Death at 62: Professor Le Gay Brereton: Literary giant passes [obituary, 3 February 1933]

[Editor: This article about John Le Gay Brereton was published in The Brisbane Courier (Brisbane, Qld.), 3 February 1933.]

Death at 62.

Professor Le Gay Brereton

Literary giant passes.

Sydney, February 2.

Professor J. Le Gay Brereton, Professor of English Literature at the University of Sydney, died suddenly near Tamworth this morning while on a caravan tour.

During his holiday, Professor Brereton, together with his son and a party, had been touring through Northern New South Wales. They had already journeyed through the North Coast, and were making towards Sydney in easy stages through the New England district. Last night the party camped near Calala Bridge, a few miles outside Tamworth. Early this morning Professor Brereton was observed to be seriously ill, and he died shortly afterwards.

Outstanding in Literature.

Professor Brereton was one of Australia’s outstanding literary men. Son of the elder poet of the same name, he was born in Sydney in 1871, and was educated at the Sydney University, of which he was a distinguished graduate. He had always devoted himself to the study of English literature, and had issued a number of publications, including many poems and notes on Elizabethan literature, more particularly the drama. He was assistant librarian and subsequently librarian in the University of Sydney until 1921, when he was appointed Professor of English Literature. His first book of rhyme “The Songs of Brotherhood,” was written in his graduate days. In a long vacation in 1893-94 he “humped his bluey” with the poet, Dowell O’Reilly, across Tasmania and this resulted in “Landlopers,” one of his well-known books of prose. He also published the following books of verse, “Perdita,” “Sweetheart Mine,” “Oithona,” “Sea and Sky,” and “The Burning Marl.” He has published “Elizabethan Drama, Notes and Studies” and “To-morrow,” a dramatic sketch on the character and environment of Robert Greene.

Ideal in Nature.

A fine appreciation of the late Profesor Le Gay Brereton’s contribution to Australian literature is contained in H. M. Green’s Outline of Australian Literature. Of his work Green said:

“Brereton finds his ideal in nature and the ‘natural man.’ Simplicity, freedom, sincerity, and last, but by no means least, comradeship — a comradeship that spreads outward, and is at last universalised in love and unity — these are his guiding principles, and they are reflected on his poetry like colours and images in a stream. They brought him close to his old friend, Henry Lawson; but he has carried them farther than Lawson. He is a ‘brother of birds and trees,’ and even of inanimate things, for one might well imagine him up in arms against the destruction of some old weather-beaten rock, not merely for aesthetic reasons but also out of a friendly feeling for the rock itself. So when man turns, or nature is turned, in the direction of ugliness, or cruelty he is in opposition to the utmost of his force; and if he cannot resist the march of cities and all they stand for upon forest and river, and all they stand for, he will at least break away from it himself, in mind if not in body, to ‘the truth that the dreamer knows,’ to the ideal world which is more than the actual world to him. He is indeed more simply and frankly a mystic than any other Australian poet, even Neilson.


“Though he is always able (altering his words a little) to

Thrust his fingers through the bricks
And feel the flowers the other side,

it is through bush and river and seaside that, as in ‘The Explorer’ or ‘The Nepean’ or ‘Middle Harbour’ the door to the ‘vision splendid’ opens most easily for him. And when the vision fades and the walls of sense close about him again,

Yet the splendour is gone not wholly,
Yet the love and the peace abide.

“Brereton’s poetic style is simple and easy and free. He uses as a rule only words that are well within the vocabulary of the man in the street; so much so that the few traces he does here and there carry of the groves of academe are the more conspicuous. He has a delicate ear for rhythm, as for instance, in

With wings untired between the sea and sky,
From delicate dawn to peaceful dusk I fly.

And he has some fine images, as of the troubling thoughts that are

Black motes upon the morning’s amber beam,

or when he speaks of

Lazy joy in starry peace,

or of the small boy’s

Freakish elemental joy
That tasted life and found it good.

“However, it is not in individual phrases, but in the spirit that informs Brereton’s poetry that its value lies.”

His Dramatic Work.

One of the finest fruits of the poet-professor’s mind was his dramatic sketch of the character and environment of Robert Greene. Green says it could have been written only by a poet who had steeped himself in early Elizabethanism. The play has been staged several times, and by amateurs, and yet it acted well. The blank verse, though coloured by the Elizabethanism of the language of the speakers, is otherwise modern! It manages to be poetic, and yet to seem natural in the mouths of real characters — a rare thing in a play of to-day. Says Green: “It is a play for the stage, and not merely a dramatic poem, and a mature work. It is probably, on the whole, the best play written in Australia, in either prose or verse.”

A human and kindly poet, whose genius was untrammelled by academic influences, his passing leaves a gap in the first flight of Australian poets, which will not be readily filled.

The Brisbane Courier (Brisbane, Qld.), 3 February 1933, p. 12

Editor’s notes:
academe = academia, the academic or scholarly community, environment, life, or world (especially universities); an academy, a place of higher learning; an academic (especially a pedant)

Elizabethanism = a word, phrase, or element of the language used specific to the literature or culture of Elizabethan England (i.e. during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, 1533-1603)

first flight = (also: top flight) to be in the “first flight” is to be in the top class, level, rank, or tier of a particular group, field, profession, or set; to be of the highest importance, quality, or reputation; to be ranked among the best

humped his bluey = travelled as a swagman, hit the road as a swagman (a “bluey” being a swagman’s rolled-up blanket or bundle)

Neilson = John Shaw Neilson (1872-1942), Australian poet

steep = to immerse, saturate, soak, or wet thoroughly in a liquid; to immerse oneself in a field of knowledge, hobby, profession, science, trade, endeavour, cause, or ideology

untrammelled = (also spelt “untrammeled”) not confined, entangled, hampered, impeded, limited, restrained, restricted, or shackled by any rules, conventions, or controlling influences; able to act freely without restrictions or rules

[Editor: The quotation from An Outline of Australian Literature, by H. M. Green, has been put into a blockquote, so as to distinguish it from the rest of the text.]

Speak Your Mind