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Neilson, John Shaw (1872–1942)

by Robert Guy Howarth

John Shaw Neilson, by Edgar James Turner, 1937

John Shaw Neilson, by Edgar James Turner, 1937

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an2284300

Following our loss of William Baylebridge comes the news of Shaw Neilson's death in Melbourne.

He had been in ill health for some time but his friends and admirers hoped that he would recover to enjoy his growing fame, and to write still more of those magical lyrics which had first won it for him.

The late Professor Brereton, after meeting Neilson, remarked privately: “It seems incredible that such a hard hand should have written such delicate poetry.”

Neilson had no easy life and he was 42 before he achieved like recognition of his verse. Born in the bush, he earned his living by manual labour and even as late as 1928 it was said that no other job could be found for him in Melbourne than that of lift-driver in a Government building.

He was, however, fortunate, in getting a poet for his father and if, in the conditions of farm life he received little formal education it may be claimed that for him this was an advantage, since nature and his own intuition became his teachers.

Of late years his necessities were relieved by the award of a pension from the Commonwealth Literary Fund, which has surely never better justified its benevolent existence.

His Unique Gifts
Sponsored by A. G. Stephens, who was the first to acclaim his unique gifts, Neilson’s earliest and best collection of poems, Heart of Spring, appeared in 1919. It was followed by Ballad and Lyrical Poems, 1923, New Poems, 1927, Collected Poems, 1934 and Beauty Imposes, 1938. One of his last poems was given a place in the anthology Australian Poetry, 1941.

Who can say in a word all that Shaw Neilson's poetry has meant to him and means to Australia and to literature? It may be enough to repeat that a few of his lyrics, "Song be Delicate," "May," "Love's Coming," "The Orange Tree” and others are so lively as to be imperishable.

He was a mystic, for whom words existed less to convey ideas than perceptions from the hither side of, and from beyond, the border-

- Listen! the young girl said There
     calls
No voice no music beats on me:
But it is almost sound: it falls
This evening on the Orange Tree

"Almost Sound" and Shaw Neilson himself sometimes heard it, as well as the whispering of rosebuds and the faint breathing of lilies.

To him, too, the "coat” of the violet was "the colour of death" and who knows but he may be right?

Original publication

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Citation details

Robert Guy Howarth, 'Neilson, John Shaw (1872–1942)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/neilson-john-shaw-764/text765, accessed 22 November 2017.

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