Delicate songs of a not-so-simple rhymer
Collected Verse of John Shaw Neilson
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