This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986
John Shaw Neilson (1872-1942), poet, was born on 22 February 1872 at Penola, South Australia, eldest son of Scottish-born John Neilson (1844-1922), bushworker and selector, and his wife Margaret, née McKinnon. Known as Jock, he attended the local school for less than two years and as a small child worked as a farm-labourer for his father. In 1881 John Neilson senior and his half-brother Dave Shaw joined the South Australian farmers making the long trek by wagon over the border to take up selections under the Victorian Land Act (1869), and were each allotted 320 acres (130 ha) north of Lake Minimay.
In the first year on their selection, the Neilsons cleared six acres (2.4 ha) and ploughed, sowed and harvested by hand, but after deducting the money owed to the storekeeper found they had made £7 from the crop. Impoverished and bankrupt, they were forced to seek station work to exist, and only devoted their spare time to the selection where the family lived in a crude mud-plastered house for eight years. Neilson senior asked for extensions in which to pay the annual rent year after year, until in 1888 the storekeeper foreclosed. By June 1889 they had shifted to Dow Well, a few miles west of Nhill. Although he did his share of clearing and working the land, Shaw Neilson found time to wander the swamps and woodlands as a keen observer of Nature, gathering eggs and listening to birdsongs, foraging for mushrooms, and tracking wild bees, and for some months went to school in 1885-86, leaving when he turned 14.
Neilson and his father generally worked as farm-hands, timber-cutters, or road-workers for the shire council, but were also staunch unionists when shearing. Both belonged to the local literary society, and both won prizes for verse in the Australian Natives' Association competitions in 1893. The father was a published bush poet, who appears to have started writing verse when he was about 30, and contributed to local newspapers and Adelaide Punch. He won another prize for verse in 1897, but achieved his widest popularity in outback shearing sheds with a song, 'Waiting for the Rain'. Although he obviously lacked 'the outstanding poetical genius of his son', he was a writer of some achievement in the face of a lifelong bitter struggle for existence and little schooling; his verse was issued in book form, The Men of the Fifties, in 1938.
Frank Shann, editor of the Nhill Mail, printed verse by Shaw Neilson for some years. Most was conventional and undistinguished. The family moved into Nhill in mid-1893, still deep in poverty and existing on municipal contracts and farm work, but by May 1895 they were on the road again travelling north to take up a scrub-covered Mallee selection near Lake Tyrrell, which had to be rolled and burned and grubbed before ploughing and sowing. Battling drought and bushfire to survive, there was little time or energy for writing poetry. One of Shaw's few poems appeared in the Sydney Bulletin in December 1896 and nothing more until the end of 1901.
The Neilsons continued share-farming combined with scrub-clearing for wages and contract work, but moved to a house at Kaneira to be closer to the shire work for a while, before shifting once more to an area totalling 2400 acres (971 ha), about 26 miles (42 km) north of Sea Lake, in the parish of Eureka. Despite the general drought, the Eureka district had heavy rains in 1902 which enabled the Neilsons to harvest some hay and provide agistment for horses. While their finances improved, personal grief struck hard: Neilson's sister Maggie, who had been ill for some years, died in 1903, followed by another sister Jessie in 1907. He himself was in very poor health, and did little writing for nearly four years, but contributed to the Bulletin several times between 1901 and 1906, with some lighter verse and limericks appearing in Randolph Bedford's Clarion a little later. About then his sight began to fail, and for the rest of his life he was unable to read and write legibly and depended on the assistance of family members or fellow workmen.
John Shaw Neilson is often called 'the green singer', because of his fondness for that colour, and sometimes 'the roadmender' because most of his adult life was spent making roads, quarrying stone, or on bush work, and always in poverty. [Dame] Mary Gilmore spoke of her first meeting with him: 'and when I saw his work-swollen hands, with the finger-nails worn to the quick by the abrading stone, I felt a stone in my heart'. Yet he was so much more than an unschooled navvy; he was, as Percival Serle describes him, 'a slender man of medium height with a face that suggested his kindliness, refinement and innate beauty of character'.
