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Five Visions of Captain Cook

For online copy of poems go to:

http://oldpoetry.com/opoem/show/31108-Kenneth-Slessor-Five-Visions-Of-Captain-Cook 

This poem is a tribute to the first British sea-faring man to discover Eastern Australia.

Slessor himself describes this


as a sort of Identikit likeness, made by superimposing a number of aspects of Cook, seen through the eyes of various men who sailed with him, thus approaching perhaps a total portrait.”1

 

It was the first of many other treatments of the theme of early sea-explorations.  Slessor’s fascination with sea captains is explained by  him living near the sea and his relationship through marriage to  Captain Francis Bayldon, who lived at Darling Point who had a magnificent nautical library, more than a thousand books about the sea and seamen, logs, journals, learned papers, instruction manuals, maps and charts, many of them exceedingly rare and valuable. “Indeed, all that I have written about Captain Cook I got from Captain Bayldon.”2

Other Australian poets took up the subject gladly, for its historical and rhetorical bearing on Australia’s nationhood, but no one has treated it either with Slessor’s inventive brilliance and lightness, or with his intrinsic melancholy

 the vision of Cook’s death,

“with ... a knife of English iron,

Forged aboard ship, that had been changed for pigs,

Given back to Cook between his shoulder blades.”

The half-farcical, half-ironical notes makes us recall Slessor’s own disillusion and his denial of the city of humanity. 3

The Structure:

The first vision of Cook is by ordinary seaman who manned his ships on the three great voyages. There are two principal themes: the contrast between the old kind of sea captain and the modern kind, and the crucial decision which brought Cook to the coast of Australia.  Cook is idolised as a demi-god by the simple sailors who are fascinated by his “magic”  and place their trust in his ability to protect them from sea monsters (krakens) and ensure their safe voyages across uncharted seas.  The superstitions of the age is revealed by the language; evil eye, warlock, devil’s fists, daemons, magic out, mysteries and half-dreadful sortilege, all supremely controlled by their infallible Captain.  


The ship’s captain of the days of sail and “powder” (gun powder) was required to have some working knowledge of such things as mathematics, astronomy, navigation, chart- reading, sight-taking, foreign languages and elementary medicine, attainments which made him seem an almost supernatural being in the eyes of his crew, most of whom were unable to read or write. The simple sailors under his command did what they were bidden, sailed where they were taken, ate and drank what they were given, blindly confident that the magic of their captain (as it must have seemed to them) would preserve their lives from evil spirits, monsters and spells (some of them still believed in sea- serpents) and convey them safely across unmapped seas and unknown lands.

Captains like this were indeed “daemons in wigs”, navigating by signs in the stars which they could read as easily as books, though to ordinary men the sky seemed just a tangle of constellations. They gave their crews medicaments and drugs against disease (in Cook’s case against scurvy), which seemed nonsense to the sailors but which they swallowed with childish faith. The success of such commanders depended above all on their personal qualities, their individual resources of courage, nerve, imagination, shrewdness and self-confidence.3

 

Modern day captains are disparaged by dismissive pejorative labels such as:

“Cold executives, dividend, cracking, laws of schoolbook steam”

 

The second  contrast is Cook’s decision to turn West near the Coral Sea compared with Abel Tasman and Bougainville ( who recorded that he had heard “the voice of God” advising him to take the safe way home to The north, away from the “dead lee shore”). But Captain Cook, at these crossroads of navigation and history, determined to sail west instead of north, “into the devil’s mouth”, and so came to the coastline of eastern Australia - and so, 160 years later, Slessor and others were able to write poetry.

 

The second perspective is that of some of the officers who served under him.

The historical facts to which part 2 alludes are verified by the journals, logs, diaries and letters of Cook and many of the people who accompanied him.

“Cook sailed at night.” Usually, in strange waters, particularly in such an area of hidden reefs and unsounded depths, sailing was done in daylight only. But such was Cook’s confidence in his navigation and seamanship that he kept his vessel sailing in darkness as well. No doubt he felt that he had only a limited time for exploration and did not wish to waste a minute.


The third vision is the view of history (denoted by the time- measuring
instruments in Cook’s cabin).  Cook took with him two recently invented chronometers, installed by the Admiralty for a trial of the new method of discovering longitude. Thus he was, in effect, a test-pilot trying out new equipment.

 

Two famous English watchmakers supplied the chronometers for this historic experiment. One was made by John Arnold, a friend of Sir Joseph Banks, the other by Larcum Kendal from a prototype invented by John Harrison. After both had been tested for many months of Cook’s voyage, it was found that Kendal’s chronometer lost time ( minutes, 4g seconds in three years) while Arnold’s gained time. For the purpose of the poem, it is imagined therefore that Kendal lived in the past and Arnold in the future.


The fourth perspective is that of a workaday occasion during his third voyage derived from some verses written by one of the midshipmen aboard, later to become Captain Trevenen. Slessor was able to see a copy of this manuscript among the treasures of Captain Bayldon’s library. The phrase “cats to catch mice” was one of Cook’s favourite admonitions to the lively boys who were his mid shipmen. It is quoted by Trevenen with the explanation that the captain frequently told them that he didn’t mind how much they kicked up their heels provided they did their duties first—.his actual words were “my cats have to catch mice before they get any milk”.

The fifth is the vision of Cook which remained in the memory of one of his companions many years after his death. This account of Cook comes from the manuscript journal kept by Captain Alexander Home. Slessor was fortunate to see a copy of it in Captain Bayldon’s library.  Like Captain Trevenen. Alexander Home had been one of Cook’s company on his third voyage. 

This passage loses some of its effect because it is long and repetitive.  Captain Home returned to England and slowly became blind, ending up retired in a small cottage in Scotland with his wife and six children on a meagre pension of half a crown a day.  Slessor seems to suggest that Cook was lucky to die in full battle rather than spend the rest of his life couped up in a cage on a pittance in a Greenwich nursing home.

Excerpted from SOME NOTES ON THE POEMS

* From a talk by Kenneth Slessor, given at the University of NSW in 1965., reprinted in Bread and Wine, Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1

 Language:

For a comparison of Slessor's description of the Great Barrier Reef and an objective prose version try this language exercise.

Evaluation: 

Five Visions of Captain Cook  

it simply happens to deal , in very good poetry, with a man who matters a deal to Australian history

‘...a long poem in a series of vignettes....”

“ It is the impact of the whole which is its final value. ‘Five Visions. has far more weight, continuously cumulatively, in unity and drama than earlier sequences.

It is written in five pieces but the five, in the end. come fairly close to blending into one...”

“.A structuralist view of ‘Five Visions.. can be used to relate each part to the whole, showing the different aspects of Cook’s personality- his humanity, his exceptional gifts, his impact on others while he was alive, the importance of his actions for the future after his death.

 More Critical

 “... the flatness, weakness or uncertain shifts of tone,... sections ‘, III, and IV are written out of impulses which are too simple to engage the reader’s response in the way that the superbly evocative section V does. As a whole impressive and effective, but not quite as coherent or as dramatic a series of perspectives as Slessor  intended it to be.”

Charles Higham has called the poem:

“A harsh statement of fatalism - hedonism’s inevitable aftermath when the pleasures of youth and health have gone.”


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