Violence and Beauty in Roy Campbell's Poetry

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R J Dent's essay on Violence and Exquisite Beauty in the Poetry of Roy Campbell.

Submitted: April 13, 2016

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Submitted: April 13, 2016



Violence and Exquisite Beauty in Roy Campbell’s Poetry
by R J Dent


Many of the biographical details of Roy Campbell’s life have contributed to his exquisitely beautiful poetry being wilfully ignored by most of the publishing world. In her introduction to Campbell’s translations of the poems of St John of the Cross, Campbell’s wife, Mary states:

‘The violent side of his character was used as a cloak for a vulnerable, contemplative soul. The tough soldier, the crack shot, the jouster, the convivial story-teller were all so many masks covering the retiring, gentle, creative spirit from a too brutal contact with everyday life.’

This claim is in some way confirmed by a close look at Campbell’s poetry and translations, rather than by reading any of the available biographies. In his own poetry, Campbell creates a rich and delightfully sensual world and then presents its specifics in startling detail:

I dropped my sail and dried my dripping seines
Where the white quay is chequered by cool planes
In whose great branches, always out of sight,
The nightingales are singing day and night.
Though all was grey beneath the moon’s grey beam,
My boat in her new paint shone like a bride,
And silver in my baskets shone the bream:
My arms were tired and I was heavy-eyed,
But when with food and drink, at morning-light,
The children met me at the water-side,
Never was wine so red or bread so white.

Mass at Dawn
Roy Campbell

This seemingly effortless creation and evocation of an exotic landscape and the accompanying modes of life and customs of its inhabitants, is one of Campbell’s many strengths as a poet. His eye for detail, in particular, coloured detail, gives his poems a great deal of imaginative depth. The ‘dripping seines’; ‘the white quay’; the landscape, ‘grey beneath the moon’s grey beam’; the ‘boat in her new paint’; ‘the bream’, shining ‘silver in my baskets’; the ‘morning-light’; the ‘wine so red’ and the ‘bread so white’, all contribute to loading the poem to capacity with sensory and sensual detail.

As this essay is primarily concerned with analysing Campbell’s work for the type of aesthetic method used to present images of such delicacy as the poems contain, there is not adequate space to analyse the plethora of linguistic riches and semantic delights that are to be found in Campbell’s poetry – of which the final line of Mass at Dawn: ‘Never was wine so red or bread so white’ is just one example.

Mary Campbell also claims that ‘Roy Campbell [is] a poet of action, and in some ways a violent poet.’ This claim, which refers not to the man, but specifically to the poet, is crucial for an understanding of Campbell’s poetry. As ‘a poet of action and… a violent poet’, Campbell is able to create and capture moments from the natural world with close-up, convincing, violent and sensual detail:

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 herd the stallion wheels his flight.
Engine of beauty volted with delight
To roll his mare among the trampled lilies.

The Zebras
Roy Campbell

Again, the attention to coloured detail provides the poem with its power and beauty. The ‘dark woods’; the ‘scarlet flowers’; the ‘gold strings’; the ‘rosy plumes’ and ‘the trampled lilies’ all work on the mind’s visual sense, while the verbal pyrotechnics of ‘golden reins’; ‘draw the dawn’; ‘zithering’; ‘electric tremors’; and ‘Engine of beauty volted with delight’, provide a sophisticated linguistic framework, within which modern mechanical terms are juxtaposed with words and images from nature. The frisson that this technique creates is what makes the poem successful. Campbell’s aesthetic technique of yoking together such disparate elements – the natural and the mechanical, the violent and the sensually beautiful, can clearly be seen at work in this poem.

Campbell’s claim that ‘translations, (like wives) are seldom faithful if they are in the least attractive’, would suggest that Campbell’s translations would bear no resemblance to their source material. This is not the case. Instead, Campbell utilises a poetic sensibility and sensitivity finely tuned to the specific needs of the rhetoric of each of the poems he translates. In his versions of Baudelaire’s poems from Les Fleurs du Mal, the poems retain Baudelaire’s metres, and also manage to keep all of the tone and meanings of the originals:

Come, my fine cat, against my loving heart;
Sheath your sharp claws, and settle.
And let my eyes into your pupils dart
Where agate sparks with metal.

