Imagining Space and Time in Kenneth Slessor’s “Dutch Seacoast” and Joan Blaeu’s Town Atlas of The Netherlands: Maps and Mapping in Kenneth Slessor’s Poetic Sequence The Atlas, Part Three
“Dutch Seacoast” by the acclaimed Australian poet Kenneth Slessor (1901–1971) is thecenterpiece of The Atlas the five-poem sequence opening his 1932 collection Cuckooz Contrey. Like the other four poems, “Dutch Seacoast” pays tribute to cartography’s “Golden Age,” Toonneel der Steden van de vereenighde Nederlanden being the poem’s epigraph and the title that Joan Blaeu gave to one of two volumes comprising his Town Atlas of the Netherlands (1649). While focusing on Blaeu’s exquisitely ordered map of Amsterdam, Slessor suggests that he is gazing at the map described by his poem and invites us to consider how poets and cartographers represent space and time.
An intensely visual poet, Slessor was also attracted to lyrical descriptions of objects: his inspiration for “Dutch Seacoast” was a particularly poetic, but sparsely illustrated, catalogue of maps and atlases. After reprinting the poem and describing its reception, my paper traces the birth of “Dutch Seacoast” (and The Atlas generally) in Slessor’s poetry notebook, the evolution of the poem’s placement within the sequence, and the complex relationships between the poem, the catalogue, and Blaeu’s spectacular atlas. Comparing Blaeu’s idealistic view of Amsterdam with that city’s dominance during the Dutch“Golden Century,” Slessor’s darker obsessions with the poem’s ending, and his “other countries of the mind” with his native Australia, we come to understand why “Dutch Seacoast” remained for the self-deprecating poet one of his eight “least unsuccessful” poems.
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