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Roy Campbell, Poet


Ignatius Royston Dunnachie Campbell, better known as Roy Campbell, (2 October 1901 – 23 April 1957) was an Anglo-African poet and satirist. He was considered by T. S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas and Edith Sitwell to have been one of the best poets of the period between the First and Second World Wars.[2] Campbell's vocal attacks upon the Marxism and Freudianism popular among the British intelligentsia caused him to be a controversial figure during his own lifetime. It has been suggested by some critics and his daughters in their memoirs that his support for Francisco Franco's Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War has caused him to be labelled politically incorrect and blacklisted from modern poetry anthologies.[2][3][4][5]
In 2009, Roger Scruton wrote, "Campbell wrote vigorous rhyming pentameters, into which he instilled the most prodigious array of images and the most intoxicating draft of life of any poet of the 20th century... He was also a swashbuckling adventurer and a dreamer of dreams. And his life and writings contain so many lessons about the British experience in the 20th century that it is worth revisiting them".[6]
Early life
Roy Campbell was born in Durban, Colony of Natal, the fourth child of Dr. Samuel George Campbell, who was the son of Ulster Scots parents, and of his wife Margaret, daughter of James Dunnachie of Glenboig, Lanarkshire, who had married Jean Hendry of Eaglesham.[7] Educated at Durban High School, he counted literature and the outdoor life among his first loves. Campbell, an accomplished horseman and fisherman, became fluent in Zulu. He left the Union of South Africa in December 1918, being sent to Oxford University, where he arrived early in 1919. However, he failed the entrance examination.[8] Reporting this to his father, he took a philosophical stance, telling him that "university lectures interfere very much with my work", which was writing poetry.[7] His verse-writing was stimulated by avid readings in Nietzsche, Darwin, and the English Elizabethan and Romantic poets. Among his early fruitful contacts were William Walton, the Sitwells, and Wyndham Lewis.[7] Campbell wrote verse imitations of T. S. Eliot and Paul Verlaine. He also began to drink heavily, and continued to do so for the rest of his life.
Campbell left Oxford for London in 1920. Holidays spent in wandering through France and along the Mediterranean coast alternated with periods in Bohemian London. In 1922 he married without parental consent and forfeited, for a time, the generous parental allowance.[7] His wife was Mary Margaret Garman, eldest of the Garman sisters. They had two daughters, Teresa (Tess) and Anna.
Poet and satirist
While living in a small converted stable on the coast of North Wales, Campbell completed his first long poem, The Flaming Terrapin, a humanistic allegory of the rejuvenation of man projected in episodes. It was published in 1924.
Returning to South Africa in 1925, he started Voorslag, a literary magazine with the ambition to serve as a "whiplash" (the meaning of the Afrikaans word voorslag) on South African colonial society, which he considered backwards and inbred. Before the magazine was launched, he invited William Plomer to help with it, and late in the year, Laurens van der Post was invited to become Afrikaans editor of Voorslag. Campbell lasted as the magazine's editor for three issues but then resigned because of interference from the magazine's proprietor, Lewis Reynolds; Reynolds reacted against Campbell's negative comments about colonial South Africa and informed him that he would remove some of his editorial control over the content of Voorslag.[9] Campbell moved back to England in 1927. While still in South Africa, he had written The Wayzgoose, a lampoon, in rhyming couplets, on the racism and other cultural shortcomings of South Africa. It was published in 1928.[7][10]
The Flaming Terrapin had established his reputation as a rising star and was favourably compared to Eliot's recently released poem The Waste Land. His verse was well received by Eliot himself, Dylan Thomas, Edith Sitwell, and others.
Now moving in literary circles, he was initially on friendly terms with the Bloomsbury Group but then became very hostile to them; he declared that they were sexually promiscuous, snobbish, and anti-Christian.
According to Roger Scruton,
"Learning that his wife had been conducting a passionate affair with Vita (to the enraged jealousy of Vita’s other lover, Virginia Woolf), Campbell began to see the three aspects of the new elite—sexual inversion, anti-patriotism, and progressive politics—as aspects of a single frame of mind. These three qualities amounted, for Campbell, to a refusal to grow up. The new elite, in Campbell’s opinion, lived as bloodless parasites on their social inferiors and moral betters; they jettisoned real responsibilities in favor of utopian fantasies and flattered themselves that their precious sensibilities were signs of moral refinement, rather than the marks of a fastidious narcissism. The role of the poet is not to join their Peter Pan games but to look beneath such frolics for the source of spiritual renewal."
