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Roy Campbell (poet)

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Roy Campbell
Born Ignatius Royston Dunnachie Campbell
October 2, 1901
Durban, Colony of Natal, South Africa
Died April 22, 1957
Near Setúbal, Portugal
Occupation Poet, journalist, soldier
Nationality South African
Ethnicity White South African
Genres Poetry
Literary movement English romantic revival, satire[1]
Notable work(s) The Flaming Terrapin, Adamastor, Flowering Reeds
Notable award(s) Foyle Prize
Spouse(s) Mary Margaret Garman
Children Teresa, Anna

Roy Campbell (October 2, 1901 – April 22, 1957) was a South 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]. However, even during his lifetime, some critics denounced his poetry as bombastic, self-congratulatory and often clumsy and obvious in form.[3] He is seldom found in anthologies today. Some literary critics claim that his connections to right-wing ideology, his support for the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War, and his willingness to antagonize the influential literati of his day damaged his reputation.[4][5][6][7]

Early life

Ignatius Royston Dunnachie Campbell was born in Durban, Colony of Natal, the fourth child of Dr. Samuel George Campbell, who was the son of a Scots settler, and of his wife Margaret, daughter of James Dunnachie of Glenboig, Lanarkshire, who had married Jean Hendry of Eaglesham.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10] 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.[11] 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.[12] 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 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.[13] Campbell moved back to England in 1927. While still in South Africa, he had written The Wayzgoose, a lampoon, in rhyming couplets, on the cultural shortcomings of South Africa. It was published in 1928.[14]

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. His wife’s lesbian affair with Vita Sackville-West, the lover of Virginia Woolf, was a contributing cause to his changed attitude. Calling the Bloomsbury Group "intellectuals without intellect," he penned a satire entitled The Georgiad (published in 1931), which was an open attack on the Bloomsbury Group.[15] Like his friend Wyndham Lewis, he acquired some anti-Semitic and pro-Fascist sentiments. The Campbells moved to Provence in southern France 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). Both autobiographies are regarded as unreliable.[16] In 1932, the Campbells retained the young Afrikaner poet Uys Krige as tutor to Tess and Anna.[17] 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 and support for Franco

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 traveled 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.[18]

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. Campbell's reputation suffered considerably when he expressed Fascist sympathies, most notably in his 1934 autobiography Broken Record, and supported Francisco Franco's Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War. He did not fight for the Nationalists during the Spanish conflict, despite later claims.[19]

On August 9, 1936, the Campbells boarded the HMS Maine, which evacuated Britons from Spain to Marseilles.[20] In August, they were back in England. However, Campbell was angered by the generally pro-Republic attitudes in Britain, and on January 29, 1937, the family set sail to Lisbon on a German boat, the Niasa.[21] In June, Campbell left Portugal for Spain, going to Salamanca and then to Toledo. He began to write propaganda for Franco's Nationalists, travelling around on a journalist's pass issued by Merry del Val, the head of the Nationalist Press Service. Leaving Toledo on June 30, 1937, Campbell was driven to Talavera where had a serious fall, twisting his left hip painfully. The following day, the special car travelled southwards from the front, ending its lightning tour in Seville. This flying 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.[22]

For an author to support Franco during this period was unusual, as was Campbell's glorification of military strength and masculine virtues. He had also been a strong opponent of communism for some time, and fighting it may have been a strong motivation. The intellectuals and authors who supported the Republicans also tended to resemble the ones he had mocked in The Georgiad, but it is hard to gauge how relevant this was to the stance he took. It was probably affected by the violent anti-Catholicism of some groups on the Republican side and the atrocities they committed against priests and nuns. His political thought is claimed by some to have been more bluster than deeply-held belief. His first autobiography, Broken Record, has been called "a swashbuckling narrative of adventure and blatantly Fascist opinions."[23] The same source calls his long poem Flowering Rifle "a noisily pro-Fascist work which brought him much opprobium". His religious convictions, on the other hand, appear to have inspired what some consider his better poetry. The Scottish poet and communist Hugh MacDiarmid wrote a blistering Republican poem entitled The Battle Continues tearing into Campbell and The Flowering Rifle, the second stanza including 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 May 19, 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 due to his alcoholism, as well as having a bad hip, Campbell finally managed to get enlisted in the British Army: he was accepted by the Army Intelligence Corps because of his knowledge of languages and began training as a private with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers on April 1, 1942.[26] Having completed his basic training, he was transferred in July to the Intelligence Corps Depot near Winchester, where he was trained on motorcycles.[27] In February 1943 he was promoted to sergeant, and in March he was posted to East Africa. On May 5, he arrived in Nairobi in Kenya and was attached to the King's African Rifles, serving in a camp two miles outside Nairobi. 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 service. He was then, between September 1943 and April 1944, employed 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 April 2, 1944, he was discharged from the army as unfit owing to chronic osteoarthritis in his left hip.[30] 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.[31]

