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.

At university, Brennan deepened his scholarship but remained essentially an autodidact: a typically provincial emphasis. Similarly provincial was his determination to be a character – always, in any backwater, a promising first step towards becoming a legend. He decorated his tattered gown with jam tins. He was a terrific Classical scholar but neglected the set books ‘most scandalously’, as he said himself. Studying philosophy, he boasted of acknowledging no superior mind among his teachers. Against all the odds posed by his clearly superior abilities, he contrived to get second-class honours in Classics, not so much for neglecting the books as for being contemptuous of Plato. He discovered Swinburne – at that time a writer banned from the University Library – and went mad for him. So mad, really, that he never recovered. When he read Dante he said all the right things (‘pure muscle, nothing superfluous’) but drew no conclusions about his own use of language, which from the beginning until the end was always stiff with thou, yon, tho’, ere, o’er, thro’, oft and (wince-inducing even at the time, one would have thought) ween’st. Every margin was a marge and it was never murk when it could be mirk. You can’t help weening that his passion for such Frenchmen as Gautier, Baudelaire and – later but most lastingly – Mallarmé was uncannily without result in his own work.

Thematically, he might have been a Symbolist, but technically, at the deeper level, that of language, he wrote as if his modern French models had never existed. More than that, he wrote as if Victor Hugo had never existed. The tightly focused language which Eliot and Pound discovered and coveted in the French moderns was simply not what attracted Brennan. The proof is in his unshaken capacity to compose with the English equivalent of the full poncif kit which his Gallic heroes thought of as something in the far past, back beyond the first night of Hernani. For Brennan such mannerisms should have been equally antediluvian. Nor can it be said that Brennan was merely echoing the London poets of the Nineties, all of whom wrote clear English compared with his. The uncomfortable conclusion – which Mr Clark bravely goes a long way towards reaching – is that Brennan’s diction is a defensive system, and not just against the bourgeois reader, but against being read too closely by any reader. The up-to-date punctuation, with lower-case letters at the beginning of lines, might have been no more than what Stefan George, who employed such devices wholesale, was later to call barbed wire against the uninitiated (‘Stacheldraht wider Unberufene’). But the archaic language had the more destructively alienating effect of sounding poetic while concealing meaning – or, more likely, the lack of it.

Nearly all gifted poets, however, start off by looking for spectacular ways to say not very much. When the young graduate Brennan left on a scholarship to Berlin, his admirers had every reason to believe that his precocious mind would gain weight. Yet with his travel as with his reading, the main interest resides in how little he let it alter him. He seems to have enjoyed many advantages in Berlin, not counting the love, later to prove a dubious privilege, of his landlady’s beautiful daughter. He learned fluent German, but it never occurred to him to do anything else except come home. He never went to Europe again. His closeness to it was literary. Paris, the city of his modern heroes, he did not set foot in.

It could be said that he wanted to be a big fish in a small pond. But his closeness to Australia was literary too. Even in those fragments which one would like to think of as representing his characteristic voice, there is not much specific about the Australian landscape. The cicada’s torture point of song could be happening on Crete. When he says that there is snow in the North, you have to assume that he does not mean Norway. Whatever the reason why Brennan ‘went in’ for verse (and even his biographer seems to detect something voulu about Brennan’s creative impulse), it was not out of the desire to register the world around him. His friend John le Gay Brereton could see the importance of Henry Lawson. Brennan couldn’t. He had no interest in the bush, the Labour movement or Australian nationalism. In the Australian Nineties, a period which self-consciously but justifiably felt itself to be alive with the possibility of a new national culture, Brennan isolated himself. He took on, or was forced into, the role of the metropolitan in the colonies. But he was a metropolitan without a metropolis.

Nevertheless he might have done something to bring the nationalist impulse under an informed scrutiny, if he had really been the European artist that he was supposed by everyone, including himself, to be. His real tragedy, which precedes the tragedy of his decline and overshadows it, is that his knowledge of literature could not be brought to bear on the contemporary creation of literature, even when it was he that was doing the creating. For all that he had read whole libraries, he could tell his contemporary Australian poets nothing useful. He thought that any poetry addressed to Bill and Jim could not be worth reading. His own poetry would have to be a lot more consistently individual than it is if it were to justify such a grand assumption. He had no right to patronise Lawson, in whom he should have seen the vitality. Lawson, who wrote poems nervously defending his lack of technical polish against pedants who could talk of nothing else, might have benefited decisively – in his subsequent reputation, at any rate – from the support of a man of Brennan’s stature.

