"Love in a hut"
For months on end, during one winter in the early 1920s, a young man lay at night on a bed in the croglofft of a primitive and dilapidated cottage near the end of the Llyn Peninsula, writing an extraordinary poem by candlelight, as his wife and infant daughter slept downstairs. Although the writer was only 21, his verse shows an assured handling of rhyme and rhythm, as well as an imaginative grasp of metaphor, as the opening lines of the poem illustrate.
No doubt the young man was proud of "Anadyomene". As it means literally "sprung from the waves" and is an adjective applied to Aphrodite, goddess of beauty, fertility and sexual love and as he was writing near and about the sea, in the company of his beautiful young wife and daughter, he may be forgiven for showing off his classical learning.
By the time he had finished, the poem consisted of about 1,500 lines of verse which, although containing clear echoes of earlier poets (as one would expect in the first work of a young writer), was quite unlike anything else being written at that time. When it was published in May 1924 it received critical acclaim from some of the established literary figures of the day, including T.E.Lawrence, who thought it "great stuff", and in a letter to his publisher wrote, "...what originality, what energy, what freshness and enthusiasm, and what a riot of glorious imagery and colour! Magnificent I call it!". The Spectator said in a review that the poem "...stands like a giant among the bagatelles and delicacies of most modern poets." Neither was it a nine days' wonder: half a century later, The Dictionary of National Biography described it as "...a humanistic allegory on the rejuvenation of man, projected in episodes and images of such flamboyant splendour that the work justly made him famous.".
One of the reasons for the poem being different from anything else written at the time was that the writer's background was unusual. Roy Campbell was born in Durban, South Africa, in October 1901, fourth of the five sons of a distinguished doctor. As a child, his health had been delicate, and he suffered from asthma. Although he was not academically gifted, he was a great reader, and, by all accounts, rather a dreamer. At the age of 18, he was sent to Oxford with the idea of studying Greek in order to pass Responsions, with a view to entering the University; it soon became evident, however, that he had little talent for formal study, and, feeling out of place and ill-at-ease in academia, he began to drink heavily. Although he did not make the grade academically, however, something important happened to him during the time he lived in Oxford. He became friendly with William Walton, a fellow lodger also finding Greek impossible, and who, at the age of 18, was already composing prolifically. Walton introduced Campbell to such people as the Sitwells, Wyndham Lewis and T.S.Eliot. He also at this time met Robert Graves, Richard Hughes and L.A.G Strong, who later wrote of meeting "...a pale and scared looking slender boy of 19, emerging from a cupboard ... in which he had been hiding from some tradesman to whom he owed money." Within months, under the influence of these new acquaintances, what had been a shy, teetotal colonial lad had turned into a boozy, flamboyant youth, indulging in both straight and gay relationships. By 1920 he was in London, at one time sharing a flat with Aldous Huxley and friendly with Augustus John, who, many years later remembering their first meeting, noted with a portraitist's eye character as well as appearance:
In the following year he met Mary Garman, who, with her sister Kathleen, was also living on the fringe of the artistic world. Thirty years later, he was to write:
The Garmans' father was a doctor in Wednesbury, near Birmingham, and Mary and her sister were escaping from what they thought of as stuffy provincial respectability. (There was, however, something unconventional and romantic in her background, as her mother was the illegitimate daughter of Viscount Grey of Falloden, the man who memorably summed up a significant moment in European history by saying in August 1914, "The lights are going out all over Europe...".) Mary and Kathleen were attractive girls, and soon after moving to London had a string of artists as admirers, the most famous of whom was Jacob Epstein (who, many years later, was to marry Kathleen). Campbell himself was a handsome man, over six feet tall, and within three days of meeting Mary, had moved in to live with the two girls in their flat near Regent Square, much to the annoyance of their artist friends. This annoyance led on one occasion to Epstein and Campbell actually fighting; writing about it later, Campbell turned the incident into a battle of epic proportions, but as it was Kathleen who actually separated the combatants, it could well have been nothing more than a scuffle.
