Old Nell Dickerson [poem by John Shaw Neilson]

[Editor: This poem by John Shaw Neilson was published in Heart of Spring (1919) and Collected Poems of John Shaw Neilson (1934).]

Old Nell Dickerson

The young folk heard the old folk say
’twas long ago she came;
Some said it was her own, and some
it was another’s shame.
All pleasantly the seasons passed
in gray and gold and green,
But the heart of old Nell Dickerson
no one had ever seen.

They said that when a baby crowed
she turned her head away,
And when delightful lovers kissed
her sallow face went gray:
Some say she laughed at love and death
and every man-made law —
But the heart of old Nell Dickerson
no babbler ever saw.

October with warm greenery
made all the town a dream;
The poorest soul had time to laugh,
The gravel streets were cream;
A hundred anthems rose to God
through the uproarious blue,
But the heart of old Nell Dickerson
no singer ever knew.

The summer sauntered in with wheat
and forest fire and haze,
And the white frocks of white girls,
and lads with love ablaze;
Sweet sighs were in the high heavens
and upon the warm ground —
But the heart of old Nell Dickerson
it never yet was found.

The winter came with wistful talk
of water-birds in tune,
And while their snowy treasures slept
did mother ewes commune;
In every wind and every rain
some daring joys would climb —
But the heart of old Nell Dickerson
was prisoner all the time.

The streamers stood across the sky
one evening clear and warm;
The old folk said the streamers come
foretelling strife and storm:
When old Nell laughed her hollow laugh
the neighbours looked in awe,
But the heart of old Nell Dickerson
no neighbour ever saw.

And with the night came thundering
like Evil wandering near,
And the tender little children wept
and the women shook with fear;
Out on the night went one stern soul —
along the wind it blew;
Oh, the heart of old Nell Dickerson
no babbler ever knew!

Softly they sought her little room,
and she was blue and cold;
Upon the wall some straggling words
her last poor wishes told:
Nothing she gave, and little begged —
they read there mournfully:
“Bitter and black was all my life,
but wear no black for me.”

* * *

’Twas a green day and a mad day
and lovers walked along,
And the old men, the grey men,
the ruddy men and strong,
And the tenderest of pale girls
in pink and green and blue
Walked mournfully behind the heart
that no one ever knew.

And there were many dropping tears
on sashes red and wide,
And more hot prayers were said that day
than if a king had died;
And some wore white and yellow frocks
and some wore blue and green,
But the heart of old Nell Dickerson
no one had ever seen.



Source:
Shaw Neilson, Heart of Spring, The Bookfellow, Sydney, 1919, pages 14-17

Also published in:
John Shaw Neilson (editor: R. H. Croll), Collected Poems of John Shaw Neilson, Lothian Publishing Company, Melbourne, 1934 [May 1949 reprint], pages 14-17

Editor’s notes:
There are some differences of note when this poem is compared to its appearance in Collected Poems of John Shaw Neilson:

1) The third stanza is significantly different in Collected Poems:
October ran with greenery
and blossoms white and fair;
The poorest soul had time to feast
on beauty everywhere;
A thousand anthems rose to God
through the uproarious blue,
But the heart of old Nell Dickerson
no singer ever knew.

2) The first line of the ninth stanza in Collected Poems uses “wild” instead of “mad”:
’Twas a green day and a wild day

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