The great Roy Campbell heaped wonderful abuse on the nihilist left, though that’s hardly the only reason to treasure him.
One of the many services rendered to the conservative cause by Henry Regnery, our publisher’s father, was to befriend and publish Roy Campbell, the South African poet born in Durban in 1901 who died in a car crash in Portugal in 1957. Campbell wrote vigorous rhyming pentameters, into which he instilled the most prodigious array of images and the most intoxicating draft of life of any poet of the 20th century. He was a vehement, and often over-charged, satirist, whose Georgiad (an extended mockery of the London literati) earned him the undying hatred of the English left establishment. He was also a swashbuckling adventurer and a dreamer of dreams. And his life and writings contain so many lessons about the British experience in the 20th century that it is worth revisiting them in the pages of this magazine.
When Campbell came to England from South Africa in 1918, it was to study at Oxford, which he was to leave without a degree. He was already at work on the remarkable poem that was to make his reputation: The Flaming Terrapin, an apocalyptic vision of the hidden sources of life, published in 1924. The England to which Campbell came, with all the nostalgic love for the homeland that the Empire in general, and South Africa in particular, inspired in its children, was very different from the England whose soul had been recorded in the Book of Common Prayer, in Hymns Ancient and Modern, and in the boyish tales of Kipling. It was an England of class privilege, though not the privilege set out in Burke’s Peerage or re-hearsed at Coronations.
The new upper class had emerged, like the old, from the hothouse nursery of the public (i.e., private) schools; it had enjoyed the same legacy of leisure and high culture. But the old upper class had been wiped out by the Great War, and only younger sons and grieving parents remained. The culture of which that old class had been the unconscious guardians was in ruins; the new upper class had only satirical derision for the stiff-lipped colonels and starch-collared clergymen who strove in vain to perpetuate the pomp of old England. Where there had been Stevenson, Kipling, and Walter de la Mare there were Huxley, Auden, and Virginia Woolf. Where there had been Elgar and English folk song there were Walton and American jazz, and where there had been Alma Tadema and the last wave of the pre-Raphaelites there were now Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, and the Cézanne-inspired Omega work-shop. The last classical buildings had gone up in London and the provinces, and henceforth the bleak and past-negating architecture of the modernists was to be imposed upon England as the culturally necessary norm.
The new upper class was characterized by three features that decisively changed the face of my country. First, it was profoundly disillusioned with the English idea, and with the Empire that had been acquired through the belief in it. It regarded simple patriotism with a kind of educated disdain, and had no desire to adopt either the stiff way of life or the carefully crafted religion of the Victorians. It was not exactly anti-English, but it felt no call to expend its energies in maintaining a social and political order that had lost its raison d’être.
Second, the new upper class had adopted the habit of flaunting
its effete sexuality. Lytton Strachey, whose Eminent
Victorians, debunking the icons of the old moral order,
appeared in 1918, advocated what he called “the higher sodomy,” in
which the promiscuity of the public-school dormitory was combined
with high romantic attachments designed to shock the few remaining
advocates of marriage. The works of Freud, which were being
by Lytton’s brother James, seemed to authorize all breaches of the old sexual customs, and—in the wake of the First World War—the culture of inversion acquired a sudden glamour. Homosexuality had been a hot topic ever since the pseudo-scientific explorations of Havelock Ellis and the trial of Oscar Wilde. But it enjoyed a kind of endorsement from the new elite that made it into a badge of membership, and a sign of moral distinction.
Third, the new upper class was, by and large, and with many subtle variations, drawn to political positions that could be styled “progressive.” Many of its leading figures were Communist sympathizers, many more were romantic socialists of the H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw variety. Among French intellectuals leftist ideology, anti-patriotism. and prancing homosexuality were as frequent as they were in England—witness Jean Cocteau, Max Jacob, André Gide. But in France the cultural and the political elite were distinct. Politics was conducted on the rive droite, culture on the rive gauche of the city, and they were divided from each other by the vast and unfrequented monument of Nôtre Dame. In England the very people who were dominating the arts were shaping politics. They could join the political discussion through the hereditary House of Lords, and the public school system meant that the intoxicating Hellenism imbibed by those who joined the bohemian circles of Soho and Bloomsbury was imbibed also by those who went into Parliament, and by those—a surprisingly large number—who inhabited both milieus: J. M. Keynes, for instance, Bertrand Russell, Leonard Woolf.