Now while my fingertips caress at leisure
Your head and wiry curves,
And that my hand’s elated with the pleasure
Of your electric nerves,

I think about my woman – how her glances
Like yours, dear beast, deep down
And cold, can cut and wound one as with lances;

Then, too, she has that vagrant
And subtle air of danger that makes fragrant
Her body, lithe and brown.

The Cat
Charles Baudelaire

Of course, the gestalt of the poem – the cat and the woman, the sensuality and the violence, the tranquillity and the danger, are already present in Baudelaire’s poem, which is probably what drew Campbell to it in the first place. The lines: ‘my fingertips caress at leisure/Your head and wiry curves’; ‘elated with the pleasure’; ‘my woman’; and ‘Her body, lithe and brown’, are representative of the erotically sensual. The words ‘sparks’, ‘metal’, ‘electric’, and ‘wiry’, are Campbell’s characteristic mechanical terms; and ‘sharp claws’, ‘dart’, ‘cut and wound’, ‘lances’, and ‘danger’, are words of violence. The overall effect of this particular translation is that the Baudelaire poem has become a Campbell poem, but is simultaneously recognisable as a Baudelaire poem.

With his translation of Baudelaire’s Spleen, Campbell has some heavyweight rivals: Robert Lowell, Jeremy Reed, and Laurence Lerner, to name the most successful. However, Campbell produces a distinctive version of this poem, retaining Baudelaire’s original couplet structure, metre, rhetoric, tone and meanings:

I’m like the king of some damp, rainy clime,
Grown impotent and old before my time,
Who scorns the bows and scrapings of his teachers
And bores himself with hounds and all such creatures.
Naught can amuse him, falcon, steed or chase:
No, not the mortal plight of his whole race
Dying before his balcony. The tune,
Sung to this tyrant by his pet buffoon,
Irks him. His couch seems far more like a grave.
Even the girls, for whom all kings seem brave,
Can think no toilet up, nor shameless rig,
To draw a smirk from this funereal prig.
The sage who makes him gold, could never find
The baser element that rots his mind.
Even those blood-baths the old Romans knew
And later thugs have imitated too,
Can’t warm this skeleton to deeds of slaughter,
Whose only blood is Lethe’s cold, green water.

Charles Baudelaire

When it comes to translating the poems of St John of the Cross, Campbell eschews most of the striking coloured visuals of his former method, in favour of a less vivid mode of presentation:

With the divinest Word, the virgin
Made pregnant, down the road
Comes walking, if you’ll grant her
A room in your abode.

Concerning the Divine Word
St John of the Cross

The images are still powerful, but are now tempered by a deliberate absence of adjectives for colouration purposes. The simplicity of the poetic lines is in keeping with the religious tone of St John’s poems. Campbell has again submerged his own identity and suited his considerable translator’s skills to the needs of the poems. As with the Baudelaire poems, Campbell recognised in St John’s poetry a number of analogies with his own work – in particular, the landscape, the sensuality, violence and beauty of the natural world:

Rejoice, my love, with me
And in your beauty see us both reflected:
By mountain-slope and lea,
Where purest rills run free,
We’ll pass into the forest undetected:

Then climb to lofty places
Among the caves and boulders of the granite,
Where every track effaces,
And, entering, leave no traces,
And revel in the wine of the pomegranate.

from Song between the soul and the bridegroom

St John of the Cross

Campbell has also sensitively translated Lorca and Rimbaud. Ultimately, whether it is his own work, or a work of translation, Roy Campbell’s poetry is distinctively beautiful, violent, passionate, sensual, linguistically sophisticated, and enjoyable. He is a poet of considerable talent and ability. He should be better known than he is. His work should be readily available. He should be read.



Violence and Exquisite Beauty in Roy Campbell’s Poetry

Copyright © R J Dent (2007 & 2016)


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