Helen Hewson

Jacket illustration: John Shaw Neilson 1934, photography by Julian Smith

Dustjacket synopsis:
"John Shaw Neilson (1872-1942) is one of Australia's finest and best-loved lyric poets. This comprehensive selection of letters to, from and about him fills a long-felt need, providing a vivid personal and social history.

"The selection begins in 1906 when A. G. Stephens began The Bookfellow. From this crucial point, and during the next thirty-five years, we follow Neilson the man: farming and working in the bush, keeping in touch with his scattered family, and finay moving in 1928 to Melbourne and a job as an interdepartmental messenger with the Country Roads Board in Carlton.

"Helen Hewson has chosen and edited her material from more than a thousand existing letters, most of which have not been published previously. They cover family, social and publishing correspondence, in addition to the detailed letters about writing poetry which passed between Neilson and his three very different editorial advisers, A. G. Stephens, Robert H. Croll and James Devaney, his first biographer.

"Other writers of the period who corresponded with Neilson included Robert Bridges, Mary Gilmore, Christopher Brennan, and Vance and Nettic Paimer, and the letters are full of revealing details about his association with many contemporary institutions and personalities.

"John Shaw Neilson: A Life in Letters establishes a social background and a literary context which ends any suggestion that Neilson is merely a 'bush poet' or 'a simple singer'. This complex poet participated in an intricate network of literary relationships and literary production, and it is only through reading the letters that one realises the degree to which he reflected on his own and other people's poetry and writing."

First Paragraph from the Introduction:

John Shaw Neilson's poetic strengths are evident in this collection of primary documents as are the difficulties and problems of the times in which he worked and wrote. The information contained in the many-sided correspondence, memoirs, journal entries and critical writings provide insights into the subtle complexities of this, for the most part, unassuming but potent lyricist. Drawn from over a thousand letters scattered throughout public and private collections, they locate Nellson's writing in a literary context which is local and particularized but which also draws sensitively and selectively on the wider concerns of lyric poetry. It is only through reading his letters that one realizes the degree to which he reflected on his poetry and the writing of others. Throughout his adult life Nellson participated in, and benefited from, an intricate network of literary and artistic relationships which included, among others, his three very different editors, A. G. Stephens, R. H. Croll and James Devancy. Other correspondents were Bertram Stevens, Louise Dyer, Hubert Church, Mary Gilmore, Vance and Nettle Palmer, Hugh McCrae, Bernard O'Dowd, Kate Baker, Victor Kennedy, Frank Wilmot, J. K. Moir, Christopher Brennan, John Le Gay Brereton, Margaret Sutherland and Blamire Young.

The chronological presentation of material assists our understanding of the publication history and circulation of Nellson's books. We notice an immediacy and urgency conveyed in much of Neilson's thoughts on paper, probably because they were largely unmediated by considerations of self-consciousness and the need to write for posterity. We are also constantly surprised by revelation of the toughmindedness and persistence of this 'meek' poet.

From the Melbourne University Press hardback edition, 2001.

This page and its contents are copyright © 2002 by Perry Middlemiss, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

[Prev] Return to John Shaw Neilson page.

Last modified: March 6, 2002.