John Shaw Neilson (1872-1942) was an Australian poet whose work was notable for its originality, spiritual questioning, and emphasis on nature.
John Shaw Neilson was born in Penola, Australia, in 1872, to an impoverished bush family. He was the first child of seven, and his family called him Jock. Because he had a speech impediment, his family kept him out of school, but he received some education at home. His father, a farmer, and his uncle wrote poetry and encouraged him to read and write. Neilson read the work of English Romantic authors, as well as some of the Victorians and was familiar with songs from England, Ireland, Scotland, and America, as well as the ballads of the Australian bush.
Because he did not go to school, Neilson had plenty of time to experience the freedom and beauty of the Australian bush country. In Jock: A Life Story of John Shaw Neilson, Cliff Hanna wrote that Neilson spent his days wandering through the landscape around Penola, taking in "the green pastures, trees, swamps, animals and birds [that were] his schoolmates."
However, Neilson's enjoyment of nature was blunted by his family's strict religious beliefs. From his mother, a Presbyterian who emphasized sin, guilt, and damnation, Nelson gained an acutely religious sensibility, as well as a lifelong religious conflict. Though the bush tormented his family with droughts, floods, plagues, and fires, Neilson was fascinated with its beauty, wildlife, and freedom. His mother, who was generally warm-hearted and loving, told him that the bush was a place of the devil, innately corrupt, and that loving nature too much would lead him to hell. In addition, her religious beliefs stressed suffering and divine punishment, and anything that was pleasurable was suspect. On Sundays, farm work was strictly forbidden. This meant that the cattle, left unmilked, bellowed all day in pain. As Hanna wrote in The Folly of Spring: A Study of John Shaw Neilson's Poetry, "Divine vengeance hung over the house like a thundercloud. Not even death offered escape. There must have been many discussions on predestination, and on who would be among the Elect. Satan was an almost palpable presence."
Neilson was disturbed by these ideas and in his late teens became obsessed with the nature of God, and how God, as a perfect being, could be so separate from imperfect nature and humanity. These questions inspired his poetry; he began publishing in the early 1890s in the local newspaper at Nhill in Victoria and in the Australian, a Melbourne newspaper. His first poem to attract wider attention, "The Tales We Never Hear," won a contest sponsored by the Australian Natives Association in 1893. The poem considered the conflict between God's will and people's will. Although Neilson believed that people did have free will, he did not see how a just and good God could allow sin, or why humans, who were supposedly created in God's image, were doomed to decay and death.
Throughout his life, Neilson would ponder God's inaccessibility. As Hanna observed: "The bush is normally a paradise for a child to explore; [Neilson] roamed it as a criminal desperate for atonement. … the bush, with its beauty, power and wisdom, became Satan's device to trap unwary little boys. The mind must always be on guard against the treacherous desires of the body; emotions must be treated with the utmost caution since the body is a temple of sin. Love, unless exalted through thoughts of God, is debased and ultimately lecherous."
As a result, Neilson kept a tight rein on his emotions and distrusted physical pleasures, although he always retained a fascination with nature. In "The Gentle Water Bird," he contrasts the frowning, terrible view of God with a beautiful, regal bird he saw in the bush. According to Hanna, he later said of the bird, "It seemed so confident and happy, without any fear. It wasn't frightened about God like me." Neilson also noted that in the bush, death was not a punishment, but a necessary part of the cycle of life and renewal of nature. In addition, he often used the sun as a symbol of enlightenment and the divine. His use of nature imagery to express religious concepts was not a complete rejection of his family's Presbyterianism, "but a development of it," according to Hanna.
Neilson's father eventually went bankrupt, and the family moved to Minimay in Victoria, but his fortune did not improve. A series of crop failures, debts, and foreclosures forced the family to move from place to place and to suffer grinding poverty. Two of Neilson's sisters died of malnutrition. Neilson quit school in 1886 at age 13 after receiving only three years of education. To help his family survive, he took a series of hundreds of rural jobs, traveling throughout most of western Victoria as well as parts of New South Wales in search of work. He worked in harvesting, cattle driving, fencing, picking fruit, clearing, making roads, shearing sheep, working in quarries, and cutting wood. He often suffered painful injuries and walked hundreds of miles to places where he had heard there was work.
During this time, he rebelled strongly against his family's religious ideas, but at a great cost to his health: he suffered two nervous breakdowns and developed poor eyesight for which no physical cause could be found. Hanna speculated that his eye trouble, which prevented him from reading, was a rebellion against reading the Bible. When he was suffering from it, he had to ask other farm laborers, who often were not very sympathetic to his aims, to help him by writing down verses he had composed while working. This ability to compose poetry while engaged in backbreaking labor may seem startling, but according to Clement Semmler in Quadrant, it was "a refuge from the harsh reality of his daily life as well as his mother's relentless religious teaching."
