The Orange Tree | John Shaw Neilson #poetrymonth

[Kumquat] Photo by Tina Xinia on Unsplash

During Poetry Month, I find that poems pop up everywhere. In chapter 10 (Furnishing the Capitol) of Cold Light by Frank Moorhouse, Edith, our charming but ageing protagonist recites a couple of stanzas of John Shaw Neilson’s poem, The Orange Tree.

She is inspired to do so after eating a cumquat straight from the tree that she had ordered ‘free from the government nursery, bright with fruit,’ to decorate her new office. There have been no weather updates or seasonal references at this point in the story, however a fruiting cumquat would suggest that it is late November or December, or possibly even early in the new year.

John Shaw Neilson (1872-1942) was born in Penola, South Australia, grew up in Nhill, Victoria before moving to Sea Lake to take up farming. It was here that he wrote, The Orange Tree.

Neilson had a very basic education but devoured a copy of Robert Burns’ and then Thomas Hood’s poetry when he was young. Alongside his father, he worked most of his life as a labourer, shearer, timber cutter, fruit picker, working in quarries and on the roads. They both wrote verse and had their work published by the local papers. In 1893 both father and son won prizes for their verse in the Australian Natives’ Association competition. Neilson senior was known as a ‘bush poet’, whilst his son was referred to as ‘the green singer’ due to his fondness for that colour.

In Cold Light, Edith’s volume of Neilson’s poetry is given to her by Sir John Latham, after he gave the oration at Neilson’s funeral. The ADB page for Neilson, describes Latham as a ‘fervant admirer’.

The Orange Tree was included in a collection of his poems called, Ballad and Lyrical Poems, first published in November 1923 by A. G. Stephens of The Bookfellow.

The Orange Tree

The young girl stood beside me.    
I Saw not what her young eyes could see:
- A light, she said, not of the sky
  Lives somewhere in the Orange Tree.
- Is it, I said, of east or west?
  The heartbeat of a luminous boy
Who with his faltering flute confessed
  Only the edges of his joy?
Was he, I said, borne to the blue
  In a mad escapade of Spring
Ere he could make a fond adieu
  To his love in the blossoming?
- Listen! the young girl said.  There calls
  No voice, no music beats on me;
But it is almost sound: it falls
 This evening on the Orange Tree.
- Does he, I said, so fear the Spring
  Ere the white sap too far can climb?
See in the full gold evening
  All happenings of the olden time?
Is he so goaded by the green?
  Does the compulsion of the dew
Make him unknowable but keen
  Asking with beauty of the blue?
- Listen! the young girl said.  For all
  Your hapless talk you fail to see
There is a light, a step, a call
  This evening on the Orange Tree.
- Is it, 1 said, a waste of love
 Imperishably old in pain,
Moving as an affrighted dove
 Under the sunlight or the rain?
Is it a fluttering heart that gave
 Too willingly and was reviled?
Is it the stammering at a grave,
 The last word of a little child?
- Silence! the young girl said.  Oh, why,
 Why will you talk to weary me?
Plague me no longer now, for I
 Am listening like the Orange Tree.
  • This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.

7 thoughts on “The Orange Tree | John Shaw Neilson #poetrymonth

    1. I confess that I have never eaten a kumquat, so was fascinated to see a reference to one in a book set in 1950’s Australia. Perhaps more people had a kumquat tree in their backyard back then, than they do now?

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      1. Potted cumquat trees were very popular a couple of decades ago. You’d see them often in pairs near front doors. My mother’s generation, though, had them in the backyard and made cumquat marmalade. (Australians spell them with a “c”). I’m trying to remember the reference in Cold light, and what Edith’s reaction was. I wonder what Moorhouse’s point was.

        Sea Lake! I went there for the first time a couple of years ago … should have known John Shaw Neilson’s connection.

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  1. Sea Lake was my (maternal) grandparents home town. My cousin Sally still farms there. They had a good orchard around the house – oranges and apples and grapes and figs but no cumquats that I remember. Looking up The Bookfellow, I see that AG Stephens went to the same school as my paternal grandfather, Toowoomba Grammar, two states and 1500 km away. Anyway it seems that the Bookfellow was an occasional project of Stephens after he left the Bulletin in 1906.
    Mum went to school in Sea Lake, and taught there for a short while.She was 10 when Shaw Neilson died but I’ll ask her was he remembered.

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    1. I did wonder if some of these places and names would be a part of your family story Bill, and you didn’t disappoint! The best I can do was a coffee break in Nhill many years when visiting friends in Horsham, who also had family in Kaniva. It was not long after the movie, Road to Nhill came out, so we had a photo taken with the welcome to town sign as a memento.

      There is apparently a monument to Shaw Neilson in Nhill and his Penola cottage was also moved to Nhill and turned into the John Shaw Neilson National Memorial Cottage.
      There is another sculpture out the front of Footscray Library in Paisley Street. A plaque can also be found at the Gordon Street entrance to Western Hospital (he lived at the site from 1927-1941).

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      1. I distantly remember that movie. As you might expect I had faults to pick with its geography. I lived in Murrayville which does have a road to Nhill – through the Big Desert. Pyramid Hill which I seem to remember is where the movie is set, doesn’t (it’s too far east).

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