C.J. Dennis vs. John Shaw Neilson

November 25th, 2015 | C. J. Dennis, Comparative biography, John Shaw Neilson

The AGM of the John Shaw Neilson Society was held last Sunday, and I had accepted an invitation to be the guest speaker.

I am fond of the poetry of John Shaw Neilson, but it does not fire my passion quite like that of C.J. Dennis. Given that I do not have a great depth of knowledge about the poetry or the life of Neilson, it seemed to me a comparison of the lives of Dennis and Neilson might be a good way to put together an entertaining presentation. (I decided to also spend some time discussing a book I had enjoyed many years earlier, “The Autobiography of John Shaw Neilson”.)

The talk was well received, and I have since received a couple of requests for copies of my notes.

For this reason, I have decided to post my notes about “C.J. Dennis vs. John Shaw Neilson” here.

1. Cultural extraction
Neilson: Scottish Presbyterian
Dennis: Irish Catholic

2. Year of birth.
Neilson: 1872
Dennis: 1876

3. Place of birth
Neilson: South Australia (Penola)
Dennis: South Australia (Auburn)

4. Education
Neilson: Left school at 14 after a total schooling period of two and a half years
Dennis: Also left school at 14, but this was after a comprehensive primary schooling, followed by a couple of good years of secondary schooling at Christian Brothers College in Adelaide

5. Earnings from poetry
Neilson: negligible
Dennis: a short period of spectacular earnings, followed by a long period of solid earnings

6. Nature of poetry
Neilson: lyrical, surreal, mysterious verse – no verse novels (also some light verse and limericks)
Dennis: verse with strong rhyme and metre; strong characterisations; much humour and slang; many verse novels

7. Nature of prose
Neilson: by his own admission, not his strength: “I was about twenty two before I came to the conclusion that I could not write prose.” (Autobiography, page 34)
Dennis: superb writer of prose, though wrote considerably less of it

8. Personal life
Neilson: never married, no children
Dennis: married, but no children

9. Relationship with other poets
Neilson: close relationship with Dame Mary Gilmore:

(Speaking 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.” (Quote taken from “John Shaw Neilson – Australian Dictionary of Biography”)

Dennis: good friendship with Henry Lawson, who was, of course, very close to Gilmore

10. Attitudes to Nature
Both very keen observers of Nature (and both keen to avoid the city of Melbourne)

11. Attitudes to mechanical things:
Neilson: According to his brother, Frank, (Autobiography, page 18) “…he had a total lack of interest of all mechanical things. Often after we had left farming and were looking around for employment, I would obtain work, as I had a bicycle and could of course ride if necessary some miles to work. He, however, used to be compelled to walk, as he never would have the patience to be bothered even with the simplest push-bike.”

Dennis: had a love of gadgets and innovations, and was very good with his hands

12. Mentor/patron
Neilson: A.G. Stephens, James Devaney
Dennis: J. G. Roberts

13. Health
Neilson: plagued by difficulties with eyesight – probably as a result of macular degeneration, which meant he relied very heavily on his peripheral vision – for much of his life

Dennis: suffered from asthma, exacerbated by smoking; also very heavy drinker – health deteriorated sharply during his fifties

14. Financial position
Neilson: lived a largely ‘hand to mouth’ existence through manual labour; after many years working as road builder, worked as messenger and office worker for the Victorian Country Roads Board for the last decade or so of his life. He also obtained a small pension (from the Commonwealth Literary Fund) towards the end of his life

Dennis: made a large amount of money during his life, but lost it through a combination of lavish spending and poor investments; died in debt

15. Year of death
Neilson: 1942
Dennis: 1938

16. Place of death
Neilson: Melbourne
Dennis: Melbourne

17. Place of burial
Neilson: Footscray Cemetery
Dennis: Box Hill Cemetery

18. Public acknowledgement of passing:
Neilson: very little: “…partly because poetic fashions had changed, but mainly because of the intensity of the war.” (Quote taken from “John Shaw Neilson – Australian Dictionary of Biography”)

Dennis: The Australian Prime Minister, Joseph Lyons, suggested he was destined to be remembered as the “Australian Robert Burns”

19. Who is now better remembered?
It is very difficult to say. Neither poet has a high profile these days. My suspicion is that Neilson has more appeal to younger generations than Dennis.

6 responses to “C.J. Dennis vs. John Shaw Neilson”

  1. An intriguing comparison Stephen- good job

  2. Barry Watts says:

    Hi Stephen, I recall that Neilson’s store of his poetic output was consumed during a mouse plague at Quambatook(sp?)once – I can’t find specific reference though.
    Barry

  3. Barry Watts says:

    Stephen, I realise now that I named the wrong country town (above)- It should have been Chinkapook.Barry

  4. John Cotter says:

    Thanks Stephen. I had not heard of J S Neilson before. Just glanced at some of his poems and loved them.

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