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.
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  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”).
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
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."
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
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
. . .
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.
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.
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 . . .
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
. Intro. Robert Adamson. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1992.
Dark, Eleanor. Sun Across the Sky. New York: Macmillan, 1937.
(Out of print).