Right Thinkers #8: Roy Campbell (1901-1957)

by rightscholarship

If you, like me, have been distressed and agitated by some of the recent debates in higher-ed media regarding the problem of “microaggression” on university campuses and the need for “trigger warnings” in course syllabi, I highly recommend indulging in some unapologetically macroaggressive literature as an antidote (preferably in the privacy of your home, but if you are at work you can hide your chosen text with a suitable decoy book to void alarming others). For such essential refreshment, I’ve lately turned to one of my favourite twentieth-century poets, Roy Campbell.

Campbell was a white South African poet who found modest fame in 1920s London with his audaciously bombastic long-poem The Flaming Terrapin (1924). Soon, however, his conservative political views and distaste for the literary left became an impediment to his career. He turned on the literary establishment that once welcomed him and became a right-wing outcast and eager disciple of the mighty Wyndham Lewis (who will be the subject of a future post). His life over the course of the 1930s was one of constant turmoil: he left England for Spain, converted to Catholicism, lived through the Spanish Red Terror, and became an outspoken supporter of Francisco Franco and the Spanish Nationalists. Most of the British literati never forgave him, and he remained unrepentant regarding his politics until his premature death in 1957. His most satisfyingly aggressive works include The Georgiad (1931), a verse satire, and the long-poem Flowering Rifle (1939) (the title of which is itself a trigger warning). Although some of Campbell’s poetry contains much quiet sophistication, these two works are classic examples of bare-knuckled literary violence. In them, Campbell burned all the bridges that led him to acclaim and accepted ostracization for the sake of his deeply-felt moral values.

Both The Georgiad and Flowering Rifle consist of reams of heroic couplets that toss insult after insult upon Campbell’s enemies. In “Talking Bronco” (1946), a later poem, Campbell explains the reason for his use of iambic couplets, contrasting his approach to poetry with that of “MacSpaunday”—his nickname for the then-fashionable “Auden Group,” which consisted of W.H. Auden, Cecil Day-Lewis (yes, the father of Daniel Day-Lewis), Louis MacNeice, and Stephen Spender:

For what poor Spaunday never understands—
The couplet is a verbal pair of hands
With a two-handed punch, more clean and deft
Than his one-armed and butterfisted Left. (414)

This kind of jab may seem uncalled for to anyone who enjoys reading Auden (and I include myself in this group), but Campbell was reacting less to the formal aspects of the Auden group’s poetry and more to what he perceived as political posturing—posturing that had real social and financial consequences for those with opposing political views. Campbell thought of himself as a scrappy underdog in the world of poetry, fighting a hegemonic leftism that was draining the life out of literature.

The Georgiad is a satirical attack on the ‘Georgian’ poets (a now largely-forgotten coterie centred around Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Sir Harold Nicholson) and some of those associated with the Bloomsbury group (specifically Virginia Woolf, Desmond MacCarthy, and Bertrand Russell). It was not, as the Wikipedia entry on Campbell suggests, directed primarily at the Bloomsbury group, although the Georgian mentality was pervasive in that group as well and some of the boundaries between the two groups are unclear. In any case, for the casual reader of today, knowledge of the real-life referents for the characters in the poem is mostly irrelevant. All one needs to know is that Campbell’s targets are the cloyingly progressive, self-involved, secretly prudish, exclusionary literary types that are still with us today. Terrified of real conflict with the outside world, they construct artificial—and always very exclusive—social environments in which they can imagine themselves as artistic renegades and flirt with ideas that supposedly subvert dominant social norms. To compensate for their own impotence, they indulge in malevolent gossip about members of their own ranks, as Campbell observes in this gem of a couplet:

Cain had more Christian mercy on his brother
Than literary nancies on each other. (208)

Although it is not an overtly political poem, The Georgiad displays Campbell’s acute sense of the political implications of seemingly innocuous artistic discourse. Like Wyndham Lewis (whose monumental satire The Apes of God was most likely the inspiration for The Georgiad), he understood that the genteel progressivism of the Georgians and Bloomsburies had implications reaching far beyond the stuffy environment of their elaborate dinner parties. Campbell saw that the Georgian/Bloomsbury aesthetic was tied to a politics that could, if unchecked, lead to the further dissolution of Western culture and the rise of a deadeningly egalitarian society (presumably one in which microagression would be extinct and trigger warnings would abound). Speaking of the Georgians, Campbell writes:

For with deep broodings and colossal pains
They hatch Utopias from their dusty brains
Which are but Hells, where endless boredom reigns—
Middle-class Hells, built on a cheap, clean plan,
Edens of Abnegation, dread to scan,
Founded upon a universal ban:
For banned from thence is all that fires or thrills,
Pain, vengeance, danger, or the clash of wills—
So vastly greater is their fear of strife
And hate of danger than their love of life . . . (200-201)

Campbell is envisioning the Georgian end-of-history—a peaceful world where sensitive souls are free to pursue their artistic goals, but where art has lost all meaning. Later in the poem, Campbell imagines that the people of this future society will look upon The Georgiad with fascination:

When prudery, anonymity, and chat
Have killed all difference between this and that,
And progress has reformed this cosmic frame
To that great Nothing out of which it came—
The ghosts and neuters who frequent that scene,
The moonlit people of the might-have-been,
Reading this page in that eventless time
Shall praise me for the meekness of my rhyme,
Who in an era of annihilation
Refrained from the wild rage of mutilation,
And gave self and identity to many
Who in their own existence hadn’t any . . . (216-217)

Perhaps all of us, in the twenty-first century, are among these “moonlit people of the might-have-been.” At least, it seems this label would apply to most of those who comprise the global mutual admiration society that is the world of contemporary literature.

Campbell’s fury at times led him into anti-Semitism, as the following quotation from Flowering Rifle reveals (although in this example I believe he is referring disparagingly to “the belittler, / The intellectual Invert, and the Jew” and not just to “the Jew”):

When cheapened, hypnotized, unmanned and cowed,
The gelded slave his ‘freedom’ is allowed—
A tyranny far worse than blamed on Hitler
Whose chief oppression is of the belittler,
The intellectual Invert, and the Jew,
Whose tyranny’s the harder of the two,
Since not by force, but a more sure refinement,
Rather akin to solitary confinement,
They isolate the man who won’t surrender
Or join their mass-crusades ‘against all splendour’—
And strong is he, with triple armour brassed,
Who will not hedge or compromise at last. . . . (568)

I won’t follow him down the twisted path of anti-Semitism, and his dismissive attitude towards Nazi tyranny was obviously misguided, but I can sympathize with his general point regarding the hardships faced by those who are publicly critical of social “progress.” The current ubiquity of social media makes the threat of “solitary confinement” of those with controversial opinions all the more menacing.

There is so much more to say about Campbell and his poetry, and some good information is available online. Those with access to a library may wish to look up the four-volume Collected Works and the few books on Campbell that exist. My purpose here was merely to provide some refreshment to those feeling the squeeze of the trigger warning.

Works cited:

Campbell, Roy. Flowering Rifle. 1939, revised 1957. Collected Works I: Poetry. Eds. Peter Alexander, Michael Chapman, Marcia Leveson. Craighall: A.D. Donker, 1985. 497-605.

Campbell, Roy. The Georgiad. 1931. Collected Works I: Poetry. Eds. Peter Alexander, Michael Chapman, Marcia Leveson. Craighall: A.D. Donker, 1985. 179-217.

Campbell, Roy. “Talking Bronco.” Talking Bronco. 1946. Collected Works I: Poetry. Eds. Peter Alexander, Michael Chapman, Marcia Leveson. Craighall: A.D. Donker, 1985. 407-416.