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A memory of Australia's tragic poet.

Even today, I imagine, the name of Christopher Brennan the Australian poet and Greek scholar, is little known. In 1930 it was wholly unknown, for when I sent a short study of his work to J. C. Squire, the editor of the London Mercury, he asked me to call, said the article was good, but added, |You can't fool an old hand like me. I've been in the game too long'. I could not understand; and he still thought I was bluffing. |It's good; but you've made two slips. Look at these lines beginning with lowercase at this date, 1895 of all years, and in Australia of all places. You can't get away with that'. |And what', I asked |was the other mistakes?' |Oh, the Mallarme. His influence is obvious; and at that date it's impossible'. He really thought Brennan was a figment of my imagination.

His incredulity was understandable; for nothing of Brennan's poetry had yet reached England; nor did the British Musuem possess either of his two publications, the XXI poems of 1987 and the Poems of 1913; and the man himself had disappeared into a city slum and social ostracism. From which I had the good fortune to rescue him.

It all began one week-end in the house of Francis Crossle the doctor at Bulli, then (1926) a village of wooden houses sixty miles from Sydney, beside the long, unbroken sandy beach that stretches for miles as far as Illawarra. Crossle was a highly cultivated man of literary tastes, and he would invite young artists or writers for the week-end at Bulli, and there I would go when not at sea. Crossle -- he insisted on the accent, and his bookplate carried what he considered his armorial bearings -- had done his medical studies in Dublin and there had consorted with the writers of the Celtic |renaissance' of those days: Yeats and A.E. and George Moore. On his bookshelves were the Irish legends, the Irish poets, and the Abbey Theatre booklets. And then, apparently, he had left Dublin for New South Wales. |We made a runaway marriage' his wife explained to me and one day |and came to Australia'. Run away, they certainly had; but, as I learned much later, had forgotten the marriage in their impetuosity.

Crossle had become a very popular doctor, a friend of Beutler the composer, and of Norman Lindsay the artist -- he had written an introduction to a collection of Lindsay's etchings -- who wrote him long letters full of his peculiar and personal and preposterous philsophy. A short, slender man with a pale, intellectual face and corn-coloured hair and an air of impalpability, as though a strong wind could blow him away. It was only his very light blue eyes that were disconcerting.

It was one very warm evening when, after dinner -- it may have been the heat or from querulousness at Crossle's praise of McCrae and Atkinson as poets of importance -- I made a discourteous remark about the Aussie Muse. Crossle rose; looked along the shelves; and brought out a slim, brown-paper covered pamphlet labelled XXI poems: toward the source, by Christopher Brennan. |You can't say anything about Australian verse without taking that into consideration. Read it, and let me know what you think of it.'

In bed that night I read through XXI poems, and did not know what to think of it at all, except that these extraordinary poems were either spurious or else incontestably the finest verse that had appeared anywhere in the outer Empire since that Empire had begun sprawling over a quarter of the globe's surface, to the greater glory of Threadneedle Street but not to the enrichment of art. The tumbled images and impetuous metre carried one away until one seemed far from Port Jackson and somewhere between the Brocken on Walpurgisnacht and Provence on a Spring morning.

But now I am come among the rougher hills

and grow aware of the sea that somewhere near

is restless; and the flood of night is thinned

and stars are whitening. O, what horrible dawn

will bare me the way and crude lumps of the hills

and the homeless concave of the day, and bare

the ever-restless, ever complaining sea?


I would this old illusion of the Spring

might perish once with all her airs that fawn

and traitor roses of the wooing dawn:

for none hath known he magic dream of old

come sooth, since that first surge of light outrolled

heroic, broke the august and mother sleep

and foamed, and azure was the rearward deep

and Eden afloat among her virgin boughs . . .

Heaven knows what the Aussies made of this in 1897. For in England the tradition of Tennyson and Swinburne still reigned, and poety under the Southern Cross was expected to be bush-wacking balladry or serenades in tropical groves. But in this paper-covered pamphlet was an English Symbolist flourishing (impossible thought) under Queen Victoria.

What had become of the poet" I asked friends in Sydney, and they did not know. One of them, at the mention of the name, had a vague memory of some scandal. That was all. Christopher Brennan had vanished from the social life of Sydney, or from the world.

At the end of 1926 I found him in the back room of a very dingy lodging house near the Woolloomooloo docks. At the address I was given a woman was washing clothes in a ground floor room, and when I inquired for Brennan she pointed to the floor above. I went up the dark stairs and found the door open and the room empty, and went down again to ask where he might be? |Probably having breakfast in the "Prince Albert". He'll be back if you wait'. It didn't sound like the name of a restaurant. I went upstairs again and spent half an hour taking in the melancholy of this bare, white-washed room that looked on to the brick walls and washing of a backyard. There was a cane chair, a bed, a narrow strip of worn carpet, and that was all, except that on a shelf were ranged, incongrously in this dock-side dead-end, the volumes of Grenfell & Hunt's edition of the Oxhyrinchus papyri and some Greek texts annotated, I found, in a neat handwriting based on the Italian script of the Renaissance.