Over and above what he might have done as a critic, as an artist Brennan might have given contemporary Australian poets an example of natural language composed with the rigour conferred by a mind fully aware of tradition. But it turned out that he could not give this example even to himself. Mr Clark is properly reluctant to find historically determinist reasons which might explain the whole of this failing. Clearly Brennan was glad to embrace the character, and within his own lifetime the legend, of the local man who knew as much as they did overseas. Sydney was still a small town and its circumstances undoubtedly encouraged him to waste his time playing a part. But finally the personality must be the determining factor, if only by being too complicated to explain. There was no outside reason why Brennan’s learning should have remained stymied. The reason was inside. He pursued failure as if intent on achieving it at any cost and against all the odds. In 1894, his paper ‘On the Manuscripts of Aeschylus’ appeared in the Journal of Philology alongside articles by Housman and Nettleship. It should have been the beginning of a useful second career as a philologist, but in the long run the only thing that came out of it was a mention, with qualified approval, in a footnote to Sidgwick’s edition of Aeschylus. Beyond that, no trace.

It was in Brennan’s nature for great studies to go nowhere. The passion for Mallarmé became a discipleship but never deepened into a true influence. As Mr Clark has it, Brennan remained ‘essentially a Victorian poet in his verbal habits’. The word ‘essentially’ is a large one and in Brennan’s case essentially correct. Brennan thought Patmore was ‘austere and bare’. He liked the esoteric aspects of Huysmans and Villiers de L’Isle Adam, thinking that their concern with the occult was what was interesting about them. Mr Clark rather disproportionately brings Yeats in at this point. Yeats may have concerned himself with the sacred mysteries, but they were not where he saw and heard poetry. He saw and heard poetry in real life. Mr Clark concedes that Yeats developed towards a pregnant natural speech as Brennan did not, but he could have conceded much more by using a less weighty comparison. So, after all, did Dowson – and at the time, too, not later on. Put a stanza by Dowson beside a stanza by Brennan and you can quickly see that Dowson knows exactly what he is doing, whereas Brennan is only making vague gestures.

Brennan wrote as if he thought vagueness should be the aim. The only bohemian in town, he was encouraged in the belief that he stood apart and above, a sayer of the unsayable, a seeker of the Absolute. But either he did not wish to register the ineffable precisely, or else he couldn’t. Perhaps the desire and the capacity are forms of each other. At any rate, a bad marriage to his Berlin landlady’s daughter kept him miserable for many years. Transported to the ends of the earth for the purpose of fulfilling Brennan’s impossibly elevated ideas of spiritual companionship, she was not in an enviable position, but obviously took steps to ensure that his position was not enviable either. In Brennan’s mind, carnality was a threat to purity. On the other hand, he could not do without carnality. A man does not have to be a lapsed Catholic to think like this, but it helps. Brennan’s verses thus had a nameless quandary to be oblique about, but when you read them closely you find that not even the quandary is clearly seen. Dowson’s poems about impossible love at least point in the right direction, so that you are not surprised, and might even be rather touched, to hear that he went potty about under-age girls. But Brennan’s complaints about lack of sexual satisfaction are less than half admitted in his own mind, so that they are much less than half expressed on the page. He had nothing clear to be vague about. ‘Lilith’, his magnum opus of a poem sequence, hits its one fretful note and maintains it, with a sostenuto winsomeness that no amount of aestheticist decoration can make interesting. If the inspiration had been real, the out-of-date trappings would not have smothered it. The aestheticism of the English Nineties was still absorbing the iconography of Gustave Moreau, who died of old age before the century was out. D’Annunzio and Richard Strauss shamelessly employed Symbolist props and decor that had grown tatty with fifty years of constant use. But with Brennan the trappings were the inspiration. His nominal subject – the nominal subject never really nominated – was merely the pretext for using them. Thematically, he was all style, and all the styles were dated.

