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John Le Gay Brereton (1871 – 1933)

John Le Gay Brereton was born in Sydney on 2 September 1871, the fifth son of John Le Gay Brereton (senior), a medical doctor, and his wife Mary (née Tongue). Brereton’s family had a strong impact on the worldview he developed. His parents were both highly educated and prominent members of the Sydney Swedenborgian community. John Le Gay Brereton senior was also the author of several volumes of poetry, and a friend and patron of leading literary figures in late nineteenth-century New South Wales, such as Henry Kendall and Charles Harpur. The younger John Le Gay Brereton was educated at Sydney Grammar School from 1881, and was fifteen years old when his father died in 1886. Brereton subsequently matriculated to the University of Sydney, where he studied English, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in 1894.

Brereton’s interest in poetry and literature was evident early. He was an editor of his school magazine, and from 1891 to 1894 one of the editors of the Sydney University student journal Hermes, to which he made numerous contributions. From 1890 Brereton was also a regular contributor to the Sydney press, including the Sydney Quarterly Magazine and the Bulletin, and in this way his poetry and literary criticism came to be better known. Brereton was also active in the Sydney literary bohemian scene; a genial character, he enjoyed associating with other writers, and formed close friendships with Henry Lawson (whom he met through Mary Gilmore in 1894) and Christopher Brennan. In 1896, Brereton published his first poetry collection, The Song of Brotherhood and other verses, and the following year issued a second collection, Sweetheart Mine: Lyrics of Love and Friendship.

After graduating in 1894 Brereton supported himself precariously with various occupations, until in 1902 he returned to the University of Sydney as assistant librarian. He was a recognisable and somewhat bohemian figure at the University, not least because he defied the universal male fashion of the time by never wearing a hat. He continued to write poetry, contributing his work to Australian periodicals like the Lone Hand, Native Companion, Lilley’s Magazine, and Heart of the Rose, and developed his reputation as a scholar by publishing on Elizabethan drama. Brereton’s third poetry collection Sea and Sky was published in 1908, and his fourth, The Burning Marl, a collection of mainly war poetry, appeared in 1919. In 1921, Brereton was appointed Professor of English Literature at the University of Sydney. While academic duties henceforth occupied much of his time, he remained involved with writers’ groups such as the Fellowship of Australian Writers and the Sydney P.E.N. club, and published a final collection of verse, Swags Up! (1928), and a volume of autobiographical essays, Knocking Round (1930). Brereton died while on holiday near Tamworth in 1933.

Although his poetry has not received the critical and popular attention devoted to that of his friends Lawson and Brennan, Brereton remains an important figure in the development of Australian literature. His poetry was influenced by the ideas of mateship and egalitarianism prevailing amongst the literary bohemians at the turn of the twentieth century, but was also strongly marked by his reverence for the natural world and his views on the essential harmony of all living things.

Poetry Collections
  • The Song of Brotherhood and Other Verses (London: G. Allen, 1896).
  • Sweetheart Mine: Lyrics of Love and Friendship (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1897).
  • Sea and Sky (Melbourne: Lothian, 1908).
  • The Burning Marl (Melbourne: Fellowship, 1919).
  • Swags Up! (London: J. M. Dent, 1928).
  • Knocking Round (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1930).
Suggested Further Reading
  • Melissa Harper, ‘Sensuality in Sandshoes: Representations of the Bush in the Walking and Writing of John Le Gay Brereton and Percy Grainger’, Australian Historical Studies 31 (2000): pp. 287–303.
  • Lesley Heath, ‘John Le Gay Brereton, The University, and Australian Literature’, Notes and Furphies 31 (1993): pp. 3–7.
  • Harry Heseltine, ‘Brereton, the Bulletin, and A. G. Stephens,’ Australian Literary Studies 1.1 (1963), pp. 16–31.
  • Harry Heseltine, John Le Gay Brereton (Melbourne: Lansdowne, 1965).
  • Harry Heseltine, ‘The Poetry of J. Le Gay Brereton,’ Meanjin Quarterly 21.3 (1962): pp. 291–309.
  • Knobel, Paul, Male Homosexuality and Australian English Language Poetry (Sydney: Veritas, 1999).