At half-past-ten there were slow, heavy steps on the stairs, and the poet came in, a little unsteadily. He was a tall, magnificently built figure, collarless, with a greasy and stained coat buttoned imperfectly over a massive chest, unshaven, and with eyes that were red, though not, I thought, from lack of sleep. But he managed, with the ease of the educated man, the sudden transition from solitary drinker to polite host. He apologised for not being in to recieve his visitor; proferred him the single chair; and sat down on the concave bed as though it were the usual divan, and moved with no awkwardness into the most natural of conversations that began with questions about my work and ended with Aeschylus and Pindar. I left at mid-day with the conviction that this first meeting with the Australian Symbolist in that dismal room heavy with the fumes of breakfast had been one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. There was no doubt at all Brennan's scholarship, and the legend of the brilliant conversationalist was also true, for I had listened enraptured for more than an hour and had realised that, after I do not know how many years of excessive drinking and exclusion from respectable society, this man could still have shone in any European gathering. I came away, too, with the determination to do something for genius while it was still alive rather than wait and buy an expensive wreath for the funeral.

Gradually I pieced together his history, or that version of it which public rumour had preserved, and I learned of the raw and brilliant youth who had shown such aptitude for Greek and Latin studies that he had been sent to Germany to study. The Irish Australian found himself in an ancient city where scholarship was venerated. He heard the language of Goethe all round. In the bookshops were the scholar's tools, and the consolation of beer in the cellars. And then down the stairs of his lodging came the flaxen-haired Gretchen, the landlady's daughter. Unfortunately, he married her and brought her to New South Wales and to inevitable disillusion.

He was expected back in 1894 to return with a doctrate; but he had neglected (mistakenly) to present himself for an examination he did not think important. So that for a time he was reduced to working in a public library. But he gave occasional lectures at the university on Greek and on modern languages, and was finally, in 1921, appointed Associate Professor of German and Comparative Literature. He also received a mark of public recognition when some Sydney citizens combined to publish a very handsome edition of his poems in 1913.

Unhappily, the marriage contracted by the young poet in the early 'nineties had not proved durable; and his domestic life became unbearable; for he took a mistress, which was natural and understandable. But he made a mistake that is surprising for an intelligient man to have made in the Australia of the |twenties, a country where Irish Catholics and English Nonconformists were numerous: he did not observe the rules. He set up house openly with his mistress. This was an affront to a well-ordered society. The university wher he taught, was faced with a difficult decision: either to condone adultery or dismiss him. At this moment, fate, as they say, tragically intervened. Returning home very late one night (or leaving it: for there is a more than nocturnal obscurity here) his mistress was run down in the darkness by a tram and killed. The blow was too much for Brennan. He took to drinking heavily; neglected his professional duties; and began to behave so erratically that the university no longer hesitated to dismiss him. He disappeared into the city slums.

At the time I knew little of the real history, but was moved by the spectacle of a man of extraordinary gifts, undoubtedly a great scholar, and, as I thought, a good poet, excluded from society. I protested to the University. I badgered the Vice-Chancellor. Eventually, he agreed that if I could assemble a few prominent citizens to consider Brennan's case, he would take the Chair at the meeting. After I had done this, we agreed that nothing public should be done, but that, as private individuals, we would subscribe, each one, a small amount each year to pay for a decent lodging, to buy him some clothes, and to guarantee him some solid food. None of which he had had for some time. One or two of the assembly thought he was too far gone in alcoholism to recover; but recover he did, very gradually. He took to his Greek studies again. He presented me with a translation of the Ecclesiazusae, beautifully written in his Italian script, which I did not long enjoy, for he soon asked for it back. Its value as an object of barter with a publican must have recurred to him, and it probably went the way of the Mallarme letter (or letters) which he once confessed to me he had exchanged for two bottles of whisky.

Part of our therapeutic treatment was to invite him to dinner regularly at our homes; and on these occasions he would feel bound to be sober. Encouraged by the good company and the good wine (sparsely served) he would become the centre of conversation and the remarkable talker of former days. On subjects that interested me -- and, alas!, only on these -- I would note down that evening or the next day as much as possible of Brennan's talk, and these are now the only testimony to his fascinating conversation. Only rarely did the control he must have imposed upon himself give way, as when, one evening, probably given something stronger than the wine, he suddenly recited at full voice a long Sophoclean chorus. One of the company sent me down the table a visiting card hastily scribbled: For God's sake give Chris a beer. And there was one Saturday mid-day when I felt my office, and coming into George Street, one of the main streets of the city, I found him lying at full length in the gutter, drunk and insensible. He was far too heavy a man to lift into a cab, and none of the passers-by would lend me a hand, so that I could do was to drag him on to the pavement and prop him against the wall. I picked up his hat and put it on his head, and so left him. Time and death, it seems, have transmuted the fumes of alcohol to the odour of sanctity, and the shapeless hat I replaced on the tousled head looks rather like a crown of laurel now.

For Christopher Brennan has become the subject of a very scholarly, very good, biography, by Axel Clark, published by an Australian university press, and his poetry has been reprinted, some of it in luxurious limited editions. It will probably be as little read as it was in his lifetime. He is more likely to fade into a legend and be remembered as a character in Australian literary history, the romantic tragic failure.
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Title Annotation:Christopher Brennan
Author:Pennington, Richard
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:May 1, 1992
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