But the intensity of organisation which he admired in his model poets, and which he regarded with some justification as an achievement to be prized above the blunt speech of the balladeers, is present in his work if only as a conjured ghost, and that much of him is the reverse of dated. There are passages in ‘Lilith’ which, if handed out to clever students in a practical criticism seminar, might well be identified as being by Wallace Stevens.

Thick sleep, with error of the tangled wood,
and vapour from the evening marsh of sense,
and smoothness of the glide of Lethe, would
inaugurate his dullard innocence,
cool’d of his calenture, elaborate brute.

That last line, in particular, might have come straight out of ‘The Comedian as the Letter C’. Sooner or later a thou, yon or ween’st gives the game away, yet for short stretches you can see that Brennan had at least the technical wherewithal to realise his ambitions. But technique is not inspiration. Sophistication without barbarism is the seasoning without the roast.

In 1914, Brennan took the part of England against Germany, packing his Muse off to war with shameful results from which she never quite recovered. His Irish heritage might have suggested a different course, but the determining factor seems to have been the opportunity to declare open hostilities against his wife and, even more specifically, her mother. Brennan’s execrable war poetry was the continuation of household diplomacy by other means. You can tell exactly what it is about, but that is no merit. Nor, pitiably, did his great and authentic love for European literature do the least thing to make him aware of the European tragedy. Gazing without, Brennan was just as cut off from his own interior life as when he feigned to gaze within. The only difference was that he could be strident instead of stifled. With an interior life like his, however, there was good reason for staying as cut off as possible.

Even to casual retrospect, the publication of his pre-war Poems looks like a culmination. But as Mr Clark reveals, Brennan had in effect given up on himself much sooner. Misery wiped him out early. What should have been opportunities worked towards his destruction. As a librarian he was merely broke. When he finally got the university job he ought always to have had, he took the opportunity to become a drunken wreck, almost as if to stave off the possibility of acquiring a personal dignity befitting his mental powers. Some idea of what he must have been like as a lecturer can be gleaned from the fugitive pieces collected in The Prose of Christopher Brennan (Sydney, 1962, edited, like The Verse of Christopher Brennan, by his two old friends, A.R. Chisholm and J.J. Quinn). Christina Stead is only one of the subsequently luminous names who later said that they were inspired by his lectures, no matter how chaotically delivered. But it would have been strange if he had been anything less than inspiring. He knew a lot and was enthusiastic about it all. His enthusiasm was ungovernable. It had a mind of its own, putting Tennyson on a level with Dante and Patmore with Donne. Brighter students, especially when they as yet know little, are understandably set on fire by that kind of fervour.

But as far as his own poetry went, Brennan’s pedagogy was just one more among the distractions conspiring to guarantee that he would not get much done. Another was talk. He was a lunch-club lion who spouted brilliance endlessly. The performance went on for years. You could come to him like a supplicant, push a drink in front of him, and sit down to listen. There is no reason to doubt that he spoke marvellously – no reason, that is, beyond the usual reason, which centres on the fact that anyone who sits still for somebody else’s monologue is not always the best witness to its quality. But there were men of spirit who said he was marvellous. In my time he was remembered still as the most enchanting talker who never drew breath, and it is pleasing to learn from Mr Clark that in Brennan’s last days the young A.D. Hope once poured the libation and heard the oracle pronounce. But legend-building is never more typically a provincial pastime than in its effect of neutralising the remarkable. The legend of Brennan the great pontificator conceals the sad story of energy running to waste. When Wilde talked, he was rehearsing what he would later write. Brennan was talking it all away.

And eventually everything was gone. He was dead long before he died. The details are here and they make grim reading. He came to terms with carnal love, but it was too late. When his mistress was killed he fell to pieces. While reading this book I was simultaneously working my way through Renate Wagner’s excellent Arthur Schnitzler: Eine Biographie (Vienna, 1981). The comparison is instructive because the two men were contemporaries. Schnitzler’s circumstances, those of a Jewish truth-teller in a society which was hypocritical when it was not anti-semitic, were truly difficult, and his personal losses, culminating in the death of his daughter, cruel. But he had control of his interior life in a way that Brennan did not. He had the necessary conceit which helps an artist to stay true to his gift. Brennan, no doubt egged on by his admirers, preened himself in every area except the one that counted. He admitted to dissatisfaction with his own work. It is a large admission for an artist to make, and should not be confused with modesty.

