I too acknowledge readily that Roy Campbell has a very low profile in terms of the English-language poets of the period 1924 to 1954. I cannot readily remember encountering him in the usual anthologies, though I must check. So when I recently came across Roger Scruton’s tender and fair-minded appreciation of him as neglected for ideological reasons,[1] I was disposed to think that there is much to be said in his favour (courage, independence of mind, etc).

Roy CampbellDesiring to re-read, or read, this poet I have obtained the first volume of his Collected Poems (there never seems to have been a second volume) and a copy of his (second) autobiography, Light On A Dark Horse. Campbell pops up in recollections of the period, notably those of Augustus John, and he and Jacob Epstein seem to have pursued two sisters, whom they married, with a certain amount of friction. On the web, there is a scrupulous and scholarly appreciation by Gwyn Neale, who is eager to chronicle the early, Welsh chapter in the poet’s creative life (‘Love in a Hut’, the Welsh dwelling in which he wrote The Flaming Terrapin, 1924).[2]

Yes, it is admirable in a way that Campbell fearlessly writes everything in textbook forms, typically rhyming hexameters in couplets or quatrains, but there is more to this than just being a stalwart traditionalist. To an English reader he is necessarily in Dryden and Pope territory and it is very difficult to wield a sufficient degree of complexity and subtlety even to escape notice in their company. This Campbell does not do. The wit of The Georgiad (q.v. The Dunciad) is not witty and conveys an impression of longeur, fatal to satire, and of really having nothing to say.

So what of his lyrical poetry? At first gush, this is dazzling, colourful and torrential. I sometimes think that if the word dark were removed from the works of DH Lawrence, the latter’s oeuvre would shrink by a substantial fraction. Ditto for the word red in Roy Campbell. Is this just a mannerism, a characteristic signal of a writer’s strengths, a beguiling idiosyncrasy? I fear not. There is no getting around the fact that Roy Campbell has a drastically restricted repertoire, with essentially one voice, one tone.

These are jacked-up, always full-on, slightly ham-fisted verses, braced for maximum effect; curiously Miltonic in conception, but without shading, chiaroscuro or any variation; always heightened, devoid of any natural relief and therefore limited, rigid and after a while unreadable. Because all his lyrical verse lacks mental and artistic suppleness, the curious suspicion arises that Campbell has nothing to say and says nothing. Matters are not so different in the ‘satirical’ (editorially segregated) poems. The short squibs are best, but the longer satirical poems seem to be heading nowhere. It is not clear who the objects of satire are nor what is being said against them.

Roy Campbell by Howard Coster, 1936

Sadly, one comes to feel the truth of Augustus John’s comment:

[…] interminable effusions, of which the unceasing grandiloquence soon exhausts the reader.

This brings us to the person — and to the autobiography, Light On A Dark Horse. Superficially this is “colourful” (inevitably) and attractive, with lots of Mark Twain-like episodes of a wild childhood spent stalking wild beasts and settling arguments with fists. At one point he claims

I inherited [from my father] his unselfconsciousness in dealing with my fellow men[3]

and this is meant to redound unequivocally to the author’s credit ─ he is so broadminded ─ but one is left wishing that he had achieved a little more in the direction of self-awareness. Because the fact is, Roy Campbell is the most terrible hick. This must have been apparent to all who met him and have generated the instant reputation that never really left him. It explains the furious counter-attack against “effete English intellectuals”. And it is true, the whole Bloomsbury interbellum was preposterously left-wing, homosexual, anti-British and so on. It is true that the intellectual leaders in the 30s scuttled off to America or concealed themselves in the civil service and the BBC, while fascist Campbell went off to the front line to fight Hitler and got himself wounded.

`Roy Campbell by Wyndham Lewis, 1936

He is still a hick. He seems to be utterly lacking in sensibility, variety and mental plasticity. He brags and boasts and tells self-serving anecdotes like a pub bore. One feels it would kill him to tell a joke against himself. One stops believing him quite early on. Was the real Campbell a shy, bisexual introvert such that he presented to the world only an exaggerated set of defences? Who knows? The real Campbell is nowhere to be seen. One can have more confidence in the nature of the real Ernest Hemingway, another casualty of an unfashionably masculine persona.

I should really say what I mean by hick. Campbell’s provincialism is a kind of mental blankness, an absence of sensibility, a lack of any centre of thought and reflection. There is little real cultural inscription in the person or the work, though the vivid physical life he experienced is perfectly satisfactory and interesting. But his ambitions do not allow him to set himself forth as a non-literary writer, a Lawrence, say, or a Hemingway. He is desperate to achieve literary credibility and reputation, without quite understanding what these things are. He thinks classical references (‘Bellerophon’) should be added to a poem like salt and pepper to a stew, without any apparent organic reason.

In a less than tactful, but still warm-hearted, introduction to Light, the poet Laurie Lee makes clear what some of the difficulties were for the friends and acquaintances of the poet:

It is a ragbag … of feats of daring and derring-do from which the writer invariably emerges triumphant …. his inveterate boasting could at times exasperate his friends.[4]

Roy Campbell by Jane Bown, 1951

This has to be the worst possible set of qualifications for a poet. If our friends Dryden and Pope were to appear to cast an eye over the satirical verses at least, they would soon become uncomfortable. (Milton, on the other hand, might exhibit a greater degree of patience with the epic scale, but not the poverty of content, of The Flaming Terrapin.) There is no hinterland of the rich irony of the unspoken, the complex attitude, the hybrid of lyrical and satirical, the tenderness that bites, the amorousness that recoils, the gentle mockery. In the prose, hatred can modulate into forgiveness, for instance in relation to his persecutory headmaster, exaggerated though the figure of the latter undoubtedly is. There is a great deal of humour, which surrounds and enriches Campbell’s understanding of the personalities in his world, many of them Zulu. But it is hard to recognize the origins out of which poetry may arise, or the lineaments of the poems that do so. It’s all drastically truncated, even black and white.

So perhaps we don’t have to reach for explanations of political intrigue (or a conspiracy of international freemasonry) to account for the neglect of Roy Campbell and his poetry. Explanations in terms of the finite public world are in any case unworthy of most literary endeavours. Even an amphibious figure such as Orwell successfully transcends the distinction between journalism and literature. Who cares whether Virginia Woolf was left-wing or right-wing? That is really beside the point. Campbell’s provinciality and shortcomings as a man transfer directly into his writings and tax the reader’s patience.

[1] Or see: http://spectator.org/archives/2009/10/12/a-dark-horse

[2] Or see: http://www.rhiw.com/pobol/campbell/love_in_a_hut.htm

[3] Campbell, R. Light on a Dark Horse, Penguin books, 1971 [1951], pp. 61-62.

[4] Ibid, p. 10.