“Elegy for Drowned Children” is a poem written by Australian poet Bruce Dawe in the 1960’s. An elegy is a sad poem or song that laments the death of a person. This poem implies that the persona had a close relationship with someone who had drowned or loss their child to drowning.
This poem has five four-lined stanzas. The first and last lines rhyme with each other while the middle two lines rhyme with each other. This creates a song like quality to the poem. The first three stanzas of the poem end with questions. This structures the idea of parents mourning with unanswered questions. The last two stanzas are enjambed. This gives the effect of the parents realizing there’s no point in questioning their deaths but to be at peace with it. This poem is giving some consolation to the people who have lost loved ones, mainly children, to drowning. The poem frequently refers to Greek mythology.
There is an ‘old king’ whom is assumed to be the Greek god of the ocean Poseidon, who resides in the sea and takes care of drowned children. In this poem, the old king takes a ‘shining haul’ of children with his ‘sure’ net. This suggests that many children have been taken by him. The use of the word ‘sure’ implies that no one is really safe from him and that it is fated to happen. It could also mean humans cannot prevent nor control the ocean. However, the persona describes his care as ‘solicitous’ and ‘tender’. This expresses that the king is kind and caring to the children. In an effort to ease the parents’ distress, the use of mythology conveys the notion that the children are not just gone but instead they are being taken care of in a safe ‘kingdom’.
Dawe uses a simile when describing the parents who are, ‘calling like birds by the water’s edge”. This use of simile creates the image of frantic and alarmed parents repeatedly calling out the names of the children who have drowned. The significance of using birds instead of any other animal is to create an image that there are many parents who have experienced their children drowning and they collectively call out to the water for the king to return them. The persona also uses simile when describing the boys who visit their parents’ dreams who are ‘fluid as porpoises’.
This comparison to the boys to porpoises suggest the bittersweet idea that the boys have been down in the ocean for so long that they have become accustomed to swimming in the oceans and into their parents’ dreams. The persona also uses imagery when describing the boys’ skin as ‘moonlit’. This could be literal or symbolic. Literally, it could mean the boys’ skin is as pale as the moon. However, symbolically, it could be skin that has not been in the ‘sweet sun’, which is life.
The use of alliteration in the line “From leaden-lidded sleep, softly to steal” slows the tone of the poem down. This creates a dream like quality to the rhythm of the poem which mirrors the actual words of the poem. The repetition of the word ‘upward’ in the last stanza helps create the dream like quality. It quickens the rhythm of the poem and emanates excitement. This could be a reflection of the emotions of the parents when having a dream about their children.
This poem uses many techniques to convey it’s main ideas. It is a comforting poem for people who have lost their children to the water. The poem is relevant to us as Australians because we are community that spends a significant amount of time by the beach and in the water. We are also a community that has many deaths caused by drowning.