Neilson felt guilty for rejecting his mother's religious dogma, and he felt conflict about that for his entire life. However, he continued to use his own system of dividing God into two images: one of thunder, darkness, and punishment, and one of kindness and light. These two images were inherently in conflict with each other, and they appear repeatedly in his poetry.
Neilson's baby brother Neil died in 1889, and when his mother died in 1897, Neilson experienced a period of nervous illness that lasted for eighteen months and that returned later in his life. He believed he had inherited this from his mother's side of the family, and he may have been right; his brother William was mentally ill, and his sister Maggie, who was strongly religious and who idolized their mother, was always on the edge of nervous collapse. Maggie died in 1903, and another sister, Jessie, died in 1907. The stress of the deaths, as well as his work exposure to dust and heat, exacerbated his eye problems, and by 1905 it was extremely painful to him to read or write. He could not afford to visit a doctor, so he went to a local practitioner who put curry pellets in his eyes, which nearly blinded him for a year.
He experienced another setback when millions of mice swarmed over Australia, eating everything they could find. The mice ate his notebooks, which contained most of his poems and correspondence. Despite his health problems and the mouse plague, during these years he began to write more poetry, fueled by the success of "The Tales We Never Hear." He printed copies of his poems and sold them from door to door in Nhill. By 1897, he had published 18 poems, which along with over 30 other unpublished pieces, are now considered his juvenilia.
Neilson sent his poems to A.G. Stephens, editor of the Bulletin and the Bookfellow. Stephens often published his work but with heavy editorial changes. Stephens helped Neilson publish his first collection of poems, Heart of Spring (1919), as well as Neilson's next books, Ballad and Lyrical Poems (1923) and New Poems (1927). After his third collection was published, Stephens declared that he was "the first and finest of Australian poets, past and present," according to Hanna.
In 1926, Neilson met Mary Gilmore, who admired his poems and had corresponded with him for many years. He traveled to Sydney, his hands rough and scarred from working in a quarry, and met many well-regarded Australian writers, as well as Stephens, for the first time. In 1928, another admirer, Frank Wilmot, gave Neilson a job as a messenger at Melbourne's County Roads Board. Exhausted from years of hard labor, he gratefully accepted. After taking this job, he wrote very little. From this time until 1934, he worked on his Collected Verse (1934). James Devaney, a poet and novelist, helped him with this work as well as with a collection of poems, Beauty Imposes (1938).
Neilson enjoyed his new life in the city. He attended political rallies, the theater, and cricket matches, and he became a founding member of a literary society, the Bread and Cheese Club, in 1938. He died after a heart attack in 1942.
According to Ken Goodwin in A History of Australian Literature, Neilson's poems have been compared to "the unaffected directness" of William Blake, William Barnes, and John Clare. In addition, Neilson's critics have compared Neilson's vision to Blake's, Goodwin wrote, "for there is something of the possessed mystic at times in Neilson. The circular movement of his poems, the way in which they dwell on a few related images and then return to the original cause of inspiration, strengthens this impression."
Goodwin noted that critic A.R. Chisholm believed that though Neilson's work was "timeless," with no clearly marked phases of development, it is possible to see a progression from "innocence to experience and disillusion" in Neilson's poetry. In his earlier work, written until about 1910, he emphasizes the purity of childhood and youth and a God of light. From 1910 through 1911, he wrote about the physical aspects of love; as Goodwin wrote, "Woman, rather than spring, youth, or the colour green, now seems to permeate the universe." In his later works, such as "The Orange Tree," he examined a young girl's experience of love, suggesting that her spiritual awakening may be the result of love.
World War I, fought from 1914 through 1918, as well as the Great Depression of the 1930s, were events which disillusioned many, including Neilson; this disillusionment was apparent in his later poetry.
Hanna summed up Neilson's work: "The originality and the intellectual integrity of Neilson's poetic world stand in stark contrast to much Australian writing, which has been burdened down by foreign traditions." Perhaps, Hanna speculated, this originality came partly from Neilson's lack of formal education, rough life in the bush, and his eye problems, which prevented him from reading other writers or critical works. "As a poet he went his own way: nature, and the search for a proper Deity determined what was acceptable, and not literary fashion or established views." In Preoccupations in Australian Poetry, Judith Wright wrote, "The more we read of his poetry—even though at first, knowing that it was written in our own century, we may reject it as childish or naive—the more its special note, the particular clarity of its inner truth, rings clear and unmistakable."
Goodwin, Ken, A History of Australian Literature, St. Martin's Press, 1986.
Hanna, Cliff, The Folly of Spring, University of Queensland Press, 1990.
Hanna, Cliff, Jock: A Life Story of John Shaw Neilson, University of Queensland Press, 1999.
Pierre, Peter, editor, Oxford Literary Guide to Australia, Oxford University Press, 1993.
Wright, Judith, Preoccupations in Australian Poetry, Oxford University Press, 1965.
Australian Literary Studies, May 2000.
Quadrant, April 2000.