- 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.
The other side of Campbell’s defensive aggression, the negative side of his energy, was his paranoia. He saw enemies and detractors everywhere: he hated and denounced at various times virtually all other living poets, Communists (he usually called them ‘Bolshies’), Englishmen, Jews, vegetarians, Italians, homosexuals, pacifists and the unemployed. He quarrelled with everyone who came close enough to be insulted, and one can’t help feeling that he often chose as his antagonists those who might, if he had not offended them, have done him some good: the Bloomsbury set at the end of the Twenties, liberals in the Thirties, Auden and Spender at the end of that decade. In these two qualities – his celebration of energy and his paranoia – Campbell resembled two other, more important contemporaries, D.H. Lawrence and Wyndham Lewis. And like them at their least controlled, he demonstrated in his life and work two basic points: that energy alone, taken as a human value, leads to something very like fascism; and that paranoia is fatal to even the most gifted artist (nothing is so boring as another man’s obsessions).
Campbell’s adult life was one long series of exiles, as his quarrelsome nature drove him from one failed refuge to another. Or you might put the point somewhat differently, and say that his need to be isolated caused him to reject any place that seemed likely to offer him a home. No sooner had The Flaming Terrapin appeared in 1924 than he moved back to Natal – reasonably enough, you might say, since back in Durban one book was enough to make a young poet something of a celebrity. For a time he edited Voorslag, a literary journal, with his friend William Plomer: but before long he had quarrelled with his backers and his family, and he and his wife returned to England. There they met Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, and there, while Campbell worked to support his family by writing journalism, Vita seduced his wife. For an insecure young man who had made himself a poet of fierce manliness and sexual energy, his wife’s lesbian affair was a cruel blow. Campbell responded, as he was always to respond to the presence of a perceived enemy, with a violent satire, The Georgiad. The central object of his attack was the ambiguous sexual life of Bloomsbury, and of Vita in particular, but his shotgun method reached many others, including Robert Graves and Laura Riding, J.C. Squire, and London literary politics in general. Some of the lines are funny, even witty, but more often the abuse is heavy, repetitious and sprawling: when Campbell was hating, he didn’t know when to stop. Still, the poem is as much a part of the Bloomsbury story as many of the minor items now appearing, and I’m surprised that some industrious scholar has not produced an edition of it, with copious explanatory footnotes.
Fluent, abusive, uncontrolled satiric rages were one side of Campbell’s poetic nature – the paranoid side. His satires are a demonstration of the violence and energy that he loved, and which he directed at everything he hated. They are important to an understanding of the man, but their undisciplined violence diminishes the poet. One might put the point into a Campbellish quatrain:
You praise the energy with which he writes –
I think such praise is idle:
He’s got the bloody horse all right,
But where’s the bloody bridle?
The other, and more valuable, side was an equally fluent traditional lyricism that flowered side by side with the satires. Adamastor, published a year before The Georgiad and written at about the same time, contains some of the best of Campbell’s poems, and defines the nature and range of his talent in this vein. The poems are regular, delicately wrought lyrics on traditional, timeless themes: a woman sleeping, or nursing a child; the moon rising; autumn. The finest are exact observations which slide unobtrusively into metaphor – ‘The Zulu Girl’, ‘The Zebras’ (both South African subjects, and so perhaps detached from stock responses); the weakest are poems which make patterns of poetical words and romantic postures – merely literary lyrics.
These poems were written during the Twenties, but they contain no sign that Campbell was aware of the literary revolution which was then in progress – nor do any of his later lyrics. It seems impossible that he should have been content, in such a poetic climate, to repeat the metres and poetic clichés of the 19th century, and of the Georgian poets whom he so disdained: but it was nevertheless the case. It would be wrong, of course, to suggest that there is something inherently bad about modern poems that reflect nothing of either modern life or the elements of modern art – old traditions don’t go rotten when new ones are born – but such poems at least indicate an imaginative limitation. In Campbell’s case, they indicate something else: that his rejection of the society he lived in (or rather outside of) extended to the poetic methods by which that society expressed itself. For Campbell Modernism was not a method or a vision, but a disease.
After the Georgiad affair, the Campbells left England, and lived for a time in Provence, and then in Spain, where they were both received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1935. A year later, Campbell published Mithraic Emblems, the first of his poems to express his new-found religious sense. The poems are denser, and more elaborately mythological, than his previous work, and they might perhaps have won him some Modernist admirers (his Mithraism might be read as the characteristic Modernist poet’s search for a symbolic system). But the volume contained other poems that were the beginning of Campbell’s greatest alienation from English readers. For 1936 was the year in which the Spanish War began, and Campbell saw some of it at first hand in Toledo – and saw it from his new Catholic point of view. He wrote a handful of poems about it, and thrust them into his new book, under the general heading ‘Toledo, 1936’. These poems are full of religious images, and show that Campbell saw the war as a religious crusade, but they are not really political, or very polemical. Still, they made it clear that Campbell was pro-Franco, and in 1936 that was enough.
