- Roy Campbell: A Critical Biography by Peter Alexander
Oxford, 277 pp, £12.50, March 1981, ISBN 0 19 211750 5
- The Selected Poems of Roy Campbell edited by Peter Alexander
Oxford, 131 pp, £7.50, July 1982, ISBN 0 19 211946 X
Roy Campbell has been dead for twenty-five years, and in that time his reputation, such as it was, has faded almost entirely away (I can quote only one of his poems from memory – the epigram on South African novelists that ends ‘But where’s the bloody horse?’). Campbell is one now of that large, sad category, the Neglected Poets, along with many whom, in his day, he despised: Humbert Wolfe, for example, and Vita Sackville-West and Edward Shanks. Can it be that he belongs in such forgotten company? Is his a just neglect?
Reading the life, one must conclude that if he indeed had a genuine poetic gift, he had other qualities of mind and character that worked against that gift, and that his principal talent was for turning his disadvantages to even greater disadvantage, for alienating friends and making enemies, as though he could only function as a poet when the entire world was ranged against him. If his poetic gift had been great, this wilful offensiveness might not have mattered: there is no law in nature that says poets must be amiable. But it wasn’t great, and Campbell-the-offender drove Campbell-the-poet into a wilderness from which his reputation has never emerged.
The disadvantages with which he entered on the English literary scene in the Twenties were real enough. He was a rude, uneducated colonial; he was a man between generations, too young to be a war poet, and too old to belong to the Auden Gang that would follow; and he was uncertain of his own sexual identity (his first sexual experiences were evidently homosexual, though he married in 1922). So he began his poetic career as an insecure, defensive outsider, and maintained that role throughout his life. His response, in his verse, to this condition of isolation was an extreme aggressiveness: he celebrated energy and violence, and made non-rational natural force a supreme value. One can see this in Campbell’s first book, The Flaming Terrapin, in which he rewrote the story of Noah and the flood to make it a narrative of visionary suffering and restoration, with the terrapin as the symbol of the world’s vital energy. Campbell later called the poem a ‘symbolic vision of the salvation of civilisation’, and I suppose one might conceivably read it as related to the end of the Great War, but in fact there is no civilisation in the poem, or, for that matter, in the rest of Campbell’s work: his outsider’s vision did not encompass anything so collective and humane as civilised values. The poem is simply a quasi-myth in praise of energy; and its excited, often incoherent style is a sort of demonstration of that energy in action – language being energetic at whatever cost to the sense. Critics recognised the force of the language, without apparently understanding quite what it was all about: ‘I do not know of any new poet,’ AE wrote in a review, ‘who has such a savage splendour of epithet or who can marry the wild word so fittingly to the wild thought.’ Not everyone would take that as praise, perhaps: but evidently Campbell did. At least he went on, to the end of his life, writing savagely and thinking wildly.