C.S. Lewis & Roy Campbell: The Best of Friends & Enemies

A look at the controversial and complex relationship between C.S. Lewis and Roy Campbell.

Editor's Note: In the second article in the series, "Unsung Heroes of Christendom", Joseph Pearce focused on Roy Campbell, "a convert among communists and Carmelites". Several people have requested further details of why Campbell was "attacked bitterly by C.S. Lewis and defended vociferously by J.R.R. Tolkien". In this article, adapted from an article in The Imaginative Conservative, the controversial and complex nature of Campbell's relationship with Lewis and Tolkien is explained.

In this essay about the relationship between C. S. Lewis and Roy Campbell, the “bearded poet” whom Lewis lampoons in The Pilgrim’s Regress, we will chart their troubled and mercurial relationship, which lurched, sometimes violently, between enmity and friendship.

In the period between their initial meeting in Oxford as undergraduates at the end of World War One and their meeting again in Oxford towards the end of World War Two, C. S. Lewis and Roy Campbell would meet only once. This was in November 1927, in a pub in London, when Campbell was in a state of shock following his wife’s confession that she was in the throes of a homosexual relationship with the poet, Vita Sackville-West.

At this time, Campbell was a well-known and celebrated poet, whose surging poem, “The Flaming Terrapin,” published three years earlier, was widely acclaimed as a work of genius and creative innovation. George Russell, writing in the Irish Statesman, was typical of the effusive enthusiasm with which the poem was greeted by the critics: “Among a crowd of poets writing delicate verses he moves like a mastodon with shaggy sides pushing through a herd of lightfoot antelopes. … I do not know of any new poet who has such a savage splendour of epithet or who can marry the wild word so fittingly to the wild thought.” Russell’s evocation of Campbell as a primitive “mastodon with shaggy sides,” exhibiting “savage splendor” in his marrying of the “wild word” to the “wild thought,” echoes Lewis’ satirical evocation in The Pilgrim’s Regress of Campbell as a savage poet, wearing “nothing but a red shirt and a cod-piece made of the skins of crocodiles,” beating “on an African tom-tom.”

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Something of the impact that Campbell had on his contemporaries, as exhibited by Russell and Lewis, was characterized by the poet David Wright in his discussion of the way in which the “energy and flamboyance” of Campbell had “surprised everyone”: “Campbell’s flamboyant imagery, drawn from the memories of the spectacular and bizarre vegetation and fauna of his native Africa, exploded with an almost surrealist proliferation of exoticism.”

By contrast, Lewis, who fancied himself as a poet at this time, had been deeply disappointed by the lack of interest in his own narrative poem, Dymer, published in 1926, a year before the meeting in the London pub with Campbell. It was partly his deep disappointment at failing to be recognized as a poet that had animated the venting of his spleen against the modern poets in The Pilgrim’s Regress. He never liked the poetry of Eliot or Ezra Pound, though he admired Campbell’s poetry, perhaps because “The Flaming Terrapin” was written in conventionally rhyming iambic pentameters, in contrast to the metrical liberties taken by Eliot et al.

At the time of their London pub-encounter in November 1927, neither Campbell nor Lewis were Christians. Lewis became a Christian in 1931, largely under the influence of his friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, whereas Campbell would be received into the Catholic Church in Spain in 1935, a year before the unleashing of that country’s fratricidal Civil War. Campbell was living with his wife and children in Toledo at the start of the war and witnessed the burning of churches and the murder of priests and religious.

The Carmelite monks whom he and his wife had befriended were slaughtered in cold blood only a stone’s throw from where the Campbells were living. Not surprisingly, Campbell took the side of Franco and those Nationalist forces who were seeking to stem the communist anti-clerical tide that was sweeping across Spain in a wave of blood-red terror. In 1939, his long poem, Flowering Rifle, was published. Its hard-hitting and occasionally shrill support for Franco and the Nationalists in the Civil War roused a hornets’ nest of vicious criticism from the literati in England, most of whom were avowed and outspoken supporters of the communist Republicans. With few exceptions, of whom Hilaire Belloc and Edmund Blunden were notable and noble examples, the consensus was to dismiss Campbell’s poem as nothing but “fascist propaganda.”

