Friday, April 29, 2016

The footnote poets: Joseph Campbell 2b/4

Joseph Campbell 1879-1944

NB: This Joseph Campbell is not the prolific author of books on Mythology. In his youth this Campbell's poetry was published under the Irish form of his name, Seosamh MacCathmhaoil. He told Austin Clarke that he gave this up when he heard a young woman asking for the poems of Seo-Sam MacCatwail.

The Biography.

Born in 1879 in Belfast he seems to have spent his life on the margins. As a Catholic and Nationalist in Belfast, he was an outsider; later, as an Ulster Man in Literary Dublin, then as an Irishman in London and later New York,  or as a Nationalist who objected to partition; ‘an Irreconcilable’, he would face the same problems.

His father owned a road mending mending/building business. At 16 he became his father’s apprentice. There was an extended period of illness. Then, when his father died in 1900, Joseph and his brother John had to fulfill their father’s contract.  He spent the next two years with his laborers. He claimed; ’I gained, from intimate daily contact with them, experience that proved of more value to me than if I had spent time in libraries, or in aimless mooning about.’ Forty years later in a radio talk he described some of these laborers and concluded: ‘These ‘untouchables’ of the lowest caste, grubbers in clay and rock……I salute them as brave souls and as my masters, for they taught me a great deal of my craft-and particularly, its iron and integrity…’ 

He had written poems and prose pieces which had appeared in the papers, but his first major publication was in Songs of Uliad. He had been asked to write the words for a book of traditional airs his friend Herbert Hughes had collected from the North of Ireland.

Austin Clarke claimed Campbell was the first Irish poet to use free verse, a claim he repeated later with the qualification “effectively’ tagged on. But most of Campbell’s poetry, including that written in free verse, maintains the direct, compact lyric style of the ‘traditional’ folk song.

Having participated in various literary and dramatic activities in Belfast he moved to Dublin, where he was as much an outsider. He did have a play put on by the Abbey, but by ‘the second company’ and Yeats rejected his second play. Campbell went to London where he met Pound and Flint and the other ‘verse revolutionaries’.  Married, against the opposition of his wife’s parents, they returned to Ireland. After partition his nationalism landed him in Prison, which he describes in his Prison Journal, edited by Eilean Ni Chuilleanain and published in 2001.

Out of prison, disgusted with Ireland, his faith in the church rattled, he went to New York where he set up a Centre for Irish Studies. This wasn’t a financial success but was taken over by Fordham University, where Campbell became an assistant lecturer. He had no formal academic qualifications and the director ‘regretfully let him go’ in mid 1938.  Although he tried to set up again on his own he lost money on the lectures and night classes he gave.

Campbell’s friends collected enough money for him to return home for a holiday.  Although he seems to have had every intention of returning to New York, he was once again unable to find a job and retreated to his cottage.  Although he continued to write and broadcast, he died alone in 1944.

Some Poems.

Night, and I Travelling 

Night, and I travelling.
An open door by the wayside,
Throwing out a shaft of warm yellow light.
A whiff of peat smoke;
A gleam of delf on the dresser within;
A woman's voice crooning, as if to a child.
I pass on into darkness.

When Rooks Fly Homeward

When rooks fly homeward
And shadows fall
When roses fold
On the Hay-yard wall,
When blind moths flutter
By door and tree
            Then comes the quiet
            Of Christ to me.

When stars look out
On the Children’s Path
And grey mists gather
On carn and rath
When night is one
With the brooding sea,
            Then comes the quiet
            Of Christ to me.


When he goes thin in leaky shoes
For lack of meat and marriage dues
Two moons will kindle in the sky
And drink the deep Atlantic dry

He built a chapel on the hill
And let the peasants foot the bill,
When Dagda cracks the Steeple down
The rooted oaks will come to town.

Walking the road between grey, litchened walls
To where the sick man or the sinner calls
You tread the path that Paul and Jerome trod
Dispenser of the mysteries of God.

