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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Brissenden, Robert Francis (Bob) (1928–1991)

by David Brooks

This article was published online in 2014

Bob Brissendon, by Alec Bolton, 1984

Bob Brissendon, by Alec Bolton, 1984

National Library of Australia, 14261130-1

Robert Francis Brissenden (1928–1991), poet, novelist, critic, and academic, was born on 13 March 1928 at Wentworthville, Sydney, elder son of New South Wales-born Arthur Pieray Brissenden, schoolteacher, and his English-born wife Nellie Annie, née Rogers. Educated at Bowral and Cowra High schools, Bob won a scholarship to St Andrew’s College, University of Sydney (BA Hons, 1951; MA, 1954). In 1951 he was appointed senior tutor in the department of English at the University of Melbourne where, with others, he puzzled over how to mark Barry Humphries’s matriculation paper.

Two years later Brissenden transferred as a temporary assistant lecturer to Canberra University College, where A. D. Hope was head of the English department. Awarded a British Council grant, in 1954 he travelled to England and studied at the University of Leeds (PhD, 1956). He returned to CUC as a lecturer in English; in 1960 the college was amalgamated with the Australian National University (ANU) as the university’s school of general studies.

On 1 August 1959 Brissenden married Rosemary Lorna Groves, a political scientist, at the registrar’s office, Canberra. In the early 1960s he built a house at Depot Beach, New South Wales. Its rainforest location became central not only to much of his finest poetry, but to the environmental concerns that were later to be reflected in a book of poetry and photographs, The Gift of the Forest (1982), edited with his wife and published by the Australian Conservation Foundation. Promoted to reader in 1969, he taught until his early retirement, on health grounds, in 1985. With a heart weakened in childhood by rheumatic fever, he had also been a long sufferer of asthma.

Brissenden was an associate editor of Meanjin (1959-64) and the first literary editor of the Australian newspaper (1964-65) where he campaigned against censorship. In 1977 he was appointed to the literature board of the Australia Council for the Arts (chairman, 1978-81). He became a member of the Australian Academy of the Humanities in 1976 and in 1982 was appointed AO for his services to literature. His principal scholarly publications were his monographs: Samuel Richardson (1958), Patrick White (1964), Virtue in Distress: Studies in the Novel of Sentiment from Richardson to Sade (1974), A Fire-talented Tongue: Some Notes on the Poetry of Gwen Harwood (1978), and New Currents in Australian Writing (1978). He also edited the first, second, and (with J. C. Eade) third and fourth volumes of Studies in the Eighteenth Century and the papers of the ANU’s 1966, 1970, 1973, and 1977 David Nichol Smith memorial seminars, a series of which he was convener and chairman (1964-77). In 1965 he published Southern Harvest: An Anthology of Australian Short Stories. He was also the editor of Australian Poetry 1972 and of the 1977 Penguin edition of Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews. Keenly interested in American literature (he wrote, for example, The Great Gatsby: A Critical Introduction in 1987), he was also a committed ‘Australianist’ and wrote significant early essays on the work of Hope, James McAuley, Patrick White, Judith Wright, and others.

A member of the Canberra circle of poets that included Hope, Rosemary Dobson, David Campbell, and in later years Wright, Brissenden was a mentor to a generation of younger Canberra poets that included Alan Gould, Philip Mead, and Kevin Hart. He helped found a series of annual poets’ lunches at the ANU. Published collections of his work include Winter Matins (1971), Elegies (1974), Building a Terrace (1975), The Whale in Darkness (1980), and Sacred Sites (1990). A volume of selected poems, Suddenly Evening, edited by David Brooks, appeared in 1993. Predominantly a lyric poet, he was also a gifted writer of light verse and a composer/adaptor of satirical songs. In 1984 he published Gough and Johnny Were Lovers: Songs and Light Verse Celebrating Wine, Friendship and Political Scandal. The latter included a song, ‘The Back Blocks Academic,’ supposedly sung at a Canberra party for the American entertainer Tom Lehrer.

In retirement, Brissenden wrote thrillers. His novels Poor Boy (1987) and Wildcat (1991), centred on the character of Tom Caxton, a hard-living investigative journalist, quickly established him as a writer of compelling fiction. He had an open personality and lacked the capacity to hate. A gregarious man who liked mixing with people in pubs, he also enjoyed fishing and swimming. Survived by his wife and three children, he died of complications from Parkinson’s disease on 7 April 1991 at Royal Canberra Hospital and was buried in Queanbeyan lawn cemetery. At the time of his death he and his friend, Philip Grundy, were editing The Oxford Book of Australian Light Verse (1991).

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Brissenden, Robert Francis. Interview by Hazel de Berg, 30 March 1967. Transcript. Hazel de Berg collection. National Library of Australia
  • Brissenden, Robert Francis. In The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature,  2nd ed., edited by William H. Wilde, Joy Hooton, and Barry Andrews. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994, 119
  • Brooks, David. ‘Introduction.’ In Suddenly Evening: Selected Poems of R.F. Brissenden, edited by David Brooks. Melbourne: McPhee Gribble, 1993, ix-xiii
  • Hefner, Robert. ‘An Easy Regard for the World.’ Canberra Times, 14 April 1991, 17
  • Papers of Robert F. Brissenden, circa 1942-circa 1993 (manuscript). National Library of Australia
  • Ramson, Bill. 'Bob Brissenden.’ ANU Reporter, 24 April 1991, 2.

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

David Brooks, 'Brissenden, Robert Francis (Bob) (1928–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2014, accessed online 27 October 2020.

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