The themes John Le Gay Brereton wrote about
John was the son of a doctor of the same name who came to Sydney in 1859. Dr Brereton rapidly established himself in his profession and sired a large family. Among his other achievements, he set up Australia's first Turkish Bath in Spring Street and following its success, opened larger premises in Bligh Street on 14 March, 1861. Originally a Quaker, Dr Brereton was converted to the teachings of Swedenborg and became a leader of the New Jerusalem Church, the tenets of which underlay his several published volumes of poetry and didactic prose.
John Le Gay Brereton the Younger (as he was always known) was the fifth son, born in the family’s home in Richmond Terrace, which then existed between Sydney Hospital and the Domain, on September 2, 1871. In 1882, when John the Younger was 11, his father retired to Osgathorpe at Gladesville, reputedly the house occupied by Ludwig Leighhardt before he left on his ill-fated expedition in 1848.
As a boy, John the Younger appears to have preferred his own company, being in his own words a "timid child with heart oppressed ... by images of sin." In 1881 he entered Sydney Grammar School where he had no enthusiasm for the team sports favoured by the other boys. However, in 1887 he joined the editorial committee of the school magazine, The Sydneian, and thus began what was to prove his most illustrious and influential literary career.
Le Gay Brereton was not only a writer: he was also a voracious reader. Library services at that time in Sydney were not well developed, so it was a measure of his need to read that the youth approached and even persuaded the famous "recluse of Darlinghurst Road", the bibliophile David Scott Mitchell, to lend him books from his own huge private library. In his researches, Martin Smith even found in a copy of Brereton’s Oithona, published in 1902, a dedication in his own hand to David Scott Mitchell, indicating that Brereton himself clearly recognized the literary debt of gratitude he owed the older man.
Mitchell appears to have introduced Brereton to the two great literary influences of his life: one was Christopher Marlowe, the Elizabethan playwright, whose work greatly influenced Brereton’s later scholarly prose; the other was Walt Whitman , the American openly homosexual poet whose style and sentiments provided the blueprints for Brereton’s own poetry. He was only a teenager when he first read Whitman. Later in his life, in a backward look at books he remembered , Brereton wrote:
"On the ferry boat I pored over Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, without perhaps understanding much of it, borne on tremendous billows of sound to a region of glorious mystery..." (in The Lone Hand, published by JF Archibald, February 1913)
Brereton entered Sydney University as an undergraduate in the Faculty of Arts in 1891. His academic record in general was not outstanding. In English however, he was one of the most brilliant students Mungo MacCallum, the Professor of Modern Literature, ever had. He not only won MacCallum’s own prize for English essays but also the University Medal for English Verse in both 1892 and 1893. As an undergraduate he was active in SUDS and from 1891 until 1894 he was one of the editors of the Arts journal Hermes. In 1896 he published his first book of poetry. Its title, "The Song of Brotherhood" gives a clear indication of its contents:
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