On October 5, 1944, Campbell spent an evening with C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien at Magdalen College, Oxford. Lewis loathed "Campbell's particular blend of Catholicism and Fascism"[32] and had criticized him in a poem simply entitled "To the Author of Flowering Rifle", published in The Cherwell magazine, where he condemned Campbell's "lack of charity" and called him a "loud fool" who had learnt the art of lying from his enemies on the left[33]. During the evening, he made no secret of his opinion while Tolkien was very charmed by "this powerful poet and soldier", as is evident from the letter he wrote to his son Christopher the following day. In the letter, Tolkien describes Campbell as:

A window on a wild world, yet the man is in himself gentle, modest, and compassionate. Mostly it interested me to learn that this old-looking war-scarred Trotter [an early draft name for Aragorn], limping from recent wounds, is 9 years younger than I am, and we prob[ably] met when he was a lad [...] . What he has done since beggars description. Here is a scion of an Ulster prot[estant] family resident in S[outh] 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 [...]

According to the admiring Tolkien, Campbell also bragged about beating up the sculptor Jacob Epstein (the future husband of his sister-in-law).[34]

Post-war life and works

For many years, Campbell worked at the BBC and remained a fixture, however derided for his political views, in the arts scene. During a poetry recital by the outspoken Marxist 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 presented Campbell with the 1952 Foyle Prize for his translation of the poetry of St. John of the Cross.[36]

In 1952 he moved to Portugal. Although Estado Novo was not precisely fascist, it was still a right-wing dictatorship, and emigrating to it after the War may have further contributed to his bad reputation among most intellectuals. It is possible that the regime of António de Oliveira Salazar was by then more to his taste than Franco's rule, which was compromised by its intimate relations with Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, as well as by the atrocities during and after the Civil War. 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 controversy stemming from Campbell's "fascistic opinions," as the lecture committee at one Canadian university put it. [37] During the 1950s, Campbell was also a contributor to The European, a magazine published in France and edited by its owner Diana Mosley, an unrepentant Fascist and wife of Sir Oswald Mosley, the former leader of the British Union of Fascists. It 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. He translated the mystical poems of St. John of the Cross and documented his conversion in verse in Mithraic Emblems. He also wrote travel guides and children's literature. He began translating poetry from languages such as Spanish and French. Some of his translations of Baudelaire have been published in anthologies. Campbell, by now a self-styled "dark horse," produced sensitive translations into English of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, who was murdered at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War by Nationalist partisans[39].

Roy Campbell died in a car accident near Setúbal, Portugal, on Easter Monday, 1957.

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."[40]

Campbell's poetical diction can be exemplified by the following quote from 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 may 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...

This is Campbell celebrating fertility and sexuality, in Anadyomene (1924):

Maternal Earth stirs redly from beneath
Her blue sea-blanket and her quilt of sky,
A giant Anadyomene from the sheath
And chrysalis of darkness; till we spy
Her vast barbaric haunches, furred with trees,
Stretched on the continents, and see her hair
Combed in a surf of fire along the breeze
To curl about the dim sierras, where
Faint snow-peaks catch the sun's far-swivelled beams:
And, tinder to his rays, the mountain-streams
Kindle, and volleying with a thunderstroke
Out of their roaring gullies, burst in smoke
To shred themselves as fine as women's hair,
And hoop gay rainbows on the sunlit air.

On the subject of nature, Campbell could produce poetry such as this in his The Zebras (1931):

From the dark woods that breathe of fallen showers,
Harnessed with level rays in golden reins,
The zebras draw the dawn across the plains
Wading knee-deep among the scarlet flowers.
The sunlight, zithering their flanks with fire,
Flashes between the shadows as they pass
Barred with electric tremors through the grass
Like wind along the gold strings of a lyre.
Into the flushed air snorting rosy plumes
That smoulder round their feet in drifting fumes,
With dove-like voices call the distant fillies,
While round the herds the stallion wheels his flight,
Engine of beauty volted with delight,
To roll his mare among the trampled lilies.

Selected works

  • The Flaming Terrapin. (1924).
  • Voorslag. (1926-1927). A monthly magazine edited by Roy Campbell, et al.
  • The Wayzgoose: A South African Satire. (1928).
  • Adamastor. (1930).
  • Poems. (1930).
  • The Gum Trees. (1931).
  • The Georgiad - A Satirical Fantasy in Verse. (1931).
  • Taurine Provence. (1932).
  • Pomegranates. (1932).
  • Burns. (1932).
  • Flowering Reeds. (1933).
  • Broken Record. (1934).
  • Mithraic Emblems. (1936).
  • Flowering Rifle: A Poem from the Battlefield of Spain. (1936).
  • Sons of the mistral. (1938).
  • Talking Bronco. (1946).
  • Poems of Baudelaire: A Translation of Les Fleurs du Mal. (1946).
  • Light on a Dark Horse: An Autobiography. (1952).
  • Lorca. (1952).
  • The Mamba's Precipice. (1953) (Children's story).
  • Nativity. (1954).
  • Portugal. (1957).
  • Wyndham Lewis. (1985).


