John Shaw Neilson was born in Penola, South Australia, in 1872, the eldest son of Scottish farmers. In 1881, the Neilson family moved to the Wimmera district of Victoria to take up a selection, but they struggled in the poor country and Neilson's father was forced to find work on other stations. Neilson's formal schooling was limited and he soon joined his father, who was also a poet, as an itinerant bush labourer. For most of his life, Neilson lived in marginal circumstances, working in various casual labouring jobs in rural Victoria and New South Wales.
In spite of the hardships of bush life and his poor eyesight Neilson read widely, practised his poetic craft, and actively sought publication of his work. Much of his understanding of language, imagery and poetic form was acquired from the King James Bible, the Scottish Psalter and Hymnal, as well as the poets represented in Palgraves Golden Treasury or published in the Bulletin. From 1907 the literary critic, A.G. Stephens, formerly editor of the Red Page of the Bulletin, and publisher of the literary magazine The Bookfellow, became Neilson's mentor, editor and copyright holder. He guided Neilson's writing and reading and published three collections of poetry: Heart of Spring (1919), Ballad and Lyrical Poems (1923), and New Poems (1927). After Stephens' death, Thomas Lothian published The Collected Poems of John Shaw Neilson (1934), edited by Robert Henderson Croll in consultation with the poet. James Devaney assisted Neilson with his final book Beauty Imposes (1938), and encouraged him to write a series of autobiographical letters which provided material for Devaney's biography Shaw Neilson (1944).
In 1928, the influence of friends secured Neilson less arduous employment as an attendant at the Victorian Country Roads Board in Melbourne. In Melbourne, Neilson met some of the writers and artists with whom he had corresponded over the years. In 1941, with his health failing, Neilson took leave and travelled to Queensland to visit James Devaney. He returned to Melbourne, where he died on 12 May 1942.
From its first appearance in the Bulletin and Bookfellow, Neilson's verse attracted the interest of literary figures such as Christopher Brennan, John Le Gay Brereton, Mary Gilmore, Vance and Nettie Palmer, Hugh McCrae, Bernard O'Dowd, Blamire Young, Louise Dyer (founder of L'Oiseau-Lyre Press, Paris) and many others. Later poets such as James McAuley, Douglas Stewart, Judith Wright, Robert Gray and Noel Rowe have also celebrated his unique contribution to Australian poetry. The circumstances of Neilson's life and his commitment to the bardic tradition formed the basis of film and stage productions. Scholarly attention from the 1940s onwards has ensured his place in the literary canon, and broader research and critical scholarship from the 1990s onwards has tended to debunk some of the romantic myths associated with this enigmatic poet.Poetry Collections
- Heart of Spring (Sydney: Bookfellow, 1919).
- Ballad and Lyrical Poems (Sydney: Bookfellow: 1923)
- New Poems (Sydney: Bookfellow, 1923)
- The Collected Poems of John Shaw Neilson (Melbourne: Lothian, 1934).
- Beauty Imposes: Some Recent Verse (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1938).
- James Devaney, Shaw Neilson (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1944).
- Cliff Hanna, The Folly of Spring: A Study of Shaw Neilsons Poetry (St Lucia, Qld.: University of Queensland Press, 1990).
- Cliff Hanna, Jock: A Life Story of John Shaw Neilson (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1999).
- Helen Hewson, John Shaw Neilson: A Life in Letters (Melbourne: Miegunyah Press, 2001).