The unique gifts of Shaw Neilson may never have survived without the encouragement and practical assistance of A. G. Stephens, who placed all his work, although much of it was never paid for, and edited, punctuated and arranged the rough manuscripts sent to him. Neilson was largely self taught in the techniques of poetry, and shows immense change and development in both theme and technique over the years that led Tom Inglis Moore to claim: 'as a pure singer Neilson at his best stands unsurpassed in modern English-speaking poetry, and he can take his rightful place in company with the finest lyrists of all English literature'. When Stephens's Bookfellow magazine was revived in 1911, Neilson became a regular contributor, and the editor began collecting his poems which were revised and included in Heart of Spring (1919).
In 1923 Louise Dyer paid £100 for the printing of Ballad and Lyrical Poems, which consisted of the first book and twenty additional poems. A volume of New Poems (23 poems) was published in 1927, followed by his Collected Poems in 1934, which included the previously published poems and only twelve new ones. When Beauty Imposes (14 poems) was issued in 1938, the young Robert FitzGerald said 'no other Australian poet has Neilson's skill with words and rhythms', although he pointed to what he considered limitations in vocabulary and weaknesses in construction. Lesser claims have been made on behalf of Neilson's subtle craftsmanship; H. J. Oliver, for example, has seen him as 'a fascinating minor poet, who in his best lyrics wrote with an unusual delicacy of expression'. Other critics have looked beyond his lyricism. A. R. Chisholm recognized Neilson's instinctive affinity with the French Symbolist poets and H. M. Green wrote of him as 'perhaps the most notable of all Australia's mystic poets', whose images from Nature hint at a beauty beyond the objects portrayed: 'at his best Neilson's vision is so intense that it seems to carry him beyond himself'. A recent assessment by Vivian Smith rates him with Christopher Brennan as 'the foremost poet of his generation'.
Shaw Neilson spent much of his life in tents, in navvy camps and in cheap boarding houses while working at casual jobs all over Victoria (and in parts of New South Wales) to an estimated total of 200 jobs in thirty years. By the time he was in his mid-fifties the strain of hard physical labour had taken its toll on a man who had never been robust. A group of Melbourne literary people worked to obtain Neilson a tiny Commonwealth Literary Fund pension, and eventually in 1928 he was employed as a messenger and attendant in the office of the Victorian Country Roads Board, which was set in the gardens surrounding the Exhibition Building. Neilson stuck at this permanent work for thirteen years although he hated the 'dreadful noise of the city', living all that time with relations at Footscray, but not writing many poems. Early in 1941 he took extended sick leave and went to Queensland to visit James Devaney, who left a picture of this ailing, frail, but cheerful man stepping from the train in Brisbane wearing a dressing gown.
He returned to Melbourne in ill health in spite of patient care and died, unmarried, of heart disease on 12 May 1942. Neilson was buried in the Footscray cemetery where Sir John Latham, a fervent admirer, addressed the mourners, and fellow poet Bernard O'Dowd made an oration. Vance Palmer recorded that Shaw Neilson 'in his coffin … looked like a small wax image of some saint of the Middle Ages', but the poet's death passed with little notice, partly because poetic fashions had changed, but mainly because of the intensity of the war. After his death several collections of his poetry were made, including Unpublished Poems of Shaw Neilson (1947), Witnesses of Spring (1970), and The Poems of Shaw Neilson (1965, revised and enlarged 1973). His partial autobiography was published in 1978, and his earliest printed verse, Green Days and Cherries in 1981. A number of Neilson's poems have been set to music by composers from 1925 to the present, including W. G. Whittaker, Frank Francis, Alfred Hill, and especially Margaret Sutherland. 'Shaw Neilson', Devaney so accurately said, was 'the poor working-man who has left us a legacy of endless wealth'.
Hugh Anderson, 'Neilson, John Shaw (1872–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/neilson-john-shaw-764/text13553, accessed 20 June 2013.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986