  1. Perkins, David (1976). A History of Modern Poetry. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. p. 184-186. ISBN 0674399463. 
  2. "Roy Campbell: Bombast and Fire" - Catholic Author’s article
  4. Joseph Pearce, "Introduction," in Roy Campbell: Selected Poems (London: Saint Austin Press, 2001), xxv
  5. Thomas McDowell, "Who was Roy Campbell?" National Review [1]
  6. "Roy Campbell: Bombast and Fire" - Catholic Author’s article
  7. "A Dark Horse" American Spectator
  8. The Dictionary of National Biography
  9. Joseph Pearce: Unafraid of Virginia Woolf (ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware: 2004), pp. 26, 33-34
  10. The Dictionary of National Biography
  11. The Dictionary of National Biography
  12. The Dictionary of National Biography
  13. Joseph Pearce, Unafraid of Virginia Woolf (ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware: 2004), pp. 81-85
  14. The Dictionary of National Biography
  15. See, for example, Joseph Pearce, Unafraid of Virginia Woolf: The Friends and Enemies of Roy Campbell, chapter 25.
  16. The Dictionary of National Biography
  17. Joseph Pearce: Unafraid of Virginia Woolf (ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware: 2004), p. 195
  18. Joseph Pearce: Unafraid of Virginia Woolf (ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware: 2004), pp. 199-200
  19. Christopher Othen, Franco's International Brigades: Foreign Volunteers and Fascist Dictators in the Spanish Civil War, (Destino, 2007) p. 107
  20. Joseph Pearce: Unafraid of Virginia Woolf (ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware: 2004), p. 247
  21. Joseph Pearce: Unafraid of Virginia Woolf (ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware: 2004), p. 267
  22. Joseph Pearce: Unafraid of Virginia Woolf (ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware: 2004), pp. 269-272
  23. The Oxford Companion to English Literature
  24. MacDiarmid, Hugh, 'The Battle Continues' (1957) in MacDiarmid, Complete Poems 1920-1976, Volume II London: Martin Brien & O'Keeffe, 1978), p. 905
  25. Joseph Pearce: Unafraid of Virginia Woolf (ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware: 2004), pp. 281-294
  26. Joseph Pearce: Unafraid of Virginia Woolf (ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware: 2004), pp. 318, 321
  27. Joseph Pearce: Unafraid of Virginia Woolf (ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware: 2004), p. 323
  28. Joseph Pearce: Unafraid of Virginia Woolf (ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware: 2004), p. 329
  29. Joseph Pearce: Unafraid of Virginia Woolf (ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware: 2004), p. 330
  30. The Dictionary of National Biography
  31. Joseph Pearce: Unafraid of Virginia Woolf (ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware: 2004), p. 335
  32. Humphrey Carpenter: The Inklings. C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and their friends, Unwin Paperbacks (1981), p. 192.
  33. C. S. Lewis: "To the Author of Flowering Rifle", The Cherwell, May 6, 1939
  34. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, no. 83, to Christopher Tolkien, 6 October 1944
  35. Peter Alexander, Roy Campbell: A Critical Biography, 214; Joseph Pearce, Unafraid of Virginia Woolf: The Friends and Enemies of Roy Campbell, 377; Parsons, D. S. J. Roy Campbell: A Descriptive and Annotated Bibliography with Notes on Unpublished Sources, New York: Garland Pub, 1981, 155.
  36. Joseph Pearce: Unafraid of Virginia Woolf (ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware: 2004), p. 397.
  37. The Letters of John Sutherland, Bruce Whiteman, ed. (Toronto: ECW Press, 1992), p. 285.
  38. The Daily Telegraph, obituary of Lady Mosley, 13 Aug. 2003.
  39. The Oxford Companion to English Literature
  40. The Bloomsbury Guide to English Literature, Bloomsbury: 1989


Books about Roy Campbell

  • Alexander, Peter (1982). Roy Campbell. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0192117505. 
  • Connolly, Cressida (2004). The Rare and the Beautiful: The Art, Loves, and Lives of the Garman Sisters. New York: ECCO. ISBN 0066212472. 
  • Lyle, Anna (1986). Poetic Justice: A Memoir of My Father, Roy Campbell. Francestown: Typographeum. ISBN 0930126173. 
  • Meihuizen, Nicholas (2007). Ordering Empire: The Poetry of Camões, Pringle and Campbell. Oxford: Peter Lang. ISBN 9783039110230. 
  • Parsons, D. (1981). Roy Campbell: A Descriptive and Annotated Bibliography, With Notes on Unpublished Sources. New York: Garland Pub. ISBN 082409526X. 
  • Pearce, Joseph (2001). Bloomsbury and Beyond: The Friends and Enemies of Roy Campbell. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN 9780002740920. 
  • Pearce, Joseph (2004). Unafraid of Virginia Woolf: The Friends and Enemies of Roy Campbell. Wilmington: ISI Books. ISBN 1932236368. 
  • Povey, John (1977). Roy Campbell. Boston: Twayne Publishers. ISBN 0805762779. 
  • Smith, Rowland (1972). Lyric and Polemic: The Literary Personality of Roy Campbell. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press. ISBN 0773501215. 
  • Wright, David (1961). Roy Campbell. London: Longmans. 

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