John Shaw Neilson was born at Penola, South Australia, on 22nd February, 1872. By race he is all Scottish. His grandparents were William Neilson and Jessie MacFarlane of Cupar, Neil McKinnon of Skye, and Margaret Stuart of Greenock.
His father was a farmer and contractor, who removed to Victoria when Neilson was nine years of age. The boy had little schooling, and early went to work in the hard way of the bush. In that way he has remained.
His poems were long meditated and slowly brought to utterance. His equipment was a few books well conned, the strong blood of his race, and the high heart of his ancestry.
Though his work is fully modern, it affirms the Celt , but in Neilson the mystery is made lucid. He does not gather flowers of faery: he preserves the odour of blossoms perished long ago. Without the circumstance he transmutes the Celtic essence.
John Neilson, his father, also wrote and published verses and some of them, like the following, have a rare value:
THE LAST TIME
It is the last time, darling, we shall meet
And we must breathe a long, a last adieu;
Your eyes will follow, love, to watch my ship
Grow dim and lessen in the distant blue
When outward bound for yonder distant clime,
While murmuring through your tears, “For the last time.”
Yet other lips than ours have said Good-bye
With hearts unmoved and careless, turned away,
And knew not they were parting for all time
While flowers were blooming, and the birds were gay.
There was no bell to toll with mournful chime;
They parted, and knew not “’Twas the last time.”
And other eyes than ours, my love, shall see
The white moon wither in the western sky,
And other eyes than ours shall look their last
Across the waves to see the red sun die;
While, like some half-forgotten childhood’s rhyme,
They speak the words we speak, “For 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.”
Shaw Neilson repeats this simplicity, this emotion with a richer imagination and more skilful workmanship. Remarkable are the melody of his verse, the ease and strength of his rhythms, his mastery of time and cadence, his intuitive sense of words. Lines such as:
“And all the sighing bloom
That takes the dew”
have the touch of Shakespeare. The pure depth of his feeling recalls Blake; his verses come like Blake’s children “with innocent faces clean.” To these gifts are added vision and fancy, sympathy with humanity and the passion of a man.
Some of his work, magnificent in pathos perfectly expressed , is unsurpassed in the range of English lyrics. First of Australian poets, he reflects lasting honour on the land that bred him.
A. G. S.
Shaw Neilson, Heart of Spring, Sydney: The Bookfellow, 1919, pages v-vii
con = (archaic) to examine or study carefully; to learn or memorise (distinct from other meanings of “con”: to defraud or swindle someone by gaining their confidence; an argument against a proposition; the act of steering a vessel; the place or post from where a vessel is steered)
faery = alternative spelling of “fairy”