Reprint: Chris Brennan

| No TrackBacks

Australia possesses a number of verse writers but few poets, and of her three major poets, Hugh McCrae, Christopher Brennan, and Shaw Neilson, two are almost entirely unknown to the general public. Their works have been published only in de luxe or subscription editions now long out of print, and they still await a publisher. Chris. Brennan was neglected in his lifetime; upon his death there were but few of us who stood by the graveside; to-day he is still ignored. This strange neglect has been pointed out only this week in the correspondence columns of the "Herald," and so very timely indeed comes the appreciation entitled "C. J. Brennan," by Randolph Hughes. This book deserves the most serious consideration for many reasons. Its subject is one of our greatest poets, perhaps the greatest. Its author is probably better qualified than any living person to write about Brennan, for not only is he a critic of distinction in England and France, but he also brings to his evaluation of the poet European principles of criticism, genuine scholarship, and an unusual knowledge of the French symbolism and German romanticism which were the major influences in the creation of Brennan's poetry. He, too, has known "what strains the faun's enamour'd leisure weaves." Furthermore, he was both a pupil and a friend of Brennan's. Finally, this book bears the sub-title, "An Essay in Values," and it challenges the common literary estimates held in this country in a fashion which will be found extremely provocative. Mr. Hughes hurls the critical gage in the face of Australia with a bravura somewhat flamboyant. He wears his panache in the Gascon style. But if out of the controversy which his book is sure to provoke emerges a higher conception of literature, a more absolute measure of our poets, real or soi-disant, then he will have rendered yeoman service to Australian letters. The right appreciation of Brennan may mark the turning of the tide from the shallows of verse to the deep sea of poetry with its illimitable horizons.

Mr. Hughes does not attempt to give a biography of Brennan, only "random strays" of reminiscence and "small essays in intellectual portraiture." But he gives a survey of Brennan as scholar, an interpretation of him as poet, and especially as symbolist, a study of bis poetic affiliations, essays on symbolism and romanticism, and a detailed examination of his poetry, which is partly technical, partly general, candid, yet appreciative. His estimate of Brennan as our greatest poet goes hand in hand with scathing indictments of certain Australian authors and Australian critical values. It is interesting to note here his statement that "the three best poets besides (and after) Brennan and, with him, practically the only ones worthy of any attention" - are Victor Daley, Neilson, and McCrae. Mr. Hughes' work is marked by many defects as well as great virtues. His criticism at its best is penetrating and moves on a plane far above the average literary criticism written locally. It is a pity, therefore, that it is marred at odd times by touches of bad temper. On the biographical side there are minor inaccuracies. The reduction of Brennan's verse to Greek metres is not altogether convincing. The style is not impeccable; at times there is a drop from the brilliance, subtlety, and vigour of expression down to the genteel Billingsgate of mere diatribe. The manner ls refreshing but over-dogmatic, and contains hints of pedantry. Analytically, there is a tendency to erect needless antitheses, to turn valid complementaries into cat-and-dog contradictories, as in the case of scholarly and unscholarly poets, absolute and representative poetry, major and minor poets - as if upon Parnassus the foothills were an insult to the peaks. Of Mr. Hughes' provocative sallies, some are justified, some are not, whilst others are debatable. Thus his strictures on Professor Hancock and the London "Times" for their ignorance of Australian literature and critical ineptitude are quite warranted. But to call Burns "a minor poet" and "groundling" is stuff and nonsense.

Brennan's poetry is suggestive, mystic, and supernatural, Edenic, striving towards a lost Paradise and a transcendental twilight. This penumbrous quality of Brennan's work becomes sheer obscurity; yet this "obscurity" is purposive, part of the magian method, and deepened by allusions drawn from the "rich Cipangos" of Brennan's mind. Mr. Hughes, in explaining the tenets and method of symbolism, illuminates "the dolorous incantation." Yet it remains doubtful if Brennan did not lose as much as he gained by following Mallarme into "The Forest of Night." It is true that Brennan was never a born singer like McCrae; but in "Towards the Source" and the earlier poems, especially those like "Let Us Go Down, the Long Dead Night is Done," "We Sat Entwined," and the prelude to "The Quest of Silence," the lyrical note is still pellucid, and lt might have deepened without the symbolist influence into poetry which kept the magic and the might without becoming Delphic. Was symbolism for Brennan salvation or a snare, a guide to greatness, or a fatal will-o'-the-wisp, that led him into many a "vapour from the evening marsh of sense?" Whatever the answer, his poetry at its best can speak for itself.

First published
in The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 December 1934

[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 April 8, 2011 8:21 AM.

Early Book Advertisement #1 was the previous entry in this blog.

Poem: Christopher Brennan by Roderic Quinn 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