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Christopher Brennan

1870 – 1932

Christopher Brennan (1870–1932), poet, was born to Irish parents in Sydney. A brilliant schoolboy, destined early for the priesthood, he gained a scholarship from Cardinal Moran and went to Riverview; there, he abandoned his vocation. As a language and classics student at Sydney University he edited Hermes, fell in love with Victorian poetry, graduated with a First and a University Medal, and lost his religious faith. After a short stint teaching at St Patrick’s, Goulburn, he won a travelling scholarship to the University of Berlin, where he became convinced of the power of poetry to reclaim an ideal version of humanity. Returning to Sydney in 1894, he began cataloguing in the New South Wales Public Library, where he was to rise to second assistant librarian by 1907. Late in 1909 he was appointed an assistant lecturer in French and German at the University of Sydney. His poetic output – complex and symbolic, always more European than Australian in sensibility - for the most part declined after 1902; his biographer Axel Clark suggests that the moderately successful pro-war poems he wrote during the First World War sprang from his hostility toward his German wife and mother-in-law. After he divorced, he embarked on an affair with a younger woman; her accidental death gave rise to some of his finest poems, but his life was thrown into irrecoverable chaos. Gaining odds and ends of teaching, and supported by friends and admirers, he retrieved his Catholic faith before he died. Clark writes that ‘although he abhorred Henry Lawson as a poet and a man, the progress of their lives was hauntingly similar: promise, achievement, degeneration, disgrace, posthumous legend.’

Updated 2018