Collected Verse of John Shaw Neilson, edited and introduced by Margaret Roberts

Fremantle: UWA Publishing, 2012, 351pp.

Sooner or later everybody who thinks about Australian poetry – its history, the shape of its developments – has to try to come to grips with the two towering and uncomfortable presences at the turn of the twentieth century: Brennan and Shaw Neilson. Of the two the case of Shaw Neilson is perhaps the most pressing since, although one is unlikely to meet people going around with passages from Brennan’s “The Wanderer” in their heads, most engaged with Australian poetry will be able to quote loved lines from “The Orange Tree”, “Stony Town”, “Let Your Song Be Delicate”, “The Poor, Poor Country” or a host of others. There are many “problems” associated with these poets and, clearly, one is that neither is quite forceful enough to escape inherited idioms and make a new language which would create an Australian poetry for succeeding generations to adopt, adapt or react against. Their coeval, Yeats, is an example of an achievement they couldn’t match, but then Yeatses tend to be thin on the ground.

Almost every critic of Australian poetry, beginning with A.G. Stephens (Neilson’s first and best editor), Inglis Moore and Chisholm and progressing through Stewart, Wright, McAuley and Hope into the present has wrestled with Neilson. This is as it should be: each generation is obliged to face classic texts (also, in Neilson’s case, classic problems) and to examine them in the light of the momentary contemporary: as critics we all get our few minutes in the spotlight and feel that we represent our generation even though we may be a little oppressed by this responsibility. If this seems merely a cultural process of endless relativity whereby there are no answers only perspectives, we are compensated by the fact that scholarship – especially textual scholarship – can go on making palpable advances. Margaret Roberts’ edition of Shaw Neilson’s collected verse is a good example. It is a reading text based on the full scholarly edition available free of charge online at ADFA’s Australian Scholarly Editions Centre and it includes a much compressed version of the introduction together with some content notes on the poems. Since I have never looked at the Neilson MSS, mainly held in the Mitchell library in the form of notebooks, and wouldn’t have the editorial training to make much sense of them if I did, I take on trust her assertion that the dating of the notebooks is untrustworthy and that poems were completed and often copied into earlier ones. This makes the dating of Neilson’s unpublished poems (five hundred out of a total of seven hundred) problematic and undermines autobiographical readings. The Collected Verse of John Shaw Neilson takes no risks with dates (as it takes no risks with emendations) and locates almost all the poems within four periods. Inside each of these the poems are arranged alphabetically by title (though a date is assigned in the case of publication). One can see why this is done but it is a little joyless and tends to make this a book one refers to for a good text rather than one which one reads through to experience the poetry. Shaw Neilson’s own Collected Poems of 1934, put together by the poet and Stephens before the latter’s death, begins with what is perhaps his masterpiece, “The Orange Tree”. This is an aesthetic (or marketing) decision but has the advantage that “The Orange Tree” is most likely the single poem which would lead any new reader to push further on in hope of exploring such a strange new world. At any rate, a critic of the present has at hand accurate and reliable texts and is unlikely to make crude assumptions about the dates of individual poems. He or she also has a far more complete corpus than critics of the past.

We also have the work of those critics. And the most important and challenging document among them is Cliff Hanna’s The Folly of Spring published by UQP in 1990. This immediately rejects generalised descriptions in favour of seeing Neilson’s poetry as a process of development in distinct phases: an opening phase dominated by his mother’s oppressive and joyless Presbyterianism whereby God is a figure who can see and remember every sin, a second phase celebrating “The Morning World” of spring and childhood, a third phase wrestling with a new configuration of God so that he is both removed from the world and still incarnated in the world’s fertility and in poetic creativity and a final, stonier phase whose totem is the drumming heart which goes on asserting itself in the face of all the components of what Neilson, throughout his poetry, calls the “dim” world. The Folly of Spring is a challenging book. A certain schematic quality (as though one poet’s life could be fitted neatly into what looks like an archetypal seasonal pattern) makes a reader wary but this may be no more than an unfortunate stylistic effect on Hanna’s part. Also the characterisation of the first phase of Neilson’s career comes more from comments by family and Neilson’s later poetry (when he may have been retrospectively imposing a pattern on his life). As well as this, Hanna’s theory leads him to a reading of “The Orange Tree” (somehow all discussions of Neilson gravitate, sooner or later, to this poem) which is highly distinctive and counter-intuitive – a little like Levi-Strauss’s structuralist reading of the Oedipus myth. At any rate, critics wanting to say anything intelligent about Neilson are going to have to come to grips with The Folly of Spring.

