The South African poet Roy Campbell (1902-1957) is a perfect example of how “great literature” is defined more by politics than by actual talent. While far from perfect, Campbell’s verse is energetic, masculine and passionate, a joy to read. Think Hemingway in iambic pentameter. But the reason you’ve never heard of him is because he made the fatal mistake of siding with the wrong group of thugs: he was a passionate supporter of Franco’s Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War when every major literary figure was on the Republicans’ side. Merely because of this, Campbell was wiped from the public consciousness, condemned to languish in the backs of college libraries.
Of course, Campbell was a far more complicated character than his enemies made him out to be. A lifelong iconoclast and outdoorsman, he became notorious for attacking the racism of his fellow South Africans in his satirical poem The Wayzgoose; relocating to England, he became active in the Bloomsbury Group, the circle of intellectuals and authors that included Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West, John Maynard Keynes, and Bertrand Russell. Tiring of their snobbery, Marxism and anti-Christian attitude (and upset over Sackville-West’s lesbian affair with his wife Mary), Campbell shredded them in another satirical poem, The Georgiad. Relocating to southern France and later Spain, Campbell and his wife converted to Catholicism and became Nationalists after witnessing first-hand the horrors of the Red Terror. Despite his fascist sentiments, he later enlisted in the British Army during World War II despite being well over the draft age, when the communist chickenhawks who had been agitating for war with Germany in the first place either fled the country (W.H. Auden) or slithered into noncombatant positions in the civil service (Stephen Spender).
So whatever you may think about Campbell, he was definitely difficult to pigeonhole.
If you want a comprehensive and unbiased look at Roy Campbell’s life and works, Unafraid of Virginia Woolf is your best bet. Author Joseph Pearce covers Campbell’s life from his childhood to his untimely death by car crash, extensively quoting from his poems and interviews with his daughters. The book also includes rare photographs of Campbell and his associates. While Pearce is overly critical of Campbell’s satiric verse, his treatment of the man’s career is unparalleled and worth a look.
Getting your hands on any of Campbell’s actual books is difficult nowadays as they’re all out of print. If you can, I recommend Selected Poems, a compilation of all his poems released before 1946 (just as well, as everything he wrote after that was forgettable anyway). Here are some of my favorites:
The Zulu Girl
When in the sun the hot red acres smoulder,
Down where the sweating gang its labour plies,
A girl flings down her hoe, and from her shoulder
Unslings her child tormented by the flies.
She takes him to a ring of shadow pooled
By thorn-trees: purpled with the blood of ticks,
While her sharp nails, in slow caresses ruled,
Prowl through his hair with sharp electric clicks,
His sleepy mouth plugged by the heavy nipple,
Tugs like a puppy, grunting as he feeds:
Through his frail nerves her own deep languors ripple
Like a broad river sighing through its reeds.
Yet in that drowsy stream his flesh imbibes
An old unquenched unsmotherable heat-
The curbed ferocity of beaten tribes,
The sullen dignity of their defeat.
Her body looms above him like a hill
Within whose shade a village lies at rest,
Or the first cloud so terrible and still
That bears the coming harvest in its breast.
After hot loveless nights, when cold winds stream
Sprinkling the frost and dew, before the light,
Bored with the foolish things that girls must dream
Because their beds are empty of delight,
Two sisters rise and strip. Out from the night
Their horses run to their low-whistled pleas—
Vast phantom shapes with eyeballs rolling white,
That sneeze a fiery stream about their knees:
Through the crisp manes their stealthy prowling hands,
Stronger than curbs, in slow caresses rove,
They gallop down across the milk-white sands
And wade far out into the sleeping cove:
The frost stings sweetly with a burning kiss
As intimate as love, as cold as death:
Their lips, whereon delicious tremours hiss
Fume with the ghostly pollen of their breath.
Far out on the grey silence of the flood
They watch the dawn in smouldering gyres expand
Beyond them: and the day burns through their blood
Like a white candle through a shuttered hand.
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.
I love to see, when leaves depart,
The clear anatomy arrive,
Winter, the paragon of art,
That kills all forms of life and feeling
Save what is pure and will survive.
Already now the clanging chains
Of geese are harnessed to the moon:
Stripped are the great sun-clouding planes;
And the dark pines, their own revealing,
Let in the needles of the noon.
Strained by the gale the olives whiten
Lke hoary wrestlers bent with toil
And, with the vines, their branches lighten
To brim our vats where summer lingers
In the red froth and sun-gold oil.
Soon on our hearth’s reviving pyre
Their rotted stems will crumble up:
And like a ruby, panting fire,
The grape will redden on your fingers
Through the lit crystal of the cup.
Click here to buy Unafraid of Virginia Woolf: The Friends and Enemies of Roy Campbell.
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