Thursday, 21 April 2011


I shall not be posting on Good Friday which also happens to be the anniversary of the death of one of our greatest but possibly least well known poets, Roy Campbell.

Roy Campbell 1901-1957 - RIP

Ignatius Royston Dunnachie Campbell was born in South Africa on 2nd October 1901. He led a liberated childhood wandering the bush in the company of young native friends and it must have been this grounding that gave him a taste for danger and adventure in later years.
Arriving in England in 1919 he quickly established himself on the circuit of "wild poets". Dylan Thomas became a drinking companion and there was a famous incident when Campbell mounted the stage during a poetry recital and assaulted Stephen Spender.
Augustus John took Campbell and his wife under his wing for a time and Edith Sitwell and T S Eliot gave him the literary encouragement he so badly needed.

Morals between Campbell and his wife, Mary were loose at this stage in their marriage and there was considerable controversy over their individual affairs within the so called Bloomsbury Group. Eventually, there was a great falling out with Roy Campbell producing some  pointed satirical verse lampooning the Virginia Woolf set. (The Georgiad)

Roy and Mary moved to a rented cottage on the Lleyn Peninsula  in North Wales where they lived a simple peasant life which allowed them to assess their situation. During this period Campbell wrote his first epic poem 'The Flaming Terrapin'.

They returned to London and were warmly received by Evelyn Waugh and Wyndham Lewis but Campbell continued his heavy drinking and carousing.
On one St David's Day (in the company of Dylan Thomas) he proceeded to eat a whole vase of daffodils "in honour of Wales" - not many Welshmen have been known to undertake such a feat!
With the Civil War in Spain brewing, Campbell came out firmly on the side of Franco, bitterly opposing the communists and, incidentally, the majority of opinion, at least in Great Britain. The academic and literary societies became rabid in their hatred of him and, before long, the Campbells had moved to Spain where the climate suited Roy's yearning for the warmth of the sun.

 'The towers and trees were lifted hymns of praise,
The city was a prayer, the land a nun:
The noonday 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.'

Roy had been drawn closer and closer to Catholicism when in Britain and now, he found that Catholic Spain (as it then was) compounded his search for something deeper in life. His wife made the first move announcing
 curtly: "I'm going to become a Catholic".
He responded, without hesitation: "Well, kid if you're going to, I will to".
They were received into the Church in the town of Toledo and, to a degree, he reformed his wild ways and focused on his work and on danger. Instead of heavy drinking he rode and hunted regularly and began a successful period as a bullfighter.
The violence of the Civil War began to have an impact on Campbell and his young family and, whilst he rather relished the role of 'protector' to the community of monks who were their friends, it was felt that, for the sake of the children, they should retreat to France. Within days of leaving their community, all seven of the monks had been stood up against a wall in the town square and shot.

The account of this tragedy is recounted here by Joseph Pearce:

"In March 1936 the anti-clerical contagion spreading across Spain reached the streets of Toledo, the ancient city in which the Campbells had made their home. Churches were burned in a series of violent riots in which priests and nuns were attacked. During these bloody disturbances, Roy and Mary Campbell sheltered in their house several of the Carmelite monks from the neighboring monastery. In the following weeks, the situation worsened. Portraits of Marx and Lenin were posted on every street corner, and horrific tales began to filter in from surrounding villages of priests being shot and wealthy men being butchered in front of their families. Toledo's beleagured Christians braced themselves for the next wave of persecution, and the Campbells, in an atmosphere that must have seemed eerily reminiscent of early Christians in the Catacombs of Rome, were confirmed in a secret ceremony, before dawn, by Cardinal Goma, the elderly Archbishop of Toledo and Primate of Spain. In July 1936, the civil war erupted onto the streets of Toledo, heralded by the arrival in the city of Communist militiamen from Madrid. With no one to defend them, the priests, monks, and nuns fell prey to the hatred of their adversaries. The seventeen monks from the Carmelite monastery were rounded up, herded on to the street and shot. Campbell discovered their murdered bodies, left lying where they fell. He also discovered the bodies of other priests lying in the narrow street where the priests had been murdered. Swarms of flies surrounded their bodies, and scrawled in their blood on the wall was written, 'Thus strikes the CHEKA.'"
Campbell later immortalized the incident in his poem The Carmelites of Toledo.

Eventually returning to England, Campbell concentrated on his work completing his autobiographical, 'Light on a Dark Horse' and also translating much of  the mystical writings of St john of the Cross. He soon returned to Spain, however, where he took an active part in supporting the Nationalist cause.
During the Second World War he had a varied army career hampered by an injury to his hip incurred during training. He served in the Intelligience Corps in what was then British East Africa (Kenya) and in the aftermath returned to Oxford where the whole family were looked after by leading Catholic writers, Bernard and Barbara Wall. He also became a great friend of Tolkien's who actually based one of his earlier hobbit characters on Campbell.

In 1952 the family moved to Portugal and Campbell began lecturing in the United States. He became intensely fond of America and the American people.
He died in a car accident in Portugal on 22nd April 1957.

May God have mercy on his soul - he was a larger than life character with many flaws but his good  points and his gusto for life overcame them all.

His poetry reflects well his tempestuous and wild character, here is 'Horses on the Camargue'

In the grey wastes of dread,
The haunt of shattered gulls where nothing moves
But in a shroud of silence like the dead,
I heard a sudden harmony of hooves,
And, turning, saw afar
A hundred snowy horses unconfined,
The silver runaways of Neptune's car
Racing, spray-curled, like waves before the wind.
Sons of the Mistral, fleet
As him with whose strong gusts they love to flee,
Who shod the flying thunders on their feet
And plumed them with the snortings of the sea;
Theirs is no earthly breed
Who only haunts the verges of the earth
And only on the sea's salt herbage feed-
Surely the great white breakers gave them birth.
For when for years a slave,
A horse of the Camargue, in alien lands,
Should catch some far-off fragrance of the wave
Carried far inland from this native sands,
Many have told the tale
Of how in fury, foaming at the rein,
He hurls his rider; and with lifted tail,
With coal-red eyes and catarcating mane,
Heading his course for home,
Though sixty foreign leagues before him sweep,
Will never rest until he breathes the foam
And hears the native thunder of the deep.
And when the great gusts rise
And lash their anger on these arid coasts,
When the scared gulls career with mournful cries
And whirl across the waste like driven ghosts;
When hail and fire converge,
The only souls to which they strike no pain
Are the white crested fillies of the surge
And the white horses of the windy plain.
Then in their strength and pride
The stallions of the wilderness rejoice;
They feel their Master's trident in their side,
And high and shrill they answer to his voice.
With white tails smoking free,
Long streaming manes, and arching necks, they show
Their kinship to their sisters of the sea-
And forward hurl their thunderbolts of snow.
Still out of hardship bred,
Spirits of power and beauty and delight
Have ever on such frugal pasture fed
And loved to course with tempests through the night.


  1. Many thanks for posting this.

  2. It must be over 40 years since I last read this poem, and yet several of the lines, as I reached them, came back to me with a vivid inevitability. Very beautiful and powerful. Thank you so much.