Christopher John Brennan was born in Sydney on 1 November 1870, the eldest of five children, to parents who were migrants from Ireland. He was educated at parish schools, and at St Aloysius’ College before winning a scholarship to board at St Ignatius College, Riverview, with the expectation of his becoming a priest. At Riverview he read widely and in March 1888 enrolled in Arts at the University of Sydney, specialising in Classics and Philosophy, graduating in 1891 with first class honours and the University Medal in the latter, having also lost his Catholic faith. The following year he completed a MA in Philosophy and won a James King of Irrawang Travelling Scholarship to study for his doctorate at the University of Berlin in 1892-94. University work, however, soon took second place to Brennan’s immersion in Berlin's cultural and intellectual milieu, where his discovery of the work of French poet Mallarmé led to his decision to ‘go in for verse’. In Berlin Brennan also fell in love and became engaged to his landlady's daughter, Anna Elisabeth Werth.
In 1894, Brennan returned to Sydney without his doctorate, and was unable to find work for a year because of the severe economic depression. The next year he was employed as a cataloguer at the Public Library of New South Wales, where he continued to work until 1907. After several temporary teaching appointments in modern languages and classics at the University of Sydney, Brennan was finally offered a permanent position as assistant lecturer in French and German in 1909. Anna Werth had arrived in Sydney in 1897 and they married at the end of that year, but a decade later the marriage had become strained, following the birth of four children and the arrival of Anna’s mother and sister to live with the family. Brennan increasingly turned to the cafe society of Sydney where he shone, thanks to his intellect and wit, but which also encouraged his excessive drinking. After his marriage finally broke up in 1922, Brennan went to live with Violet Singer, something which brought him much personal happiness but also resulted in his dismissal from the University – since 1921 he had been associate professor in German – on the grounds of adultery in June 1925. Tragically, Violet had been run down by a tram and killed a few months earlier.
This double loss led to a period of extreme poverty and depression for Brennan. Apart from some occasional money from teaching, he relied on the generosity of friends and former studies. From 1931 he also received a Commonwealth Literary Fund pension. Despite giving up alcohol from 1931, his health continued to deteriorate and he died of cancer on 5 October 1932, having returned to the Catholic faith.
When Brennan decided to ‘go in for verse’ he also began a spiritual quest for an absolute which he believed could be found through poetry. His major publicationPoems(1914) is a quest narrative, showing the persona’s pursuit of Eden, and has strong autobiographical elements. In form it adheres to Mallarmé's concept of thelivre composé, a collection of poems conceived and executed as a whole, though with each poem also capable of being read individually.
XVIII Poems: being the first collection of verse and prose(Sydney: the Author, 1897)
XI Poems 1893-1897: Towards the Source(Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1897).
Poems(Sydney: G. B. Philip, 1913 [ie 1914]).
A Chant of Doom and other verses(Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1918).
The Verse of Christopher Brennan(Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1960).
Selected Poems(Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1966).
Selected Poems(Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1973).
Christopher Brennan(St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1984).
Suggested Further Reading
Katherine Barnes,The Higher Self in Christopher Brennan’s Poetry: Esotericism, Romanticism, Symbolism(Leiden: Brill, 2006).
A. R. Chisholm,Christopher Brennan: The Man and His Poetry(Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1946).
A. R. Chisholm and John Joseph Quinn, eds.,The Prose ofChristopher Brennan(Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1962).
Axel Clark,Christopher Brennan(Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1980).
Axel Clark, ‘Brennan, Christopher John (1870-1932),’AustralianDictionary of Biography Online, internet, http://www.adb.online.anu.edu.au/biogs/A070405b.htm
John Hawke, ‘The Philosophy of Symbolism: Christopher Brennan and Arthur Symons,’ Australian Literature and the SymbolistMovement(Wollongong: University of Wollongong Press, 2009), pp. 12-27).
A. D. Hope, ‘Brennan’s Lilith,’ in Alex Clark, et al, eds.,Between Two Worlds: ‘Loss of Faith’ and Late Nineteenth CenturyAustralian Literature(Sydney: The Wentworth Press, 1979), pp. 101-10.
Peter Kirkpatrick, ‘The Wanderer and the Flâneur: Christopher Brennan as Modernist,’Southerly63.2 (2003), pp. 63-77.
Rosemary Lloyd, ‘Mallarmé Reading Brennan, Brennan Reading Mallarmé,’ in Jill Anderson, ed.,Australian Divagations: Mallarmé and the Twentieth Century (New York: Peter Lang, 2002).
Andrew Lynch, ‘C. J. Brennan’s “A Chant of Doom”: Australia’s Medieval War,’Australian Literary Studies23.1 (2007), pp. 49-62.
Justin Lucas, ‘Christopher Brennan (1870-1932),’ in Selina Samuels, ed.,Australian Literature, 1788-1914(Detroit, USA: Gale Research, 2001), pp. 46-56.
Noel Macainsh, ‘The Transposed World—Aestheticism and Christopher Brennan,’Southerly42.1 (1982), pp. 56-69.
Robin Marsden, ‘Christopher Brennan’s Berlin Years 1892-1894: In the Decedence,’Quadrant21.11 (1977) pp. 37-42, 44-46).
James McAuley,Christopher Brennan(Oxford University Press, 1973).
Henry Weinfeld, ‘ “Thinking out afresh the whole poetic problem,”: Brennan’s Prescience; Mallarmé’s Accomplishment,’Southerly68.3 (2008), pp. 10-26.
Reproduction of pen and ink sketch of Brennan, Fryer Library Pictorial Collection UQFL477 PIC779