By a sad accident, the Collected Verse of John Shaw Neilson doesn’t facilitate this because its biographical divisions (into which the poems are poured alphabetically) don’t match Hanna’s. Hanna’s four phases of Neilson’s life come out – worryingly neatly – into decades: 1872-1899, 1900-1910, 1910-1920 and 1920 until Neilson’s death in 1942. Roberts’s four periods of poetic productivity are 1890-1906, 1907-1916, 1917-1927 and 1928-1942. It would take a lot of work to reconfigure the texts of Roberts’s books so that the poems could be examined to see if Hanna’s position is defensible and all I can do here is make my own generalisations about Neilson and his career which arise out of reading through the poems of this edition.

I am comfortable, first of all, with the description of Neilson as a lyric visionary, but both those words need careful qualification. Neilson’s lyricism operates within fixed rhythmic and rhyming forms but these tend to be, predominantly, those of music. He wrote, especially early on when a lot of composition was done on horseback, to existing tunes. Roberts’s full introduction in the online edition quotes his description of the situation in a letter to James Devaney whom he took up as an editor and sounding board after Stephens’s death:

From 1905 up until about 1915 the conditions were generally more favourable with me for verse making than they have been since. During these years practically all the verse was made up out of doors. I had a good deal of riding and driving to do. The nearest town was about 20 miles away and later only about 10 miles away. I got on best I think when I was riding, driving stock to water or at a dozen different jobs where a man had to use a hack.

Trying to compose verse in the evening surrounded by four walls and other people has always seemed an impossibility to me. A holiday after a man has been working hard is a favourable time. Responsibilities, debts and plans to make a living are all big enemies. Sunlight and nothing particular to bother one help the urge. At the start I usually feel inclined to hum some tune that I know. I have not a very good ear for music and I have no voice. Riding along slowly on a quiet hack I would try to hum the tunes I knew. I would become dissatisfied with these. I would try to hum tunes of my own. This vanity I believe has been a great help to me. In a quarter of an hour or so I would find out that I was quite powerless to compose a tune of my own. Then as a sort of consolations to my wounded pride I would start to make a rhyme.

I usually found a stanza suitable at once. It is rarely that I have had to alter a verse form. When I do so, it is usually in a poor piece that is not worth printing. When I got a stanza out I felt confident that I could finish the thing sometime or other. The stanza might be the first, last, or a middle one.

This musical base is the reason for the repetitive structure of many Neilson poems which are marked by a tension between repeated phrases and important modifications of them – variation in music is a more central phenomenon than it is in poetry. It is “lyrical” poetry but in a very unusual sense and the slightly vague description “song lyric” is often used. One doesn’t want to make the sort of emotive generalisations about natural grace and so on which have been made in the past but it is unusual for poetry to remain anchored to the music which gave lyric poetry its origins. It reminds us that opera was born out of the attempt to decide whether the poetry of the Attic plays was spoken or sung and that the troubadour poems of the middle ages were sung not declaimed. It is from this that we get the sensation that Neilson’s poetry is, in some way, slightly remote, ceremonious, old-fashioned, courtly, delicate while, at the same time, not discounting Hanna’s conception of it as wracked with conflicts. In a sense (to commit the crime of reverting to “The Orange Tree”) this is what prepares us (or doesn’t prepare us) for the coup of the poem’s fourth last word: it is a preposition at odds with the expectations formed by the highly patterned repetitive patterns of the poem. Stevens’s “The Snow Man” and Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” have spectacular conclusions but they are achieved in a different way.

This leads to a second point. Neilson’s conception of what he was doing – and it is very marked early on – was that he was writing popular, sellable verse. The function of what we would now call his “visionary topography” and the results of his meditations about youth, puberty, evil, God, art and death was to provide material from which a public poetry of its time could be made. I think he always had a strong sense of the magic of creativity but didn’t think of poetry as a sacred product. It is a late nineteenth century version of the high art / low art opposition and we need to be reminded that there was a respectable tradition of what to us is blandly metrical verse. The history of poetry went down a different path in the early twentieth century and people like Kipling, Newbolt and Mary Gilmore are not likely now to bulk large in a history of English language poetry. It is one of Neilson’s great achievements in his mature verse to make something out of a popular tradition and save it from a decline into the bush ballad (which keeps a form alive at the expense of any complexity or sensitivity) even more so when we think of his injunction, “Let your song be delicate”. The way that Neilson makes his poetry into something uniquely expressive is by the most subtle and personal of rhythmic complexities. Almost any later poem will have its own delicately individual movement: “The bird is my neighbour, a whimsical fellow and dim: / There is in the lake a nobility falling on him”, “Oh, the thin wheat and the brown oats were never two foot high, / But down in the poor country no pauper was I”.

