Life as whitest flame
By Christopher Bowen OAM, Hon Fellow BMus ’75 and Annette Lemercier BA ’71
Christopher Brennan (1870-1932) was called Australia’s finest poet in his time and more recently praised for introducing une sensibilité française dans la littérature australienne, according to Simone Kadi in Christopher Brennan, poète, (Université de Nanterre 1994). He is commemorated by the Brennan Building and will be remembered in the Sydney University Graduate Choir’s December concert, for which Music Director Christopher Bowen has composed works to accompany several of his poems.
Brennan’s association with the University began in 1888 with his study of Classics and Philosophy. From 1909 he taught French and German and was Associate Professor of German and Comparative Literature from 1920-25.
While studying in Germany from 1892 to 1894 he discovered the poetry of the French Symbolists, which influenced some of his work. His brief correspondence with Mallarmé was significant, demonstrating a mutual esteem, and his 1898 tribute to Mallarmé includes a reference to L’Après-midi d’un faune.
Christopher Bowen tells of his journey with Brennan: “I first became acquainted with the poetry of Christopher Brennan in February 2009, during a memorial service for Lady Joyce Black in the Great Hall of Sydney University.
“On the last page of the order of service was a poem entitled Sweet Silence after Bells, and I was immediately struck by its beauty of language, imagery and the powerful music lying beneath the surface of the text. I set the poem to music and the work received its premiere later that year. So began my relationship with one of Australia’s finest poets and as I further explored his poetry I became increasingly astounded by its universality.
“I am moved by the music within his words, by their alliterations, their subtle rhythms and phrases that describe emotions in such a tender and profound manner. Such beguiling lines as ‘I am so deep in day, I am shut out of mine own heart’ and ‘My heart was wandering in the sands’ lead the reader into a subterranean world which never loses contact with reality; and it this resulting tension that attracts my musical instincts and provokes the creative juices.
“For me, as a composer, a poem must not only invite interpretation of the text through the intellect but be able to involve the senses through its colour and atmosphere. One has to feel its text, taste its language and absorb its essence.
“I experience these qualities in Brennan’s poetry and to merely evaluate his worth as a poet within the confines of the Antipodes is a grave injustice to a man who deserves greater recognition.”
I saw my life as whitest flame
light-leaping in a crystal sky,
and virgin colour where it came
pass’d to its heart, in love to die.
It wrapped the world in tender harm
rose-flower’d with one ecstatic pang:
God walk’d amid the hush’d alarm,
and all the trembling region rang
music, whose silver veils dispart
around the carven silences
Memnonian in the hidden heart-
now blithe, effulgurant majesties.
Towards the Source: 13 (1897)
For performance details: see Diary pages