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2007-06, 354, Christopher Brennan, Elizabeth Webby

The Higher Self in Christopher Brennan’s Poems: Esotericism, Romanticism, Symbolism

Speech at St Ignatius’ College, Riverview, on 19 August 2006 to launch:

Katherine Barnes, The Higher Self in Christopher Brennan’s Poems: Esotericism, Romanticism, Symbolism

(Leiden: Brill, 2006)

Elizabeth Webby

IT IS A GREAT PLEASURE to be here tonight to celebrate Kathie Barnes’ major new contribution to Brennan scholarship, and to launch her book at Saint Ignatius’ College, a place fundamental to Brennan’s intellectual and personal development. As a member of the Christopher Brennan Society, founded in those heady days of the 1970s by Axel Clark, Robin Marsden and John Fletcher, I attended functions at various places with Brennan associations. And of course I have spent almost 47 years working in various capacities at the University of Sydney. But I have never before visited Riverview, despite having lived just across the river in Hunter’s Hill for 30 years. So I particularly wish to thank to James Rodgers for hosting tonight’s launch and also everyone else who has helped with the arrangements.

If you visit the internet site of the indispensable AustLit database— originally established by staff at the Australian Defence Force Academy, where Kathie Barnes now teaches—you will find there are 219 items of criticism listed relating to Christopher Brennan. Top of the list at present, as the most recently published, is The Higher Self in Christopher Brennan’s Poems. Most of these 219 items, however, are relatively short; Kathie Barnes’ book ranks with G A Wilkes’ New Perspectives on Brennan’s Poetry, published over fifty years ago, as the two most sustained and substantial critical studies of Brennan’s poetry. That this is the case tells us much about the relatively little extended critical attention given to Australian poetry over these fifty years. That The Higher Self is published by Brill, based in the Netherlands, tells us even more about the impossibility of getting such critical studies published in Australia, especially at present.




Looking over past criticism of Brennan’s poetry also makes one aware of how many of the leading critics and historians of Australian literature were attracted to his work – including A G Stephens, and H M and Dorothy Green, as well as G A Wilkes. Even more striking is the number of major poets who have written on Brennan, from Kenneth Slessor, Judith Wright, James McAuley and A D Hope, through to Fay Zwicky, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Vivian Smith, Robert Adamson and Andrew Taylor, as well as, more recently, David Brooks and Peter Kirkpatrick.  When I took over the editorship of Southerly from Professor Wilkes in 1988, I remember a well-known writer—not a poet—saying to me: “I haven’t read any copies of Southerly recently. Does it still have an essay on Christopher Brennan in every issue?” Of course, he was being facetious, though the links between Southerly, Brennan and Sydney University have been strong, from the first editor, R G Howarth, through his successors, Slessor and Wilkes, down to the present, with David Brooks, whose Australian Literature Honours course on Australian Poetry and the Symbolists has maintained the study of Brennan’s work in an appropriate context for more than a decade.

My own contribution to Brennan criticism has been much slighter, though I did lecture on his poetry for several years and even had the temerity to include a discussion of it in my chapter on ‘Melodrama and the Melodramatic Imagination’, published in the Penguin New Literary History of Australia (1988). I expected to be attacked from all sides for daring to discuss Brennan alongside works of popular culture but my intervention passed completely unnoticed, though it is one of the 219 works on Brennan listed by AustLit. And I do remember, when preparing lectures on Brennan in 1980, being rather frustrated by the fact that so much of the detailed analysis of Poems related to ‘The Wanderer’ section, probably the easiest to understand, certainly the most anthologised. Kathie Barnes, being made of sterner stuff, has chosen not the discuss ‘The Wanderer’ at all but to focus mainly on the longest, and most difficult, of the five sections of Poems, ‘The Forest of Night’. If I was still lecturing on Brennan, I know I would be very grateful to her for this!

In examining Brennan’s desire to explore in Poems the possibility of a transcendent self, Kathie Barnes stresses in her first three chapters his remarkable knowledge and wide reading of works in the long tradition of Western esotericism as well as works by English and German Romantic writers. Chapter 3, ‘Art and Silence’, looks in particular at the development of Romantic concepts of the imagination as the means by which inner and outer worlds, the material and the spiritual, Nature and man, may be connected through the creation of images for Ideas (p.99). Kathie Barnes rejects the biographically based reading of the Lilith section of Poems by James McAuley and Axel Clark, one which saw these poems as reflecting problems in the sexual relationship between Brennan and his wife. As she points out, the pattern of the inevitable destruction of innocence by experience, as symbolised by the daily round traced by the sun from dawn to noon to nightfall, was already established in poems written before Brennan’s marriage.

