May – John Shaw Neilson – Analysis


SHYLY the silver-hatted mushrooms make
Soft entrance through,
And undelivered lovers, half awake,
Hear noises in the dew.

Yellow in all the earth and in the skies,
The world would seem
Faint as a widow mourning with soft eyes
And falling into dream.

Up the long hill I see the slow plough leave
Furrows of brown;
Dim is the day and beautiful: I grieve
To see the sun go down.

But there are suns a many for mine eyes
Day after day:
Delightsome in grave greenery they rise,
Red oranges in May.

John Shaw Neilson (1872 – 1942)

John Shaw Neilson was born to a Scottish family who came to Australia in the late nineteenth century and took up farming in very difficult country. The family was very poor and their attempts at farming in dry tough Australian land was never very successful. He never had a formal education but his father wrote poetry and had an interested in literature.

It is now autumn in Australia so I thought I would look at this poem. And looking at the lines … the soft entrance of silver-hatted mushrooms – typifies the movement in the damp autumn ground … undelivered lovers – perhaps these are the early morning gatherers of mushrooms – the best time to pick them – but a note that you must be careful to pick mushrooms and not poisonous fungi!

Yellow features in quite a few of his poems – I equate it to sunshine … and in autumn you could regard the sunshine to be in the earth as well as in the skies – and the whole world takes on a golden softness  – and in autumn there is a feeling of loss – that summer is over, so the image of a widow faint and mourning is quite appropriate … and so too  falling into dream – autumn being an approach to the sleep of winter

Well,  he would have had plenty of experience of rural life … and in the preparation of the land, there is a ‘slowness’ to life … he grieves the shortening days and dim light in line with the mourning widow, but for him there is also great beauty – (in other poems such as ‘The Poor, Poor Country’ he finds a joy in the harsh landscape that his family is trying to farm).

He reiterates the beauty of the autumn sun … and the Australian sun delights each day … rising in the grave greenery– some trees would appear to be just head stones – and trees would be in their grave so to speak, but a green grave of course.  The final line combines the  two colours of red and orange … this indicates to me a loss of intensity – and a visual change from the summer sun … at the same time the May sun is seen as the round fruit of the orange – autumn being a time for fruit.

His most famous poem is ‘The Orange Tree’ – see this link.

Also, the collected poems of John Shaw Neilson have been digitised by Sydney University and they can be found on the following Internet Site –

Click to access v00042.pdf