Academic journal article Antipodes

John Shaw Neilson: A Painterly Poet

Academic journal article Antipodes

John Shaw Neilson: A Painterly Poet

Article excerpt

JOHN SHAW NEILSON (1872, PENÓLA, SOUTH AUSTRALIA - 1942, Melbourne, Victoria) is regarded as one of the finest lyric poets writing in English during the first half the twentieth century. Scholarly attention since the 1940s secured his place in the literary canon with critical material from the 1990s debunking many romantic myths associated with this enigmatic poet.

Shaw Neilson was the eldest son of Scottish settlers who struggled to farm the harsh landscape of the Mallee, in Victoria. He grew up in a strict, yet loving, Presbyterian household, and although his schooling was limited, the family loved music and recited and wrote poetry. Much of Neilson 's understanding of language, symbolism, and poetic form developed from an early reading of the Bible, hymns, The Pilgrim's Progress, Palgrave's Golden Treasury, and the Bulletin.

While working as an itinerant laborer, Neilson actively sought publication of the verse he composed, frequently dictated under difficult conditions, and for years was guided by the critic A. G. Stephens who became his editor and publisher. Later, R. H. Croll and James Devaney provided encouragement and five volumes of verse appeared in his lifetime. From the beginning, Neilson's lyrics of love and loss attracted the interest of writers and artists and, when finally settling in Melbourne with his sister's family, he participated in the city's cultural life among influential friends with whom he had long corresponded.1

Neilson has been called the "poet of the colours."2 Colors contribute to a palette of descriptive and sensual vocabulary creating images, moods, scents, and seemingly transcendent states of being. Poets, artists, and musicians have developed systems or correspondences involving the color spectrum, with Neilson it was intuitive - "valiant with colour songs are born."3 His world was a "tempest of all colours" filled with "green singers," "white eyelids," "blue winds," "white speech," "violet flutes," "yellow air," "green petticoats," "red lovers," "flowers of white and cream," "blue famine," "grey light," "black season," and "moods of unmeasured magenta." The bushman/poet is mocked and dazzled by the tiny, bell-shaped "blue wren in the hop-bush," "his body is a chime" as he "puts into the broad sunshine his melody of blue."4 Neilson is the "clown" uplifted in heart in "To An Early-Flowering Almond":

A synaesthetic linking of "sense to sound and sight," creating "a mystic harmony"6 is a feature of Neilson's poetry that has suggested to some readers an acquaintance with the French Symbolists.7 Nettie Palmer felt Neilson have "had some inkling of Rimbaud" through the influence of A. G. Stephens.

How else account for this quatrain (like an incredible foreshortening of a recollected "Bateau Ivre") in "The Scent of the Lover."8

I am assailed by colours,

By night, by day,

In a mad boat they would bear me

Red miles away.

It is strange to think of this simplest of poets, this halfblind recluse of the Mallee, being led into the symbolic world of Rimbaud, that world of colors substituted for sound, sight for hearing.9

During the 1890s and early twentieth century, Christopher Brennan, A. G. Stephens, and Archibald Strong had written about the French poets for the Bulletin, Bookfellow, Lone Hand, etc., and Neilson was familiar with Paul Verlaine's Art Poétique, translated by Nettie Palmer ("Owen Roe O'Neil") in The Heart of the Rose, edited by Bernard O'Dowd.10 It begins: "Music before all else! And let your music be the irregular, which is vaguer, and melts into the air, being no wise hampered or circumscribed [. . .]" Neilson's Art Poétique counsels: "Let your song be delicate. / Sing no loud hymn."

He is more robust when writing to Mary Gilmore: "Music ever. I think it is Verlaine says that. What a great thing it is too keep a man from getting too far down in the mud."12

"Is there a beauty over pain [. . .]?'13 Neilson wondered and sought relief in nature and in art. …

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