Although one would expect such a response from those many writers with Marxist leanings, of whom there were many, Lewis’ attack on Campbell in his own poem, “To the Author of Flowering Rifle,” came as more of a surprise. Lewis’ poem condemns Campbell as a “loud fool” who had learnt the art of lying from his enemies on the left,

… since it was from them you learned

How white to black by jargon can be turned …

Although Lewis retained an admiration for Campbell’s earlier poetry, declaring that his verse “outsoars with eagle pride” the “nerveless rhythms” of the left-wing poets, he dismissed Campbell’s “shrill covin-politics” as being similar to those of his enemies, “two peas in a single pod”:

… who cares

Which kind of shirt the murdering Party wears?

On one level, one can sympathize with Lewis’ equating of the “fascism” of the communists on the “left” with the Nazis and fascists on the “right” but it was a trifle simplistic and certainly politically naïve to equate the Catholic resistance to the anti-Christian terror in Spain with the anti-Catholic Hitlerism that was bedeviling Germany at the time. This naïve simplifying of the more complex situation in Spain baffled J.R.R. Tolkien who was surprised and irritated by Lewis’ attack on Campbell:

C.S.L.’s reactions [to Campbell] were odd. Nothing is a greater tribute to Red propaganda than the fact that he (who knows they are in all other subjects liars and traducers) believes all that is said against Franco, and nothing that is said for him. … Yet if a Lutheran is put in jail he is up in arms; but if Catholic priests are slaughtered—he disbelieves it (and I daresay really thinks they asked for it). Bur R.C [Roy Campbell] shook him a bit …

These words of Tolkien were written in the aftermath of Lewis’ animated belligerence after Campbell had introduced himself to Lewis and Tolkien in the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford in 1944. Lewis had failed to recognize the mysterious stranger, who had reminded Tolkien at first glance of Strider, the mysterious Ranger in The Lord of the Rings, which Tolkien was in the midst of writing. It had been seventeen years since Lewis’ and Campbell’s previous meeting and much water had passed under the bridges of both men’s lives since they had last set eyes on each other, not least of which was their respective religious conversions.

Surprisingly perhaps, considering Campbell’s reputation for invective and Lewis’ reputation as a Christian sage, it was Campbell who behaved in a more Christian manner, laughing off Lewis’ renewed attacks upon him as he had shrugged off the poetical attack upon him five years earlier. It was Lewis’ animated belligerence which Tolkien had described as “odd” and which he ascribed to what he perceived to be Lewis’ residual anti-Catholicism.

In spite of such an unpromising encounter, Lewis warmed to Campbell and invited him to meetings of the Inklings. He even offered to put Campbell up when he was in Oxford, offering him “dinner, bed and breakfast” at his home. They would exchange correspondence about the poetry of Milton, which both men admired, and settled into an altogether affable relationship.

After Campbell was killed in a car crash on St. George’s Day (April 23) 1957, appropriately for a poet on the anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, a correspondent from the BBC wrote to Lewis, requesting that he speak on the air about Campbell’s life and legacy and their friendship:

Knowing how reluctant you are to broadcast, I hesitate to write and ask whether you would care to speak about Roy Campbell. I very well remember, some years ago, sharing a bus with Roy in Oxford; he was on his way to see you at Magdalen and spoke of you with great warmth. Anything like a formal obituary talk would, one feels, be inappropriate for Roy Campbell. Would you care to give a talk that would make him alive again for those who did not know him?

Lewis declined the offer, citing not only “pressure of work” but “serious illness in my home,” an allusion to his wife’s cancer, but one can’t help but suspect that continuing feelings of ambivalence towards his old friend and enemy was another contributing factor for his polite refusal. Such ambivalence would resurface in 1963, only a few months before Lewis’ own death, in a letter published in Encounter in which he wrote that he “loathed and loath Roy Campbell’s particular blend of Catholicism and Fascism, and told him so.”

It’s a shame that Lewis’ last words on his roller-coaster relationship with Roy Campbell should have returned to the unjust accusation that Campbell was guilty of “Fascism,” especially as the negative judgment was not in private correspondence but in a published letter in a magazine.

For those of us who admire both Lewis and Campbell, it would be better to forgive and forget Lewis’ faux pas as Campbell himself forgave him for it. Instead, let’s end on a happier note in which, in a later poem, “To Roy Campbell,” Lewis accentuates the positive in his mercurial relationship with the mysterious “Zulu” who became an honorary Inkling. In this later, friendlier poem, Lewis writes of Coleridge and Wordsworth that they were “far more ours than theirs,” indicating that Campbell was now accepted by Lewis as “one of us” in the battle against common literary enemies. It in this friendship, irrespective of any lingering enmity, that the relationship between Lewis and Campbell is worth celebrating.


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