As the title reveals, the setting here is William Street, a real location in Sydney, Australia, that, at the time Slessor wrote the poem, was a site of poverty, prostitution, and crime. Slessor said that "William Street" is:
[...] a sort of flashlight photograph of the swarming city channel that runs up the hill to Kings Cross, taken on a rainy night when the surface of the road is coated with a slick of reds and greens and whites reflected from the neon skysigns (the "red globes" and "pulsing arrows").
Readers don't need to know anything about the real William Street to picture this setting, however, thanks to the speaker's vivid imagery. This opening stanza focuses on the bright lights of this urban world:
- The mention of red light subtly alludes to red-light districts, so named for the traditional red light used to signify brothels.
- The garish "liquor green" perhaps stems from traffic lights or more of those "skysigns."
- The "pulsing arrows" perhaps refer to the neon "Dunlop Tyre" sign, or to some other business's advertisement.
- The "running fire" might refer the lights of cars or trams that illuminate the surface of the road, cigarette ash as it hits the pavement, and/or the reflection of all these neon signs on the wet ground. Notice how the alliteration of "spilt on the stones" has a hissing, fire-like sound that matches the image.
This imagery is at once immediate and alienating; readers can picture the stark colors of this nighttime scene but it's not entirely clear where they're coming from. The scene thus feels impressionistic, like a confusing, thrilling burst of light and color. It's as though this world moves so rapidly that its colors can't quite be pinned down.
In the poem's third line, the speaker declares that all these lights "go deeper than a stream." This comparison juxtaposes the city and the natural world, finding more heft in the "stream" of all those lights. "Deeper" suggests that, for the speaker, William Street is less superficial than a pleasant but meaningless pastoral scene. The shapes and impressions of the street—the bold redness of the light, the pulsating motion of the arrows, the continuous stream of fire-like reflections—reveal something "deeper" about humanity and life.
Line 4 summarizes the poem's main idea (which becomes a refrain at the end of each stanza): "You find this ugly, I find it lovely." This antithesis suggests that most people—the collective "You" the speaker addresses—find places like William Street to be both aesthetically and morally repulsive. The speaker, by contrast, finds beauty in the urban scene, implicitly because it's "deeper," more meaningful and moving, than a simple, natural scene. The asyndeton in the phrase—the lack of an "and"—makes the contrast all the more striking.
Finally, the poem uses a loose iambic pentameter and a subtle ABAC rhyme scheme in each quatrain. Iambic pentameter means that each line contains five iambs, poetic feet that consist of an unstressed followed by a stressed syllable (da-DUM).
On one level, this bouncy meter and rhyme make the poem feel like a jaunty stroll down the street. The rhymes are slant, however ("green"/"stream"), and this meter is quite unsteady. Just look at how many variations appear in the first three lines:
The red globe | of light, | the li- | quor green,
the pul- | sing ar- | rows and | the run- | ning fire
spilt on | the stones, | go deep- | er than | a stream;
There's some steady music in the background that evokes the hum of city life, yet the poem still feels chaotic and unpredictable.