Australia’s Nineties

Clive James

  • Christopher Brennan: A Critical Biography by Axel Clark
    Melbourne, 358 pp, £20.00, May 1980, ISBN 0 522 84182 1

No Australian poet before Christopher Brennan was fully conscious of the artistic problem posed by isolation from Europe, and no Australian poet since has been fully disabled by it. Brennan’s life and death dramatised the problem once and for all. It was and is a true problem, not just a difficulty. Brennan, whether he wanted to or not, lived the problem to the full, and thereby, on everybody else’s behalf, got it out into the open. His messy crucifixion was all the more thorough for the degree to which he co-operated, and it doesn’t have to happen again. If it does, then someone is being pretentious. Brennan spent too much of his time acting as an awful warning. That was one of the main reasons why his achievement fell so far short of his ambition: he put less energy into writing poetry than into being the poet. It was an aberration in which personality conspired with circumstances, creating a tangle which Axel Clark, in this admirably hard-headed critical biography, does much to sort out.

Brennan was a prodigy of the Australian Fin-de-Siècle who had pretty well given up writing by the beginning of the Twenties, thereby giving himself more time in the day to be drunk and disorderly. He went on being regarded as one of Australia’s most distinguished minds even as he lay in the gutter. The local term for a falling-down drunk is a no-hoper, and it is a rare thing for a no-hoper to be so highly esteemed. For a long time before his death and for longer still afterwards, Brennan’s reputation was required to bear a large part of the burden of the possibility of artistic seriousness in Australian poetry. It was aided in this task by the fact that between his death in 1932 and the publication of The Verse of Christopher Brennan in 1960 his work was hard to obtain. But even during this long moratorium it gradually became possible to suggest either that he never achieved what was in him or that he never had it in him in the first place.

A sensible view partakes of both possibilities. He had some talent to go with his learning, but his conception of poetry – and the conception was in too large a part a product of his learning – worked with almost complete success to ensure that his talent could not come to fruition. He is never wholly himself for more than a line or so at a time. The rest is a tortured pastiche easily mocked; a strained symbolism whose Victorian diction, Swinburne with even more water, does not even let him succeed in sounding Frenchified. Any smart critic who wanted to make a popinjay out of Brennan would have plenty to go on. But those single lines and phrases live in the memory: ‘and sterile wisdom crowned his brow with power,’ ‘Under a sky of uncreated mud’, ‘my days of azure have forgotten me,’ ‘beneath whose corpse-fed weeds I too shall sink’, ‘Fire in the heavens, and fire along the hills’, ‘in the cicada’s torture-point of song’.

No Australian writer before him gave quite that impression of concentrated, refined sensibility. No Australian poet before him wanted language to be so intensely organised. It is impossible not to feel that in despising the populist writers and balladeers he was missing out on the biggest intellectual adventure of all. But what he was trying for was ambitious enough, and momentarily he got there. He would be less of a discussion point, and more of an unarguable fact, if he had got there and stayed there, but literary history does not wholly consist of complete achievements, and anyway the incomplete achievements are often the more instructive. From C.J. Dennis, who knew exactly what he was up to and in The Sentimental Bloke did it to perfection, there is much enjoyment to be gained, but little edification about how the Australian lyric poet is to go about squaring his personal upbringing with the cultural heritage of the language in which he writes. It is easy enough now to say that Dennis did the wise thing. He set out to write popular art and he got what he was after – he was popular. But in Australia popular art, even in verse, has never been a problem. Australians have always enjoyed popular verse, much of it written to a very high standard of finish. The problem was for Brennan to know his own aims and limits in the same way that Dennis knew his. It might be too much to say that Dennis’s were knowable and Brennan’s weren’t, but it can and should be said that Brennan was simply bound to spend a disproportionate amount of time finding out where he stood. From Brennan, in addition to those lines and fragments, you get a clear idea, as you could never get from the popular writers, of the dilemma by which Kenneth Slessor was later both impelled and inhibited, and which A.D. Hope has spent his life resolving – triumphantly, in my view – into poetry.

Brennan’s background was the Irish famine. In Sydney he grew up speaking the language of the oppressor. But as a young Catholic with a failure for a father he had one conspicuous advantage among his handicaps. He was educated by the Jesuits of Riverview, who even in my time were still making sure that their pupils got plenty of learning rammed into their heads along with the dogma. Brennan lost his faith after coming up to Sydney University, but without any Joycean agonies. On his own admission, the chasubles and thuribles had been what attracted him to it. Such furniture, redolent of incense, he had subsumed under the general title of Beauty. When he got interested in modern French poetry, its propensities towards Beauty were what interested him most about it, and remained so even as his studies deepened into a life-long preoccupation. His Classical studies never did much to chasten this notion of Beauty, which reminds you of Wilde’s, except that Wilde was growing out of it even as he fashioned it into epigrams. Brennan’s mind formed early and never altered its cast. His maturities are there at the start and his immaturities are still there at the end – a lack of development which gives Mr Clark a hard task to avoid monotony.

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