into and out of the past is, as has been indicated, finally frustrating and defeating. Now, as an old man, he is left only with a past, and what he seeks, almost unknown to himself, is a stopping of time so that all that was, is, and will be, forever. "Slessor himself seems to wish if not a stopping of time, at least a living outside of it, or some escape from its continuity. Whatever his precise wish, the subject of time, touched on in several poems, ... is seen more clearly now as one of his significant preoccupations. But time is not the only subject that emerges most vividly as a Slessorian preoccupation in Captain Dobbin. The sea is another, the sea, ever changing as the poet developed... Separately and together, the sea and time become translated in the major poems ... into a kaleidoscope of ideas and images involving their shifting relationship to each other and their collective and separate relationship to Slessor's dark and persistent vision of man adrift in a life without meaning... "The sea is seen as life, but then also as death, and the sea becomes time relentlessly moving man from life into death - beyond which there is nothing. But the sea also is itself, full of beauty and power and exhilarating to the spirit. And time, blending with the tide, is also memory, 'the flood that does not flow', providing man with immortality. "This is a wistful poem with a man of the sea as the centrepiece... Slessor engages our involvement by a narrative approach which employs colloquial diction with the blending of vibrant imagery. The wistfulness is achieved by the creation of an atmosphere of decay and only redeemed from despair and futility by vivid memories of a life which was adventurous and dynamic. "It is time, or flux which has reduced the Captain to futility of endeavour, but it is the sea which has defeated him and yet holds him in its grip, despite his alienation. His persistence an determination are inspired by its superiority. "Ultimately, the pessimism of Captain Dobbin is a result of Slessor's treatment of his major theme: time. ...this poem does not attempt to explore the possibility of defeating death, and consequently time. Here, memory is simply used to recreate the past so that the present can become significant. Dobbin's attempts to recall the essential significance of the past highlight the lack of heroism in the present world."

Study Questions

  1. How does Slessor establish the present relationship between Captain Dobbin and the sea? What is this relationship?
  2. How do Captain Dobbin's memories of the past contrast with the present?
  3. What is the effect of past memories on Captain Dobbin?
  4. Why does Captain Dobbin worship Cook? Why does he despise del Cano?
  5. How does the mood of the last verse-paragraph contrast with the preceding section?
  6. Which expressions in the poem are most effective in creating a seafaring atmosphere?
  7. Do you feel any sympathy for Captain Dobbin? Why or why not?
  8. What is Slessor's major thematicconcern in this poem?

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