A Memory of Australia's Tragic Poet

By Pennington, Richard | Contemporary Review, May 1992 | Go to article overview

A Memory of Australia's Tragic Poet


Pennington, Richard, Contemporary Review


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? …

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