In my last essay, “Walking with C. S. Lewis,” I praised the new annotated edition of Lewis’s Pilgrim’s Regress, while regretting that the generally excellent notes had failed to identify the mysterious “bearded poet” whom John, the pseudo-Lewis protagonist, meets in Zeitgeistheim, a place where Modernism melds fashion with fascism. This curious and exotic bearded man wears “nothing but a red shirt and a cod-piece made of the skins of crocodiles.” As John looks on in beguiled bemusement, the mysterious poet holds all his fellow poets spellbound, “staring at them all, out of eyes which were like burning coals” as he begins “to beat on an African tom-tom,” crooning with his voice and “swaying his lean, half-clad body to and fro.”
Who is this mysterious bearded man, the epitome of dark and brutal machismo in the midst of his androgynous modernist neighbours? Who is the real-life poet who inspired this ominous savage? As I promised at the conclusion of my last essay, I will reveal the identity of this “bearded poet” who travelled from darkest Africa to meet the young C. S. Lewis in Oxford.
In December 1918 a seventeen-year-old sailed from Durban harbor in his native South Africa on a tramp steamer, bound for Oxford. When the young man arrived in the early spring of 1919, Oxford was buzzing with returning servicemen, those who had survived what one such serviceman, J.R.R. Tolkien, had described as the “animal horror” of the trenches of World War One. The young man, who had aspirations of becoming a poet, attended the poet Edith Sitwell’s celebrated parties at which he met T S. Eliot, his hero. In 1920 the young man had his first poems published, including “The Theology of Bongwi, the Baboon,” a satirical attack on Christianity. In the months ahead he met other young aspiring writers, including Robert Graves, Edmund Blunden, Aldous Huxley and two future members of the Inklings, Hugo Dyson and C.S. Lewis.
Long before Lewis and his friends would meet at the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford for gatherings of the Inkling, the young South African poet, along with Aldous Huxley, had formed an informal literary group, which was called “The Jolly Farmers” after the pub in which the meetings were held. The group met every Thursday and, like the Inklings a decade or more later, members would read out their own verse. The young poet, who would later attend meetings of the Inklings, described this earlier literary group as “by far the most spontaneous literary gathering I ever knew.” By this time the young poet was drinking heavily and was living the life of hazy hedonism. His wild ways and African roots earned him the nickname of “Zulu” and inspired Percy Wyndham Lewis to invent the character of Zulu Blades for his novel The Apes of God:
Blades was the “black beast,” an evil neighbor: what with his upstart disrespect as well for his metropolitan betters, since he had brought the hearty habits of the African out-stations into their midst, here. His skill with women was natural, it was true he roped them in like steers, he must be working off ten years’ solitary confinement in the Veldt.
Even allowing for Wyndham Lewis’s liberal use of artistic licence, his description of Zulu Blades must have presented a fairly accurate, if impressionistic, picture of the way the poet whom everyone called Zulu was perceived by his refined Oxford contemporaries. One such contemporary was Nancy Cunard, a super-rich heiress who enjoyed the rough life of the Bohemian gutter and who was keen to meet “the Zulu,” whom everyone in Oxford seemed to be talking about, “a strange, young, new figure who had recently appeared”: “I puzzled over the term ‘zulu’: a swarthy South African perhaps?” She had “rather expected to see a South African Negro” when they met and was surprised and a little disappointed to see that “Zulu” was as white as she was, a “tall, adolescent, strong, loose limbed youth with dark hair and red cheeks … now and again his eyes would flash”.
As for Zulu’s erotically charged poetry, such as “The Zulu Girl” and “The Sisters,” it was described by the writer Lawrence Durrell as verse that “booms and roars and surges like the ocean breaking on the long empty beaches of his native Africa.” The poet’s booming, roaring and surging Muse caught fire shortly after he left Oxford in a long poem, “The Flaming Terrapin,” the publication of which earned him a reputation as one of the illustrissimi of modern poets, those whom Lewis satirizes as the Clevers in The Pilgrim’s Regress. During the 1920s the poet was considered by many as being second only to Eliot as the voice of the poetic avant-garde.
As for “The Flaming Terrapin” it was, as the poet informed his parents, “the symbol of masculine energy,” a fact borne out by the poem’s pulsatingly erotic imagery, in which the feminine Earth feels the Sun’s “fiery manhood swim” through trembling nerve and limb:
Huge spasms rend her, as in red desire
He leaps and fills her gushing womb with fire …
Well might such a poet, whom Lewis knew as “Zulu” when they met in Oxford, evoke Lewis’s satirical gibe in The Pilgrim’s Regress, describing him as the “bearded poet,” wearing “nothing but a red shirt and a cod-piece made of the skins of crocodiles” who, with eyes “like burning coals” beats out his Muse “on an African tom-tom … swaying his lean, half-clad body to and fro.”
The “bearded poet” was Roy Campbell, whom Lewis would attack again a few years after his satirizing of him in The Pilgrim’s Regress, criticizing Campbell for his writing of a poem in support of General Franco, and whom, later still, Lewis would befriend, inviting Campbell to come to meetings of the Inklings, Lewis’s closest circle of friends. This continuing enmity and subsequent friendship between C.S. Lewis and the mysterious “Zulu” will be the subject of my next essay.
Books by Joseph Pearce may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. His biography of Roy Campbell, Unafraid of Virginia Woolf: The Friends and Enemies of Roy Campbell, is published by ISI Books.