Then there is the extent to which Neilson can be called a visionary. Early on, Blake (at least the Blake of Poetical Sketches and the Songs of Innocence and Experience) was invoked, much to Neilson’s irritation: he claimed never to have read Blake. I think he is a visionary in that at the core of his sensibility is an otherworld, intimately related to this one and our experiences of it, but fundamentally in a different and perhaps “invisible” configuration from which all the poems, even the most public, derive. The debates about Neilson which are focussed by Hanna’s book are really debates about the topography of this visionary world. I think Hanna believes that it evolves as different ethical and thematic issues emerge from Neilson’s life experiences. If I had space and time, I would try to argue that all of the tensions are present in the vision and that it shows different facets of itself as the poetry evolves. In other words, to choose a simple example, the God in the visionary universe is always both creator and policeman, lover and damner: it comes with the territory. Later in life, perhaps under the influence of the people he met in Melbourne during his working life there as a virtual messenger boy for the Country Roads Board, he explored this in different ways, particularly taking on a vitalist approach and seeing God as a force – at least that is my reading of some of the poems especially the difficult “The Blue Man and the Barley”. It is true that, although Neilson had profound ethical responses, he was never at home in really abstract thought. Christian theology has long and sophisticatedly dealt with “the problem of evil” and, if he had read of the Alexandrian neo-platonists and the gnostics, he could have shifted his mother’s God into a mere, insensitive demi-urge, as Blake did.

The visionary world is also stressed by the tension between stasis and development. The static perspective early takes on a “land of Cockaigne” quality, especially in poems like “The Land Where I Was Born”, “Twas in the Early Summertime” and “In Nimitybelle”, but that is only one way of embodying it. Change is symbolised in puberty and death and there are complex relationships between them: one of Neilson’s important early poems, “The Child We Lost”, plays on our expectations that it will be an example of the much-loved late nineteenth century Australian tale of the child lost in the bush or city (in other words concluding with the finding of the body) but concludes:

One evening when the sun was down
A woman came – her eyes were brown.
But our child came not from the town.,

In other words, “we” lost the child when she became sexually active.

As I have said, the lay-out of Neilson’s inner world would take a lot of teasing out and these are but gestures. But it is hard not to observe the way in which Death is ever present, sometimes as a personified force (“The Gray Digger”) but mostly as night. One of Neilson’s most loved poems, “Schoolgirls Hastening” (which, incidentally, might be considered too “edgy” to be published today!), is a celebration of innocence and sexual immaturity but it is framed by a world of night-terrors: “Fear it has faded, and the Night”. Neilson himself underwent what seems to have been a depressive interval in his late twenties and one feels that this is wrapped into the idea of darkness and death. There is the geography of the blue, the land and the city. There are the flowers, crops and the animal world. There are the seasons and the colours. And finally there are a host of emblematic types who would need to be placed: the drummer, the player, the fiddler (not necessarily the same as the player), the birds, especially the water-birds and, above all, the lover.

One of Nielson’s best poems, “Stony Town”, derives its power from the fact that although it engages a fairly trite opposition – that between the city and the bush – and although it is written as a simple ballad, it draws on and thus celebrates the transformative power of poetry and the imagination rather than content itself with a critique of the mercantile world. True it begins as a conditional and may be no more than a wish but that doesn’t detract from its power:

If ever I go to Stony Town, I’ll go as to a fair,
With bells and men and a dance-girl with a heat-wave in her hair:
I’ll ask the birds that live on the road; for I dream (though it may not be)
That the eldest song was a forest thought and the singer was a tree.

Oh, Stony Town is a hard town! It buys and sells and buys:
It will not pity the plights of youth or any love in the eyes:
No curve they follow in Stony Town; but the straight line and the square:
-	And the girl shall dance them a royal dance, like a blue wren at his prayer.

. . . . . 

She shall cry aloud that a million moons for a lover is not long,
And her mouth shall be as the green honey in the honey-eater’s song;
If ever I go to Stony Town, I’ll go as to a fair,
And the girl shall shake with the cinnamon and the heat-wave in her hair.

I began this review by linking Shaw Neilson with Brennan as a duo inspiring critical unease and one is naturally intrigued by what they made of each other. Neilson’s dictated “Autobiography” describes a visit to Sydney begun in December, 1926 when he met Stephens who introduced him to John le Gay Brereton and Brennan. By this stage of Brennan’s life one imagines that any “conversations” were mainly monologues but Neilson was impressed by his talk and in the “Autobiography” is respectful without being in any way servile: you feel, as you always do with Neilson, that he knew his own worth. After going to Stephens’s place, Brennan walks “half the way home” with Neilson. We have no idea what Brennan made of him but, according to Neilson, “he spoke as simply to me as though we had been mates in the bush together”.

Published in Australian Poetry Journal, 2:2 (December, 2012), 91-98.