In 1936 the terrorism began again, and once more Roy Campbell offered his home as sanctuary to Toledo’s Carmelites. They refused this time, warning it would be too dangerous for his family and they were right: by the end of the Spanish Civil War, more than 6,800 Catholic clergy (20% of the total nationwide) had been martyred by the Leftist, anti-Catholic, Republican forces during the so-called Red Terror, including nearly half of the 600 priests in Toledo alone.
But the Carmelite Fathers agreed to store their priceless library there and soon the trigger-happy, teenaged gunmen returned, hunting for clerics to kill, brandishing machineguns in front of the poet’s terrified wife and two young daughters. One fished through a crate of books and found a volume of nineteenth-century poetry: “Goethe is German and Germans are Fascists,” he exclaimed as his communist companions raised their weapons. Coolly, Campbell extracted another book.
“Dostoevsky was Russian and Russians are communists,” said the poet, so the unlettered terrorists put down their guns and departed. It was neither his first nor his last brush with ideology or death.
Roy Campbell (1901-1957) nearly defies description as a poet and man-of-action the likes of which remain otherwise unseen since Byron: by comparison his contemporary, Ernest Hemingway, was a rank day-tripper, a poseur.
Russell Kirk recalled his friend, whom he knew in London in the early 1950s, in Confessions of a Bohemian Tory. Campbell was:
“A faithful lover and a hot hater, a soldier, a sailor, a hunter, a bull-fighter, a horse-breeder, a critic, a translator, a champion of religion, a great brawny Carlyle-hero of a man, a South African and a Scot and a Latin rolled into one gigantic frame, a singer of sea-chanties, a master of pencil-sketching, a High Tory, a great drinker, a great talker, one of the fiercest and kindest beings alive…It is his power of loving and hating which gives his verse its invariable strength and its frequent splendour…shot and slashed and beaten and burned in two terrible wars and various private feuds, his vast barrel-torso is too grim a sight for him to like to appear on a public beach; a piece of plastic substitutes for a bone in one of his legs; his spine has been broken and his eardrums have been shattered; he has been knifed by gypsies in Spain, torpedoed and half drowned in the Hebrides, savaged by beasts in South Africa, clubbed by Communists in Toledo, tossed by bulls in Camargue…Needless to say, Campbell was also a true conservative: devout, anti-communist, anti-fascist, respectful of traditional moral and social values, distrustful of ‘progress.’”
Britain’s foremost, living, conservative philosopher, Roger Scruton, observed:
“To Evelyn Waugh, he was a “great beautiful simple sweet natured savage,” and to Laurie Lee “one of our last pre-technocratic big action poets who, like D’Annunzio and Byron, were not only the writers of exquisite lyrics but whose poetry was part of a physical engagement with life.” He was admired by T. S. Eliot, who published him, by the Sitwells, who idolized him, and by a whole range of writers and artists of a conservative or Catholic persuasion, from Father Martin D’Arcy and Wyndham Lewis to Charles Tomlinson and Augustus John.”
Tolkien based his character Aragorn partly on Campbell, coincidentally who also (after what must have been a mighty pub-crawl) helped the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas eat a pitcher of daffodils in honour of Saint David’s Day, for the patron saint of Wales.
Campbell bequeathed us a vast oeuvre of wide-ranging poetry, from the naturalistic to the erotic; from the political to the mystical; to satires and epigrams worthy of Dryden. But in many ways, he is at his most instructive as we watch him encounter modernity, then recoil against it and find meaning in the Catholic Church.
A Zulu-speaker from the age of two, Campbell left his native South Africa early, left Oxford prematurely, and in his early twenties published poems compared to Eliot’s “Wasteland.” Championed by England’s literati after the Great War, he began to dislike the decadence there long before his beautiful wife was seduced by the omnivorous Bloomsbury lesbian, Vita Sackville-West. War had gutted England of its aristocratic best-and-brightest, leaving behind a rich and spoilt remnant. As Dr. Scruton described:
“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.”
Campbell parodied them mercilessly in “The Georgiad,” a 1931, book-length, poetical satire of the literary elite where, “Hither flock all the crowds whom love has wrecked/Of intellectuals without intellect/And sexless folk whose sexes intersect…”
It was his second long venture into satire, following a late-1920s poem written on a working visit to South Africa where he mocked the racism and bigotry of the ruling Afrikaaners. Neither endeared him to the respective Establishments, to put it mildly.
At the same time the poet and his family found solace, first in the south of France, then in Barcelona and Toledo, and finally in Portugal where he wrote that he “could spend a thousand years watching the pigs eat acorns beneath the ancient oak trees.”
Initially, the attraction was a living tradition wrought close to the earth but gone missing in the modern world, and he first described it in the pagan metaphors of the solar-cult and sacrificial Roman Mithraism. He began to see how even those ancient traditions had been subsumed and transformed, purified and then preserved by the Catholic faith, and in 1935 his wife and he converted in Spain.
A year later, he was almost alone among English writers in his support for Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s right-wing coalition, Campbell siding with a Catholic and monarchist faction against the anti-clerical and communist-aligned Nationalist forces.
Later, when World War Two began, he volunteered although he was too old for conscription and barely passed his physical exam before being sent to East Africa. Meanwhile, his opponents on the so vocally anti-Fascist British literary Left either immigrated to North America or took safe assignments at home in England. When the then-Stalinist poet, Stephen Spender denounced him for fascism, Campbell (possibly after another pub-crawl) strode onto a stage and felled Spender with a single blow.
Although steadily employed broadcasting for the BBC until his death, Campbell retained few friends in England apart from Eliot, Lewis and Thomas, the Sitwells, Waugh and Lee, Tolkien and the young Russell Kirk, drawn chiefly from the conservative remnant. He produced translations of St. John of the Cross which are still highly-regarded, translations of Iberian plays now forgotten, and he died in a car crash outside of Lisbon in 1957.
He is virtually ignored in Britain today, apart from a few ageing conservatives. The numerous heirs of the Bloomsbury Group duly turn up their noses: anyone who so mocked their decadent socialist heroes, fought for Franco and became a devout Catholic is a triple heretic and beyond secularist redemption.
Yet for the real kind of modern conservative, Campbell was perhaps more of a man of our times than of his own. An early and unusually clear-sighted enemy of ideology, a foe of decadence and a fearless champion of tradition and faith, he has a bigger potential audience today than ever he had in the early and middle Twentieth Century. If you are looking for a hero, it may be Roy Campbell.
Ever an advocate of traditional rhyme and metre, Campbell gives us a sample below from 1931, as his faith began to build. Here he celebrates honest toil and transforms it into a sacrament:
Mass at Dawn
I dropped my sail and dried my dripping seines
Where the white quay is chequered by cool planes
In whose great branches, always out of sight,
The nightingales are singing day and night.
Though all was grey beneath the moon’s grey beam,
My boat in her new paint shone like a bride,
And silver in my baskets shone the bream:
My arms were tired and I was heavy-eyed,
But when with food and drink, at morning-light,
The children met me at the water-side,
Never was wine so red or bread so white.
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