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.