Today on 2SER Breakfast, historian Minna Muhlen-Schulte and Tess talked about the story behind Kenneth Slessor’s moving and influential poem, 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 air, the Cross hangs upside-down in water.
from Five Bells, Kenneth Slessor, 1939
As you walk along the edge of the Royal Botanical Gardens near the Man O’War steps you might stumble upon The Satyr. A small bronze statue with big hairy goat legs and the torso of a man with a very cheeky smile on his face. Eyes half shut, he leans back on his podium like he’s just told a joke.
Originally it was sculpted in plaster by Guy Lynch and exhibited in 1924 in the Young Australian Artists’ exhibition in the Anthony Hordern and Sons Fine Art Gallery. To get the correct proportions, Guy tied up a goat in his backyard and then got his brother Joe Lynch to model for the torso. Reviews of the work at the time veered between ‘magnificent’ and ‘remarkable’ to ‘insolent, vicious and animal to the last degree’.
Joe and Guy were fixtures of the 1920s bohemian scene in Sydney, carousing with artists and journalists. Joe worked at the popular newspaper Smith’s Weekly as a black and white cartoonist with colleagues like the poet Kenneth Slessor who later described Joe’s wild personality as prone to mad Irish humour and mad Irish rages, a ‘devout nihilist [who] frequently over a pint of Victoria Bitter said the only remedy to the world’s disease was to blow it up an start afresh’ (Daily Telegraph, 31 July 1967).
Most Saturday nights they would all head to their friend George Finey’s apartment in Mosman to party. On Saturday, 14 May 1927, Joe finished work at Smith’s, put on his old overcoat and walked down to Circular Quay to meet the crew, including Guy. The harbour bridge was still being built and people would often gather at the pubs nearby to wait for the ferry to take them across to the other side.
They got on the 7.45pm ferry, carrying drinks on board – Joe loading up his overcoat pockets with bottles of beer. Because there were not enough seats, Joe was leaning against the rail on the outside deck. Suddenly as they passed Fort Denison, he disappeared over the side and into the black water. His body was never recovered.
For most Sydneysiders at the time, Joe’s drowning was unremarkable, but for Guy, things were never the same. He ‘went to pieces’ and took to pacing the harbour foreshore in front of the Royal Botanic Gardens, looking out to the water as if looking for his brother.
A few years later Kenneth Slessor was thinking of Joe and began composing an elegy to the life and death of his friend, and meditation on the nature of time and mortality. Five Bells become one of Australia’s favourite poems. The poem has inspired further creations like John Olsen’s mural in the main concert hall of the Opera House, music by Peter Sculthorpe and a novel by Gail Jones, among many other works.
From that one sad night on the harbour in 1927 has sprung an extraordinary part of our cultural heritage.
After Guy died in 1967, his widow Marge Lynch retrieved the plaster sculpture of The Satyr from storage in Art Gallery of NSW. Fulfilling Guy’s last wish, she paid to have it cast in bronze and placed on the foreshore, looking out to where Joe disappeared into the harbour.
Read Lindsay Foyle’s entry The Life & Death of Joe Lynch on the Dictionary here: https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/the_life_and_death_of_joe_lynch
Minna Muhlen-Schulte is a professional historian and Senior Heritage Consultant at GML Heritage. She was the recipient of the Berry Family Fellowship at the State Library of Victoria and has worked on a range of history projects for community organisations, local and state government including the Third Quarantine Cemetery, Victorian War Heritage Inventory, Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka (M.A.D.E) and Mallee Aboriginal District Services. In 2014, Minna developed a program on the life and work of Clarice Beckett for ABC Radio National’s Hindsight Program and in 2017 produced Crossing Enemy Lines for ABC Radio National’s Earshot Program. She’s appearing for the Dictionary today in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Minna!