Referring to the Bloomsbury Group "intellectuals without intellect," Campbell penned a verse satire of them entitled The Georgiad (published in 1931). According to The Georgiad:
Dinner, most ancient of the Georgian rites,
The noisy prelude of loquacious nights,
At the mere noise of whose unholy gong
The wagging tongue feels resolute and strong,
Senate of bores and parliament of fools,
Where gossip in her native empire rules;
What doleful memories the word suggests -'
When I have sat like Job among the guests,
Sandwiched between two bores, a hapless prey,
Chained to my chair, and cannot get away,
Longing, without the appetite to eat,
To fill my ears, more than my mouth, with meat,
And stuff my eardrums full of fish and bread
Against the din to wad my dizzy head:
When I have watched each mouthful that they poke
Between their jaws, and praying they might choke,
Found the descending lump but cleared the way
For further anecdotes and more to say.
O Dinners! take my curse upon you all,
But literary dinners most of all...
According to Joseph Pearce,
As with so much of Campbell's satire, The Georgiad's invective is too vindictive. It is all too often spoiled by spite. This underlying weakness has obscured the more serious points its author sought to make. Embedded between the attacks on Bertrand Russell, Marie Stopes, Vita Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf and a host of other Bloomsbury's and Georgians are classically refined objections to the prevailing philosophy of scepticism, mounted like pearls of wisdom in the basest of metal. "Nor knew the Greeks, save in the laughing page, The philosophic emblem of our age."... The "damp philosophy" of the modern world, as espoused by the archetypical modern poet, was responsible for the prevailing pessimism and disillusionment of the post-war world. In preaching such a philosophy, which was "the fountain source of all his woes", the poet's "damp philosophy" left him "damp in spirit". Nihilism was self-negating. It was the philosophy of the self-inflicted wound. In the rejection of post-war pessimism and its nihilistic ramifications... Campbell was uniting himself with others, such as T.S. Eliot and Evelyn Waugh, who were similarly seeking glimmers of philosophical light amidst the prevailing gloom. In his case, as in theirs, the philosophical search would lead him to orthodox Christianity.[13]
The Campbells moved to Provence in the early 1930s.
The French period saw the publication of, among other writings, Adamastor (1930), Poems (1930), The Georgiad (1931), and the first version of his autobiography, Broken Record (1934). In 1932, the Campbells retained the Afrikaner poet Uys Krige as tutor to Tess and Anna.[14] During this time he and his wife Mary were slowly being drawn to the Roman Catholic faith, a process which can be traced in a sonnet sequence entitled Mithraic Emblems (1936).
A fictionalized version of Campbell at this time ("Rob McPhail") appears in the novel Snooty Baronet by Wyndham Lewis (1932). Campbell's poetry had been published in Lewis' periodical BLAST; he was reportedly happy to appear in the novel but disappointed that his character was killed off (McPhail was gored while fighting a bull).
Move to Spain
In the autumn of 1933, Tess's goat broke through a neighbour's fence and in the course of a night destroyed a number of young peach trees. The neighbour demanded compensation, which Campbell felt unable to pay. The neighbour then successfully sued for a considerable sum. Campbell still saw no way to pay the indemnity and faced the prospect of imprisonment. He and his wife escaped the authorities by surreptitiously escaping across the border into Spain. They travelled by train to Barcelona, where they were joined a few days later by their children, Uys Krige, the children's French governess, the dog Sarah, and whatever luggage they could carry between them.[15]
The family settled in Toledo. They were formally received into the Catholic Church in the small Spanish village of Altea in 1935. The English author Laurie Lee recounts meeting Campbell in the Toledo chapter of As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, the second volume of his autobiographical trilogy.
