Paul Hurley SVD on Roy Campbell, the Catholic poet and satirist who died 50 years ago this Monday and was admired by T S Eliot, among others considering the dramatic death of Roy Campbell, in a motor car accident ih Portugal on April 23, 1957, the following lines from one of his earlier poems seem somewhat prophetic:
And that is why I do not simper Nor sigh, nor whine in my harangue, Instead of ending with a whimper, My life will finish with a bang.
They also sum up both the character and literary style of the great poet.
The grandson of Scottish and Irish settlers, Royston Campbell was born on October 2, 1901, in Durban, South Africa. His father was a wealthy Presbyterian doctor, who founded the city's university. The youngest of four boys and one girl, Roy was educated at Durban High School. At the age of 18 he applied to Oxford University, but, after failing his Greek entrance exam, he went off instead to the Mediterranean in search of adventure and odd jobs.
Returning to England after a year or so, he mixed with many of the artists and writers of bohemian London in the early 1920s, including those he labelled Bloomsbury "violet-sniffers", for whom he later developed a "boisterous contempt". He was very friendly with the composer William Walton and the artist Augustus John, who painted a fine portrait of him. But he also knew people like T S Eliot, Aldous Huxley, Dylan Thomas and Louis MacNeice.
When, in 1922, he married Mary Garmon, a beautiful English girl whose father was also a doctor, they spent their honeymoon "down at Augustus John',s place in Dorset". It was a very happy marriage and they had two daughters. For a couple of years they lived in a converted stable in a remote place on the northwest coast of Wales, where he wrote his first long poem "The Flaming Terrapin", an allegory of Noah and the Flood. Published with the help of his neighbour, T E Lawrence (of Arabia), it first established his reputation.
Always restless, in 1924 he returned to South Africa for two There, with Laurens van der Post, he edited a monthly review, Voorslag ("Whiplash"), which outraged white South Africans with articles criticising white supremacy and espousing the rights of blacks. When it was closed down Campbell went back to England.
But he soon found the views of the Bloomsbury literary lot as objectionable as those of the white racist South Africans, So off he went again, this time to Martigues on the French Mediterranean coast. The five years he spent there, in Provence, were very happy. He earned his living with his hands in a great variety of ways: as a gardener, a whaler and fisherman, a sailor on a three-masted barque, a horseman in a circus and as a bullfighter. He loved what he called "rough company", and said that his wife also "preferred a life of hardship and poverty with me". Before marrying, he had often stayed in Salvation Army and seamen's hostels in London.
While in Provence he was visited by his friend the Irish writer Liam O'Flaherty, who later brought Campbell on a visit to Ireland. "I was very fond of O'Flaherty, a naturalhorn genius," he said. "Some of the happiest times of my life were spent with him."
W H Gardner, Campbell's biographer, says that while in Provence he developed "a wholly individual style characterised by wit, irony and a superb mastery of rhyme and versification". In 1931 he published his best satire, The Gearglad, "which pilloried brilliantly the moral follies of the Bloomsburies and high society's party-set".
Two years later he left France for Spain with his family. They lived first on a small farm at Altea in the Sierras, next in Barcelona, then moved to Valencia and finally to Toledo. It was while farming at Altea that he, his wife and daughters all became Catholics; they were later confirmed by Cardinal Goma. "It was a wonderful feeling to belong to the religion of one's ancestors," said Campbell. He also commented: "Protestants go to Spain and France for spiritual fresh air, yet they ascribe the attraction — which is really that of the Catholic Church and the people who have not been amputated from it by tyrants like Henry VIII — to the climate or landscape, rather than to the Catholic culture and civilisation which hold them so spellbound."
In Toledo he made his living by buying horses, brealcing them in and then selling them at a profit. It was there that he first witnessed the atrocities committed against the Catholics during the reign of terror by the Communists in the Spanish Civil War, in which 13 bishops, 5.255 secular priests, 2,669 religious priests and brothers and 112 nuns were martyred, while 17,000 churches and monasteries were completely destroyed. Four months before the Civil War began, Bela Kun was sent to Spain by Soviet Russia to supervise this Communist campaign against the Church. In The Communist Atrocities in Spain the historian Sir Arthur Bryant stated that "during one year, 350,000 men, women and children were butchered in cold blood by the Reds under conditions of indescribable horror".
But few of these atrocities were reported in Britain or elsewhere because of what Pope Pius XI, in an encyclical letter, denounced as "the conspiracy of silence about them by most of the world's nonCatholic Press, which refrained from mentioning the horrible crimes committed in Spain".
Campbell sheltered many Carmelites — 17 of them were shot dead in Toledo and hid their most valuable archives in his own house until, during the siege of the city, he and his family were evacuated to England. There, he attacked the intellectuals who supported the Communists in Spain and published one of his most religious books of poems, Mithraic Emblems, which was practically boycotted in Britain. In 1937 he returned to Spain as war correspondent of The Tablet. That year, he also wrote his longest poem, "Flowering Rifle", whose anti-Communist and proSpanish nationalist sentiments were like a red rag to a bull to Britain's Leftwingers.
After World War Two began, he returned to England, joined the Welsh Fusiliers as a private and rose to the rank of sergeant-major. He served in Africa, where he was wounded and discharged from the Army after five years with a small pension — and with one leg three inches shorter than the other. Back in London, he got a job as director of talks for the BBC. He also waged a verbal war against Britain's Communist sympathisers. Few of them fought for their country, while some, like Burgess, Maclean and Blunt, keeper of the Queen's pictures, became traitors and spied
for the Soviets. He targeted especially those he called the "Auden Gang" which, besides W H Auden, who spent the war years in America, included Spender and Day-Lewis and all who farmed the carnage for good pay though from the bayonets they kept far away, from Koestler down to Ernest Hemingway.
Some retaliated by trying to airbrush him out of British literary life, for instance, by excluding his poems from some collections of modern verse. But his poetic genius was never doubted by authorities like T S Eliot and Edmund Blunden. Edith Sitwell called hint "one of the very few great poets of our time". Augustus John said: "Nothing he wrote equals in beauty, depth and passion his translations of poems by St John of the Cross; these are masterpieces." They won him the Foyle Poetry Prize in 1952. One of them, now justly famous, begins: Upon a gloomy night, With all my cares to loving ardours flushed, (0 venture of delight!) With nobody in sight I went abroad when all my house was hushed.
Among others whose views he attacked but who were generous enough to praise him and his work was Sir Stephen Spender, who stated: "Campbell was courageous, generous, warm and open. He wrote a number of resplendent poems unique in modem English." And the critic Derek Stanford said: "He was unaffected, gentle, even shy, modest, friendly and soft-spoken. There was a humble soul behind the filibusterer's facade."
W H Gardner tells us that Campbell was "handsome, six foot two and every inch a poet". Campbell made two visits to America, where he read his poems in his "unpolished colonial accent". He spoke fluent French, Spanish, Portuguese and Zulu.
In 1952 he left England again and settled in Portugal. Five years later, while returning with his wife after attending the Holy Week ceremonies in Seville, he was killed when their car crashed outside Setubal. He was buried near their home in Sintra.
For Roy Campbell life was an arena, like those where he so often fought bulls in France and Spain. So perhaps these lines from his poem, "The Dead Torero", are his most fitting epitaph: He was the bee, with danger for his rose!
He died the sudden violence of Kings, And from the bullring to the Virgin goes Floating his cape. He has no need for wings.