Reprint: A Memory of C. J. Brennan: Classical Poet and Scholar by George Blackmore Philip

| No TrackBacks

Dr. Karl Wolfskehl, a German author and philosopher, who recently visited Australia, described the late C. J. Brennan as one of the most interesting poets of modern times. This estimate confirms the belief of the many admirers of Chris. Brennan in the greatness of his work. As the publisher of the first edition of his poems in 1913 I have set down here some recollections of a distingushed son of New South Wales.

Christy Brennan, the poet's father, with a sound knowledge of his trade as a brewer learned with the famous firm of Guinness in Dublin, emigrated to Sydney, and soon secured a position with the Castlemaine Brewery, on the site now occupied by the new Municipal Markets, at the junction of Hay and Quay Streets. He was one of the first brewers to bottle colonial beer, in the Colonies. The firm, doubtful of the experiment, decided to call it Brennan's Beer after the name of their brewer. One of Chris Brennan's cherished heirlooms was an original label placed on the bottles.

Preferred the Classics.

Christopher Brennan, senior, married a lass from Ireland, and their son was born on November 1, 1870. They cherished the hope that the lad, a promising scholar at St. Ignatius, Riverview, would enter the priesthood and accompany Cardinal Moran to Rome to study there, and it was a great disappointment when just before the close of his college days he wrote that he felt he had no vocation for the Church. His place was taken by a contemporary, Stephen Burke, who reached a high position in his calling.

Disappointed but not dismayed, his father saw visions, so dear to Irishmen, of his son devoting his talents to the Bar, or the Parliament of his country -- but it was not to be. The call of the classics and literature was too strong, and his parents ultimately lived to see him a Professor of his University and one of the leading poets of his day.

It was at the student stage of his life that our life-long friendship commenced. When seeking for the text books required for his first year, he was not satisfied with the editions recommended by the University Professors and those of the lending English Educational Publishers. He required annotated editions from Germany and other countries. Few students acquired such a complete collection of classics for their University courses, and I can remember procuring a large edition of "Lucretius" from Germany. All these contributed to lay the foundation for some of the most beautiful classical poems in the English language. Naturally, he cast his eyes farther afield to the great seats of learning in Europe, and his efforts were eventually crowned with success when he was awarded the much-coveted James King of Irrawang Scholarship, tenable for two years abroad. He selected Germany for the continuance of his studies, which took him from his native land for two years.

A high-spirited incident of his undergraduate days nearly cost. Chris. Brennan his University career. When his father heard with horror, being unversed in the ways of under-graduates, that his son entered the lecture room with jam tins and horse shoes decorating the fringe of his University gown, he thought he would be more usefully employed at the brewery washing bottles. The experiment did not meet with the success it probably deserved. The early start at 6 a.m. had its disadvantages, and the dreamy nature of a poet caused young Chris. to wander away from his uncongenial occupation under a goods lift which came down and nearly extinguished the future poet and scholar. His father concluding that Chris. would be safer dreaming in the open spaces of the University, Chris. was back in the lecture-room the next morning. A poor bottle washer was lost to the brewery trade and a brilliant student added to the world.

Brennan had entered the University in 1888, and in his first year he gained first-class honours in Classics. In his second year he again obtained first-class honours in Classics; in his third year he obtained second-class honours in Classics, and was awarded the gold medal and first-class honours for Logic and Mental Philosophy. He graduated in 1891, and was admitted to the M.A. degree in 1892.

Among the Books.

Returning from Germany with a vast knowledge of classical and modern languages, but with limited prospects for such accomplishments, Brennan secured a position as assistant librarian and cataloguer at the Free Public Library. It seemed in those days that many of his cherished hopes were to end on the rock of fiuitless endeavour, but he found compensation in the formation of a life long friendship with his two fellow assistants -- F. R. Jordan, who was to become Chief Justice and Lieutenant-Governor of New South Wales, and John Quinn, later one of the leading librarians of the Commonwealth.

The library position not being arduous Chris Brennan had time to devote himself to poetry, and later friends approached him to allow a collection of his work to be published by subscription, releasing him from all financial responsibilities. A debt of gratitude is due to the late Judge Edmunds for sponsoring the undertaking. The subscription list contained the names of some of the leading citizens of the day, including Sir George Wigram Allen, Sir Julian Salamons and Sir Joseph Abbott. Some years later the subscription list was reopened and the work was completed, but many of the subscribers had passed away. I realise to-day how I should have cherished that subscription list.

The edition when printed containted a list of some of the original subscribers, headed by Lord Noithcote and Sir Harry Rawson. Subsequently Brennan was appointed lecturer and professor of German and Comparative Literature. He was a familial figure in the leading new and second-hand bookshops, spending some of his happiest moments wandering round the bookshelves, the great attraction being the second-hand classics. All thoughts of the commercial side were lost and it was with a troubled feeling that one saw the pile of old classics gradually growing higher by his side, knowing that they augmented an already overburdened account; the only consolation being that probably the books were mostly beyond any other clients' requirements.

I persuaded him to translate some of the set authors -- Livy and others -- and write some articles for the New South Wales Teacher and Tutorial Guide, the one on "Julius Caesar" being one of the best contributions that ever appeared in the journal. He subsequently relinquished his professorship, and passed away, suddenly on October 5, 1932.

Criticism of his work I leave to others, though not without retelling a saying of Disraeli. "You know who your critics are, the man that has failed in literature and art."

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 3 December 1938

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

No TrackBacks

TrackBack URL:

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on February 4, 2011 8:22 AM.

Caricature #12 - "Christopher Brennan" by Lionel Lindsay was the previous entry in this blog.

Poem: Words by Zora Cross is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Monthly Archives

Powered by Movable Type 4.23-en