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  (Ignatius) Royston Dunnachie Campbell (1901–1957), by Augustus John, c.1924 (Ignatius) Royston Dunnachie Campbell (1901–1957), by Augustus John, c.1924
Campbell, (Ignatius) Royston Dunnachie [Roy] (1901–1957), poet and writer, was born in Durban, Natal, on 2 October 1901, the fourth child of a leading Durban physician, Samuel George Campbell (d. 1926), the son of a Scottish settler, and his wife, Margaret, daughter of James Dunnachie of Glenboig, Lanarkshire. Campbell had a free-ranging childhood, provided at an early age by his extended family of soldiers, farmers, hunters, athletes, and administrators with horses, guns, buck to shoot, fish to catch, and great areas of country in which to wander. Though he was much less active than he later liked to pretend he had been, he attributed to this fortunate childhood his adult enthusiasm for physical pursuits, his love of energy, violence, and colour (in writing as in life), and his dislike of mechanization and urban living. He completed his schooling at Durban Boys' High School in 1917, and after a year at Natal University College in Pietermaritzburg sailed for England at the end of the First World War, intending to read English at Merton College, Oxford. He failed to gain entry to the university, and instead spent a year living in Oxford in a back street, reading widely, notably the Elizabethan and Jacobean poets.

It was at Oxford that Campbell threw off the teetotalism of his family and took to drink; he was to be dependent on alcohol for the rest of his life. It was there, too, that he discovered his bisexual nature; he had a number of transitory affairs with men and women at Oxford. From the musician William Walton he learned the importance of dedicating himself entirely to art, and through Walton obtained introductions to the composer Philip Heseltine, the Sitwells, Wyndham Lewis, and T. S. Eliot.

One of his lovers of this period, the critic T. W. Earp, took Campbell to London, Berlin, and Paris, and steered him in the direction of the French symbolists. When Campbell left Oxford and went down to London, he shared a flat with Earp and (for a time) Aldous Huxley. Here, supported by Earp and an allowance from his father, he moved on the fringes of the London art world, and lived a leisurely, drifting life, travelling cheaply in France during the summer and taking any odd jobs that came to hand. He was tall and powerfully built, with the insolent good looks captured in the portrait Augustus John painted of him around this time.

In 1921 Campbell met and fell in love with a painter, Mary Garman (d. 1979), one of several beautiful daughters of a Birmingham doctor. Mary Garman had run away to London with her sister Kathleen, and was mixing with artists much as Campbell had been doing. After a period during which Campbell lived with both Mary and her sister, causing scandal even in bohemia, he and Mary married on 11 February 1922, and settled in a converted cowshed in the Welsh village of Aberdaron. Here their first daughter, Teresa, was born, and here Campbell finished the long poem that was to be published by Jonathan Cape in 1924, The Flaming Terrapin. This work was an immediate success and brought Campbell to prominence almost overnight, for in its energy, its cascading prodigality of imagery, and its strangeness of setting, it seemed a breath of fresh air to critics and readers grown accustomed to the genteel tones of the Georgian verse fashionable at the time.

Buoyed by this success, Campbell moved his family to South Africa, where his second daughter, Anna, was born in 1926. He founded a monthly magazine, Voorslag (‘Whiplash’), which he ran with the help of William Plomer and Laurens van der Post. However their attacks on the colour bar alarmed Voorslag's financial backer. Campbell, refusing to be called to heel, resigned after two issues and returned to Europe, taking his revenge on Durban's commercial crassness in a long satirical poem, The Wayzgoose (1928). He followed up this energetic lampoon with another entitled The Georgiad (1931), this time with a British target, a sense of persecution having been awakened in him by the passionate love affair which his wife, Mary, had during 1927 with Vita Sackville-West, whose guests the Campbells had been for some months in Kent. Campbell associated Vita Sackville-West and her diplomatist husband, Harold Nicolson, with the ruling class of Britain, and came to see in them everything he most disliked.

During 1928–33 Campbell lived in southern France and from 1933 to 1936 in Spain; his love of southern Europe is evident everywhere in his poetry of this period, notably in the finest of his collections of verse, Adamastor (1930). His continued friendship with Wyndham Lewis brought him into contact with many of the central movements of modernism, and some of his work of the early 1930s shows the influence of futurism—paradoxically, for Campbell disliked machines and ‘progress’ as much as the Italian futurist Marinetti exulted in them. Choosing a Mast (1931), Pomegranates (1932), and Flowering Reeds (1933) exemplify his preoccupations at this time.

Campbell's emotional involvement in the Spanish Civil War is evident in many of the poems written after 1936; several reflect his direct experience of the fighting in Toledo, where he was living when the war broke out. His sympathies were for the nationalists (a result chiefly of his conversion to Catholicism), although he never fought for them as he claimed to have done. The most striking of his Spanish Civil War poems were the fine lyrics of Mithraic Emblems and the long and partisan poem Flowering Rifle, which glorified Franco and did Campbell's reputation great harm.

