The Poor, Poor Country – John Shaw Neilson

The Poor, Poor Country

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.

John Shaw Neilson (1872 – 1942)

Pauper = impoverished person
Bunyip = legendary Australian monster

JSN did not have a formal education. He attended his local school for less than two years and as a small child worked as a farm-labourer for his father. Much of his life was spent labouring.

His Scottish family migrated to Australia and they took up a selection to clear and farm in the poor scrub covered Mallee of Victoria. It was a continual struggle trying to develop this harsh environment. It was aptly named as ‘poor country’.

JSN must have heard his father curse his predicament. The land was only seen in economic terms to escape poverty. But JSN saw the land as a boy discovering Nature without the dictate of financial gain. He was observant to all that this ‘poor country’ had to offer and unlike the improvised land he recognised the great wealth of his surroundings. And perhaps given the task to labour the land without siblings or children to play with he welcomed the birdlife as his friends. He saw the land from a different perspective and although without education gave his contrast voice to it in this poem.

The story of his life as a labourer and how he became recognised  as a poet is set out in this Australian Dictionary of Biography link

Perhaps his most well-known poem is ‘The Orange Tree’

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