The poem has a sense of failure and loss associated with it. It mourns the death of his colleague, Joe Lynch who lost his life in an accident of drowning.
The ‘Five bells’ are signifiers of the life which is imagined to be present in the space of ring of a ship’s bell. There are two times that are being talked about- one is the time measured using the clock, and other is the psychological time that measures the loss and the despair felt in the memories of the lost Lynch. There is a deep sense of failure and desolation associated with the poem which questions the very meaning of our existence.
Also the poet is seated in a room over the Sydney Harbour when he starts narrating this poem and can hear the five bells of the clock ringing. Looking at the churning water which returns and revolves itself, the poet draws its comparison with the time and memory which follow a cycle and return back. It illustrates the confrontation of death, and the disillusioned experience of those who grieve in the remembrance of the dead soul. The morbid sense is prevalent through the poem to give the horror associated and the supremacy of the death which cannot be defied by anyone.
Through whole poem there are various incidents that move through the poet’s mind about his interaction with Joe Lynch. He feels them scattered in the tolling of the five bells. The poet’s cries to search his lost friend turn foul at various times through the poem. The dialogues where the poet addresses his dead friend fall on deaf ears. He has illustrated death and the resulting separation from his lost friend in a profound manner. The poet has created a sense of fear accompanied by pain of loss amongst the audience so much so that no reader can be unmoved by each line of the poem. The idea that after a person is dead, all their belongings and achievements are left behind for others to remember them is conveyed through the lines “500 books all shapes…And different curioes that I obtained”.
The poet’s desperate search for his dead friend continues till the end of the poem when he says’ Where have you gone?’ He wonders what might have happened to his friend after he drowned in the ferry. Again, he draws the relationship between the time and the memory of a lost friend and the reviving tide in water. The poet’s memory takes him to the bottom of the water where the dead man lies. The window image is used to create a boundary between the past and the present which can never meet. In other words, memories of a dead person can come back to present, but not his life. To conclude, the poem carries the idea that nothing can stop an individual identity from fading away as time passes. The central idea is that death is unsurpassable and the meaning of our existence is still a mystery.