In Chapter 4, ‘Brennan’s Theory of Moods’, Kathie brings together her earlier discussions of Brennan’s reading of esoteric and Romantic literature to interpret the meaning Brennan attached to the term ‘moods’, linking it to the meanings of two German words, Gemüth and Stimmung: I quote from pp. 133-4:

Gemüth refers to an inner human faculty for union with the Absolute or the divine. Stimmung refers to human connectedness with the external world; it suggests both inner feeling and atmosphere and has the connotation of ‘being in tune with’. According to Brennan’s understanding, ‘moods’ connect human beings with the surrounding world of Nature and with the divine, which is located, however, within.

Other important influences on Brennan’s development of his theory of moods were W.B. Yeats and Mallarmé. From the latter’s Les Dieux antiques [The Ancient Gods, ed.] in particular he discovered how “The daily and yearly events of Nature are seen as a drama, providing universal material for myth” (p.148). For Brennan, then, moods represented “an exchange between the mind and Nature” and in poetry also “a union of the emotional and the intellectual” (p.161).

In her remaining three chapters, Kathie Barnes reads specific sections of Brennan’s Poems in the light of these earlier arguments. Chapter 5 continues the discussion of the influence of Mallarmé, with a particular focus on the poem beginning “Red autumn in Valvins around thy bed”, an in memoriam for Mallarmé. The next chapter, ‘Two Preludes and a Liminary’, was, I thought, especially valuable for its reading of ‘Liminary’, a poem I have always found very difficult. Indeed, as Kathie notes on p.205, “[Liminary] is a highly ambitious poem that has proved resistant to credible interpretation as a complete work.” Again she rejects more narrowly focussed biographical readings of the first part of the poem in favour of an interpretation of “the consummation represented in stanzas seven to nine … as a marriage of opposites, antitheses or contraries” (p.216). As she notes, the cyclic nature of ‘Liminary’, which begins and ends with almost the same line, reflects that of Poems as a whole. Her interpretation is summed up in this important passage from Chapter 7, ‘The Assimilation of Our Inmost Passion to the Tetralogy of the Year’:

The poems discussed in the previous chapter introduce the pattern explored in Poems as a whole: that childlike innocence must in the nature of things be overtaken by experience, first by passion and its consummation, then by the discovery of the transience of ecstasy and the persistence of an anguished sense of the discontinuity between such experience and the quality of daily life, and finally by the search (no means certain of fulfilment) for a new kind of innocence beyond experience. (p.240)

It is the cyclic nature of Poems that I believe has created most difficulties for earlier interpreters, thanks to our ingrained expectation that narratives will follow a linear progression from introduction, to development, to climax. Axel Clark, for example, felt that Poems should have concluded at the end of ‘The Wanderer’ section after the wonderful lines:

I felt a peace fall in the heart of the winds

And a clear dusk settle, somewhere, far in me.

But of course this pause can only ever be momentary—the winds will soon be blowing again—and the wanderer, as anticipated a few lines earlier, will be facing another night and another morning.

My own reading of Poems in terms of the melodramatic imagination developed from a realisation that any attempt at interpreting it within the standard terms of Bildungsroman or quest narrative was bound to end in frustration. While each individual melodrama does achieve closure, usually with a happy ending, in the form as a whole this will soon be followed by yet another loss or crisis, as we see in melodrama’s current most popular iteration in TV series such as ‘All Saints’. It was the insistent emotional patterning of Poems, the opposition between delight and despair, darkness and light, which also reminded me of melodrama, a form which appeals very much to the emotions rather than the intellect. Thanks to Kathie Barnes’ many years of hard and dedicated scholarship I can now see why Brennan’s Poems are such an unusual mix of the erudite and the emotional and can understand why his livre composé follows a cyclical rather than a linear form.

I hope that The Higher Self in Christopher Brennan’s Poems will achieve the wide readership it deserves and so allow others better to understand the work of this remarkable Australian poet. And I certainly join with Kathie in hoping that publication of her book by an international press will attract more overseas attention to Brennan. There has been some work by American scholars and critics—in particular Rosemary Lloyd and Paul Kane—and rather more by French ones because of Brennan’s links with Baudelaire and Mallarmé. Unfortunately, their publications, being in French, are not included on the AustLit database! And, sadly, Simone Kadi, founder of the Mallarmé/Brennan association, has recently died but we trust the Association will continue its work and conferences.

Please join me then in congratulating Katherine Barnes for this wonderful contribution to Australian literary scholarship and criticism. May it inaugurate a new age of Brennan studies in Australia and internationally!



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