According to Joseph Pearce,
"In March 1936 the anti-clerical contagion spreading across Spain reached the streets of Toledo, the ancient city in which the Campbells had made their home. Churches were burned in a series of violent riots in which priests and nuns were attacked. During these bloody disturbances, Roy and Mary Campbell sheltered in their house several of the Carmelite monks from the neighboring monastery. In the following weeks, the situation worsened. Portraits of Marx and Lenin were posted on every street corner, and horrific tales began to filter in from surrounding villages of priests being shot and wealthy men being butchered in front of their families. Toledo's beleaguered Christians braced themselves for the next wave of persecution, and the Campbells, in an atmosphere that must have seemed eerily reminiscent of early Christians in the Catacombs of Rome, were confirmed in a secret ceremony, before dawn, by Cardinal Goma, the elderly Archbishop of Toledo and Primate of Spain. In July 1936, the civil war erupted onto the streets of Toledo, heralded by the arrival in the city of Communist militiamen from Madrid. With no one to defend them, the priests, monks, and nuns fell prey to the hatred of their adversaries. The seventeen monks from the Carmelite monastery were rounded up, herded on to the street and shot. Campbell discovered their murdered bodies, left lying where they fell. He also discovered the bodies of other priests lying in the narrow street where the priests had been murdered. Swarms of flies surrounded their bodies, and scrawled in their blood on the wall was written, 'Thus strikes the CHEKA.'"[16]
Campbell later immortalized the incident in his poem The Carmelites of Toledo.[17]
On 9 August 1936, the Campbells boarded the HMS Maine, which was engaged in evacuating British subjects to Marseilles.[18] Within weeks, they were back in England. After the atrocities he had witnessed, Campbell was deeply offended by the generally pro-Republican sympathies in Britain, and on 29 January 1937, the family set sail to Lisbon on a German vessel, the Niasa.[19]
Support for Franco
In June, Campbell left Portugal for Spain, going to Salamanca and then to Toledo. He served as a war correspondent alongside Franco's armies, travelling on a journalist's pass issued by Alfonso Merry del Val, the head of the Nationalist Press Service. Leaving Toledo on 30 June 1937, Campbell was driven to Talavera where he suffered a serious fall, twisting his left hip. The following day, the special car travelled southwards from the front, ending its lightning tour in Seville. This visit appears to have been Campbell's only frontline experience of the war. However, that would not keep him from later suggesting that he had seen far more action than he had.[20] He did not fight for the Nationalists during the Spanish conflict, despite later claims.[21]
For a British intellectual to oppose the Spanish Republic was virtually unheard of, as was Campbell's glorification of military strength and masculine virtues. His reputation suffered considerably as a result. According to Pearce,
"Having witnessed the cold-blooded murder of his friends and acquaintances, it was not likely that Campbell was going to support the cause of the perpetrators. Bearing these horrific facts in mind, it is clearly a gross oversimplification to dismiss Campbell's stance in the Spanish Civil War as evidence that he was a Fascist. Such an obvious mitigating circumstance was, however, almost universally overlooked by Campbell's detractors in England, all of whom appended the 'Fascist' label to his person, employing it, and the accompanying stereotypical effluvia with which such an epithet is associated, with the cynical glee of seasoned character assassins."[22]
Campbell had been a strong opponent of Marxism for some time, and fighting against it was also a strong motivation. In his poem, Flowering Rifle Campbell attacked the Republic, praised Franco, and accused Communists of committing far more heinous atrocities than any Fascist government. In a footnote attached to the poem, he declared,
"More people have been imprisoned for Liberty, humiliated and tortured for Equality, and slaughtered for Fraternity in this century, than for any less hypocritical motives, during the Middle Ages."[23]
Marxists the world over were enraged and the Scottish Communist Hugh MacDiarmid wrote a blistering response entitled The Battle Continues. The second stanza included the lines
Franco has made no more horrible shambles
Than this poem of Campbell's
The foulest outrage his breed has to show
Since the massacre of Glencoe![24]
In September 1938, the Campbell family went to Italy, where they stayed until the end of the Spanish Civil War. After the publication of Flowering Rifle in February 1939, they became popular in the higher echelons of Roman society. They returned to Spain in April, 1939. On 19 May, Roy and Mary Campbell travelled to Madrid for the Victory Parade of Franco's forces.[25]
The Second World War
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Campbell denounced Nazi Germany and returned to Britain. He did duty as an Air Raid Precautions warden in London. During this period he met and befriended Dylan Thomas, a fellow alcoholic, with whom he once ate a vase of daffodils in celebration of St. David's Day. Although he was over draft age and in bad physical shape, as well as having a bad hip, Campbell finally managed to get enlisted in the British Army. He was accepted by the Intelligence Corps because of his knowledge of languages and began training as a private with the Royal Welch Fusiliers on 1 April 1942.[26] Having completed basic training, Campbell was transferred in July to the I.C. Depot near Winchester, where he was trained in motorcycles.[27] In February 1943 he was promoted to sergeant, and in March he was posted to British East Africa. On 5 May, he arrived in Nairobi and was attached to the King's African Rifles, serving in a camp two miles outside the city. After having worked as a military censor he was transferred in June to the 12th Observation Unit of the commando force being trained for jungle warfare against the Japanese.[28] However, any hope of seeing real action in the Far East was thwarted when Campbell during training in late July suffered a new injury to his damaged hip in a fall from a motorcycle. He was sent back to hospital in Nairobi, where the doctors examined an X-ray of his hips and declared him unfit for active duty.
