Who was the mysterious poet whose quiet, brim-shrouded attentiveness to C.S. Lewis in a pub inspired J.R.R. Tolkien to describe the hero Aragon in a similar pose?
Being neither a poet nor a literature major, I’m not ashamed to admit I have been unfamiliar with the interesting story of Roy Campbell. While his friendship with the Inklings of Oxford most intrigues me, his life itself is a fascinating story.
A South African who offered his deepest emotional devotion to Spain, his early years were influenced by the license of London’s bohemian underworld. He did, however, end up criticizing the excesses of the Bloomsbury Group.
Later, he and his wife would convert to Roman Catholicism, and even risk their lives to protect the letters of Saint John of the Cross from murderous Spanish revolutionaries who sought to burn them. They accepted responsibility for the documents shortly before the seventeen monks at the monastery were rounded up and shot in the street while their library burned.
Several days later the Campbells were visited by a search party of militiamen. Expecting such an intrusion, Roy and Mary had already taken the precaution of removing all crucifixes and religious pictures from the walls. Their main fear was that the trunk containing the Carmelite archives, including the personal letters of St John of the Cross, would be discovered.
The search, however, was not particularly thorough. At one stage some of the militiamen even leaned their rifles on the trunk without thinking of opening it. (Joseph Pearce, “The poet who saved a saint’s priceless letters”)
C.S. Lewis & Roy Campbell
C.S. Lewis considered Campbell’s championing of the Spanish fascists (who protected the Roman Catholic Church from the Leftist rebels) to be naïve. He even wrote a poem in direct response to Campbell’s lengthy “Flowering Rifle,” which is included in issue 4.2 of Curtana: Sword of Mercy.
I happen to edit the military chaplaincy journal Curtana, which is currently on hiatus. In the same issue I included another Campbell poem, “Christ in Uniform” (see pages 78-79).
In a second article, Joseph Pearce who was quoted above provides a lengthy exploration of the relationship between the two men. Its subtitle, “The Best of Friends and Enemies” reveals its theme. While Lewis remained critical of his acceptance of fascists, the two eventually became friends.
In spite of such an unpromising encounter, Lewis warmed to Campbell and invited him to meetings of the Inklings. He even offered to put Campbell up when he was in Oxford, offering him “dinner, bed and breakfast” at his home. They would exchange correspondence about the poetry of Milton, which both men admired, and settled into an altogether affable relationship.
Another peculiar thing about their friendship is how Lewis based a satirical character on Campbell in The Pilgrim’s Regress. When a song is requested, it is a one of the most savage of the men who first takes the stage.
“I will,” cried thirty voices all together: but one cried much louder than the others and its owner had stepped into the middle of the room before anyone could do anything about it.
He was one of the bearded men and wore nothing but a red shirt and a cod-piece made of the skins of crocodiles: and suddenly he began to beat on an African tom-tom and to croon with his voice, swaying his lean, half-clad body to and fro and staring at them all, out of eyes which were like burning coals.
This time John saw no picture of an Island at all. He seemed to be in a dark green place full of tangled roots and hairy vegetable tubes: and all at once he saw in it shapes moving and writhing that were not vegetable but human.
The passage continues, but it’s best read in context. Especially since it precedes an accusation that John, the pilgrim in the tale, is so unsophisticated as to be unable to distinguish between art and pornography.
The Making of a Poet
Lewis and Campbell were both poets. Campbell was successful in this pursuit, and admired by many. Lewis . . . much less so. But it was my recent reading of one of Campbell’s poems on the subject of poetry that set me to researching for this column. So it’s only fitting that I close now with his poem entitled, “The Making of a Poet.”
It’s quite visceral, evoking the savage imagery of his native Africa, and hints at what inspired Lewis to caricature him in the way we read a moment ago.
In every herd there is some restive steer
Who leaps the cows and heads each hot stampede,
Till the old bulls unite in jealous fear
To hunt him from the pastures where they feed.
Lost in the night he hears the jungles crash
And desperately, lest his courage fail,
Across his hollow flanks with sounding lash
Scourges the heavy whipcord of his tail.
Far from the phalanxes of horns that ward
The sleeping herds he keeps the wolf at bay,
At nightfall by the slinking leopard spoored,
And goaded by the fly-swarm through the day.
You can read more of Campbell’s poetry here.