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The Gentle Water Bird (for Mary Gilmore)

John Shaw Neilson 1872 (Penola, South Australia) – 1942 (Melbourne, Victoria)



In the far days, when every day was long,
Fear was upon me and the fear was strong,
Ere I had learned the recompense of song.

In the dim days I trembled, for I knew
God was above me, always frowning through,
And God was terrible and thunder-blue.

Creeds the discoloured awed my opening mind,
Perils, perplexities - what could I find? -
All the old terror waiting on mankind.

Even the gentle flowers of white and cream,
The rainbow with its treasury of dream,
Trembled because of God's ungracious scheme.

And in the night the many stars would say
Dark things unaltered in the light of day:
Fear was upon me even in my play.

There was a lake I loved in gentle rain:
One day there fell a bird, a courtly crane:
Wisely he walked, as one who knows of pain.

Gracious he was and lofty as a king:
Silent he was, and yet he seemed to sing
Always of little children and the Spring.

God? Did he know him? It was far he flew?.
God was not terrible and thunder-blue:
- It was a gentle water bird I knew.

Pity was in him for the weak and strong,
All who have suffered when the days were long
And he was deep and gentle as a song.

As a calm soldier in a cloak of grey
He did commune with me for many a day
Till the dark fear was lifted far away.

Sober-apparelled, yet he caught the glow:
Always of Heaven would he speak, and low,
And he did tell me where the wishes go.

Kinsfolk of his it was who long before
Came from the mist (and no one knows the shore)
Came with the little children to the door.

Was he less wise than those birds long ago
Who flew from God (He surely willed it so)
Bearing great happiness to all below?

Long have I learned that all his speech was true;
I cannot reason it - how far he flew -
God is not terrible nor thunder-blue.

Sometimes, when watching in the white sunshine,
Someone approaches - I can half define
All the calm beauty of that friend of mine.

Nothing of hatred will about him cling:
Silent - how silent - but his heart will sing
Always of little children and the Spring.

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Submitted on May 13, 2011

1:58 min read
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John Shaw Neilson

John Shaw Neilson was an Australian poet. Slightly built, for most of his life he worked as a labourer, fruit-picking, clearing scrub, navvying and working in quarries, and, after 1928, working as a messenger with the Country Roads Board in Melbourne. he died when he was 70 years old. more…

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