[Editor: This article about John Le Gay Brereton, by P. I. O’Leary, was published on “The Literary and Critical Page” in The Advocate (Melbourne, Vic.), 9 February 1933.]
John Le Gay Brereton
Poet, prose-writer, dramatist
Not generally known, even among students of literature written in Australia, is the fact that Professor John Le Gay Brereton, whose reported death occurred suddenly on Thursday last, was the son of one who also wrote verse. It was not great poetry, but some of it, written in the spirit of Shelley’s poetry, is an interesting contribution to the body of rhythmical writing produced in this country.
Son of a verse-writer, Professor Brereton was uncle of that considerable poet, Robert David Fitzgerald.
John Le Gay Brereton, the younger, was a native of Sydney, where he was born sixty-two years ago. Educated at the Sydney Grammar School and at the Sydney University, he became a teacher, afterwards working in the Government Statistician’s office, New South Wales. Appointed assistant librarian at the Sydney University, he later became librarian there. In 1921 he was appointed Professor of English Literature at the University of Sydney, an appointment which had everything to commend it.
A student and a traditionalist.
Brereton was the most kindly and least affected of men, and was esteemed by all who knew him for his sincerity, broadness of mind, helpfulness, and charm of manner. These qualities the inward-glancing reader may find in his writings, both poetry and prose.
He was a literary student all his life, and had, especially, a sure and wide knowledge of the works of the writers of the Elizabethan period.
In his own poetic manner he was a formalist and a traditionalist, but some of his experiments in metre and measure prove that he was interested in newer forms and modes of poetic expression. He was no innovator, however, and whatever short cuts or blazing of trails may have marked his journeys in the bush — journeys he frequently took — he opened up no new paths in literature. Few men have, anyway.
He looked into the heart of things.
Brereton looked into the heart of things; there was a touch of spirituality in his poetry and a suggestion of mysticism. He had affinities with Wordsworth, and occasionally a striking passage or phrase brings this fact home.
Yet the splendour is gone not wholly,
Yet the love and the peace abide.
This is not precisely in Wordsworth’s manner, but it does possess something of his spirit.
Like Wordsworth, Brereton’s style was marked by simplicity and naturalness. He had little use for the turgid or the bombastic in language. Everything he wrote was sincere, and meant something more than the mere verbal dress which apparelled it.
Mr. H. M. Green, in his “An Outline of Australian Literature,” wrote of Brereton: “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 in his poetry like colours and images in a stream. They brought him close to his old friend, Henry Lawson; but he carried them further 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, 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.”
This latter passage is true of Brereton, even as it is, of course, true of all poets.
His Heart Not Blind.
It is, however, true of Brereton in much greater measure than of most other Australian poets. He was by nature reflective and moved by the essential and hidden, rather than by the external and the material. He wrote:
The heart is blind that cannot see
The beckoning soul of mystery.
His heart was not blind. Its husk-piercing eye penetrated to deep things, if not to the deepest things. Of these he wrote in his tender, thoughtful, graceful numbers, not professorially, but poetically.
The best of his work is certain of inclusion in any representative anthology of Australian poetry. Books of poetry written by him are “The Songs of Brotherhood” — produced while he was an undergraduate — “Perdita,” “Sweetheart Mine,” “Oithona,” “Sea and Sky,” and “The Burning Marl.” They make up a respectable body of good work.
Prose and drama.
I think Brereton’s best work was his poetry, but he wrote a supple, simple prose, not without humour, and always with a substance of thought and allusiveness in it.
In 1900, his “Landlopers” appeared. It relates the experiences of a month’s walk from Sydney to the Blue Mountains and back with the swag up. The chief figure in this plotless narrative is a nature-lover who, accompanied by a youthful mate, decides to take to the hills and the quiet places to forget a lovers’ quarrel. It is not a great book, and is discursive and errant. Its appeal lies in the philosophy of its author and the freshness and cleanness of the atmosphere of the work.
Brereton’s almost passionate absorption in Elizabethan literature, especially early Elizabethan literature, issued in a dramatic poem entitled “Tomorrow,” written around Robert Greene, the turbulent dramatist who girded at Shakespeare.
To my mind it lacks dramatic quality and the vitality of movement. Skill is shown in the language used, with its modern touch here and there in the vocabular sonorities of the language common to the warblers of auburn-tressed Bess’s day.
Mr. Green says: “It is probably, on the whole, the best play written in Australia, in either prose or verse” — a judgment with which I most stoutly disagree.
Singing Days Over.
Professor Brereton produced a good deal of excellent critical writing of a literary and semi-literary kind, and, I think, a text-book or two. His critical writings ought to be collected. They are well worth the permanency of book form.
A lover of literature, a friend of all who endeavoured to write it, a cheery, hearty and always helpful friend, John Le Gay Brereton passes.
He will not be forgotten. That which is worth prizing in his writings will remain, as will the best of the work of his friend, the late Christopher Brennan, at whose graveside, few months ago, Brereton spoke a panegyric full of affection, understanding and appreciation — a panegyric the spirit of which may well be applied to the dead poet whose singing days on earth are over.
— P. I. O’L.
The Advocate (Melbourne, Vic.), 9 February 1933, p. 3
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