Within weeks of meeting, Campbell and Mary were "married" in a gipsy ceremony at Augustus John's house in Dorset. They were more formally united in church in Wednesbury a month later in the presence of Mary's family, although even then there was an unconventional element, in that the bride wore a dress of black and red velvet. They set up house together in rooms in London, where Campbell hoped to get reviewing work. From the beginning, their relationship had a dangerous edge to it, as Campbell was fiercely jealous of anyone Mary had known before she met him. Once, when she said, "Oh, how beautiful she was!", he dragged her over to the open window and held her out. About that time, he later wrote:
Campbell must have talked about the window incident for some years after this, as, fictionalised, it occurs in the novel The Case is Altered by William Plomer, who did not meet Campbell until 1925. That he was capable of boasting about his attitude to women even later in life is apparent from something he wrote in about 1950:
They soon began to find it difficult to live on the few reviewing jobs which Campbell had managed to get, and they had to pawn their wedding presents. To find somewhere cheaper (and perhaps to escape from Epstein who was still making things difficult) they decided to move to Aberdaron, a place which Mary knew well as she had spent childhood holidays there with her parents (together with her six sisters and two brothers).
They slept rough for a while, but eventually managed to rent the dilapidated cottage of Ty Corn, near Pencaerau and nearly four miles from Aberdaron. It has been described as "a cowshed" and "a stable", but as it had a sash window and a chimney (as the name suggests), it must originally have been a dwelling house. (In 1891 the widowed Richard Thomas, a "Carrier of Butter and Eggs", aged 53 and his 15-year old daughter Eliza lived there.) It was certainly a cottage of the very smallest type and does appear to have provided a separate part for animals at one end. The croglofft the poet wrote in had a tiny glass pane set in the roof.
Conditions there were certainly primitive, as we can learn from an independent account, written by Augustus John's 17-year old son Romilly, who was visiting the Campbells when they moved into Ty Corn. He stayed about a month, and wrote about it some years later.
Romilly John, who had agreed to help Mary with the housework, gives us a few more details about the Campbells' stay in Aberdaron.
The reference to the large stones on the beach suggests that they bathed at Porth Ysgo, the nearest beach to Ty Corn. The rabbit shooting sounds rather different in the account Campbell himself gave of it; writing about 10 years later he said, "...I bought a small gun second-hand, which kept us in food." After another two decades, he added a few details: "I bought a small shotgun for twenty-two shillings from Gamage's, melted the shot into ball cartridges, and found it quite handy. The poaching was excellent....".
By this time Mary was pregnant, and a daughter was born in November 1922. Peter Alexander, Campbell's biographer, who was able to consult Mary towards the end of her life, gives an account of it.
Campbell's own version (written in the early 1930s) differs only slightly, but adds a (probably fictitious) doctor:
Campbell wrote an account of his stay in Llyn in his two volumes of autobiography (both of which are long out of print). The first version occurs in Broken Record (1934) and is as follows.
Now the first thing anyone who studies the life of Campbell realizes is that he was completely unreliable as to facts. Numerous stories in his autobiographies reveal him to be a fantasist, anxious to tell stories which show how recklessly brave he was, and there can be no doubt that his story about taking a reluctant doctor over to Bardsey comes into this category. By the time he came to write his second volume of autobiography about 15 years after the first, he added a few more details, none of which would convince anyone who knows anything about the passage across the Sound to Bardsey.
The oral history of the island in the first decades of the twentieth century is remarkably well recorded, and one of the stories concerns a doctor who was called to the island and, after attending to his patient, set out on his journey back at five o'clock in the evening, but did not reach Aberdaron until three o'clock the following morning, after which he vowed never to go back even if all the islanders were unwell. It sounds as if Campbell was told this story, and decided to adapt it to his own use.
Anyone reading his volumes of autobiography must tread carefully, selecting what to believe and what not, and there is no evidence that the writer ever visited Bardsey. In the mid 1920s (a few years before Campbell wrote his first account of the stay in Pencaerau), Love Pritchard and some other islanders did leave in September 1925, and there was publicity in the national press about what was called the "exodus". In fact, however, many families stayed on, and at the end of the decade, far from being "deserted" the island had between 30 and 40 people still living there. Whether or not the Bardsey islanders should pay Income Tax was often discussed, and Campbell must have been told something about this. His reference to their "ancient galley" is also based on something he probably heard; they often had difficulties with the motor boat they used in the 1920s, and at the time the Campbells were in Aberdaron a young schoolmistress had to be rowed over, in quite rough seas.
