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A Dark Horse

The great Roy Campbell heaped wonderful abuse on the nihilist left, though that's hardly the only reason to treasure him.

By From the October 2009 issue

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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 translated
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.

After many hair-raising adventures Campbell escaped from Toledo, and the war brought him back to England, where he enlisted, to see service in Africa. His contempt for the English literary establishment was amplified by witnessing their reluctance to fight the “fascists” with anything more risky than words. On the eve of the conflict with Hitler, Auden and Isherwood had fled to America, as had Benjamin Britten. Meanwhile, the communist traitors enjoyed their comfortable niches in the diplomatic service, working for the “red fascism” that—in Campbell’s eyes—was just as much a threat to their country as the national socialism of Hitler. Stephen Spender was comfortably installed in the civil service, and Louis MacNeice in the BBC. All Campbell could do by way of protest was to write fierce lampoons against the

...fat snuggery of Auden, Spender,
And others of the selfsame breed and gender,
Who hold by guile the fort of English letters
Against the final triumph of their betters…

By the end of the war, however, the Bloomsbury contingent and the fellow travelers had lost their monopoly power over British culture, and Campbell was for a while rehabilitated. He too was invited to broadcast for the BBC, where he became a passionate advocate of his favorite drinking companion, Dylan Thomas: advocacy that led to the latter’s immortal radio drama, Under Milk Wood. Campbell’s autobiography, Light on a Dark Horse, was published in 1950, along with a first volume of his Collected Poems, and a translation of the poems of St. John of the Cross, into which he put all his passionate Christian mysticism, and which has probably been Campbell’s most influential and best-loved work.

At the time of the crash that killed him, Campbell’s reputation stood as high as that of any other living poet. His rough diamond personality and irrepressible storytelling were greeted with amazement in the subdued literary world of postwar London. Although he continued to abuse the left establishment in none too subtle terms—once mounting the podium during a talk by Stephen Spender in order to punch this symbol of upper-class bolshevism on the nose—he was regarded in conservative circles as one of the most important literary figures of his day. To Evelyn Waugh, he was a “great beautiful simple sweet natured savage,” and to Laurie Lee “one of our last pre-technocratic big action poets who, like D’Annunzio and Byron, were not only the writers of exquisite lyrics but whose poetry was part of a physical engagement with life.” He was admired by T. S. Eliot, who published him, by the Sitwells, who idolized him, and by a whole range of writers and artists of a conservative or Catholic persuasion, from Father Martin D’Arcy and Wyndham Lewis to Charles Tomlinson and Augustus John.

Yet today, as Wikipedia reminds us, Campbell is almost forgotten. Few of his writings remain in print, and in British literary publications he is mentioned, if at all, only as the notorious poet who was on “the wrong side” in the Spanish Civil War—the war that was the last defining moment for the British intellectual. The literary London in which Campbell was so brilliant a star has vanished; so too has the manly and mystical Spain that he idealized and that formed his spiritual vision. Visiting Madrid two years ago I was astonished to witness a “gay pride” carnival, sponsored by the left-wing government and the trade unions, in which men in bikinis flaunted their sexuality at the cheering crowds of men, women, and children in the street. In the face of this obscene spectacle I could only regret the passing of Strachey’s “higher sodomy,” which, for all its subversive character, was the very opposite of a mass-market commodity. You would have to travel into the very depths of rural Spain today to find traces of the sweet piety and attachment to the soil that had moved and comforted the Campbells. Spain has been de-consecrated, just as England has.

It took a visitor from Africa, who had been raised among Zulus, to recognize that the bolshevik nihil-ism that threatened Spain in the 1930s was of a piece with the upper-class narcissism that animated the English fellow travelers, and that they would suc-ceed or fail together. The connection that Campbell im-mediately and intuitively understood is confirmed by both England and Spain today. Leftist orthodoxy and sybaritic sexuality both dominate
the culture, and it remains as dangerous as it was in Campbell’s day to pour scorn on either.

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About the Author
Roger Scruton is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His latest book, How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism, has just been published by Oxford University Press.