Brian Vrepont (1882-1955)
Late flowering modernist
Brian Vrepont is probably the most interesting of the poets featured on this website, as a poet. But his life was pretty interesting, too.
He was born Benjamin Arthur Truebridge, in Carlton, Victoria, 1882. He worked as music teacher, fruit picker, gold fossicker and masseur. He married twice, the second time to a woman more than 30 years his junior.
According to one of his books, he did not begin publishing poetry until 1932, when he was almost 50. From then he went about establishing a reputation as a lyric poet, under the name ‘Vrepont’. He published a series of poems in the Brisbane daily afternoon newspaper, the Telegraph, whose literary editor was the journalist and poet Colin Bingham. His work appears to have been attractive to a wide variety of editors.
Vrepont’s first two books of poetry, Plays and Flower Verses for Youth (1934) and The Miracle (1939) are now very difficult to obtain. However, his third and last book, Beyond the Claw (1943) was published by the mainstream firm of Angus and Robertson, and can be readily purchased through second hand bookshops and the internet.
Beyond the Claw is a remarkable book for a poet of any age, yet alone a man of 60. It ranges from pastoral love lyrics:
‘In the creek, in the little creek,
We footed the water,
Mine bare over the white feet sleek
Of the farmer’s daughter. ‘
From ‘An hour’
to proto-Orwellian fantasies:
‘Quick, guard, there goes a man
Without a number. Arrest him!’
From ‘The pleasant future of Jones’
to literary commentaries (‘In the company of TS Eliot’) and declamatory war poems that show the influence of Dylan Thomas and WH Auden:
‘At the burst of the first sky-bomb
On the city, the god leapt out of me
Screaming with impotence’
From ‘The First Bomb’
But above all, the poems show an affinity with the rural landscape that is closer in spirit to Shaw Neilsen than to the Bush Balladists, combining a deep sensuality with an almost spiritual connection to the land:
‘I am of rock, I am the moss
That clings to rock as love to love,
I am a game of pitch and toss,
I am beneath, I am above.’
The most famous poem in Beyond the Claw, at least at the time of publication, was The Miracle, which won the CJ Dennis Memorial Prize for Poetry in 1939. It is an allegorical poem about overgrazing the earth that has parallels with the current climate change debate:
‘But Earth, that nothing pities,
And nothing answers for,
Fired the first and deadly shot
Against her enemy…’
The poems in Beyond the Claw show great technical skill, and control of a number of poetic forms. These range from simple 4 line stanzas in ballad metre (which contains four stresses in 8 syllable lines) to free verse (where there is no obvious rhyme scheme or repeated rhythmic pattern).
H.M.Green said of Vrepont that his style ‘has certain bizarre characteristics that in another might appear artificial, even exhibitionistic, but in him they seem natural, if a little eccentric’. I think that’s a little unfair. Even now his work seems innovative and provocative, and I think it has been unfairly overlooked in recent years.
In his time, Vrepont’s work certainly seems to have appealed to editors of all the various schools of poetry that were then flourishing. He was one of the four poets featured in the first edition of Meanjin Papers (1940). His work was also published in Max Harris’ journal Angry Penguins, and in the Jindyworobak Anthologies, in the (by then) conservative Bulletin, and in popular publications like the Australian Women’s Mirror and the Cairns Post. Though he had no formal religious affiliations, and according to the Australian Dictionary of biography, ‘he was fervently anti-Catholic’, he was an associate member of the Catholic Poetry Society.
He continued to publish work after Beyond the Claw. For example, a poem ‘Ballet Religieuse’, about nuns playing netball, appeared in Australian Poetry 1954, and his work continued to be anthologized until the 1980s. But his work was never again collected in book form. A new selection is long overdue.
Best book to buy: Vrepont,B., Beyond the Claw, Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1943.