Del­i­cate songs of a not-so-sim­ple rhymer

Col­lected Verse of John Shaw Neil­son

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ian Mcfar­lane

Let your song be del­i­cate. The flow­ers can hear; Too well they know the trem­ble Of the hol­low year. — John Shaw Neil­son (1872-1942)

HAV­ING grown up in Eng­land I didn’t dis­cover John Shaw Neil­son un­til ar­riv­ing in this coun­try, and many years later re­main puz­zled and dis­ap­pointed by how many Aus­tralians can rat­tle off lines from Henry Law­son, or (of course) Banjo Pater­son, but will shame­lessly ad­mit to never hav­ing heard of Neil­son. So maybe I should de­clare a long­stand­ing ad­mi­ra­tion for his uniquely ethe­real art, and sad­ness for the way it has been de­val­ued by con­de­scend­ingly qual­i­fied praise.

To my mind, Neil­son was that rare thing: a nat­u­ral poet with an in­tu­itive gift for lyri­cism, which he fash­ioned into a con­ver­sa­tion with the imag­i­na­tion of any­one pre­pared to lis­ten; a no­tion I have al­ways con­sid­ered to be a cen­tral el­e­ment of all po­etry. Edited and in­tro­duced by Mar­garet Roberts UWAP, 531pp, $39.95

Neil­son was born in Penola, in South Aus­tralia, in 1872, the first of seven chil­dren, and died in Mel­bourne in 1942. He used the mid­dle name, Shaw, be­cause his fa­ther, also John, pub­lished verse about the same time.

This print edition of Col­lected Verse of John Shaw Neil­son is based on Mar­garet Roberts’s ‘‘ var­i­o­rum edition’’, which has been avail­able on­line since 2003 via the Aus­tralian Schol­arly Edi­tions Cen­tre. That on­line work stemmed from re­search gath­ered even ear­lier, col­lat­ing all avail­able work, in­clud­ing lim­er­icks and hu­mor­ous qua­trains, as well as ‘‘ frag­ments and po­ems of doubt­ful at­tri­bu­tion’’.

Such scholastic dili­gence pur­ports to bring or­der to pre­vi­ously piece­meal ed­i­to­rial at­tempts to sort through scat­tered and much re­vised ‘‘ note­books’’, which in fact were fad­ing and some­times dam­aged school ex­er­cise books. How­ever, I sus­pect the main pur­pose served by pub­lish­ing this ‘‘ read­ing edition’’ will be aca­demic, with Neil­son’s rep­u­ta­tion un­likely to be en­hanced by a cu­ri­ous jux­ta­po­si­tion of pro­foundly mem­o­rable work with play­fully in­signif­i­cant trivia.

With one or two honourable ex­cep­tions such as Queens­land aca­demic Cliff Hanna, re­cent crit­i­cal per­cep­tion of Neil­son’s mys­te­ri­ously im­pen­e­tra­ble art has car­ried a vaguely be­grudg­ing edge, as if his lit­er­ary spurs were won by manag­ing to stum­ble on to the higher stage of authen­tic po­etry with­out fully un­der­stand­ing how he got there.

Au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal frag­ments and recorded con­ver­sa­tions with rel­a­tives sug­gest Neil­son to have been a mat­ter-of-fact sort of fel­low, but the re­al­ity was al­most cer­tainly more com­plex.

A. G. Stephens, who edited The Bul­letin’s book pages and cham­pi­oned Neil­son’s po­etry, de­scribed him as ‘‘ a man of rid­dles’’, which seems ap­pro­pri­ate for some­one whose work was likened to that of Blake. Neil­son was thought by some of his con­tem­po­rary crit­ics to be ob­scure and by oth­ers to be com­mon­place. Ob­vi­ously, there was a lot more go­ing into his verse than a pos­si­bly pre­sump­tu­ous literati felt in­clined fully to ac­knowl­edge.

Im­pov­er­ished fam­ily cir­cum­stances de­prived Neil­son of for­mal ed­u­ca­tion, and his life was worn down by hard phys­i­cal work and a suc­ces­sion of loss and grief. He never mar­ried, but sev­eral well-heated love po­ems sug­gest a pas­sion­ate na­ture dis­ap­pointed by ad­verse cir­cum­stances and bad luck.

Given this knock­about re­al­ity, the ob­ser­va­tion made by Roberts in her brief in­tro­duc­tion about Neil­son’s verse be­ing ‘‘ of­ten im­bued with the hack­neyed thought and im­ages of the pop­u­lar cul­ture of his day’’ seems rather like say­ing some­one who has grown up in Belfast hap­pens to speak with an Ir­ish ac­cent.

Roberts also de­cides that Neil­son ‘‘ is best con­sid­ered a naive, in artis­tic terms’’, but per­haps she should have re­mem­bered

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