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Roy Campbell: Bombast and Fire

by Joseph Pearce

Roy Campbell was considered by many of his peers, most notably by T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, and Edith Sitwell, as one of the finest poets of the 20th century. Why then, one wonders, is he not as well-known today as many lesser poets? The answer lies in his robust defense of unfashionable causes, both religious and political, but also, and more regrettably, in his unfortunate predilection for making powerful enemies. Seldom has a life been more fiery, more controversial, and more full of friendship and enmity than that of this most mercurial of men.

Born in South Africa in 1901, Campbell learned to speak Zulu almost as soon as he had learned to speak English. "The Zulus are a highly intellectual people," Campbell recorded in the first volume of his autobiography. "They have a very beautiful language, a little on the bombastic side and highly adorned. Its effect on me can be seen in The Flaming Terrapin . . . They take an enormous delight in conversation, analyzing with the greatest subtlety and brilliance."

It seems that Campbell's own conversation conveyed more than a hint of this Zulu influence. Following his arrival at Oxford in 1919, his contemporaries were both bemused and beguiled by his tales, "a little on the bombastic side and highly adorned," of the African bush. He soon earned himself the nickname "Zulu," and his reputation as a wild colonial boy was immortalized by his friend, Percy Wyndham Lewis, who modeled the character of Zulu Blades in his novel, The Apes of God, on Campbell's image at Oxford.

The African influence also came to the fore in the long, vibrant, and colorful poem that established Campbell's reputation. The Flaming Terrapin, published in 1924, was, according to one critic, "like a breath of new youth, like a love affair to a lady in her fifties."

"Among a crowd of poets writing delicate verses he moves like a mastodon with shaggy sides pushing through a herd of lightfoot antelopes," wrote George Russell in the Irish Statesman. "No poet I have read for many years excites me to more speculation about his future, for I do not know of any new poet who has such a savage splendour of epithet or who can marry the wild word so fittingly to the wild thought."

Almost overnight, Roy Campbell, still only 22 years old, was rocketed into the ranks of the illustrissimi of English letters, his work being discussed in the same breath, and with the same reverence as that of T.S. Eliot. The comparison between Campbell and Eliot, who's hugely influential The Waste Land had been published 18 months prior to the appearance of The Flaming Terrapin, is singularly appropriate. Both poets, and both poems, were displaying an embryonic rebellion against the prevailing cynicism, born out of post-war angst, which afflicted the younger generation in the years following the carnage of World War I. Eventually both poets would reject the superficiality and shifting sands of modern cynicism for the sure foundation of traditional Christianity.

Apart from his African roots, the other great influence on Campbell's work was that of the great Elizabethan dramatists. Besides Shakespeare and Marlowe, he was also an avid admirer of lesser Elizabethans, such as Chapman, Peele, and Dekker.

By jove they are marvelous poets . . . Their poetry is so living and fresh it makes even the greatest work of Keats and Shelley seem just a little bit artificial . . . When you come back you'll find us ranting long passages of bombast and fire . . . I am absolutely drunk with these fellows. They wrote poetry just as a machine-gun fires off bullets . . . They don't even stop to get their breath. They go thundering on until you forget everything about the sense and . . . end up in a positive debauch of thunder and splendour and music . . . They are raw, careless, headstrong, coarse, brutal. But how vivid they are, how intoxicated with their own imagination.

In this intoxicated and intoxicating letter, Campbell had unwittingly described many of the characteristics of his own work. The flamboyance of the Elizabethans had colored the imagery of The Flaming Terrapin with a vivid sharpness which distinguished it from most other contemporary verse in much the same way as the vivid sharpness of the pre-Raphaelites had stood out from the monochrome subtleties of Impressionism. In describing the "bombast and fire," the writing of poetry "just as a machine-gun fires off bullets," the failure to stop to catch one's breath, Campbell could have been describing his own satires. These too could be "raw, careless, headstrong, coarse, brutal" and would be written in a breathless stream of invective, in stark contrast to the measured and meticulous care that he always took with his lyrical verse.

In the spring of 1931, Campbell informed Wyndham Lewis that he was "just finishing a long satire, The Georgiad." This was a scathing attack on the Bloomsbury group, the sexually promiscuous and implicitly anti-Christian literary set who exerted a fashionably iconoclastic and culturally subversive influence in the years between the two world wars. Campbell attacked the Bloomsburys as "intellectuals without intellect" whose hate

. . . dribbles, week by week,
Like lukewarm bilge out of a
running leak.

The vitriolic attacks on Vita Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf, and other members of the Bloomsbury group were blunted by Campbell's vindictiveness and lack of charity. Yet embedded between the vitriol, mounted like pearls of wisdom in the basest of metal, were instances of a deep yet inarticulate yearning for faith. The Georgiad confirmed Campbell's rejection of post-war pessimism and its nihilistic ramifications, and placed him beside others, such as Eliot and Waugh, who were similarly seeking glimmers of philosophical light amidst the prevailing gloom.

Desiring an escape from the world of the "intellectuals without intellect," Campbell moved with his wife, Mary, and their two daughters to Provence and, later, to Spain. Throughout this period he and Mary found themselves being slowly but irresistibly drawn toward the Catholic faith.

The seemingly somnambulant process of conversion was charted by Campbell in a sonnet sequence entitled Mithraic Emblems, which shows the progress of a soul in transit. The earliest sonnets, written in Provence, show the poet groping with an uncomprehended and incomprehensible paganism, relishing the irrational, the obscurum per obscurius the obscure by the still more obscure. It is Mithraic "truth" whispered with Masonic secrecy the affirmation of faith without reason. In the later sonnets, written after Campbell's arrival in Spain, Christianity emerges triumphant, not so much to vanquish Mithraism as to make sense of it. In these later sonnets the sun is no longer a god to be worshipped, but only a symbol of the Son, the true God, who gives the sun its meaning and its purpose.

Oh let your shining orb grow dim,
Of Christ the mirror and the shield,
That I may gaze through you to Him,
See half the mystery revealed . . .

Roy and Mary Campbell, together with their daughters, were received into the Catholic Church in the Spanish village of Altea in June 1935.

They had chosen a dangerous time and place to profess their faith. In the following year Spain was plunged into a fratricidal civil war. By its end, 12 bishops, 4,184 priests, 2,365 monks, and about 300 nuns had been murdered by the anti-Catholic Republican forces. The Campbells narrowly escaped with their lives, escaping from Spain only days after their friends, the Carmelite monks of Toledo, had been murdered.

The horrors of the Spanish Civil War inspired some of Campbell's finest verse. In much the same way that the sonnet sequence, Mithraic Emblems, had been the outpouring of a poetic baptism of desire, so the poems inspired by the Spanish War would be the outpouring of a poetic baptism of fire.

The towers and trees were lifted hymns of praise,
The city was a prayer, the land a nun:
The noonday azure strumming all its rays
Sang that a famous battle had been won,
As signing his white Cross, the very Sun,
The Solar Christ and captain of my days
Zoomed to the zenith; and his will was done.


This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine. Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.

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