Locally thought to be a big name in Europe, Brennan was in fact unknown there, but the legend was fed by his notorious epistolary exchange with Mallarmé, who was kind enough to acknowledge Brennan’s admiration. The admiration amounted to abject worship and went on after Mallarmé’s death, which was fulsomely recorded in ‘Lilith’ (‘as he that sleeps in hush’d Valvins hath taught’) and in the dedication to ‘The Forest of Night’. But one of the hazards of provincialism is the tendency for the bright young talent to be nourished by the example of a great man far away, without realising that the great man has been nourished by a whole society. An expert at long range, Brennan had a hopelessly purist notion of what literary life in Europe was actually like. And as is the way with purist notions, it got beyond the stage where he could afford to be disabused of it. When a collection of Rilke’s first poems was handed to him, and he had the opportunity to see how the rarefied metaphysical experiences he had hinted at could indeed be caught and held, he handed the book back unread.

But he was probably better off living and dying where he was. In the English Nineties he would have been a back-marker at best, somewhere behind Theodore Wratislaw and perhaps a bit ahead of Richard le Gallienne. Mr Clark strangely endorses Brennan’s eventual disparagement of Whistler. But surely Whistler was the Weltbürger as Brennan could never have been. Whistler knew his origins to be a source of strength. Beyond that, he simply had a strong talent.

But nobody would now suggest that Brennan’s talent was ever interesting for its strength. It was interesting for its type. His talent was married to his intellect, even if the marriage was bad. Before him, the Australian poets could write from unexamined impulse about a new world. After him, things were never so simple again. He was the timely if unfortunate reminder that the intellect would have to be part of the new world too. His via dolorosa of a life might have been less gruesome if there had been an Australian literary world in which he could have taken his rightful place as a man and an artist instead of as those lesser things, a character and a legend. But there was the academic world or there was down-and-out bohemia, with nothing in between, and to write literary journalism meant to be engaged in rebutting some good citizen’s contention that the European philosophy of the 13th century had all been discredited, and that Dante was, as a consequence, no good. The provincial intellectual is doomed to arguing at low level. More than half a century later, there is still no Australian literary world, not in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth or Canberra. It is some consolation to realise that there is no literary world in Birmingham or Los Angeles either. I have heard that there is one in Montreal, but I don’t believe it. The literary world is in London and New York, the only cities big enough to sustain magazines which can afford to reject copy.

Kenneth Slessor shared many of Brennan’s civilised interests and had a far more powerful creative drive, but in time he, too, stopped writing. Once again, although in the much longer run, the difficulties of leading a literary life in a provincial community – where the artiness is as damaging as the Philistinism – proved insuperable. But at least Slessor had Brennan’s example, and Hope has had the examples of both of them, plus, by now, those of many more. Hope based himself on the university. When he has written prose it has usually been for the quarterlies, not the magazines. There is still no Australian literary world for him to dominate. But perhaps this is no bad thing. Perhaps he has dissipated his energies less as a teacher than he might have done as a literary journalist. Certainly he has done something right. Staying at home, he has done at least as good a job of reconciling himself with the European heritage as he would have been able to do by coming away. Hope’s has been a fully realised career. He has been able to do good work at every stage of his life. It may distress his expatriate admirers when the smart young British critics dismiss him out of hand, but obviously it does not distress him – or if it does he is not stopped by it.

That a creative life like Hope’s can now be lived in Australia is not sufficiently explained by Australia’s recent, much-touted cultural self-confidence, which in many respects is just the old cringe equipped with a new snarl. It has to be explained by a far more subtle process of historical accretion. Culture builds itself like a coral reef and like a reef it entails much sacrifice. Lawson went mad because he was all talent and no intellect, so that he did not even know how to armour himself against learned taunts. Brennan was talent and intellect combined, but in a weak vessel. He was even more of a legend than Lawson and so got less done. But his failure was an invaluable act of definition. He raised the question that Australian writers must go on trying to answer, even now that the distance between their homeland and the outside world, whether because the first has grown or because the second has shrunk, is just a single day.