Brennan and Dark
[ Issue 46 ]

Emily Bronto is without doubt an admirer of Brennan and Dark

Bikwil salutes Brennan and Dark

Brennan and Dark

As No. 6 in our Memorable Moments in Music series, Michael Buhagiar presents an essay about a musical evening of Beethoven which touches on the case of tragic Australian poet Christopher Brennan.  Brennan served as the inspiration for a character in his friend Eleanor Dark's novel Sun Across the Sky
 

He was born in 1871 in Sydney into an Irish Catholic family, and showed early promise as a scholar. His precocity in Latin won him a scholarship to St. Ignatius College, Riverview, run by the Jesuit fathers, and renowned for its teaching of the Classics. Having starred both at Riverview and Sydney University, he won a scholarship to Germany where, instead of applying himself to his expected higher degree in Greek, he became immersed in the contemporary Symbolist poets, conceiving an especial regard for Stephane Mallarmé.

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". . . and Stars Begotten on Their Night"
— Michael Buhagiar

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In Sun Across the Sky by the Australian novelist Eleanor Dark (1937), there appears in chapter nine a wonderful musical scene involving the Australian poet Christopher Brennan, a dimly lit room, and Beethoven. Eleanor Dark was the only daughter of Dowell O’Reilly, a writer and great friend of Brennan’s in the early years of the century; and the inspiration she took from Brennan’s example comes across powerfully in this scene. There is much to reflect on in the following brief extract, where Brennan appears as Patrick Nicholas Kavanagh. One might ponder, amongst much else, the tendency of time and progress to obliterate the opportunities for transformative episodes of this kind; the warmth and fullness of the old recording media, now mostly but a fond memory; and the power of music itself.

The inspirational and tragic story of Christopher Brennan is well enough known in Australia by now, but perhaps some rehearsal of it here might be useful. He was born in 1871 in Sydney into an Irish Catholic family, and showed early promise as a scholar. His precocity in Latin won him a scholarship to St. Ignatius College, Riverview, run by the Jesuit fathers, and renowned for its teaching of the Classics. Having starred both at Riverview and Sydney University, he won a scholarship to Germany where, instead of applying himself to his expected higher degree in Greek, he became immersed in the contemporary Symbolist poets, conceiving an especial regard for Stephane Mallarmé. Most of his great work Poems [1913] was written before 1902; and Mallarmé would write to him that: “There is between you and I a kinship of dream” (“il y a entre vous et moi une parentée de songe”).

In 1908 Brennan obtained a junior post at Sydney University, where he would later be appointed Associate Professor of German and Comparative Literature. The reminiscences of his students are testament to the inspirational power of his teaching; and I particularly treasure from Marcia Kirsten (Turnbull) the reflection that: “Chris was himself an argument against the necessity for efficiency, good management, method, predictability – qualities that are commonly seen as important. He was the greatest teacher I have ever known.” (Southerly 1971, p. 224). One wonders how he would fit into the modern university, with its sterile emphasis on formal pedagogy: a knowledge shop, with the satisfaction of its customers as its goal.

In 1919 he separated from his wife Elisabeth, a Prussian, after many years of unhappiness, probably stretching back to the Nineties. In 1922 he became attached to Vie Singer, a cultured and articulate woman seventeen years his junior; and his wife filed for divorce in 1925, citing adultery, which Brennan did not contest. The Senate of the University decided to terminate his employment – such was the petty morality of Australia in those days — and in 1925 he was dismissed from his post, some three months after Vie had been run down and killed by a tram while walking home late at night. The divorce petition had been withdrawn, but too late. The scholar, philosopher, and poet — arguably the greatest Australia has produced — spent his final years in and out of the slums of Sydney, sustained by the efforts of a few devoted family and friends, and finally a Commonwealth Literary Fund pension.

Eleanor Dark chose a poem of Brennan’s for an epigram to her novel. Let it also introduce this Memorable Moment in Music:

What do I know? Myself alone,
a gulf of uncreated night,
wherein no star may e'er be shown
save I create it in my might.

What have I done? Oh foolish word,
and foolish deed your question craves!
think ye the sleeping depths are stirr'd
tho’ tempest hound the madden'd waves?

What do I seek? I seek the word
that shall become the deed of might
whereby the sullen gulfs are stirr’d
and stars begotten on their night.

Oliver had walked up from his own house latish in the evening, he remembered, after a tiring and depressing day – a last routine visit for Chloe's tonsilitis; and when he'd left her, rosy and laughing, curled up on her pillows with a book and a tin of butterscotch, Lois had said in her sudden, rather breathless way:

"Mr. Kavanagh's here, Dr. Denning. You know him, don't you. Won't you stay and talk for a while? We're going to have some music later on. I've just bought some new records."

His hesitation had been only momentary. Kavanagh – music – the darkened room whose deep chairs and flickering fire he could just see through the open doorway. It had been, for all either of them knew, a very harmless, very innocent temptation!

And then the night and his dejection, the night and her loneliness, the night and Kavanagh's words and the singing triumph of Beethoven’s music . . .

He could hardly see her in her chair across the strip of carpet with its moving lights and shadows. But when she went to change the records her hands and her funny little dark face like the face of a serious elf would come into the light from an orange-shaded lamp over the gramophone, and he found himself watching for those glimpses, wondering about the thoughts behind her eyes and the mysterious creative power in her small brown hands.

And he remembered thinking that this was a good way to hear music. First to talk. To be with a few others whose curiosities were greater than their fears, who, like himself, had discarded, or like Kavanagh, had consistently ignored, or, like Lois, had never acquired prejudices or pruderies, and who, in conversation, were like knives whetting each other to glittering sharpness and efficiency.

And then, in a silence made rich by that mutual exchange, mentally fed, mentally satisfied, to abandon oneself in semi-darkness to another feast. To shut one's eyes and to hear music like wings, like the lifting and falling, the beating and wheeling and soaring of wings, until with that illusion of flight the spirit grew wild and half-crazed with an ecstasy of freedom, and joy rose fiercely to that exquisite pitch where it becomes pain, the terrible birth-pangs of creative humanity . . .

He had sat there when it ended, feeling limp and relaxed, feeling light-headed, almost drunk with a mixture of emotions. He remembered seeing Kavanagh looming between himself and the firelight; hearing him say something to Lois about a walk, and picturing him as he had seen him sometimes when he was called out at night, a great, bowed figure, shapeless in an ancient overcoat with a cape such as coachmen used to wear, walking and walking in the moonlight, the lamplight, the starlight, but never in the sun. A strange, nocturnal being, a huge shadow walking and muttering to itself, muttering phrases and cadences, cadences and rhythms, tearing out of itself with agony and toil some thought shaped at last into eternal words. And he remembered feeling, as he saw the old man go out, a vague bitterness, an envy of genius which had this dreadful gift – of one who could take that evening and its accumulated richness and make it everlasting, while he, into whom its wealth had flowed equally, had no creative outlet but the one common to all ordinary men.

_____________________________

Brennan, Christopher. Poems [1913]. Intro. Robert Adamson. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1992.
Dark, Eleanor. Sun Across the Sky. New York: Macmillan, 1937. (Out of print).

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