This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979
Christopher John Brennan (1870-1932), poet and scholar, was born on 1 November 1870 in Harbour Street, Sydney, eldest of five surviving children of Irish migrants Christopher Brennan (d.1919), brewer, and his wife Mary Ann (d.1924), née Carroll. His father had learned his trade at the Guinness brewery, Dublin, and after reaching Sydney about 1864, worked in R. and F. Tooth's Kent Brewery; he later became a publican. Young Christopher's childhood sickliness (he had typhoid at 6), coupled with precocious academic ability, helped to make him the object of his mother's special affection and set him apart somewhat from his brothers, sisters and other children. In 1880 he became the solitary acolyte at the Good Samaritan School and Convent, Pitt Street, and was intended for the priesthood. At 11 Brennan went to the Jesuit St Aloysius' College, where he first read Milton, whose poetry later had a deep influence on his own. Three years later, with a scholarship from Cardinal Patrick Moran, he went as a boarder to St Ignatius' College, Riverview. He had already raised himself far above the rest of his family, both intellectually and socially.
Life at Riverview under the founding rector Fr Joseph Dalton changed Brennan greatly. He grew rapidly into a big, strong youth and experienced a major intellectual awakening: despite stringent physical and academic discipline, the school gave him great intellectual freedom, and whatever he wanted he was given to read. Most importantly, in Fr Patrick Keating, the classics master he found the only teacher ever to make a deep impression on him. Not an exceptional scholar by Jesuit standards, Keating influenced him not so much intellectually as morally. Brennan was captivated by his discipline, charm and elegance, and above all by his air of perfection, and was never to cease searching for that perfection, completeness and apparent infallibility which he had known in the faith of his youth, and in his favourite teacher. Just before leaving Riverview, Brennan abandoned his vocation, which distressed his parents, but not Moran or the Jesuits.
In March 1888 he went to the University of Sydney where to all appearances he led an adventurous, wayward life. None of his university teachers could stimulate him profoundly; for some, such as Professor Walter Scott, he felt little more than contempt. But for the first time he began to form strong and lasting friendships, with men of or near his own age, including J. B. Peden, A. B. Piddington, Dowell O'Reilly and J. Le Gay Brereton. As a student, Brennan distinguished himself for his scandalous neglect of set texts, and his ability to get good results without appearing to try. As editor of Hermes (1889-90) and as a prankster he seemed to his fellow students 'just a rollicking carefree chap'.
In private however, Brennan worked very hard at classical texts of his own choice, forming in 1888 an independent theory (now substantially accepted) about the descent of the extant manuscripts of Aeschylus. He also apparently suffered from moods of black melancholy and became passionately attached to the poetry of Tennyson and Swinburne. During the long vacation of 1889-90 he lost his faith and spent the rest of his life trying in philosophy, love and poetry to establish some new kind of absolute. He graduated B.A. in 1891 with first-class honours and the University Gold Medal in logic and mental philosophy, but only second-class honours in classics. In 1892 he won an M.A. in philosophy (conferred in 1897).
Systematic logical inquiry did not satisfy Brennan's fundamental religious needs. In 1891, most of which he spent rather adventurously as a teacher at St Patrick's College, Goulburn, he wrote his earliest surviving poems and, after an affair, embarked on 'virtuous' attachment. Returning to Sydney in October he taught part time at Riverview and had a second virtuous romance. In 1892 he won the James King of Irrawang Travelling Scholarship and studied at the University of Berlin in 1892-94. He fell in love and became engaged to his landlady's daughter Anna Elisabeth (1870-1943), daughter of Rudolph Werth, of Ragnit, East Prussia. Brennan also discovered the work of Mallarmé, which led him to believe that poetry might offer the means of recovering Eden. Having abandoned his university studies he decided to 'go in' for verse: for the next ten years it became the most important thing in his life.
In July 1894, without his fiancée and without the expected doctorate, Brennan returned to Sydney, then in the depths of an economic depression. Unable to find work of any kind for a year, he was employed from September 1895 in the Public Library of New South Wales to catalogue D. S. Mitchell's collection, becoming second assistant librarian on 1 January 1907. He was at that time better read in, and a more original critic of, European literature than anyone else in Australia. But the university waited until October 1909 before offering him a permanent position as assistant lecturer in French and German in the department of modern languages and literature. He had been temporary lecturer in modern languages in 1896-97 and 1908-09, and in classics in 1908. Apparently his heavy drinking and the erotic interests shown in his first printed book of verse, XXI Poems (1897), told against him when he was being considered for various teaching posts.
Elisabeth Werth came out to Sydney late in 1897, and Brennan married her in St Mary's Cathedral on 18 December; for a time they seemed happy. She had studied music: those who knew her in the 1890s remembered her playing the piano and singing songs of 'haunting sweetness'; they also remembered her beauty — her glorious golden hair and blue eyes. Many factors drove them increasingly apart: he drank heavily; they argued over money; there was a wide gulf between his interests and attitudes, and those of his wife; the birth and rearing of four children created tensions. The arrival in December 1900 of Frau Werth, with a deranged daughter, to live in their household, added to the strains and conflicts. Slowly his marriage drifted towards disaster.