Campbell joined the British army in 1942, although he was by now over forty and in poor health. He served in east Africa, first in training with Wingate's commando force and then, after being permanently disabled in an accident, as a coast-watcher for German submarines. His wartime experiences gave rise to the poems he published in Talking Bronco (1946), in which he continued to depict himself as struggling single-handedly against a hostile social and literary establishment in Britain.

After the war Campbell worked as a clerk on the War Damage Commission in London before joining the BBC as a talks producer. For a short period he edited an unsuccessful magazine, The Catacomb, which espoused a right-wing position in British politics. His most important post-war publications were translations: The Poems of St John of the Cross (1951), Baudelaire's Poems: a Translation of ‘Les fleurs du mal’ (1952), two novels by Eça de Queirós, six Spanish plays, and the poems of Paco d'Arcos. His translations, particularly of St John of the Cross, are masterful works of art in their own right. He also showed himself to be a sensitive critic in a book on Garcia Lorca, interspersed with his fine translations of Lorca's poems, Lorca (1952), and in a critical volume on Wyndham Lewis, published posthumously. During the last years of his life, from 1952, he lived in Sintra in Portugal. He was killed in a car crash near Sintra on 23 April 1957. He was buried four days later at the cemetery of São Pedro, Sintra.

Peter F. Alexander


L. Abrahams, ‘Roy Campbell: conquistador-refugee’, Theoria, 8 (1954), 46–65 · P. F. Alexander, Roy Campbell: a critical biography (1982) · P. F. Alexander, ‘Campbell, Plomer, Van der Post and Voorslag’, English in Africa, 7/2 (1980), 50–59 · P. F. Alexander, ‘Roy Campbell, William Plomer and the Bloomsbury group’, Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 18/1 (1983), 120–27 · [L. Whistler], ‘The poetry of statement’, TLS (24 March 1950), 184 · BBC WAC · B. Bergonzi, ‘Roy Campbell: outsider on the right’, Journal of Contemporary History, 2 (1967), 133–47 · B. Bergonzi, The turn of a century (1973) · E. Campbell, Sam Campbell: a story of Natal (privately printed, Durban, 1949) · J. Ciardi, ‘Muscles and manners’, The Nation (Dec 1955), 515 · R. N. Currey, Poets of the 1939–1945 war (1960) · U. Durham L., William Plomer MSS · W. H. Gardner, ‘Voltage of delight!’, The Month, new ser., 19 (1958), 5–17, 133–47 · C. J. D. Harvey, ‘The poetry of Roy Campbell’, Standpunte (Oct 1950), 53–9 · Ransom HRC, Campbell MSS · H. Kenner, ‘Narcissist of action’, Poetry, 82 (June 1953), 169–75 · A. Kershaw, ed., Salute to Roy Campbell (1984) · Killie Campbell Africana Library, Durban, South Africa · U. Krige, ‘The poetry of Roy Campbell: a few aspects’, in Poems of Roy Campbell, ed. U. Krige (1960) · U. Krige, ‘Roy Campbell as lyrical poet’, English Studies in Africa, 1/2 (Sept 1958), 81–94 · A. C. Lyle, Poetic justice: a memoir of my father, Roy Campbell (1986) · A. Paton, ‘Roy Campbell: poet and man’, Theoria, 9 (1957), 19–31 · W. Plomer, ‘Voorslag-days’, London Magazine, a Monthly Review of Literature, 6/9 (1959), 46–52 · D. S. J. Parsons, Roy Campbell: a descriptive and annotated bibliography (1981) · R. Campbell, Light on a dark horse (1951) · J. Povey, Roy Campbell (1977) · E. Sitwell, ‘Roy Campbell’, Poetry, 92 (April 1958), 42–8 · R. Smith, ‘Roy Campbell and his French sources’, Comparative Literature, 22/1 (1970), 1–18 · R. Smith, Lyric and polemic (1973) · South African National Library, Cape Town, South Africa · F. J. Temple, ed., Hommage à Roy Campbell (1958) · D. Wright, Roy Campbell (1961) · private information (2004) [Mrs Mary Campbell]


BBC WAC, corresp. with BBC staff members · BL, corresp. in Society of Authors archive, Add. MS 63217 · Harvard U., Houghton L., letters and MSS · Killie Campbell Africana Library, Durban, corresp., family papers · Ransom HRC, literary papers · U. Reading, corresp. · University of Indiana, Bloomington, Lilly Library, literary papers · University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Canada, corresp. and literary papers · York University, Toronto, archives, corresp. and literary papers |  Bodl. Oxf., letters to Martyn Skinner · Durban City Library, corresp. · Johannesburg City Library, corresp. · National English Literary Museum, Grahamstown, corresp. · Rhodes University, Corey Library, corresp. · U. Durham, archives and special collections, letters to William Plomer · University of Cape Town Library, corresp. with C. J. Sibbett, incl. poems · Witwatersrand University, corresp.




BBC Archives, Reading


A. John, portrait, c.1924, Pittsburgh Art Gallery, Pennsylvania [see illus.]

Wealth at death  

£496 10s. 5d.: administration, 1 Jan 1958, CGPLA Eng. & Wales