Reprint: Admired But Unknown: Some of Our Writers by Nettie Palmer

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Now that authors' week is over in Brisbane, the very building that housed its proceedings is being demolished like the glass of fervent, Young Lochinvar. ("He quaffed off the wine, and he threw down the cup," you will remember.) Well, what remains? It is interesting, I think, to notice one of the aspects of Authors' Week in Melbourne, and to wonder how the same plan would have gone in Brisbane. The President of the Australian Literature Society in Melbourne suggested a public plebiscite as to the twelve best Australian writers in verse and prose, sending in his own list as a first kite to try the wind. Please notice that the president's original idea was for people to send in lists of the six best writers in prose and verse, and his own list included several well-known names and several that were quite obscure. This was as it should be, since popularity and high quality can only occasionally coincide. No sooner was the stone well rolling, however, than the scheme was of quite a different nature. Every one who sent in a list was sending names of the most popular writers, or, if some comparatively unknown names appeared, it would be because their sender thought they ought to be popular very soon. No room was left for the good but obscure. Thus people were soon contributing rather to other people's preferences than to their own. So-and-so could not well he mentioned because nobody else had mentioned him, which meant that he was not popular. Meanwhile, though, there were the fifty or so who were mentioned at the very first. Their supporters at any rate could not all have believed that they were naming the six most popular poets and novelists in Australia. Some of those first names must have been the utterance of a genuine preference. Let us see what some of these obscure chosen writers can do.

Shaw Neilson.

In one of the first lists sent in, four of the poets were really safe, secured even by having left this world many years ago. I think their names were Brunton Stephens, Kendall, Alfred Domett, and Gordon. These writers are in the textbooks, and can he taken more or less for granted. Even people who never read them will recommend them to you. The remaining two were Hubert Church, the New Zealander, and Shaw Neilson, the Victorian. Neither of these is one of our "popular" poets. Their supporter obviously held them up for their intrinsic goodness. Shaw Neilson and Hubert Church can both endure the fierce light of criticism. What they chiefly suffer from is a complaint well known to our poets, the complaint called neglect. This neglect is not purposely applied, like a draught of poison: People do not say,"X is a bad poet, so I shall neglect him!" On the contrary, they say nothing about X, they have never heard of him, for there are no solid Australian reviews where X is discussed. When his book appears, it gets a few lines of brief notice, probably appreciative, but at once forgotten. Even the name of the book is forgotten, and the name of the poet. And yet, leaving Hubert Church out for this time, Shaw Neilson is an easy name to remember -- John Shaw Neilson. His first volume, published belatedly in 1919, was called "Heart of Spring." Its publisher was the "Bookfellow," ' which means A. G. Stephens, the veteran critic and brilliant journalist, who has never ceased to exalt the name of Shaw Neilson during these twenty-five years and more. "Heart of Spring" in a small but satisfactory edition was widely sold, but not to most of the people who read and follow general poetry. It is doubtful, for instance, if it reached Brisbane at all, so that Brisbane poetry-lovers would have a chance to choose or neglect it. They would not do well to neglect that book. More than most books, it was written with a man's heart-blood. Frail of physique and with failing sight for many years, Shaw Neilson has had to do heavy manual labour such as leaves a man exhausted in his leisure. Yet when his poems take shape, you would say they were the work of some favoured human being, some one enjoying an almost celestial freedom from earthly cares :--

   -Listen ! The young girl said. There calls
      No voice, no music beats on me;
   But it is almost sound; it falls
      This evening on the Orange Tree.

Shaw Neilson's poems are not realistic descriptions of the life about him. They are distilled from that life transmuted in the fine chambers of his quiet mind. Perhaps the best whole poem to quote is "May." It is a poem, that reflects the Victorian winter landscape! reflects it in a parable, echoes it in a gentle song -- never "reproduces" it. That is not Shaw Neilson's way.   

These are the quiet four stanzas :


   Shyly the silver-hatted mushrooms make
      Soft entrance through,
   And undelivered lovers, half awake,
      Hear noises in the dew.  

   Yellow in all the earth and in the skies,
      The world would seem
   Faint as a widow mourning with soft eyes
      And falling into dream.    

   Up the long hill I see the slow plough leave  
      Furrows of brown....
   Dim is the day and beautiful; I grieve
      To see the sun go down.  

   But there are suns a many for mine eyes,
      Day after day.
   Delightsome in grave greenery they rise
      Red oranges in May.

With Neilson's poetry, the surrender has been complete. The poet has grasped the one fundamental reason for making a poem -- that he has something to say for which reasoned prose would be inadequate. What he says would sometimes have no meaning in prose. In poetry, it sings its way into the spirit, doing what prose could never do. He sings again:

   Let your song be delicate.
      The skies declare
   No war--the eyes of lovers
      Wake everywhere.  

   Let your voice be delicate.
      The bees are home:
   All their day's love is sunken
      Safe in the comb.

Neilson Sung.

These frail, exquisite lines were written as complete in themselves, yet their vowels are so well spaced, and, on the other hand, modern song composers have come to have such a respect, indeed, such a passion, for sheer poetry, that it has been possible to set some of Shaw Neilson's finest lyrics to music. Dr. Whittaker, the well-known English musician and choir-leader, has done this in several instances. For most of us, though, there is already an abundant and complete music present in the poems themselves, if we never hear them sung. Neilson begins to be known through Dr. Whittaker, through A. G. Stephens, and through other less articulate but constant lovers. Still, it is inconceivable that he should ever be a "popular" poet, like "Banjo" Paterson, for instance. Yet popularity is taken as a standard of excellence! Our hearts may leap to the warm, human feeling that throbs through Paterson's ringing verse; yet we feel that Shaw Neilson's shy muse has her finger nearer to the central pulse of the world. We can see why several people, knowing Shaw Neilson's songs and brooding over them, would in all sincerity write him down as one of our greatest and purest singers.

"The Heart of Spring" is out of print; so, I think, is its successor, "Ballad and Lyrical Poems," published in 1923. While waiting for a new edition of these, we can content ourselves, very soon, with a volume that has just been announced as due in November. "New Poems," by Shaw Neilson, will contain a large group of poems written against all odds, during the last three years. Quietly, slowly, the work of Shaw Neilson is becoming known, its sweetness permeating our literature with its own contribution of individual fragrance:

   It is the white plum-tree,
      Seven days fair,
   As a bride goes showing
      Her joy of hair.

First published in The Brisbane Courier, 29 October 1927

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on June 17, 2011 9:05 AM.

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