Roy Campbell Home Page

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This page has been created with the aim of making more readers aware of  the poetry of the great South African poet, Roy Campbell. Much will be added to the page over the next few months. I am in the process of obtaining permission to post extensive numbers of poems on this site, but for the present include only a few of the better known lyrics.

(Nick Meihuizen 2003)


Brief biography


Portrait of the young Campbell

A brief biography
Roy Campbell was born in Durban in 1901 and educated at Durban High School. Passionate about literature as a child, he was also passionate about the outdoor life -- he was a keen horseman, fisherman, hunter, and swimmer, and partook of all these activities in Durban and along the north coast of Kwa-Zulu Natal. In 1919 he left South Africa for Europe, where, as poet, cowboy, fisherman, Spanish Civil War partisan, raconteur, and translator, he became a legend in his own time. He published many volumes of poetry, including the long poem The Flaming Terrapin (1924), which established his reputation. He also published, to give some idea of his considerable output as a writer, two quirky autobiographies, books on Provence and Portugal, numerous reviews, some remarkable translations of romance language poets, and a small book on Federico Garcia Lorca. His reputation suffered considerably when he sided with Franco during the Spanish Civil War, at a time when most Western artists and intellectuals sided with the republicans. His reasons were complex, and had to do with his new found Catholic faith, his belief in traditional values, his anti-communism, his anti-Bloomsbury stance, and his equestrian/ aristocratic ideal. A few years later he was fighting against the fascists as a sergeant in the British army, but his reputation never recovered. This is a great pity because, while much of his polemical writing is mere bluster, being boring and repetitive in nature, Campbell has a true lyric gift and is a skilled craftsman of traditional verse. This fact should be taken into account by readers, especially if we consider the current interest in established forms of verse epitomised by the new formalism. Sidelined by the predominant poetic trends of the twentieth-century, Campbell now needs to be reconsidered and reassessed.
     He died in 1957 in a car accident in Portugal, his home country at the time.

Some poems

Luis de Camões

Camões, alone, of all the lyric race,
Born in the black aurora of disaster,
Can look a common soldier in the face:
I find a comrade where I sought a master:
For daily, while the stinking crocodiles
Glide from the mangroves on the swampy shore,
He shares my awning on the dhow, he smiles,
And tells me that he lived it all before.
Through fire and shipwreck, pestilence and loss,
Led by the ignis fatuus of duty
To a dog’s death — yet of his sorrows king —
He shouldered high his voluntary Cross,
Wrestled his hardships into forms of beauty,
And taught his gorgon destinies to sing.

The Zulu Girl

When in the sun the hot red acres smoulder,
Down where the sweating gang its labour plies,
A girl flings down her hoe, and from her shoulder
Unslings her child tormented by the flies.

She takes him to a ring of shadow pooled
By thorn-trees: purpled with the blood of ticks,
While her sharp nails, in slow caresses ruled,
Prowl through his hair with sharp electric clicks,

His sleepy mouth plugged by the heavy nipple,
Tugs like a puppy, grunting as he feeds:
Through his frail nerves her own deep languors ripple
Like a broad river sighing through its reeds.

Yet in that drowsy stream his flesh imbibes
An old unquenched unsmotherable heat —
The curbed ferocity of beaten tribes,
The sullen dignity of their defeat.

Her body looms above him like a hill
Within whose shade a village lies at rest,
Or the first cloud so terrible and still
That bears the coming harvest in its breast.

The Serf

His naked skin clothed in the torrid mist
That puffs in smoke around the patient hooves,
The ploughman drives, a slow somnambulist,
And through the green his crimson furrow grooves.
His heart, more deeply than he wounds the plain,
Long by the rasping share of insult torn,
Red clod, to which the war-cry once was rain
And tribal spears the fatal sheaves of corn,
Lies fallow now. But as the turf divides
I see in the slow progress of his strides
Over the toppled clods and falling flowers,
The timeless, surly patience of the serf
That moves the nearest to the naked earth
And ploughs down palaces, and thrones, and towers.

The Zebras

From the dark woods that breathe of fallen showers,
Harnessed with level rays in golden reins,
The zebras draw the dawn across the plains
Wading knee-deep among the scarlet flowers.
The sunlight, zithering their flanks with fire,
Flashes between the shadows as they pass
Barred with electric tremors through the grass
Like wind along the gold strings of a lyre.

Into the flushed air snorting rosy plumes
That smoulder round their feet in drifting fumes,
With dove-like voices call the distant fillies,
While round the herds the stallion wheels his flight,
Engine of beauty volted with delight,
To roll his mare among the trampled lilies.

Horses on the Camargue

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 haunt 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 his 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.
But 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 pastures fed
And loved to course with tempests through the night.

On Some South African Novelists

You praise the firm restraint with which they write —
I’m with you there, of course:
They use the snaffle and the curb all right,
But where’s the bloody horse?

  Pearce biography

Campbell as a young man


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