The following is the second account of the Campbells' stay in Pencaerau:
Campbell is probably right when he says the locals gave them presents, especially when we remember that they were obviously penniless and Mary was pregnant. There is a farmhouse (Ty Canol) a few yards from Ty Corn, and Mary Ann, the woman who lived there at that time, befriended Mary Campbell and was a considerable help to her after Teresa was born, even washing nappies for her. Campbell is less reliable about the Bardsey islanders, as he wanted to romanticise them. Although all 63 islanders in 1891 declared that they were monoglot Welsh, it is possible that by the 1920s they spoke English better than some of the locals on the mainland, as for generations Bardsey children had played with the children of the English lighthouse keepers. Even in the nineteenth century, the Calvinistic Methodist minister on the island sometimes preached in English so that the lighthouse families could understand his sermons. A Welsh newspaper, issued at the time of which Campbell was writing, tells us that of the 58 people living on the island, only 11 of them were monoglot Welsh speakers.
"Mary Ann Ty Canol"
According to Nel Williams (Nel Carreg), who lived on the island at that time, only one of the island men wore an ear-ring, and that for the unromantic reason that he had been told it was help for deafness. Campbell was a convivial character, able to enliven a bar-room just by his presence, and one presumes he met the island men in the Aberdaron inns. Although he was likely to have got on well with them, he no doubt exaggerated their gifts to him. His assertion that they were "savages" means that he thought highly of them, as admiration for the primitive in preference to the sophisticated is a constant theme with him. In the Introduction to Light on a Dark Horse he says that his father
It is doubtful that the islanders were more likely to be illiterate than the general population; there were times in the nineteenth century, for example, when the minister, who also acted as a schoolteacher, held evening classes for 15 adults. There was, in fact, nothing really primitive about life on the island at this time; the houses and farm buildings, for example, were of better quality than most on the mainland, and the islanders had for years been used to entertaining visitors during summer months. The recollections of the islanders who lived there during the first decades of the twentieth century all emphasise that they ate well.
Love Pritchard was born in 1843, and died in April 1926, a few months after leaving the island. The obituaries published in the local papers confirm what Campbell says about his impressive physique. That in Yr Herald Cymraeg said of him, "...er ei fod yn cario pwysau pedwar ugain mlynedd ar eu ysgwyddau gallai dynnu'r rhwyfau wrth ochr y dynion ieuengaf yn yr ynys." ( ... even when he carried the weight of eighty years on his shoulders he could row alongside the youngest of the islandmen.) All the men had all been used to rowing across the Sound regularly, a journey that could take up to two hours, and another obituarist claimed that in his lifetime Love Pritchard had crossed Bardsey Sound by rowing boat over 5,000 times.
"King of Bardsey"
Campbell's opinion of the islanders was one common at that time, apparently; one of the obituaries claims that London journalists took an interest in the islanders, some thinking of them as half savages, and others looking on them as exceptionally wise people. It tells us something about Campbell, however, that he should see Love Pritchard ("the last King of Bardsey") as a romantic figure; other more cynical observers have pointed out that the post of King was given to an islander in order to help the landowner, Lord Newborough, collect his rents.
Campbell's reference to his "good vegetable garden" contrasts with his story of touring the district at night for vegetables. It may be that the earlier version is true, as he was quite capable of allowing one swede, taken surreptitiously from a field, to give him a story to illustrate what a daring young fellow he was.
One of the oddities about his personality is that he constantly posed as a man of action, capable of feats of great daring. Two examples, amongst many, may suffice. He claimed that when he was a youth, he could stand barefoot on a saddle while the horse was "going at full gallop ... firing my rifle over my head to show off to girls.". In the 1930s, he and Mary lived for a while in the south of France, and in describing his skill at a sort of jousting from boats in which he took part, he invites us to think of him as a sort of Superman figure, able to defy gravity: "...I took off from the tintenne [platform] and I flew horizontal through the air, sunfishing and doing a sort of Australian crawl with my legs as if the air was water." His autobiographies contain many stories in the same vein. Again, Augustus John writes about him perceptively:
What caused this serious flaw in his personality is open to speculation. We may, however, get a hint from the fact that his father was academically brilliant and an impressive athlete, and that his four brothers (according to his biographer) "...loved nothing better than violent physical activity." It is possible that an early feeling of inadequacy caused him to spend the rest of his adult life claiming to live up to their example. Curiously enough, he seems to have been quite diffident about the quality of his verse, and his comments about that show little of the ludicrous boasting for which his prose writings have become notorious.
