Introduction to Maps and Mapping in Kenneth Slessor’s Poetic Sequence The Atlas
This is the first of seven articles comprising a book-length treatment of The Atlas by the acclaimed Australian poet and journalist Kenneth Slessor (1901–1971). Hisreputation as Australia’s first modernist poet and pioneer of her national poeticidentity began with his 1932 collection Cuckooz Contrey, which opened with one ofthe most original interpretations of cartography in verse: the five-poem sequence The Atlas. Fascinated by maps and navigators’ tales, Slessor began each poem withthe title of a map or an atlas by a cartographer prominent during Europe’s “goldenage of cartography,” and then alluded to that particular work throughout thepoem. The sequence celebrates the cartographic achievements of the seventeenthcentury while imaginatively recreating the worlds portrayed in very differentmaps, including Robert Norton’s plan of Algiers (“The King of Cuckooz”), JohnOgilby’s road maps (“Post-roads”), Joan Blaeu’s plan-view of Amsterdam (“DutchSeacoast”), John Speed’s world map (“Mermaids”), and a map of the West Indies,supposedly by Nicolas or Adrien Sanson, featuring buccaneers and a seafight (“TheSeafight”). Yet none of these maps appears in Slessor’s collections or critical studiesof his work. Nor have his poems been juxtaposed with the atlases, maps, or rarecatalogue of maps that inspired them.
I plan to fill these gaps in six future issues of Cartographic Perspectives. Fivewill begin with an Atlas poem—reprinted in its entirety and in the order ofits appearance within the sequence. Analysis of the poem’s content will befollowed by discussion of its introductory quote or epigraph, which Slessor (ashis poetry notebook makes clear) found in the map catalogue. Next comes anexamination of both the cartographer and the map highlighted in the epigraph.By reproducing the map as well as the catalogue’s description of the map, eacharticle will uncover the cartographic connections between Slessor’s publishedpoem and its manuscript versions, its map(s), and the map catalogue. AnEpilogue will round out my series by exploring the unique atlas-like structure ofSlessor’s sequence and identifying the likely author of the catalogue that Slessorcreatively transformed into The Atlas.
My Introduction, the only part of the series published in this issue, providesthe background for what will become the first extended examination of The Atlas. Opening with a brief biography of Slessor as poet, journalist, and man-about-Sydney, it surveys Cuckooz Contrey before turning to The Atlas, which debuted inthat collection. The effort that Slessor lavished on his sequence and on masteringthe period in which it is set are revealed throughout the notebook in whichhe drafted all five poems. Reviewing his corpus shows that The Atlas uniquelycombines strategies apparent in Slessor’s earlier and later poems, includinghis emphasis on the arts and the use of illustrations to heighten his poetry’sallure. The Introduction presents the maps created to illustrate his poetry,especially Strange Lands, made by the famously controversial Norman Lindsayand featured as the frontispiece of Cuckooz Contrey. Slessor’s poetic allusionsto maps lead to the magnificent nautical library in which he may have foundthe inspiration for The Atlas. Yet, as the second half of this article demonstrates,that library collection has proved one of many challenges to producing thisgroundbreaking study.
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