Matthew M. Robare
This coming April will see the fiftieth anniversary of the death of one of the twentieth century’s greatest poets, but one who has been unfairly purged from the history of English letters. Roy Campbell died in a car crash in Portugal on Saint George’s Day in 1957, but the damnatio memoriae against him by the literary establishment persists.
Yet Campbell’s poetry is highly relevant today. He lived through and much of his poetry involves the great crisis of the West in the last century: the breakdown of traditional social relations, morality, and culture after the First World War, as well as the conflicts between liberal democratic capitalism, fascism, and communism.
He wrote in traditional meters and forms with a clarity and precision that was unusual for his time, and which is in stark contrast to the obscurantism and fake subtlety of today’s poetry.
His description of the Communists in the Spanish Civil War from “The Contending Forces” in The Flowering Rifle (1939), for example, pulls no punches:
“And whether it would better them or not,
Upon all others would impose his lot:
To figures who would subjugate our souls,
And hold a meeting when the tempest rolls,
By dead statistics would control a city
And run a battleship with a committee:
Though through the world wherever he prevailed,
His meddlesome experiments have failed …”
And “On the Leftist Poets,” where he attacked “The fat snuggery of Auden, Spender, / And others of the selfsame breed and gender” for promoting Communist propaganda over truth. Auden and Christopher Isherwood would also earn Campbell’s ire for fleeing to the United States when war between Britain and Germany was imminent. Campbell volunteered for British service in World War II, despite being barely able to pass the physical exam.
Campbell’s support for the Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War resulted in Auden and Spender, along with others, calling him a fascist, a charge which was believed even by C. S. Lewis, but which was entirely the result of the tendency for Leftists to label their enemies fascists. In actual fact, Campbell, who was described by Russell Kirk as a “High Tory,” was mainly a journalist and supported the Carlists over the Francoists. The Flowering Rifle, it is true, is something of a paean to Franco, but was a reaction to the effusive praise of the Communists from the pens of other intellectuals.
The charge of fascist has dogged Campbell and is usually given as the reason for his exile from anthologies and histories, but this ignores Ezra Pound (who only avoided prosecution for treason by conveniently going mad), who remains a luminary of Modernism.
The real reason he has been exiled from the discussion for so long and for so thoroughly go back to his time in Britain in the 1920s. He and his wife Mary became involved in the Bloomsbury Group, and Vita Sackville-West seduced her. Campbell and his family moved to the south of France and he proceeded to attack the decadence and dissolution of the Bloomsbury Group in a long satire, The Georgiad (1931), modeled on Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad.
As Roger Scruton wrote in 2009, the Bloomsbury Group’s ideals “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.”
In other words, they were the original fragile snowflakes.
The Georgiad is as savage as it is funny—and it’s a very funny poem, indeed. It’s like Evelyn Waugh at the height of his powers, but more cruel because, as with the “On the Leftist Poets” example, Campbell always named names.
But all of this serves to make Campbell accessible and relevant to readers today. Half the trouble with The Dunciad is figuring out who all the people Pope mocks are, but Woolf, Sackville-West, and Auden are still quite well-known and discussed. His use of traditional form and meter also makes Campbell’s poetry quite readable. His tremendous vivacity and passion still come through, while the newness of Eliot and Pound has worn away and much of what passes for contemporary poetry is little more than prose arranged on a page.
As J. M. Lalley wrote of him in Selected Poetry, Campbell “preferred the society of sailors, fishermen, cattle-herders, and even prize-fighters to that of other writers” but he attended Oxford and is probably best known today because he appeared at a meeting of the Inklings and J. R. R. Tolkein’s letter to his son Christopher about the occasion, overflowing with praise, has been published. As a result, Campbell is a liminal figure, equally at home with the intelligentsia and the workers, with Medieval Spanish Catholicism and twentieth-century warfare. His wit is still more than sharp enough and his poetry more than good enough to burst whatever bubble in which one can find oneself today.
Yet there is one obstacle preventing his poems from finding an audience today and being read for their own merit and as part of the great conversation with his supporters and opponents: much, if not all of his work is long out of print. Judging by Amazon listings, the most recent publication was a reissue of Selected Poems in 2001, with an introduction by Joseph Pearce. Pearce also published a biography of Campbell, Unafraid of Virginia Woolf, in 2004.
Whoever owns the copyright to Campbell’s poetry—Regnery published it in the United States—should reissue it, possibly in affordable ebook form.
Matthew M. Robare is a freelance writer based in Boston, where he focuses on urban development and transportation and leads Boston’s G. K. Chesterton Society.