In the aftermath, Campbell was employed, between September 1943 and April 1944, as a coast-watcher, looking out for enemy submarines on the Kenyan coast north of Mombasa. During this period, he spent several sojourns in hospital due to attacks of malaria.[29] On 2 April 1944, he was discharged from the army as unfit owing to chronic osteoarthritis in his left hip.[7] The intention was to transport him home to England, but due to an administrative error, he was sent by sea to South Africa. Early in June he set sail north again through the Suez Canal on the hospital ship Oranje, arriving in Liverpool towards the end of the month. After convalescing in a hospital in Stockport, Campbell rejoined his wife; since their house had been bombed, they lived for a time in Oxford with the Catholic writers Bernard and Barbara Wall.[30]
On 5 October 1944, Campbell spent an evening with C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien at Magdalen College, Oxford. Lewis disliked, "Campbell's particular blend of Catholicism and Fascism"[31] and had attacked him in a poem titled "To the Author of Flowering Rifle." In the poem, Lewis had lampooned Campbell's "lack of charity" and called him a "loud fool" who had learnt the art of lying from his enemies on the left.[32] Lewis had further declared,
--Who cares
Which kind of shirt the murdering Party wears?[33]
During the evening, Lewis, feeling belligerent after consuming several glasses of port, insisted upon reading the poem aloud, while Campbell laughed off the provocation.
Tolkien, who was then hard at work writing The Lord of the Rings, was charmed by Campbell. In a letter to his son Christopher, Tolkien compared Campbell to Trotter, a torture-crippled hobbit character who appeared in an early draft of The Lord of the Rings, to become the character of Aragorn in the final versions. Tolkien further commented,
Here is a scion of an Ulster prot. family resident in S. Africa, most of whom fought in both wars, who became a Catholic after sheltering the Carmelite fathers in Barcelona — in vain, they were caught & butchered, and R.C. nearly lost his life. But he got the Carmelite archives from the burning library and took them through the Red country. [...] However it is not possible to convey an impression of such a rare character, both a soldier and a poet, and a Christian convert. How unlike the Left - the 'corduroy panzers' who fled to America [...][34]
According to Tolkien, Lewis' hostility to Campbell was grounded in residual Anti-Catholicism from his upbringing in Northern Ireland.
But hatred of our church is after all the real only final foundation of the C[hurch] of E[ngland] — so deep laid that it remains even when all the superstructure seems removed (C.S.L. for instance reveres the Blessed Sacrament, and admires nuns!). Yet if a Lutheran is put in jail he is up in arms; but if Catholic priests are slaughtered — he disbelieves it (and I daresay really thinks they asked for it).[34]
In the aftermath, Campbell joined Tolkien and Lewis at several meetings of the Inklings at The Eagle and Child.
Post-war life and works
For many years, Campbell worked at the BBC and remained a fixture. During a poetry recitation by the communist Stephen Spender, Campbell stormed the stage and punched him. However, Spender refused to press charges, saying, "He is a great poet… We must try to understand."[35] Spender later broke with the Communist Party of Great Britain and presented Campbell with the 1952 Foyle Prize for his verse translations of St. John of the Cross.[36]
In 1952, the Campbells moved to Portugal. Although Estado Novo was not Fascist, emigrating to it after the War further contributed to Campbell's bad reputation among the British intelligentsia. Ironically, the regime of António de Oliveira Salazar was by then far more to Campbell's tastes than Franco's Spain, which was compromised in his mind by an intimate collaboration with Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. In Portugal, he wrote a new version of his autobiography, Light on a Dark Horse. In 1953 he embarked on a lecture tour of Canada and the United States. Organized by the Canadian poet and editor John Sutherland, the tour was largely a success, though not without attacks on Campbell's "Fascistic opinions."[37] During the 1950s, Campbell was also a contributor to The European, a magazine published in France and edited by Diana Mosley. The European could also boast contributions from Ezra Pound and Henry Williamson.[38]
Campbell's conversion to Catholicism inspired him to write what some consider to be the finest spiritual verse of his generation. Campbell's translations of the Catholic mystical poetry by St. John of the Cross were lavishly praised by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, who considered them, in some ways, superior to the original Spanish.[39] Campbell also wrote travel guides and children's literature. He began translating poetry from languages such as Spanish, Portuguese, and French. Among the poets he translated were Francisco de Quevedo, Fernando Pessoa, Manuel Bandeira and Ruben Dario. Some of Campbell's translations of the symbolist verse of Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud have appeared in modern anthologies.
Intriguingly, Campbell also produced sensitive translations into English of Federico García Lorca, an acclaimed poet who was murdered at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War by anti-communist death squads.[40][41] In verse commemorating Lorca's death, Campbell wrote,
Not only did he lose his life
By shots assassinated:
But with a hammer and a knife
Was after that -- translated.[42]
Roy Campbell died in a car accident near Setúbal, Portugal, on Easter Monday, 1957 when a car driven by his wife hit a tree. At the time of his death, he was working upon translations of 16th and 17th century Spanish plays. Although only the rough drafts were completed, Campbell's work was posthumously edited for publication by Eric Bentley: see Bentley's edition of Life Is a Dream and Other Spanish Classics (1959).
Literary style
Much of Campbell's verse was satirical in heroic couplets, a form otherwise rare in 20th-century English verse. Rhymed verse was generally his favoured medium. One modern assessment of his poetry is that "he was vigorous in all he wrote, but not distinctly original."

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