The Flaming Terrapin, the poem he wrote during his stay in Llyn, is remarkable enough, especially as the first published work of a young man. Although it contains clear echoes of the reading he mentions (especially Milton), it remains an original piece of work. In technique, it shows none of the modernism of The Waste Land, published while Campbell's poem was being written, but neither has it any of that better-known and more influential poem's allusiveness and obscurity (although it presents its own problems). We may look in vain for clear references to the place in which the poem was written, but there is a passage near the beginning in which the writer might be thought to be looking across the Irish Sea, as anyone walking out of the door of Ty Corn must.
Part II of the poem describes the construction and launching of Noah's Ark.
Campbell envisages the Ark as being towed by the Flaming Terrapin, which is (according to the poet in a letter to his parents) "the symbol for masculine energy" and goes through various (but to most readers, vague) adventures, until:
Quite when Campbell hit upon the rather eccentric idea of describing a gigantic terrapin towing Noah's Ark, is not clear, but anyone looking westwards at the outline of Bardsey from the hills above Ty Corn might consider that the island is terrapin-shaped in outline, and that a sunset could well have suggested the adjective "flaming". It would be pointless to labour the point, however, because The Flaming Terrapin is not that sort of poem. With its descriptions of gigantic movements in vast spaces and personification of abstract ideas it is strongly reminiscent of Paradise Lost, (at times almost sounding like a pastiche: "Let old Corruption on his spangled throne / Tremble to hear!") and like its great predecessor, Campbell's poem is a work of the imagination, not observation.
In Adamastor, the volume of verse he published in 1930, appears the well-known epigram On Some South African Novelists:
An unsympathetic reader of The Flaming Terrapin might point out that the symbolism is so vague that, although the poet uses the spur and the whip all right, we are still in some doubt about where the bloody horse is going. Augustus John's comment about Campbell's poetry generally is one which most readers of the poem would agree with, when he talks of "...interminable effusions, of which the unceasing grandiloquence soon exhausts the reader...".
The poem ends with a vision of Noah, of heroic stature, standing "High on the top of Ararat alone..." gazing out towards the horizon and the sunset.
The Campbells were a striking and unconventional pair, and must have impressed the locals. When Peter Alexander visited the area to gather material for his biography of Campbell over half a century after they lived in Pencaerau, he was told stories of the pair making love in the open air, and drawing on the walls of Ty Corn charcoal sketches of themselves naked. He was also told a story of the coalman calling at the house and being greeted at the door by Mary and her sister Kathleen, both naked. Again, in the late 1980s, their neighbour Mary Ann's cousin, who lived in Pencaerau Farm, which they passed on their way to and from Aberdaron, remembered in response to enquiry that they wore capes and hats to match and that conditions in Ty Corn were quite primitive: "Roeddynt yn byw ddigon di drefn heb lawer o ddodrefn ond gwely a boxes." (They lived in a rather disorderly way, without much furniture except a bed and boxes.). Mary Campbell herself told the biographer that they were "...the first hippies."
The Campbells left Pencaerau some time in 1923, partly, we are told, because Mary's mother had decided that it was an unsuitable place for her granddaughter. In 1927 they lived for a while in a cottage belonging to Vita Sackville-West, and a passionate love-affair quickly developed between Mary and Vita. (Virginia Woolf's letters reveal that she was jealous of Mary Campbell, to whom Vita wrote 14 sonnets.) Mary eventually told her husband what was happening, and, rather to her surprise, he was considerably annoyed, despite (or perhaps because of) his own homosexual affairs a decade before. (It did not help that when Campbell told C.S.Lewis, he remarked, "Fancy being cuckolded by a woman!") The affair affected Campbell deeply, and, together with his feeling ill-at-ease with the fashionable literary set of that time, prompted his poem The Georgiad (1931). It is considered by some to be more malicious than successfully satirical, although it is still readable enough:
Now Spring, sweet laxative of Georgian trains,
Quickens the ink in literary veins,
The Stately Homes of England ope their doors
To piping nancy-boys and crashing Bores,
Where for week-ends the scavengers of letters
Convene to chew the fat about their betters....
