Floating Life 4/06 ~ 11/07

an archive

Friday Australian poem # 2: "The Poor, Poor Country" by John Shaw Neilson

“Largely untrained and only basically educated, Neilson became known as one of Australia’s finest lyric poets, who wrote a great deal about the natural world, and the beauty in it.” — Wikipedia

I selected this poem for my 1995 book From yellow earth to eucalypt: stories and poems from China and Australia (Longman). I paired it with a Chinese story from the Ewenki culture: “The Seven-tined Stag” by Wure’ertu which tells the story of a boy who lives in another “poor, poor country”.


The Poor, Poor Country

John Shaw Neilson (1872-1942)

Oh ’twas a poor country, in Autumn it was bare,
The only green was the cutting grass and the sheep found little there.
Oh, the thin wheat and the brown oats were never two foot high,
But down in the poor country no pauper was I.

My wealth it was the glow that lives forever in the young,
‘Twas on the brown water, in the green leaves it hung.
The blue cranes fed their young all day – how far in a tall tree!
And the poor, poor country made no pauper of me.

I waded out to the swan’s nest – at night I heard them sing,
I stood amazed at the Pelican, and crowned him for a king;
I saw the black duck in the reeds, and the spoonbill on the sky,
And in that poor country no pauper was I.

The mountain-ducks down in the dark made many a hollow sound,
I saw in sleep the Bunyip creep from the waters underground.
I found the plovers’ island home, and they fought right valiantly,
Poor was the country, but it made no pauper of me.

My riches all went into dreams that never yet came home,
They touched upon the wild cherries and the slabs of honeycomb,
They were not of the desolate brood that men can sell or buy,
Down in that poor country no pauper was I.


The New Year came with heat and thirst and the little lakes were low,
The blue cranes were my nearest friends and I mourned to see them go;
I watched their wings so long until I only saw the sky,
Down in that poor country no pauper was I.




 Perry Middlemiss gives the bones of Neilson’s life:

John Shaw Neilson was born in 1872 in Penola in South Australia. (His father was John Neilson who gained a reputation as a bush poet in the 1870s.) Due to the family’s precarious lifestyle on the land, Neilson only completed two and a half years of schooling before returning to work on his family’s farm. His first work was published in the Bulletin magazine in 1896 and he continued to write in the years that followed. During his lifetime he published 3 collections of his poetry: Heart of Spring in 1919, Ballad and Lyrical Poems in 1923 and New Poems in 1927. His Collected Poems edited by R.H. Croll was published in 1934. In the latter part of his life poor health and a move to Melbourne diminished his writing output and he died in 1942.

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Written by Neil

August 17, 2007 at 12:24 am

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