Three years later, as though to make absolutely sure that no one would be left unoffended, Campbell published Flowering Rifle: A Poem from the Battlefield of Spain, with an author’s note which ends: ‘VIVA FRANCO! ARRIBA ESPANA!’ The poem is a mixture of praise – for violence and the cleansing power of bombs – and abuse – of British intellectuals, pederasts, Jews, Communists, democrats, Freud, Marx. It’s difficult to imagine a book better designed to finish off a sinking reputation, and drive away any remaining readers. Flowering Rifle has neither poetic merit nor moral decency nor even polemical coherence: it is, in every way, a bad book. And it is a fascist book. Peter Alexander, in his biography, dismisses the charge that Campbell was a fascist as a ‘slur’: he was, says Alexander, merely a political simpleton. That’s true, certainly: but then, fascism is a simpleton’s politics, and Campbell took to it wholeheartedly.
Having identified himself to the world as a Spanish fascist, Campbell immediately, and with characteristic perversity, declared his essential Britishness and joined the British Army. He served with the King’s African Rifles during the 1939-45 war, but saw no action, and was invalided out, suffering from malaria and sciatica (a reminder, if anyone needs one, that wars are for the young). But though the war was bad for Campbell’s health, it was good for his poetry: it made it possible for him to replace the persona of Falangist apologist with a more acceptable one – the hard-bitten, plain-speaking ranker. Talking Bronco, his book of poems from the war years, is on the whole an agreeable volume, much of it more like light verse than anything he had written before – good light verse, and sometimes a bit more than that. But in the title poem the satiric Campbell reappears, in an old poet-soldier’s assault on the poet-civilians – on MacNeice, Spender, Auden and Day Lewis, compressed into one target as ‘MacSpaunday’. The poem is unrepentantly pro-Franco and anti-semitic; it is as coarse and abusive as any of his previous satires, and as tedious. If it makes one point, it is that Campbell remained incorrigible: whatever happened, he would offend. After the war Campbell moved once more to London, where for a time he worked for the BBC. He was still under fifty, but his life as a poet was over, though he continued to work on, and eventually published, his translations of St John of the Cross, which many consider his most important work. In 1952 he moved again, this time to Portugal, and there, in 1957, he died in an automobile accident, in a car driven by his wife.
Campbell has been called a Romantic (though he himself disliked the term), and certainly his conception of the poet belongs to the 19th century, and especially to Byron (perhaps Byronism, like Imperialism, dies last in colonial minds). He imagined himself a proud, defiant soul, disdainful of the mob, and doomed by his virtues and his poetic gift to a lonely isolation. His poems about poetry (‘The Making of a Poet’, for instance) offer images of the poet as solitary, suffering and scornful. But in fact he was simply one of those men who cannot feel at ease in society, and find their comforts in a lonely superiority (with Byron and Nietzsche for companions). For the poet, the lesson is a simple one: Solitude and Scorn are meagre Muses.
Peter Alexander’s biography of this odd, irritating man is a respectful and respectable piece of work. Alexander works from the necessary assumption that if the life is worth telling, it is because Campbell was a poet of some merit: he calls his book a ‘critical biography’, and he moves back and forth between life and works, using each to comment on the other. With a relatively unread writer like Campbell this seems the best method, though it creates some problems: it tends, for example, to make the works into a cryptographic version of the life, and to ignore the obvious literary truth that what makes poems worth reading is not their biographical content, but precisely what is not individual in them. A particular virtue of the book is that it corrects and deflates the stories which Campbell circulated as biographical truths: that in his youth he had been a keen hunter and horseman in Natal (he was no good at either); that he was a successful bullfighter (he tried, but was tossed, and the bull stepped on his foot); that he had fought for Franco; that he had fought in the Second World War. Alexander generously tolerates these self-improvements by describing Campbell as a ‘great myth-maker’. But he wasn’t that. His yarns don’t add up to a myth: he was simply a great liar. It’s all part of the Byronic role: but let’s not make even a poet’s lies virtuous by calling them myths.
Alexander’s selection of Campbell’s poems is, as one might expect, a companion to the life; the poems that are discussed in the critical passages of the biography also appear in the Selected Poems. It is a careful and intelligent selection, a mixture of the best and the most representative, which is no doubt what a Selected Poems should be. But the volume does raise again the question with which I began this piece: is Campbell worth reviving? As far as the satires go, the neglect is surely inevitable: they can have only a historical interest now, and not much of that in some cases: who could find a satiric attack on South African journalists of the Twenties interesting? Perhaps the hatred and the anger were necessary fuel for Campbell’s imagination: but the poems that matter are not the ones which express those feelings. What Campbell could do, sometimes, was, as I have said, to write traditional lyrics: poems which add nothing to the possibilities of poetry – but add themselves to the sum of good poems.
There are not many such poems in Campbell’s many volumes, not enough to fill even a thin book of selected poems: but there are some, enough, perhaps, to win Campbell a place among the minor lyrists (ironically, with the best of the Georgians, somewhere near Davies and de la Mare and Blunden). Perhaps in the end the best assessment of his permanent status is the phrase that a friend of mine once used to describe a colleague’s modest critical book. ‘It’s not nothing,’ he said after a long judicial silence: ‘It’s not much, but it’s not nothing.’