HSC Notes: 2 Unit General English: Kenneth Slessor


	Do you give yourself to me utterly, 
		Body and no-body, flesh and no-flesh,
	Not as a fugitive, blindly or bitterly,
		But as a child might, with no other wish?
	Yes, utterly.

	Then shall I bear you down my estuary,
	Carry you and ferry you to burial mysteriously,
	Take you and receive you,
	Consume you, engulf you,
	In the huge cave, my belly, lave you
	With huger waves continually.

	And you shall cling and clamber there
	And slumber there, in that dumb chamber,
	Beat with my blood's beat, hear my heart move
	Blindly in bones that ride above you,
	Delve in my flesh, dissolved and bedded,
	Through viewless valves embodied so–

	Till daylight, the expulsion and awakening,
		The riving and driving forth,
	Life with remorseless forceps beckoning–
		Pangs and betrayal of harsh birth.

Stanza 1

  • The poem begins with a question; there are two voices, and no narrator. However, it is only one of these voices that sustains the poem, and the other answers the question that is posed in the first stanza.
  • Do you give yourself - give = surrender, the sleeper is utterly giving themselves, of their own free will.
  • Body and no-body etc. embraces physical and non physical world; it is simple, child-like, and utterly trustworthy. The sleeper must be able to trust the sleep.
  • The response is simple, giving all, repeating what the Sleep has asked for, showing the enthrall it is under the influence of. Note italicised response, isolating the response from the question.

    Stanza 2

    Stanza 3

    Stanza 4

    Extract for "Sleep", Jaffa, ibid.

    "In 'Sleep', we seem to encounter, at first, promises rather than actual experiences - promises by Sleep to the you that the you will have certain experiences. Yet, simultaneously, because the experiences are promised in splendid poetry they are experienced by the you while they are being promised. The first stanza establishes the relationship through which the promiser, Sleep, offers the experiences, and the you, the sleeper, accepts them ...

    "'Yes, utterly' is lovely, the effortless yielding of the sleeper to Sleep, and the poem may be read with pleasure on this simple level. But Slessor asks more of his poem. 'Sleep,' he says:

    "So imagined, Sleep, the state of unconsciousness, is personified as the mother, and the sleeper, her child. And the child's response to the mother in the first stanza - "Yes, utterly," - is a consenting to the total immersion of 'body and no-body, flesh and no-flesh' (that is to say, body and mind) within the enveloping ocean of unconsciousness.

    "Certainly, the poem allows other possibilities of interpretation. Sleep, for example, might be thought of as a woman addressing her lover, and the poem as a sexual expression of their love. Of course, also, in that the sexual act relates actually to birth and life and its climax poetically to death, other combinations of meaning present themselves.

    "We know Slessor's stated meaning in 'Sleep' and, as indicated, the poem permits us to seek additional ones. But with whatever we leave the poem, we are touched with an almost physical awareness the poet's purpose has been precisely served by the technical devices he has chosen. It may be an exaggeration to say that we, as readers, have been mesmerised by Slessor's blending of idea, sound, and rhythm. It is much less so to suggest that in our reading out loud of Sleep's enticement of the sleeper, we have not escaped the lulling effect of the verse.

    "How has the poet accomplished this, technically? Essentially, by conducting successfully what he defines as: 'an experiment in the narcotic effect of the repetition of certain consonant- structures and vowel sounds ... the significant vowel-sound [being] the long 'U' in such words and phrases as 'bear you', 'estuary', 'carry you', 'ferry you', 'take you', 'receive you', 'consume you', 'engulf you', 'huge cave' and 'huger waves'." Of course, also, the effect is served by many internal rhymes and assonances such as 'ferry' and 'burial', 'cave', 'lave', 'waves', 'slumber', 'dumb', 'remorseless', 'forceps' and so on. "...the comfort of the womb (the past, in terms of returning to it) compared to the discomfort of birth (and the confrontation with the present) reminds us of another preoccupation of the poet."

    Back to the main HSC page