Roy Campbell, Scourge of Hypocrisy
By Br Bede Mullens | A reflection on the literary honesty of Roy Campbell’s works.
One sometimes hears a criticism of us who live nowadays, that we are lily-livered and over-distant from nature. Whether that is fair or not, I should not wish to comment; if it is true, I no doubt would have to confess myself a chief culprit. I pale at the sight of blood and block my ears to tales of wounds and really any discomfort. As for the world of nature – one time, I was being introduced to the abbot of a certain monastery when a great big dragonfly alighted upon my scapular. “My goodness!” I screamed and jumped back – gave the abbot rather a start, it must be said. “Why was it mountains, that you leapt like rams?” asks the Psalmist. Well, I would willingly hazard a couple of pennies that a great big flying creepy-crawly had something to do with it.
Anyway, Roy Campbell was a man who very definitely was not lily-livered or unacquainted with life’s – let’s say life’s more exciting side. Also the sort of man who thought other people too little acquainted with life’s more exciting side. If I wanted to be trite, I should call him a man of brazen contradictions: a poet and a soldier; a fine observer of nature but no sensitive soul; in his later years a Christian, whose poetry is charged in turns with vitriol and sensuality galore. But that would be trite.
If Campbell is remembered at all, it is often for two things. First, his translations of the poetry of St John of the Cross, whose poetic excellence Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinian litterateur, made bold to claim, surpassed that of the originals. Secondly – not unconnectedly – he won notoriety for his support of Franco in the Spanish Civil War. I say not unconnectedly, because as recent converts living in Toledo, Campbell and his wife sheltered several Carmelite friars during anti-clerical riots in March 1936. Four months later, with the Civil War in full swing and Communist militia occupying Toledo, Campbell would find the slaughtered bodies of those same Carmelites fouling a narrow street of the town. He recounted the scene of the destruction of their priory in a poem, Toledo, July 1936:
“Toledo, when I saw you die
And heard the roof of Carmel crash,
A spread-winged phoenix from its ash
The Cross remained against the sky!
With horns of flame and haggard eye
The mountain vomited with blood,
A thousand corpses down the flood
Were rolled gesticulating by…”
Campbell’s support for Franco is, I think, made more comprehensible by the experience of such atrocities, which often went ignored in the hype of enthusiasm that swept polite English society for the Republican cause in Spain. On the whole, not just in this matter, Campbell’s politics and indeed much of his worldview were determined by a revulsion toward the hypocrisy and short-sightedness of polite liberal ideals (or idealisations). Take a few lines from his poem, Flowering Rifle:
“The Inquisition in six hundred years
Pumped not a thousandth of the blood and tears
As, in some twenty, has the world-reforming,
Free-thinking, Rational, Cathedral-storming
Humanitarian, with his brother love”.
In a footnote to the same poem, he remarks: “More people have been imprisoned for Liberty, humiliated and tortured for Equality, and slaughtered for Fraternity, in this century than, for any less hypocritical motives, during the whole of the Middle Ages.”
The same kind of revulsion earlier in his career had provoked his indignation toward the Bloomsbury Group. He despised the comfortable artificial existence of these refined immoralists, and those complacent sorts of sophistries, which have the world all worked out while bearing no relation to reality, that typified the group’s philosophy; their whole attitude, in his view, amounted to a contempt for life. What Campbell expressed in satire, in its real substance, punches not far from the more sober critique offered by Alasdair MacIntyre, in After Virtue, of G. E. Moore’s Principia Ethica, a work which the Bloomsburys hailed as a renaissance in ethical thought and the shattering of all previous moralities. In truth, it was a sophisticated self-justification of a narrow world and its narrow concerns. One example MacIntyre cites from J. M. Keynes (yes, the noted economist), of the kind of problem which Moore solved and Plato, Aristotle, St Paul, Kant had failed to before him: ‘If A was in love with B and believed that B reciprocated his feelings, whereas in fact B did not, but was in love with C, the state of affairs was certainly not as good as it would have been if A had been right, but was it worse or better than it would become if A discovered his mistake?’ The plight of a teenage gossip.
“Dinner, most ancient of the Georgian rites,
The noisy prelude of loquacious nights,
At the mere sound of whose unholy gong
The wagging tongue feels resolute and strong,
Senate of boors and parliament of fools,
Where gossip in her native empire rules…”
That was Campbell’s verdict on a group with whom, initially, he had meant to be on friendly terms.
Campbell’s dislike extended to the bland artificiality of the Bloomsbury aesthetic. Their poetry (to his mind) was composed of rose-tinted clichés and blinkered by the paltry concerns of their self-centred loves: it amounted to kitsch. Real poetry should furnish us a vision of the world that escapes our preconceptions; it should break down our constructions of self-congratulation. Consider the conclusion of Georgian Spring. He asks, mock-sarcastically, who would dare to say otherwise than Bloomsbury declares?
“For who would frown when all the world rejoices,
And who would contradict when, in the spring,
The English Muse her annual theme rehearses
To tell us birds are singing in the sky?”
Then the rude shock –
“Only the poet slams the door and curses,
And all the little sparrows wonder why!”
As if to say, that they were no real poets. And as if by way of counterpoint, Campbell wrote his own poem to Autumn, which exemplifies a preference for a writing closer to nature’s (rather than society’s) concerns. It’s a kind of poetry which does not remodel its subject to fit its own pretty aesthetic, but takes the grim with beauty – or, finds what beauty has to receive from the grim.
“I love to see, when leaves depart,
The clear anatomy arrive,
Winter, the paragon of art,
That kills all forms of life and feeling
Save what is pure and will survive.”
Real beauty is enduring; hardiness does not dim it. Bloomsbury were the outgrowths of excessive comfort. It was in avoidance of that comfortable hypocrisy that Campbell’s own life and work appeared really, truly unconventional; not because he sought unconventionality for its own sake, or out of selfish disregard. He aspired, we might say, to imitate those Horses on the Camargue he so admired:
“Still out of hardship bred,
Spirits of power and beauty and delight
Have ever on such frugal pastures fed
And loved to course with tempests through the night.”
Image: Roy & Mary Campbell.
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