CB: cryptic chill

From all accounts, Christopher Brennan (1870 - 1932) was an unusal Australian poet. This in two senses: he was an unusual poet and scholar, and he was unusually "Australian". Unlike a good slab of his contemporaries, Brennan was not at all interested in contributing to a national colonial poetic. He once said in an interview that he may as well have written from China, so unimportant was place and national identity in his work. His interest in the French Symbolists, especially Mallarmé, has been well documented, but even where that longterm engagement is concerned, Brennan never imagined he was a Symbolist. His way of describing his aesthetic affinities was to say simply that one must live in one's time, and must find others to get along with. The Symbolists happened to be those closest to his own conceit.

Nevertheless, he was utterly committed to a thoroughly European poetics. Some of his manuscripts are collected at the State Library of NSW, and when I looked through a box of his materials, I found extensive lecture notes, poems, lists, essays, criticism and correspondence in Latin, Greek, French and German. Included in this box was the original, meticulously handwritten study of Aeschylus (called AESCHYLUS: THE RESTORATION OF THE TEXT). Kate Fagan and Peter Minter, in their colloborative essay on John Tranter and post-modern poetics in Australia, name Brennan as one of a few poets who attempted a kind of inverted, "antipodean Orientalism," a move against the "transplanted and claustrophobic" influence of English literature on colonial poetry and an effort to recoup other exotic European figures for a constructed and portable poetic genealogy.

In the collections at the State Library, I found clippings from a column that Brennan wrote for The Bulletin (I could write at length about this, but for now let me say that the fact of this column in this paper is almost impossible to reconcile).  The column was called "Newer French Poetry," and the clippings at the State included entries on Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé. Mallarmé's is dated September 9, 1899. I have excerpted here less than half the essay, which is a lengthy statement of poetics as well as a criticial review of specific poems. I was struck by a number of things: firstly, how close Brennan gets to anticipating, almost to the word, the axioms set out in "Imagisme". Secondly, by Brennan's oddly conspiratorial asides, and references to a "we" that is wholly uncertain. This, I think, betrays Brennan's anxieties and desires as a scholar so absolutely embedded in a virtual community. Also, I am fascinated by Brennan's critical assertion of the synthetic: especially as it is imagined in constant reference to melody and harmony. And finally, I am interested in Brennan's disparaging notion of the reader who "runs," as the one who reads quickly and demands clarity. This seems to be, among many other things, a call for slow reading. Brennan's defence of obscurity reminds me that the verb, to obscure, suggests one thing covering or hiding or displacing another thing. The one who runs will trip over and roll their ankle; the one who walks will find a way through the unanticipated arrangement.

I will end the excerpt with a pleasant discovery from the same box in the archive: a menu from February, 1920: In case you want to see what CB was eating. I like it because it reads like title page of the "Food" section of Tender Buttons.

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Eden must be realised in art, apart from life : a possession not for one, since the individual here is marred and broken, but for all : a promised land into which only the type may enter. Poetry realises for us this type, this Eden-life, by its fusion of natural and spiritual fact, by the union of all the divers faculties of man, intellectual, passional, and sensual, in the one imaginative act. For the imaginative act is not, as vulgarly held, the irresponsible creation of unrealities : imagination is a faculty that perceives, outside of the dusty life of outer weariness, the adequacy of our spirit to those only perfect things, the things of beauty ; that unites all hints thereof into a perfect life, the only real one because alone worth being real. For Mallarmé the guide to this free and adequately beautiful life was an unparalleled insight into the very stuff of poetry, the analogies that obtain between things outside their dreary mechanism. He saw in the movement of an eddy, the dance of waterflies, the sweep of a planet, and the movements of thought, one rhythmical idea ; a ‘soul,’ he said, ‘is the inner aspect of a form.’ The universe is one vast rhythm and language exists to give it a soul. The perfect work would be the notation of just that rhythmic quality, that ‘musicality’ of all things, the hierarchic manifestation of all analogies. But this implies a revision of poetic form.

The early poems, that drew from Gautier the remark ‘somewhat wilful extravagance,’ are marked already by an extraordinary fusion of music and developing logic. The verse is dense with richness ; every syllable is in its right place as regards significance and as regards sonority ; and none goes by without yielding its due tribute (it is noted of Mallarmé that, in his talk, he seemed to dwell on every syllable). The later poetry, from Hérodiade onward, holds in every word a complexity of super-posed signification, in every line a complexity of concerted melodies. Mallarmé had begun to obey the law that for the poet no thought exists except as an image, an inseparable unity of significance and material beauty ; and that the image should be directly expressed, without introduction of unnecessary matter, Of course, if you adopt a scientific procedure, you can, of two harmonious elements, take each separately, state the fact that there is a harmony between them, and lay bare the process by which they are harmonized. A great many—I will not say how many—poets put all this into their poetry, the passages that have really passed through the crucible of imagination being borne up on a dense stratum of explanatory affidavit. This certainly conciliates the reader who wants to run. Mallarmé conceived that verse should present only the completed work of the imagination … There is no separate enunciation of the idea, no separate description of the object, and then sudden fusion of the two. The logic of the poem is that of the image : the handling is similar to that of music, the art most closely akin to poetry. Sets of images are chosen, containing their own significance, and harmonious among themselves, like the chords of music : instead of description, successive aspects of the image are presented. As the chords of a musical piece progress in relation to a certain melody, so are these image-complexes led by the emotion, which determines the sonority of the words : as the music chords wax and wane in complexity so the images : counterpoint being paralleled by the manner in which an analogy will summon up distant and kindred analogies, by the manner in which the significations lie within each other, progressively more general.

The result of all this, we are told, is obscurity. 

Who is it that tells us so? The Parisian journalist, promoted critic, pontificating in the name of “national clarity.”

‘Tis a fable which we should be wary in accepting. Recent events have shown that the French mind in general shows no special prerogative of clearness in the formation and association ideas : it can confound an ideal abstraction with certain individuals not to be named here and attribute to these the respect that supposed to be due to that. Examination of its literature shows that “clarity” is just a convention enabling the reader to run ; the demand of an easily clarified mind that dislikes being stirred anywhere but on its rhetorical surface, that hates being shown any other than the immediate, professional, official aspect of the world. “Social” in its essence, French literature, as Brunetière confesses, has been obliged to forego the higher lyricism. The Frenchman loves a formula and his “clarity” is generally just neat expression of the obvious and inessential. Mallarmé refused the inessential. — Parallel with this, one may observe how his poetry, synthetic and concentrated, has been charged with “distance from life,” “cryptic chill,” etc., by those who, accustomed to verse which prepares its poetic moments not merely by gratuitous explanation but also by exciting a generous wealth of extra-poetic emotion, moral or sensual, simply cannot assimilate the unadulterate ecstasy of song. — Yet the poet, working a rarer life out of what we choose to call “life,” cannot remain on our fatigued level of intelligence or sensitivity. Transposition is the prime necessity of his art. All that his people have a right to demand of him is that he respect their language : not that he adopt their diurnal or journalistic defilement of it. He will, on the one hand, reach backward to its historic genius, on the other forward, to new and natural developments. 

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