[Editor: This article, about John Shaw Neilson and his books, was published in The Australasian (Melbourne, Vic.), 22 December 1923.]
Poems by J. Shaw Neilson.
When John Shaw Neilson, nearly four years ago, gave us a slender volume called “Heart of Spring,” it became apparent to all who are moved with concord of sweet sounds that a new and a rich voice was singing in Australia. It was the voice of a poet fresh and unspoiled. It was sweet with natural music, and the music was filled with beauty, and opulent, though never heavy, with thought. We do not know how the little first volume fared; but we do know discerning readers of poetry who are haunted to-day by lines of “The Girl with the Black Hair” and “Love’s Coming.” And we know, at the same time, that Mr. Neilson still pushes a plough on his farm, and that in the four years since the publication of “Heart of Spring” he published nothing — save, perhaps, occasional verses in periodical journals. The evidence, positive and negative, suggests a reflection upon the taste of the period, for it is our deliberate and considered opinion that better poetry had never been written in Australia than the poetry in “Heart of Spring.”
The publication of a second volume of Mr. Neilson’s poems is, therefore, an occasion for deep satisfaction. The book is called “Ballads and Lyrical Poems” (Sydney: The Bookfellow). A few of the precious “Heart of Spring” poems are reprinted here, so that those who missed the early volume have a second opportunity. Mr. A. G. Stephens, in a preface, calls Mr. Neilson “first of Australian poets,” and we cannot disagree with him. There is in the poems a freshness, a clarity, a lightness like the air of early dawn, and the blessedness of simplicity is in all their beauty. In these respects Mr. Neilson may be likened to Walter de la Mare and to W. H. Davies, with, in addition, some of the qualities of Burns which these poets do not possess. (He is of full Scottish ancestry.)
Mr. Neilson is not a “literary” poet: he is a born poet. Poetry seems to have come to him as he describes “Love’s Coming”:—
Quietly as rosebuds
Talk to the thin air,
Love came so lightly
I knew not he was there.
* * * * *
Quietly as tears fall
On a wild sin,
Softly as griefs call
In a violin.
Without hail or tempest,
Blue sword or flame,
Love came so lightly
I knew not that he came.
How much passion can be packed into a few very simple words may be seen in these lines from “The Girl with the Black Hair”:—
Her lips were a red peril
To set men quivering,
And in her feet there lived the ache
And the green lilt of spring.
’Twas on a night of red blossoms, Oh, she was a wild wine! The colours of all the hours Lie in this heart of mine.
There is something Persian in “Her Eyes” — something that Hafiz might have put his name to with complete satisfaction:—
Dark eyes are hers; but in their darkness lies
All the white holiness of paradise:
A tender violet within them shows,
And the unsullied beauty of the rose:
Dark eyes are hers.
Dark eyes are hers — that move my heart to sing;
They have consumed the summer, caught the spring!
Stolen the starlight, and exultingly
Lifted the moonbeams’ old embroidery ….
Dark eyes are hers.
Since the issue of his first volume Mr. Neilson has advanced somewhat in his art. There is a little more adventuring into various metres, and a mastering of technical difficulties is discernible, but he preserves none the less the charm of easy writing, and continues to select the little expressive word and to avoid the pompous. His experiments in ballad writing are wholly successful. Lines of “The Wedding in September” linger as lines of “The Ancient Mariner” linger with one who reads them for the first time; and another good example is “Inland Born.” For all his simplicity, the seer in Mr. Neilson finds out the heart of a girl:—
Now God has made a wistful world,
And a woman strangely coy:
Her eyes say come, and go, and come,
And stay and be a boy.
Oh, the eyes of little Charlotte say,
Come kiss me if you can!
But in a trice they change and cry
Go out and be a man!
* * * * * * *
And you shall speak as a man speaks,
Not mealy-mouthed or mild,
But you must go with a girl’s love
For every lisping child;
Nor shall you live in the far clouds
As only dreamers can:
For the eyes of little Charlotte say
Go out and be a man.
We have quoted rather freely, but yet will venture to use two stanzas of “He was the Christ” to show how tenderness and strength and solemnity meet in the poet:—
He drew no sword; but all men’s swords
Grew redder in the blood-red years:
Only the hope that would not die,
Shone tremulous in a world of tears.
The white mist dances in our eyes;
But still, in every age and land,
His heart beats for the little child;
He writes of mercy on the sand.
Surely a new and a true poet has swum into our ken. It will be a reproach to this generation of readers if they do not recognise him; for nothing is mare certain than that another generation will do so, and deride us. Of “Ballads and Lyrical Poems,” two editions are issued, both well printed and artistically bound. The large paper edition is limited, and each copy is numbered and signed by the poet.
The Australasian (Melbourne, Vic.), 22 December 1923, p. 1368
The writer of this article calls Neilson’s second book Ballads and Lyrical Poems, which is a relatively common mistake; the book is actually called Ballad and Lyrical Poems (i.e. “Ballad”, not “Ballads”).
A. G. Stephens = Alfred George Stephens (1865-1933), an Australian editor, publisher, author, literary critic, and poet
See: “A. G. Stephens”, The Institute of Australian Culture
The Ancient Mariner = The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), an English poet, literary critic, and philosopher
See: 1) Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (text of 1834)”, Poetry Foundation
2) “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, Wikipedia
Burns = Robert Burns (1759-1796), a famous Scottish poet
Hafiz = Khwajeh Shams al-Din Muhammad Hafiz (1325-1390), a Persian poet, born in Shiraz, Persia (now Iran), known as “Hafez” and as “Hafiz” (spellings of his full name vary)
See: “Hafez”, Encyclopaedia Britannica
ken = knowledge, perception, understanding (also means “know”, particularly as used in Scotland)
mealy-mouthed = speaking in a manner which avoids or evades an issue, being evasive, not being forthright; speaking in a way which is considered to be devious, duplicitous, indirect, or insincere
metre = the rhythmic arrangement or pattern of a poem, song, or piece of music (also spelt: meter)
Persian = of or relating to Persia (modern-day Iran)
seer = someone who foretells the future; a mystic with supernatural insight into the future; a wise man; a prophet (in the modern sense, an expert who predicts the economic, political, or social future)
tremulous = affected with, or characterised by, trembling, quivering, shaking, or unsteadyness (in body or in voice); quavering; characterised by anxiety, fear, timidity, hesitancy, nervousness, timidity, or lack of confidence
’twas = (archaic) a contraction of “it was”
Walter de la Mare = Walter John de la Mare (1873-1956), an English poet and author
See: “Walter de la Mare”, Wikipedia
W. H. Davies = William Henry Davies (1871-1940) was a Welsh poet and author
See: “W. H. Davies”, Wikipedia