Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Roy Campbell

Next up in McMillan’s occasional series of favourite maverick poets is Roy Campbell.

Born in South Africa in 1901 from Scottish parents, Campbell was one of the most brilliant of a generation of poets in the 1940s and 50s that included Louis MacNeice, Cecil Day Lewis, Stephen Spender, Dylan Thomas and WH Auden. His poetry contains brilliant and vivid evocations of landscape and pictures of exotic detail and clarity. His poetic eye was lit by Mediterranean and African sunlight: he spent much of his life in Spain and Portugal and served his war years in Kenya.

Mass at Dawn

I dropped my sail and dried my dripping seines
Where the white quay is chequered by cool planes
In whose great branches, always out of sight,
The nightingales are singing day and night.
Though all was grey beneath the moon’s grey beam,
My boat in her new paint shone like a bride,
And silver in my baskets shone the bream:
My arms were tired and I was heavy-eyed,
But when with food and drink, at morning-light,
The children met me at the water-side,
Never was wine so red or bread so white.

It was in London, however, that he met Dylan Thomas and became a firm friend, even helping him eat a bowl of daffodils to celebrate St David’s Day. Campbell worked as a producer for the BBC and was able to punt a lot of work to his impecunious friend, as well as help in the shape of hand-outs. Why do we not remember Campbell as well as his contemporaries? Apart from the fact he was a heavy drinker, his political views were wildly unfashionable. He was fiercely right-wing and contemptuous of the liberal intellectual coteries of the day. He tried to strangle Stephen Spender live on stage (Spender forgave him on account of Campbell’s “greatness” as a poet) and claimed to have been the one who shot George Orwell in the trenches during the Spanish Civil War, though the fact he said he'd done this with a longbow, and wasn’t actually anywhere near the front line at the time, casts doubt on the story. He served in the British army during World war 2 and was invalided out. He died tragically in a car accident in Portugal in 1957.


My thought has learned the lucid art
By which the willows lave their limbs
Whose form upon the water swims
Though in the air they rise apart.
For when with my delight I lie,
By purest reason unreproved,
Psyche usurps the outward eye
To trace her inward sculpture grooved
In one melodious line, whose flow
With eddying circle now invests
The rippled silver of her breasts,
Now shaves a flank of rose-lit snow,
Or rounds a cheek where sunset dies
in the black starlight of her eyes

His obituary in the Times read Campbell was an individualist, a traditionalist and a fiery scorner of much that was accepted by his articulate contemporaries as being commonplace truth. But to call him a poet of the right is merely to use a convenient label. It does not explain the beauty of his lyrics nor the marvellous sweep of his narrative descriptive power..


Rachel Fox said...

Begs the question "who would you strangle 'live' on stage if you could"? And who would I..? Never mind poetry slams...poetry stranglathons? Must call StAnza.

Dominic Rivron said...

How what people believe affects one's view of their work is interesting. It strikes me, reading this, that I've never been comfortable with RC's work on account of his politics -I once read some vitriol directed at him by Hugh MacDiarmid- but I don't feel the same way about Ezra Pound's work. Odd. Perhaps I discovered the controversy when I was younger and had just been very much impressed by reading Homage to Catalonia.