Thursday, July 8, 2010

Roy Campbell


In the grey wastes of dread,
The haunt of shattered gulls where nothing moves
But in a shroud of silence like the dead,
I heard a sudden harmony of hooves,
And, turning, saw afar
A hundred snowy horses unconfined,
The silver runaways of Neptune's car
Racing, spray-curled, like waves before the wind.
Sons of the Mistral, fleet
As him with whose strong gusts they love to flee,
Who shod the flying thunders on their feet
And plumed them with the snortings of the sea;
Theirs is no earthly breed
Who only haunts the verges of the earth
And only on the sea's salt herbage feed-
Surely the great white breakers gave them birth.
For when for years a slave,
A horse of the Camargue, in alien lands,
Should catch some far-off fragrance of the wave
Carried far inland from this native sands,
Many have told the tale
Of how in fury, foaming at the rein,
He hurls his rider; and with lifted tail,
With coal-red eyes and cataracting mane,
Heading his course for home,
Though sixty foreign leagues before him sweep,
Will never rest until he breathes the foam
And hears the native thunder of the deep.
And when the great gusts rise
And lash their anger on these arid coasts,
When the scared gulls career with mournful cries
And whirl across the waste like driven ghosts;
When hail and fire converge,
The only souls to which they strike no pain
Are the white crested fillies of the surge
And the white horses of the windy plain.
Then in their strength and pride
The stallions of the wilderness rejoice;
They feel their Master's trident in their side,
And high and shrill they answer to his voice.
With white tails smoking free,
Long streaming manes, and arching necks, they show
Their kinship to their sisters of the sea-
And forward hurl their thunderbolts of snow.
Still out of hardship bred,
Spirits of power and beauty and delight
Have ever on such frugal pasture fed
And loved to course with tempests through the night.

I was delighted to come across this poem today. It is by the South African poet, Roy Campbell, who just happens to be my favourite modern poet (in fact, just about the only truly modern poet whom I read) and I had never come across it before. It is typically Roy Campbell, full of such stunningly vivid imagery, that the poem seems to flame into living colour before your very eyes. It is one of his trademarks, as is his brilliant, unexpected use of very precise words. His poems are very strong and rich and warm: a pure distillation of language, smooth and potent as whisky.

Roy Campbell was an intriguing - if somewhat mercurial individual, passionate, whole-hearted alive. He led a vigourous and adventurous life. He was a fisherman, a horseman, was fluent is Zulu, a bull fighter, and fought in both wars. His long poem, The Flaming Terrapin was published in 1924, to critical acclaim, and earned him a reputation as a rising talent. Indeed, in the ordinary course of events, he would have been remembered as one of the great poets of the 20th century. However, he was the sort of person who prides himself in being politically incorrect. He loathed the literary intelligentsia of the time. He knew most of them personally, and wrote a scathing satirical poem, The Georgiad, which blasted them for their snobbery, their immoral behaviour, and their anti-Christian bias. Needless to say, it was not well received.

Perhaps, if he had merely insulted Virginia Wolfe, Vita Sackville-West, and others of that strip, his reputation would have survived intact. As it was, he was also a vocal anti-Communist, and supported Franco during the Spanish Civil War. He was branded a Fascist and his fate was sealed. (The label dogs him to this day. Regardless of his impressive talent, he is unjustly neglected.) He was living in Spain during the Civil War, newly converted to the Catholic faith. He supported Franco because Franco stood for the Faith and Spain, and against the violent Communism that was sweeping the country. Churches were burned, religious murdered in the streets, monasteries sacked and their libraries were destroyed. He was no Facist, however. He dismissed Hitler with the words, "Good gracious, this man won't do - he's a teetotalitarian vegetarian!" And though he was too old for active duty, he managed to get himself enlisted in the military during WWII. He served until an injury to his hip resulted in his being given a medical discharge, and sent back to England.

J. R. R. Tolkien met him about this time. He wrote an account of this meeting in a letter to his son, Christopher. Tolkien was in his favourite pub with a few of his friends, notably C. S. Lewis, when, as he writes, "I noticed a strange tall gaunt man half in khaki half in mufti with a large wide-awake hat, bright eyes and a hooked nose sitting in the corner. The others had their backs to him, but I could see in his eye that he was taking an interest in the conversation quite unlike the ordinary pained astonishment of the British (and American) public at the presence of the Lewises (and myself) in a pub. It was rather like Trotters at the Prancing Pony, in fact v. like." For those who do not know, Trotters was a early incarnation of Aragorn in "The Lord of the Rings" I like the idea of Roy Campbell influencing Tolkien's later developement of Aragorn.


Molly said...

I don't think I'd ever read this one before. Pretty heady stuff! Speaking of Tolkien, although I rather doubt the passages are related, don't bits of that poem rather put you in mind of this scene:
"Dimly Frodo saw the river below him rise, and down along its course there came a plumed cavalry of waves. White flames seemed to Frodo to flicker on their crests and he half fancied that he saw amid the water white riders upon white horses with frothing manes." (FotR, page 209)

Mahri said...

They do indeed.I thought that too, when I first read it.