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John Shaw Neilson was born at Penola, South Australia, in 1872. His parents, John Neilson and Margaret McKinnon made a meagre living as bush-workers and selectors, moving many times in search of work on surrounding stations. Neilson received only several years of schooling, but, like his father, wrote verse for local papers like the Nhill Mail. Both men published verse in the Bulletin, but the younger man established a relationship with the editor, A. G. Stephens, that encouraged further contributions and supported the publication of several volumes of poetry. The wide-open spaces and the forces of nature that Neilson experienced in his travels around Victoria inspired much of his poetry. When his eyesight began to fail in 1904, Neilson continued to produce verse with the help of others, but he also continued to work as a labourer until his supporters arranged employment in Melbourne with the Victorian Country Roads Board in 1928. Neilson worked as a messenger there until 1941 when he took extended sick leave, visiting friends in Queensland and New South Wales. Despite this leave he returned to Melbourne in poor health and died there in May 1942.
Neilson's reputation has remained strong since his death. Collections of poetry have been edited by James Devaney, Judith Wright, A. R. Chisholm and Cliff Hanna. His poetry has attracted a great deal of commentary and several biographies and collections of correspondence have been published. Neilson is regarded by many as Australia's finest lyrical poet. While many of Neilson's poems are simple and naive, critics have found in his better poems a complex mysticism that rewards close reading.