[Editor: This introduction by Robert Henderson Croll was published in Collected Poems of John Shaw Neilson (1934).]
When Australia makes up its account with the late A. G. Stephens, one of the outstanding items in its indebtedness to that able critic will obviously be his early and helpful recognition of the genius of John Shaw Neilson. In a world so given to what it calls the practical, courage is needed to back an unknown writer. “A.G.S.” had that courage. It was he who produced Neilson’s three books and he was bold enough, in very early days, to acclaim John Shaw Neilson as “first of Australian poets.”
Many good judges have followed Stephens. “This delicate singer should be proclaimed as part of our heritage,” wrote Nettie Palmer; Frank Wilmot (“Furnley Maurice”) declared that “a writer like Neilson stands high and alone among the Australians”; Mary Gilmore also placed him above everyone here — “I class him with Blake and Keats,” was her verdict.
It was in 1919 that his first book, “Heart of Spring,” appeared, and in 1923 came “Ballad and Lyrical Poems,” this second collection repeating many of the poems published in its predecessor. Here gratefully must be acknowledged the kindness of Mrs. Louise Dyer, then of Melbourne, now residing in Paris, but for whose generosity the “Ballad and Lyrical Poems” volume would possibly not have appeared. Both of these works are now out of print, and copies of his third book, “New Poems” (1927) are difficult to procure.
So assured is John Shaw Neilson’s place in Australian letters that the inability to obtain his work constitutes a definite loss to students of the subject and to lovers of the best in our literature. The time has arrived: this Collected edition is put out to meet the need that so patently exists. It contains all that the poet himself considers worth preserving of his three earlier volumes, together with certain fresh poems hitherto uncollected.
John Shaw Neilson was born at Penola, South Australia, on the 22nd February, 1872. His grandparents were William Neilson and Jessie MacFarlane of Cupar, and, on his mother’s side, Neil McKinnon of Skye, and Margaret Stuart of Greenock. His father, John Neilson, was a farmer and contractor who removed to Victoria when the boy, John Shaw, was nine years of age.
The lad was destined to follow the life of the ordinary bush-worker. Only of recent years has he known other than hard manual labour as a means of living. It is an amazing thing that his mind could retain its refinement unsullied and breed loveliness amidst the rough surroundings of his daily tasks.
He was given little schooling, but he had the singing blood and the singing heart and a native impulse towards culture which has enabled him to surmount all difficulties of expression. He is true poet; moreover he is a skilled artist in complete command of the means of stating his thoughts. Anything unusual in form is deliberate and commonly chosen with insight and skill.
In attempting to trace the sources of his decided gift it must be remembered that the father had also some of the genuine poetic fire. Here are the two concluding verses of an effort by his father, titled “The Last Time.”
The goodly ships lie broken at the haven,
Fair tresses float upon the heaving tide;
And riderless the steed comes home at even:
The unseen shadow follows by our side,
Follows through winter’s chill and summer’s prime
Until we say Good-bye “For the last time.”
But we shall meet again, love cannot die;
In life infinite soul with soul shall blend
In other worlds, be the time far or nigh:
Surely this little life is not the end:
And tears will fall in heavenly spheres sublime
And sighing sorrow weep “For the last time.”
Mysteries John Shaw Neilson may have, and has, as in the fascinating set of verses he has named “The Orange Tree,” but who would deny a poet the privilege of reserves beyond reach of the general? Customarily his meaning is clear, his diction simple and expressive. “Let your song be delicate,” he wrote, and never was word better chosen to describe his own utterances.
Beautiful thoughts and beautiful lines are showered on us:
“Let your voice be delicate,
The bees are home,
All their day’s love is sunken
Safe in the comb.”
“Shyly the silver-hatted mushrooms make
Soft entrance through . . .”
“Faint as a widow mourning with soft eyes . . .”
“Softly as griefs call
In a violin . . .”
It has been truly said of Neilson’s work that it has the dew on it.
R. H. Croll.
John Shaw Neilson (editor: R. H. Croll), Collected Poems of John Shaw Neilson, Melbourne: Lothian Publishing Company, 1934 [May 1949 reprint], pages xiii-xvii