The Sundowner [poem by John Shaw Neilson]

[Editor: A poem by John Shaw Neilson. Published in Beauty Imposes: Some Recent Verse (1938) and the Jindyworobak Anthology, 1942.]

John Shaw Neilson

The Sundowner

I know not when this tiresome man
With his shrewd, sable billy-can
And his unwashed democracy
His boomed-up pilgrimage began.

Sometimes he wandered far outback
On a precarious tucker track;
Sometimes he lacked necessities
No gentleman would like to lack.

Tall was the grass, I understand,
When the old Squatter ruled the land.
Why were the conquerors kind to him?
Ah, the wax matches in his hand!

Where bullockies with oaths intense
Made of the dragged-up trees a fence,
Gambling with scorpions he rolled
His swag, conspicuous, immense.

In the full splendour of his power
Rarely he touched one mile an hour,
Dawdling at sundown, history says,
For the pint pannikin of flour.

Seldom he worked; he was, I fear,
Unreasonably slow and dear;
Little he earned, and that he spent
Deliberately drinking beer.

Cheerful, sorefooted child of chance
Swiftly we knew him at a glance;
Boastful and self-compassionate,
Australia’s interstate romance.*

Shall he not live in robust rhyme,
Soliloquies and odes sublime?
Strictly between ourselves, he was
A rare old humbug all the time.

In many a book of bushland dim
Mopokes shall give him greeting grim;
The old swans pottering in the reeds
Shall pass the time of day to him.

On many a page our friend shall take
Small sticks his evening fire to make;
Shedding his waistcoat, he shall mix
On its smooth back his Johnny cake.

’Mid the dry leaves and silvery bark
Often at nightfall will he park
Close to a homeless creek, and hear
The bunyip paddling in the dark.

* The italics are mine, but the author shortly before his death wished this line to be stressed. — Ed.

Victor Kennedy (editor), Jindyworobak Anthology, 1942, Adelaide: F.W. Preece, Ltd., 1942, pages 63-64

Also published in:
The Clarion, 15 September 1908
John Shaw Neilson, Beauty Imposes: Some Recent Verse, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1938, pages 30-31
Brian Elliott (editor), The Jindyworobaks, St Lucia (Qld.): University of Queensland Press, 1979, pages 166-167

Editor’s notes:
Two lines are given differently in The Jindyworobaks (1979):
1) “Dawdling at sunset, history says,” [uses “sunset” instead of “sundown”; the word is given as “sundown” in Beauty Imposes: Some Recent Verse]
2) “Australia’s intestate romance.” [typographical error: uses “intestate” instead of “interstate”]

mopoke = a small brown owl, the Southern Boobook (Ninox novaeseelandiae), also known as the Tasmanian spotted owl (on a related note, the Tawny Frogmouth is often mistaken for an owl, and is called a “mopoke” by some Australians)

sable = a colour that is black, dark, or gloomy (“sables” was an archaic term for garments worn for mourning; “sable” in heraldry refers to black); arising from the colour of dark sable fur, as taken from a sable (a furry mammal, Martes zibellina, which is primarily found in Russia and northern East Asia, and noted for its fur which has traditionally been used for clothing)

tucker = food


  1. Anthony Hammill says:

    Am writing about this poem for the Australian Bush Poets Association mag. I have 6 books about Neilson, but I cannot relocate his quote re the swagman. Neilson knew him, and I recollect he called him Old Tom. can you supply me with the relevant reference?
    I am a judge for the ABPA.



    • Am not aware of Neilson writing about a swagman called “Old Tom”.
      Do you remember any part of the particular quote which you’re seeking?

      Thomas Dowse (1809-1885) used to write under the nom de plume of “Old Tom”. He died when John Shaw Neilson was 13 (but I am unaware of him ever being a swagman, nor of any connection between the two men).

      Collected Verse of John Shaw Neilson (edited by Margaret Roberts) has the poem “Not Tumbled To”, which mentions the phrase “old Tommy rot must fall”, but not in relation to a swagman.
      The same book has several pages which discuss “The Sundowner”, but no mention is made there of “Old Tom”.

      I have looked through several books by and about John Shaw Neilson, but unfortunately cannot find any mention of “Old Tom” or any similar reference.
      If you have any further information re. the quote you want, that would be useful.

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