Still less often is such a book sent to me by an orthodox cloistered nun of impeccable taste.
But both these things hold true for Bloomsbury and Beyond: The Friends and Enemies of Roy Campbell(HarperCollins, UK), by Joseph Pearce, the current monopolist of Catholic literary biography who has also put together a much-needed collection of Campbell's verse: Roy Campbell: Selected Poems (The Saint Austin Press, London).
Roy Campbell was a South African poet who went to Oxford (earning the nickname Zulu for being a broad-shouldered man of action) and converted to Catholicism while living in Spain just before the Spanish Civil War. The priest who received Campbell and his wife was murdered by the socialists, as were the Carmelite monks of Toledo, whom Campbell had befriended.
After his and his wife's conversion, their bohemian private lives ended. His wife — who read straight through Aquinas — was a daily communicant and took on the prayerful obligations of a Third Order Carmelite. Campbell's conversion was as thorough, though less structured. As his wife noted, he took his theology from the great Catholic mystic poets (he translated the poems of St. John of the Cross) rather than from theologians as such.
But really, Campbell's attraction to the Church went even deeper than that; one could see it as an organic fruition. In England, Campbell had fallen in with the Bloomsbury group — a left-wing, atheistic, literary clique. Virginia Woolf was one of its most famous members. Though he never shared the group's opinions — and in fact came to despise them — he was led into its circle by imbibing many of the same intellectual influences: Nietzsche, Freud and other moderns who, in Campbell's later thinking, played upon the willing credulity of poseurs looking to justify their own perversity.
If his wife converted because she had always had a streak of the mystic about her, Campbell was saved by his ineradicable connection to reality. He loved the company of fishermen, peasants, sportsmen and men (like Dylan Thomas) who were intoxicated as much by nature and the world as they were by words (or intoxicating liquors).
He had no time at all for the pansy pantywaist school of Bloomsbury, of writers who “hate like gigolos and fight like women” or of left-wing poets who railed against fascism and then ran away to America when World War II began. Campbell believed in fights settled by fists and resolved by beer and bonhomie and of men who put their guts behind a bayonet (he served in the British army in World War II, despite being over-aged and hobbled by injuries) rather than behind a dining table at socialist dinner parties.
His put-downs of the Bloomsburyites are spot-on. Here he is on Lytton Strachey: “You are about as detached morally, physically and intellectually as the animal you most resemble… a tapeworm.” And on Aldous Huxley: “This pedant who leeringly gloated over his knowledge of how crayfish copulated … but could never have caught or cooked one.”
Campbell's first memory was of being pushed in his pram by a Zulu nanny to a point overlooking the ocean and seeing the roaring sea between the legs of a rearing horse: That is Roy Campbell, both in his poetry and in his person. His verse, in Lawrence Durrell's apt description, “booms and roars like the ocean breaking on the long empty beaches of his native Africa.”
And, like so many converts, it was in the Catholic faith that he found that same reality of sea-spray, horseflesh and life as it really is. To him the faith was as real as the roaring ocean, as real as a bucking bronco, as real as the bulls he tried to fight, as real as comradeship and soldiering. As real as Bloomsbury was contrived, artificial and perverted.
Though his poetic tone was usually ebullient, it was his faith that helped him write such lines as these:
The world is pitiless and lewdly jeers
All tragedy. Anticipate your loss.
Weep silently, in secret. Hide your tears,
So to become accustomed to your cross.
His politics — which have doomed his reputation, given the left-wing cliques that dominate literature now more than ever — were, in a phrase I love to promote, Tory Anarchist.
Campbell believed in tradition and in a carapace of order provided by the Church (or, secularly, by the light hand of the British Empire) that otherwise left families, communities, free associations, regions and every other “subsidiary institution” (the Catholic term for buffers between the individual and the state) total liberty. Thus he could be pro-Zulu, anti-Bolshevik, anti-Nazi, anti-democratic (because it unnecessarily politicized life) and against the bureaucratic welfare state.
Pearce, in his biography, is blunt about Campbell's many flaws — his talent for hyperbolic storytelling about his life, his bullish belligerence in satirical verse, his hopelessness with money — but it is still impossible, for this reviewer anyway, not to warm to Campbell. He wrote his wife that they were (and their lives together proved it):
Free as the air, responsible to none, Soldiers of chance, and troopers of the Sun.
Luck on our side, we play at pitch and toss.
Christ for our king and Mithras for our boss!
If you, like me, take your poets stout, I encourage you to raise a glass with Roy Campbell. He is a good company.
H. W. Crocker III is author most recently ofTriumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church, A 2,000-Year History. His comic novel,The Old Limey, has recently been reissued in paperback.