POETS Day! Roy Campbell

[This entry is cross posted at ordinary-times.com]

Sometimes I feel bad for people who don’t speak English and are stuck calling their master lyricists words like poeta, digter, imbongi, or tusisolo that don’t form tidy acronyms encouraging their better hedonist angels. Thankfully we are blessed by the vision of William the TBA who noticed that Godwinson was busy in York dealing with family issues and figured even if Harold could get to Hastings in time, he’d have to force march his men with out any bathroom breaks. William won and French words marginalized German words. Instead of the dubious Diners In Cardiff Hate Tasting English Rarebit we get the dulcet Piss Off Early, Tomorrow’s Saturday, so Happy POETS Day! Disassemble, obfuscate, fudge the truth, and gleefully trespass the norms and delicate pieties that preserve our hopefully durable civilization. Nearly all means are justified by the urge to prematurely escape the bonds of employment and settle in at a friendly neighborhood joint a few hours before even happy hour begins, lay comfortably in the grass at a local park or cemetery, take a schvitz, or God forbid, go for a light jog. It’s your weekend. Do with it as you will, but in homage to the mighty Norman acronym may I suggest setting aside a moment for a little verse? It’s a particularly good way to pass time waiting on friends who may not run as roughshod over the delicate pieties and were not as successful as you were in engineering an early exit.


In October of 1944, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien spent an evening in discussion with Roy Campbell, this week’s featured poet. Lewis was put off by Campbell’s, according to Lewis, “particular blend of Catholicism and fascism.” Tolkien, who was writing The Lord of the Rings at the time, reportedly took Campbell as inspiration for a mysterious hobbit character named Trotter who he would over time rewrite as a man, rename Strider, and reveal as Aragorn. People didn’t react mildly to Campbell. Even when they were ostensibly friends and admirers of each other’s literary abilities and fellow members of The Inklings, Lewis wrote a mean poem at him.

As to Lewis’s point about him being a fascist, it gets muddy. He supported Franco – he went to the Madrid victory parade – but never considered himself a fascist. To be fair, neither did a lot of Franco’s supporters. When living in Toledo, he hid Carmalite monks in his home as the communists grew more anti-clerical and later found bodies of monks and priests strewn on the streets, murdered by the Republicans.

He was once offered a position with the British Union of Fascists. Per Campbell:

“I not only refused Mosley’s and [Percy Wyndham] Lewis’s offer of a very high position and lucrative position in the Fascist party but explained that I was returning to the ranks to fight Red Fascism, the worst and most virulent variety, and that when the time came I was ready to fight Brown or Black Fascism and that I could (though badly disabled) knock both of their brains out there and then! I explained that I was only fighting as a Christian for the right to pray in my own churches, all of which (save 3) had been destroyed in Red Spain…I then asked for my coat and hat: Lewis has never forgiven it.”

I don’t believe he was a fascist. He did admire Franco and may have fit in among or agreed with the Falangists, but that seems besides the point. I think he would have taken up alongside anyone to fight Communism even though, as he wrote in a letter to the organizers of a poetry reading, he felt that fascism “is merely another form of communism.” He wrote that letter to explain to the organizers why he went up on stage and punched Stephen Spender, who was planning on calling him a fascist before the audience. “He is a great poet; he is a great poet. We must try to understand,” Spender reportedly said. A great poet though he may have been, he managed to get himself hated by the anti-fascists for being a fascist and the fascists for being an anti-fascist.

Among the literary giants of his time, he was admired for his work and was briefly a member, insofar as there were official members, of the prestigious society of intellectuals known as The Bloomsbury Group. Unfortunately, during that time his wife, Mary, had an affair with Vita Sackville-West, who apparently wanted more than her girlfriend Virginia Woolf was able to provide. When he found out, Campbell went ballistic. He wrote a scathing poem about the “intellectuals without intellect” and called them out for cowardice, godlessness, and promiscuity. Per Roger Scrouton:

“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.”

Being an angry poet, Campbell wrote a poem against The Bloomsbury Group called “The Georgiad.” He burned bridges and urinated on the ashes.

He was and wasn’t a racist too. Because of course.

In a speech he delivered in his native South Africa, Campbell denounced the Afrikaner National Party for its white supremacist philosophy and singled out Prime Minister D.F. Malan for the “suicidal” effects of their policies. In the same speech, he mocked Churchill and Roosevelt while praising Franco. He decried the British Empire and said good things about his home country, which was enough for people who just heard him denounce the party of apartheid to decide he was pro-apartheid. In case there was anybody that might come to his defense and point out that he said bad stuff about his country’s racist practices and the architects who framed them, he wrote a letter the next day calling all those that agreed with him about apartheid but hadn’t yet voiced opposition to the Jim Crow laws in the American south hypocrites.

The pro-apartheid voices already hated the guy. Thirty-one years before his speech he was the editor of the literary magazine Voorslag. There he wrote about the superstition of racial superiority, the paracitism of South Africa’s white population, and how backwards his nation was when compared to Europe. It was a hit and the populace ate it up. Just kidding. They hated it. Pace Jack Cope who wrote that it was “one of the most significant moral and intellectual revolts in the country’s literary history,” he was pretty much a pariah even to family.

The anti-racists hated him for being a racist and the racists hated him for being an anti-racist.

Among those who shared his comfort in taking up unpopular causes Campbell maintained relationships if not friendships, but for all their weight and influence the likes of T.S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, and Russell Kirk were not enough. The man who once ate a vaseful of daffodils with Dylan Thomas has been tossed to the periphery. Many of his books are out of print, as are biographies. I doubt the racists or fascists have held much sway in publishing circles so it’s less likely that they, rather than the anti-racists and anti-fascists acted to keep his work out of compilations, companions, and such collections but it’s likely that both sets agreed with the result. He never stopped calling British writers who called for military action on the continent while sitting in the comforts of their study or running off to North America cowards. I’m willing to bet they and their inheritors had a hand in relegating his work.

Of all the poets I’ve read about in the course of writing this series I think Campbell would be the one I’d most like to have dinner with. I can’t imagine he’d be boring, and I’d love to get his sides of the story.

This week’s poem is “The Making of a Poet,” written on leaving South Africa after the Voorslag controversy. When reading, note that “Voorslag” means whiplash in Afrikaans. Other than that, it’s self-explanatory. Very direct, very pointed.

I’m on a hunt for a copy of the out-of-print biography Unafraid of Virginia Woolf. One of the sites I read mentioned as an aside that Campbell had an “unfortunate” experience on safari while trying to get photographed bullfighting a black rhino. There was no further explanation. I have to find that story and if it’s not in that that book, I’ll move on the next out-of-print title. Who leaves a reader hanging like that?

Enjoy the poem.

The Making of a Poet

Roy Campbell (1901 – 1957)

In every herd there is some restive steer
Who leaps the cows and heads each hot stampede,
Till the old bulls unite in jealous fear
To hunt him from pastures where they feed.

Lost in the night he hears the jungles crash
And desperately, lest his courage fail,
Across his hollow flanks with sounding lash
Scourges the heavy whipcord of his tail.

Far from the phalanxes of horns that ward
The sleeping herds he keeps the wolf at bay,
At nightfall by the slinking leopard spoored,
And goaded by the fly-swarm through the day.

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