John Shaw Neilson: A life in letters
by Helen Hewson
Miegunyah Press $69.95 hb, 503 pp
How good is Shaw Neilson? The question has hung around ever since A.G. Stephens, publishing the poet’s first book, Heart of Spring, in 1919, prefaced it with comparisons to Shakespeare and Blake and declared this unknown to be the ‘first of Australian poets’. The claim provoked competitive jealousies in a possessive, parochial literary world and reviewers responded by insinuating doubts. The question remains: is Neilson the greatest Australian poet? For those who want literature to be a horse race, it is unsatisfactory that there is no declared winner, brandishing medal and loot. Neilson loved horses but he disliked the hold that the sporting mentality had over his fellow Australians – especially men. Yet like most writers he was anxious about his standing and, in his perfectionist’s concern to put his best foot forward, he probably contributed to his readers’ uncertainties. Difficulties with his singularity as a poet were compounded by Neilson’s circumstances, particularly the bad eyesight that made him dependent on others in preparing final versions of his work. That was part of a more general dependency on editors, critics, and supporters who had their own ideas of where they wanted to take him.