Hither flock all the crowd whom love has wrecked
Of intellectuals without intellect
And sexless folk whose sexes intersect....
His reputation among the literary establishment was further harmed in 1939 by Flowering Rifle, a poem in praise of Fascism. There was an element of cussedness in his personality; he was an outsider, who liked nothing better than not fitting in with accepted opinions, and delighted in being what we now call politically incorrect. Looking back many years later on the difficulties he sometimes faced with reviewers and publishers, he wrote:
His obvious anti-Semitism and the sheer spite he sometimes showed towards left-wingers are difficulties modern readers are bound to face in Campbell's prose. There are times in his memoirs when his language reveals a sort of unbalance. To take one example: he was in Spain during the unrest that preceded the Spanish Civil War, and he describes one incident from that time, in which he discovered some Republicans and Germans ("mostly Jews") interrupting a church service.
He liked to give the impression that he fought for the Falangists in the Spanish Civil War, but in actual fact he did nothing more than tour for one day near the fighting, armed with a journalist's pass, and the quite serious injury he sustained at about that time was caused by an accidental fall. He could, however, be said to have fought against fascism, enlisting first as a private in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers in April 1941, training with them near Brecon, and spending some time at a place called Cwm Gwdi. It was during his time there that he started on a series of translations of the poems of the mystic St John of the Cross (Juan de Yepes y Álvarez, 1542-1591), which are considered by some to be his finest achievement as a poet; perhaps the best known of these is Upon a Gloomy Night, his version of En la Noche Oscura. The Campbells had (at Mary's suggestion) converted to Roman Catholicism in the 1930s.
Campbell served in the army until being invalided out in 1944, and for some years after that worked for the BBC; it was during this time that he was responsible as Producer for a number of the Third Programme talks given by Dylan Thomas, and the two became friendly. Perhaps Campbell remembered his time in Wales, when, one St David's Day in the late 1940s, for a bet during a drinking session, the two poets ate a bunch of daffodils. Years before, Harold Nicolson had told Campbell that he was "another Rimbaud" and, perhaps remembering this, Campbell called Thomas "Swansea's Rimbaud", a phrase which Thomas himself improved to "the Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive". It is tempting to draw a comparison between the two poets: both generously endowed with a gift for words, but both with flawed personalities, neither really growing up. According to his wife, Thomas liked nothing better than sitting in a hot bath eating dolly mixtures, and Campbell knew no better way of settling an argument than by punching his opponent on the nose. In both, their intellectual gifts were not commensurate with their undoubted ability to put words together in a memorable way.
Roy and Mary Campbell lived in Portugal in the 1950s, and it was there that he met his death, in a motoring accident, in April 1957. The Times gave him a generous obituary, which included:
We might add to that at least the possibility of the poet taking some hints in his descriptions of the sea from the rocky coastline of the Llyn Peninsula.
The only biography (unlikely to be superseded) is Roy Campbell, A Critical Biography by Peter Alexander (Oxford, 1982). There is also an excellent short introduction to the poet, both as writer and personality in Roy Campbell by David Wright (Longmans, 1961).
The Flaming Terrapin was published by Jonathan Cape in 1924, and reprinted in Collected Poems Volume I (The Bodley Head, 1949). The two volumes of autobiography which mention the Campbells' stay near Aberdaron are Broken Record (Boriswood, 1934) and Light on a Dark Horse (Hollis & Carter, 1951; Penguin, 1971). Romilly John's account of his stay in Ty Corn is in his The Seventh Child (Heinemann, 1932).
There are a number of memorable appearances by Campbell in memoirs of the 1930s: see especially As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee (André Deutsch, 1969 and 1985), Finishing Touches by Augustus John (Jonathan Cape, 1966) and Blasting and Bombadiering by P. Wyndham Lewis (Eyre and Spottiswood, 1937). He also makes fictionalised appearances in two of Wyndham Lewis's novels: The Apes of God (Nash & Grayson, 1930) and Snooty Baronet (Cassell, 1932).
Most of the material about Bardsey in this essay comes from Enlli, Edited by R. Gerallt Jones & Christopher J. Arnold (Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru, 1996) and O Enlli i Gwenlli by Bessie Williams. (1992, ISBN 1 874786 03 8)
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