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Volume 46, Number 1 (Spring 2008)

The Truth about Roy Campbell

An excerpt from The Sword of Imagination: Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict
(Wm. B. Eerdmans; Grand Rapids, Mich.; 1995)

Russell Kirk

Another of Kirk’s friends of the Fifties, the lyric poet Roy Campbell, by accident went over an Iberian cliff, though he had survived wounds and injuries in several countries. To die in an automobile was an ironical end for Roy, who had loved horses and bulls but detested all machines. Kirk called him “the last of the scalds,” for like the Viking scalds, Campbell was fearless, outrageous, and reckless, at once a doer of deeds and a singer of them.

Loving freedom and tradition, he was beaten by Communists in Toledo and beat literary ideologues in Bloomsbury. He commanded four hundred of the King’s African Rifles—many of them cannibals—in East Africa; he was storm-tossed in the Hebrides, anathematized in Durban, torn by wild beasts in Africa, buffeted by the critics of the Left. At one time or another he was sailor, shepherd, solider, war correspondent, secret agent (an ineffectual one), hunter, horse trader, bull breeder. And always he was a poet of high imagination and skill. Spain he loved above all other lands. Despite the violence of his career, he was the gentlest of companions. Kirk spent days with him in Chicago and London.

No man ever found more pleasure in life than did Roy Campbell—interested passionately in sea creatures, in insects, in children, in Christian faith, in the world of letters, in Mithraic symbols, in gypsies, Africans, ancient towns, ancient ballads. Once he told Kirk that he could have sat happily for a thousand years under Spanish oaks, watching the pigs feeding on acorns.

Much of the whimsical variety of the man may be gleaned from his autobiography, Light on a Dark Horse (which deals with his life only to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War; he never finishing his projected second volume). But one does not learn from that diverting book how humane was this fighting wanderer and scoffer at modernity.

Campbell was an undismayed champion in arms against the gloomy powers that unnerve modern man. He never feared to brandish the sword of imagination. As he wrote in his Civil War poem “To the Survivors,”

For none save those are worthy birth
Who neither life or death will shun:
And we plow deepest in the Earth
Who ride the nearest to the Sun.

Some people embroider the truth; and yet they may be more modest, and in essence more truthful, than certain men and woman who pride themselves upon their literal veracity. Roy Campbell interwove his fact and his fiction. In reading his autobiography , one cannot be quite sure that, in many particulars, it is a factual narrative. Did Roy really wage that desperate fight against gypsies on a bridge near Toledo? Who can say? Were Roy alive, one might obtain only a poetic answer from him.

Much of Campbell’s account of his adventures in the Civil War is grisly reality, and some of it is fanciful. Camilo Cela, the Spanish man of letters (whom Kirk met in Palma de Mallorca) was asked whether Roy’s soldiering against the Reds was to be accepted soberly. “What does that matter?” Cela objected, in very Spanish fashion. “Campbell wandered along the front, sometimes as a journalist, sometimes with a gun. Put it down that everything he wrote was perfectly true. The real Campbell is the Campbell of his books.”

Roy’s was the true poet’s awareness that high truth is symbolic, rather than matter of fact. The poet’s interpretation of reality is elastic, but it is not false because of that latitude. Truth is a coy mistress who lets no mortal posses her utterly. Yet the poet is more favored by her than are the dull, prosy souls who cofound petty detail with wisdom. . . .

* * *

If one would understand Campbell, the first thing to do is to read G. K. Chesterton’s romance Manalive, published in 1921, about the time when Campbell (in the words of Peter Alexander, his biographer) “tramped about southern France, a bearded long-haired figure in shabby clothes who was several times mistaken for an escaped convict.” It is doubtful whether Chesterton and Campbell ever met. Nevertheless, Roy Campbell was Innocent Smith of Manalive—wanderer, enthusiast, commonsense philosopher, pistol-packing servant of God. Even Innocent’s eccentric endless romance with his own wife was paralleled by Roy’s tempestuous (but finally idyllic) relations with Mary Campbell. . . .

* * *

Perhaps Campbell’s most enduring work is his rendering of the poems of Saint John of the Cross, published in 1951, with a preface by Martin D’Arcy. “Roy Campbell carries us with him to Spain and into the presence of a Saint singing the love of God,” Father D’Arcy wrote. Edith Sitwell, in her foreword to the third volume of Campbell’s Collected Poems (1960), declared that “Roy Campbell was one of the very few great poets of our time.” Stephen Spendler, once Campbell’s bitter enemy, did not rank Roy so high; but he was very ready to concede, recently, that Campbell was “the author of a number of resplendent poems unique in modern English verse.”

Campbell wrote with passion, out of ardent and sometimes horrible experience of the 20th-century world. The Primate of Spain confirmed Roy and Mary just before the Red militia seized power in Toledo (except for the besieged Alcazar) and murdered the Campbell’s Carmelite confessors, together with all the other Carmelite monks. Out of this Toledo terror rose Campbell’s poem “Toledo, July 1936”:

. . . high above the roaring shells
I heard the silence of your bells
Who’ve left these broken stones behind
Above the years to make your home,
And burn, with Athens and with Rome,
A sacred city of the mind.

Writing often of death, Campbell glowed with his love of life: Innocent Smith, again.

“At certain strange epochs,” says Innocent Smith in Chesterton’s Manalive, “it is necessary to have another kind of priests, called poets, actually to remind men that they are not dead yet. The intellectuals among whom I moved were not even alive enough to fear death. They hadn’t blood enough in them to be cowards. Until a pistol barrel was poked under their very noses they never even knew they had been born. For ages looking up to an eternal perspective it might be true that life is a learning to die. But for these little white rats it was just as true that death was their only chance of learning to live.”

That passage might have been Campbell’s retort to his literary adversaries; certainly it is in Roy’s tone. But there was no malice in Campbell. To quote again from Manalive, “His eccentricities sprang from a static fact of faith, in itself mystical, and even childlike and Christian.”

Kirk had taken his chances in clouds of poison gas, on peaks of the Rockies, and in alleys of New Orleans; he had walked the streets of Detroit with a sheath knife at his belt. But to Roy Campbell he most humbly took off his Borsalino hat. Dead? Not that incandescent soul.

Posted: April 19, 2008 in From Russell Kirk.

A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors.

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

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