Typical of this third class was Harold Nicolson, a novelist who was also a career diplomat and a Labour member of Parliament. Nicolson was an active homosexual and married to the predatory lesbian writer Vita Sackville-West, daughter of Lord Sackville, who owned the spectacular house at Knole that everyone who was anyone visited. The Nicolsons, the Woolfs, the Bells, and their circle set the tone of literary London, and renewed their appetite for urban frolics in the great country houses to which they motored each weekend.
Shortly after Oxford, Roy Campbell began frequenting this circle. He met and married Mary Garman, a bohemian artist who was the love of his life. After a spell in South Africa they settled in the English countryside, there to discover that Harold and Vita Nicolson were neighbors. The Campbells were at first welcome guests at the Great Barn where the Nicolsons lived, and it was not long before the newcomers were fully part of a world that included the entire left establishment, from Auden to Woolf. Campbell liked these people less than Mary did, however, and, while enjoying their hospitality, he lampooned them in satirical verses that made many enemies. But it was through his proximity to the new elite that Campbell acquired his own philosophy.
Learning that his wife had been conducting a passionate affair with Vita (to the enraged jealousy of Vita’s other lover, Virginia Woolf), 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.
Others too were reacting with reserve or ridicule to the new establishment—notably Evelyn Waugh and C. S. Lewis. But none accused the bohemian aristos as harshly as Campbell and none saw their homo-sexuality as Campbell saw it, as an expression of their nihilistic view of human life. By 1927, when he had published the Georgiad, his attack on Vita’s “rural idyll” poetry and on the “literary nancies” who surrounded her, Campbell had made his position socially untenable. He and Mary left for Provence, where they settled with their two young children and worked to restore their marriage. Campbell began to pour out his love for the Mediterranean south in verses that grew around his simple life like vines. He lost no opportunity to praise the manly virtues of the peasants and fishermen among whom he lived, and to immerse himself in the sounds and scents of Provence:
And when in long hexameters the West
Rolled his grey surge, the forest for his lyre,
It was the pines that sang us to our rest,
Loud in the wind and fragrant in the fire…
The stay in Provence was brief, however, ended by a legal dispute that forced them to flee the country. Moving to Spain and taking up residence in a small peasant house along a donkey track, the Campbells found themselves drawn into the ritual and routine of the Catholic Church. Their exile from England, their rejection of the sybaritic culture of the new elite, and their search for an enduring loyalty all pointed in the same direction: within months they had been brought into the Church by the local priest, to great rejoicing among their village neighbors. Shortly after this the Campbells settled in medieval Toledo, the place of St. John of the Cross, a town of monastic communities where donkeys and chasubles filled the streets, and the air was fragrant with church bells and prayer.
Their ecstatic days in Toledo were not to last. Within a few
weeks the Spanish Civil War had broken out. The local garrison
declared for the Nationalist rebels, and troops from the Republican
government entered the town, murdered monks, nuns, and priests
wherever they found them, and began the long siege of the
fortress—the Alcazar—which was perhaps the most famous episode of
the Civil War. It was at this moment that Campbell made the
greatest mistake of his career, coming out publicly for the
Nationalists and describing the crimes
of the Republican soldiers in embittered verses that were calculated to enrage the literati back home.
From this moment he was not just an irritating colonial; in the eyes of Auden, Spender, MacNeice, and their fellows, he was a fascist. He had failed to see that history requires us to condone what Auden called “the necessary murder”; he had refused to understand that the moment had come for all intellectuals to declare for the cause that would unite them; and he had overlooked the alliance between Franco and Hitler—an alliance that made it morally necessary to sing the praises of the “international brigade” in verse, prose, and the daily press. The leftists who decried the alliance of Hitler and Franco were later to accept the alliance of Hitler and Stalin: it was a minor detail, judged necessary by the comrades in the worldwide struggle for socialism. No matter, however. From this moment forward Campbell was a fascist and a traitor to the world of letters who was to be excised from the book of English poetry. It is for this reason that his Wikipedia entry today opens with the following sentences:
Roy Campbell…was considered by T. S. Eliot, Edith Sitwell, and Dylan Thomas to have been one of the best poets of the period between the First and Second world wars, but he is seldom found in anthologies today. Some literary critics claim that his connections to right-wing ideology and his willingness to antagonize the influential literati of his day damaged his reputation.
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