Brennan's spiritual pilgrimage, the quest for Eden as recorded in his verse, ended nowhere: 'The wanderer', mostly written in 1901-02, concludes with the tacit abandonment of that quest. His attempt to fashion a mythic unity out of the individual poems he wrote, to create a 'single concerted poem' after the model of the French Symbolist 'livre composé', made the misery and the spiritual loss which lay at the heart of some of his finest poems inconvenient to his larger design. After 1902 he ceased to write verse regularly, although the poetry he wrote between that year and the publication of his 'livre composé' Poems in 1914 tended to revert to the view of himself as the seeker after Eden.
As his poetic output declined, and his domestic situation grew more difficult, Brennan became one of the great talkers and bon vivants of café-life in the city; he dominated successively two dining-and-conversation groups, the Casuals and les Compliqués. He also returned to the study of classical texts, though never again with quite the thoroughness and delight that had marked his studies as a young man.
Brennan did start to produce quantities of poetry again in 1915. The pieces collected as A Chant of Doom, and Other Verses (1918) expressed vehement support for the Allied cause in World War I; although incomparably the worst poetry he ever wrote, they enjoyed markedly better sales than Poems. It seems they were inspired less by the war than by the hostilities in his own household, and his desire to spite his German wife and mother-in-law.
Brennan's marriage finally broke up late in 1922. He went to live with Violet Singer, a cultivated woman seventeen years his junior, who had led a somewhat erratic and unhappy life. She admired him greatly; he felt she had given him life. He naturally conceived and expressed his love for her in absolute terms, but it was none the less more human and personal than any absolute he had previously embraced. In March 1925 she was run down by a tram; in June Brennan, who since 1921 had been (Sir Samuel) McCaughey associate professor and head of the university's department of German and comparative literature, was removed from his post on the grounds of adultery. His incontinent, erratic behaviour certainly made him a very difficult employee, but the love and admiration that many of his students felt for him testify that he still had much to offer the university when it turned him out.
After the double blow of 1925, Brennan was a broken man. He wrote a few poems about his love for Violet Singer — some of the finest poetry he had ever composed — but his life became lonely, purposeless and insecure, especially after his salary ran out at the end of the year. He spent much of 1926 as house-guest of Hilary Lofting; in 1927 he taught at the Marist Brothers' High School, Darlinghurst. After that he suffered real privation. In July next year some friends and admirers instituted a fund to assist him in paying for necessities of what had become a very modest (though still disordered) style of living. In 1930 he became a part-time teacher of modern languages at St Vincent's College, Potts Point, a position he held, with some happiness, until his last illness. In March 1931 he was given a Commonwealth Literary Fund pension of £1 a week.
From 1925 onwards, Brennan had reverted more and more to a generally Catholic orientation. He returned fully to the beliefs and the practices of Catholicism in mid-1932; while seriously ill in St Vincent's Hospital. He died of cancer on 5 October in Lewisham Hospital and was buried in Northern Suburbs cemetery. He left his estate, valued for probate at £68, to Robert Innes Kay, solicitor. Predeceased by his two daughters, he was survived by two sons.
Brennan's place in Australian literature is as paradoxical as his character. At a conscious level, Australia and its writers count for little in his poetry, which makes few overt reference to the landscape and society, and hardly draws at all from Australian literature. Yet he read widely in the works of his contemporaries and predecessors, and the poetry of Henry Kendall, which he greatly admired, is subliminally present in his own work, especially 'The wanderer'. A striking indication that Australia counted for a great deal in Brennan's life as a writer may be seen in the fact that, although he abhorred Henry Lawson as a poet and a man, the progress of their lives was hauntingly similar: promise, achievement, degeneration, disgrace, posthumous legend. The comparison with Lawson, and with earlier writers such as Marcus Clarke, Daniel Deniehy, Adam Lindsay Gordon and Kendall, shows that Brennan's life followed a pattern common among Australian writers. Like them he helped to create a national literary tradition which broke down the loneliness felt by so many writers; in his turn, like them, he suffered from and was partly destroyed by that loneliness.
But Brennan's poetry stands largely outside the mainstream of Australian poetic development. In its attempt to follow the example of the French Symbolists, it was the first of its kind ever to be written here. With its clotted diction and extreme Victorian poeticism, it could not be directly emulated by later generations. None the less some of the most important later poets, such as Robert FitzGerald, A. D. Hope, Judith Wright and James McAuley found in his work a point of reference and departure, because he was the first Australian to write within, and be worthy of, the great European philosophical-poetic tradition. His interest in human sexuality and psychology, especially the unconscious, and his attempt to use the French Symbolists as a basic model, link Brennan to British writers such as Eliot, Yeats and D. H. Lawrence, although his achievement hardly matches theirs.
Despite his essentially European manner, and interests, Brennan's audience was and remains almost exclusively Australian. Even if he failed both in his search for Magian enlightenment through poetic symbol, and in his related attempt to create a 'livre composé', he wrote many fine individual pieces, such as 'Lilith', most of the poems in the 'Wanderer' sequence, and some love poems composed in the 1920s. In works such as these his poetry remains challenging, and deeply moving.
Axel Clark, 'Brennan, Christopher John (1870–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/brennan-christopher-john-5345/text9037, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 7 December 2016.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979