Biography Christopher John Brennan

Christopher John Brennan

photo of Christopher John Brennan
  • Time Period1870 - 1921
  • Place

Poet Biography

Many critics contend that Christopher Brennan is Australia's most important scholar and poet. Because his poetry was often written in a more obscure fashion, he never received the recognition that scholars of world literature believe he deserved. Poems 1913 is considered his most important work, and it is on the basis of that collection that Brennan's writing is considered some of the finest poetry produced before the start of World War I.

Although he was an admirer of the French poet Mallarme, Brennan was, according to A. R. Chisholm in Southerly, "a poet in his own right, with a strongly individual style." Contemporary Review critic Richard Pennington, first exposed to the poet's works in 1926, while Brennan was still living, called the writer's XXI Poems "incontestably the finest verse that had appeared anywhere in the outer [British] Empire since that Empire had begun sprawling over a quarter of the globe's surface, to the greater glory of Threatneedle Street but not to the enrichment of art."

After his birth in Sydney on November 1, 1870, Brennan attended Catholic schools, mastering Latin with ease and winning a scholarship to college. Entering Riverview College in 1885 when he was only fifteen, Brennan began to develop a desire to explore the possible perfection of man in the areas of intellect and spirituality. His facility with language allowed Brennan to read texts in Latin and Greek as well as English. Brennan authored poetry in Greek and Latin, while composing dramas in English. Beginning his studies at Sydney University in 1888, he began his research on Aeschylus, studying the dramas and publishing "On the Manuscript of Aeschylus." Ignored at the time, it was later praised by scholars in the classical field.

After studying First Principles, by Herman Spencer, Brennan discarded his faith in Roman Catholicism and turned toward agnosticism. He took a position teaching at a Catholic school for boys after his graduation from Sydney, and it was at this time that he turned his attention to the composition of poetry. When he was not teaching or writing poetry, Brennan worked on the completion of "The Metaphysic of Nescience," his philosophical master's thesis. His work was well received, and in 1892 he was granted a traveling scholarship. Choosing to go to Berlin, the site of one of the world's foremost classical departments, Brennan discovered an intense interest in the literature of modern Europe, especially the writing of the French poet Stephane Mallarme.

Brennan found upon his return to Australia in 1894 that his employment prospects were dim, as he did not yet have his doctorate. Finding work as an assistant librarian and tutor, he turned increasingly toward his poetry, publishing his first compilation in 1897. XVIII Poems was looked upon favorably, and Brennan wasted no time in publishing an expanded version under the title XXI Poems: MDCCCXCIII-MDCCCXCVII: Towards the Source, which received mixed reactions from critics. Continuing to write poetry, it was at this time that Brennan was admired by various literary groups in Sydney, and he was more productive than at any other time in his career. This creative period suffered when Brennan accepted a teaching position at Sydney University. He was also having problems at home and was unsure if poetry should play such a major role in his life.

Returning to poetry during his revision of Towards the Source in 1911, Brennan included it in Poems 1913. Since it was not concerned with the social issues of the time, Poems 1913 was not very popular at the time it was published, although it is now thought to be Brennan's greatest work. In Poems 1913, Brennan was influenced by the Symbolist poetry of Mallarme, Arthur Rimbaud, and Charles Baudelaire, whose poetry he believed expressed man's desire for a pure, peaceful world outside of everyday reality. Poems 1913 is actually a synthesis of three separate pieces, beginning with "Towards the Source" and ending with "The Wanderer." It depicts a circular journey by a man who goes in search of the blissful reality outside of the everyday material world and finally accepts the ordinary realm, having found no evidence of another, more perfect, province. "Towards the Source" is a description of the hunger for a utopia, and then "The Forest of Night" gives reasons for the dissatisfaction with life as it presently is. "The Wanderer," the third and final section, examines the condition of one obsessed with idealism living in a less than idyllic world.

It is widely thought that the heart of the book is the second section, "The Forest of Night." It is composed of four subsections, "The Twilight of Disquietude," "The Quest of Silence," "The Shadow of Lilith," and "The Labour of Night." These passages deal with man's search for inner peace and joy. When man discovers that he is lacking in this respect, he turns to poetry written in a happier time for solace. Finding no satisfaction, man discovers a myth that offers an explanation for his suffering. In the final poem, man is given a cataloge of his torments in times past. Many critics believe that the heart of the entire work is the smaller piece within "The Forest of Night," titled "The Shadow of Lilith." Lilith is a goddess symbolic of the perfection that is lost to man.

Brennan finally attained the fame he desired with the publication of A Chant of Doom, and Other Verses during World War I, because of the anti-German theme of the volume. This work is now thought to be one of his lesser efforts, and critic Judith Wright commented in her book Preoccupations in Australian Poetry that the poems in this volume "contain some of the most unpleasant and inflated verse produced by any war." Brennan's habitual heavy drinking grew worse during the 1920s, due to continuing domestic problems. His alcoholism was damaging to his productivity as a writer and as an instructor. After an extended extramarital affair ended in the accidental death of the woman, Brennan suffered from a case of depression that would plague him for the rest of his life.

After being relieved of his position at Sydney, Brennan was supported by a collection taken up by his companions, who still believed he had a great deal to offer the worlds of scholarship and literature. Eventually, he began lecturing at universities, and before his death in 1932 he was a language instructor at a religious school for girls. Interest in Brennan's work lagged until the end of World War II, when his work once again began to attract admirers. Since his books were out of print, new volumes of his collected poems were published. Among these were The Verse of Christopher Brennan (1960) and The Prose of Christopher Brennan (1962). Today, he is still considered one of Australia's finest poets.