[Editor: This article about John Shaw Neilson, written by A. G. Stephens, was published in the “Books and Bookmen” column in The Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW), 22 March 1924.]
John Shaw Neilson
A considerable interest is manifested in Australian literary circles in the poetical work of John Shaw Neilson, whose book of “Ballad and Lyrical Poems” was recently published in Sydney for subscribers. The edition was sold out on publication; a single admirer of the poet subscribed no fewer than 200 copies.
This enthusiastic patron of Australian poetry was Mrs. James Dyer, of Melbourne, wife of the well-known Melbourne gentleman whose portrait, as head of the Melbourne Caledonian Society, was recently painted in Highland costume by Mr. W. B. M’Innes. This portrait was exhibited at our National Gallery in competition for the Archibald prize, 1924, which Mr. M’Innes won with his painting of another subject.
The subscription plan is practically the only plan upon which good poetry can be published in Australia at the present time — with profit to the author and without loss to the publisher. The expectation of sale is not very great; and upon editions in moderate numbers the printer and binder are likely to take two-thirds of the retail price for manufacture, while the booksellers ask one-third as commission. To author and publisher remains the shell of the oyster; with, of course, the pleasure and credit of the publication — and the incidental cash deficit. In view of the welcome given to Neilson’s poetry, another subscription edition of his book may be published at the end of this year.
The author, John Shaw Neilson, is a man now past 50 years of age, who is at present occupied in clearing land, on wages, in Western Victoria. All his life he has been a worker on the land. He was born at Penola, South Australia, where his father was a farmer. The family removed to Victoria when Neilson was seven years old, and continued farming in the Central Mallee district till broken by a succession of dry seasons. The father died some years ago, leaving to Neilson the charge of his stepmother and two young children.
By race he is all Scottish. He had little schooling; but the books which he has read he has read well. His remarkable poetry represents an ancestral gift rather than an individual acquirement; he feels beyond his knowledge. He dreams long and writes slowly.
His first book, “Heart of Spring,” published in 1919, collects the scanty poetical harvest of more than 20 years during which the poet was struggling for daily bread. “Ballad and Lyrical Poems,” published at the end of last year, adds to the work in “Heart of Spring” a number of later poems.
Although greatly colored by Australian life, Neilson’s poetry, as a whole, is more like classical English poetry than it is like any of the familiar Australian styles. Its chief characteristics are insight and feeling. The form is simple and musical: Neilson writes intuitively a tune in time. His descriptive epithets are not external decorations, but seem to spring from the heart of his subject.
Dr. W. G. Whittaker, of Armstrong College, England, who last year visited Australia as an examiner for the Associated Colleges of Music, was so enamoured of the musical quality of Neilson’s poetry, that he asked permission to set several pieces to music — two for the concert platform, and one for an Oxford University choral series. Some of Neilson’s poems also are distinguished by inclusion in “The Oxford Book of Australasian Verse,” and in one of the volumes of Macmillan’s Golden Treasury series.
A poem called “Song be Delicate” was very highly praised by Leonard Borwick the pianist. This delicacy, shown in Neilson’s work, has led one of his admirers to characterise his poems as “wells of limpid delight.” They have strength as well as delicacy; but Neilson’s quiet depth — his lack of noisy utterance and extravagant adjectives is not always appreciated by admirers of “robustious, periwig-pated” verse. Neilson neither struts nor shouts; he sings. Those who love to linger with his work are likely to find that their own lives rise to enforce the message of his beautiful poetry.
The Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW), 22 March 1924, page 14
Some of the text in this article appeared in the Preface (written by A. G. Stephens) for Heart of Spring (1919), as A. G. Stephens was the publisher of that book.]
A.G.S. = Alfred George Stephens (1865-1933), an Australian editor, publisher, author, literary critic, and poet
See: “A. G. Stephens”, The Institute of Australian Culture
limpid = clear and transparent (often used regarding water); having a clear, easily understood, and simple style (especially in speech or writing), especially a style which is flowing or melodious; calm, peaceful, serene, without trouble, without worry
pate = the top of the head (the crown of the head); the head (may also refer to the brain)
periwig = a wig; a style of wig which was fashionable in the 17th and 18th centuries, especially long powdered wigs, sometimes tied at the back with ribbons (in modern times, shorter versions of such wigs are sometimes worn by barristers and judges as part of traditional legal costume in court or on official occasions)
periwig-pated = wearing a wig on the head
robustious = robust, strong and sturdy; very assertive, vigorous; coarse, rough, unrefined, boisterous
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