The scholarship you know, the Latin, Greek
The books you write, the shining words you speak
Your silvered hair, your shaven face, your dress
Are but as shadows of your holiness.

I do not judge you, any more than I
Have judged another; but with Wisdom’s eye
I look, and count you worthy of high song
Who lift the fallen, bid the weak be strong.

Christ drank the wine of love feasts
Christ broke the leper’s bread
Christ let a fallen woman
Pour spikenard on his head

You put a mask on beauty
You bind the dancer’s feet
You bless the sad and bitter
And curse the gay and sweet.

The Road Mender

Life goes by, slowly by
Clouds, like sheep flocks in the sky
Tinkers, following for gain
The ancient craft of Tubal Cain
Red leaves whiled from autumn woods
Summer shadows, winter floods
Drovers, trampers, men in carts
From the two-and-thirty arts
Dawns that blossom, dusks that die
All go by, slowly by.

Only you, that mend the roads
Move not with the horses’ loads
Travel not with dusty feet
From mountain farm to city street.
Life goes by you and you feel
All the racket of the wheel;
Time flies past you, and you see
All its love and misery,
Stirring hardly from your place-
A needle point in boundless space.

Scattered inconclusive notes for the work bench:

The ‘problems’ with Campbell’s verse are not technical, certainly not by half way through the collected. So why is he a footnote? I think the answer comes down to the fact that he was parochial; the folk lyric is an attractive but dangerous model, and content and religion mitigate against the poems being popular.

One of the most obvious features of Campbell’s poems is that the frame of reference is Irish: not the acquired vague ‘Irishness’ of Yeats, but the natural Irishness of a man who is writing within a familiar framework of stories and ideas.

Patrick Kavanagh made the useful distinction between ‘provincial’ and ‘parochial’. For Kavanagh, parochial is not a term of denigration. The parochial poet knows his parish, and writes of it and to it. The provincial poet has his eye on what’s popular in the metropolis and cuts his cloth accordingly.
Campbell was parochial in the best sense. He knew what was going on in the literary world, he’d been a participant in the meetings of the ‘verse revolutionaries’ in London. According to his biographer he had taken an interest in Russian, French and German literature and had studied those languages. He’d become acquainted with the literary theories of the twentieth century. But while this might have lead him to use, occasionally, ‘Free verse’, he never took on the Modernist’s (dubious?) claim to internationalism. 

The subject matter of his poems is local, often localized. Clark claimed his collection 'Earth of Cualann’ was his greatest achievement and ‘…has been neglected because it pays no concession to popular taste or to that English Public whom some of poets always keep in mind.’

A collection like Irishry ‘a portfolio of portraits’ as one critic called them, from which the poems Road Menders and Priests are taken, presents verse portraits of the people around him. 
But reading the poems is like reading journalism about a place or period of history one has nothing invested in. I think Campbell suggests one answer to the question of ‘how important is content’….and the answer is, pace the arguments against… sometimes it’s crucial to the poem’s afterlife.

The folk lyric can be a seductive model; and it can teach some beneficial lessons, In Saunders’ words their influence was evident in ‘The note of restraint, of self-discipline in his later lyrics’.
But the danger is in missing how the words rely on the tune and their delivery. In the great songs the words march hand in hand with the tune and rhythm and the singer phrases them for effect. 

Word is to the kitchen gone
And word is to the hall
And word is up to Madam the Queen
And that’s the worst of all.


I am a King’s daughter
And I come from Cappoquin
I’m searching for Lord Gregory
 I pray that I find him.

Some great poems have been written using the model, but you can hear the difference between the lyrics above and the opening of Kavanagh’s Kerr’s Ass

We borrowed the loan of Kerr’s big ass
To go to Dundalk for butter
Brought him home the evening before the market
An exile that night in Mucker.

The difference lies in the way the poem substitutes sound for the melody and the rhythm of the words push you towards a way of reading. Stripped of their tunes and rhythm, a lot of folk lyrics die on the page. In the hands of a good poet you can have the simplicity of diction and syntax, mimicking a speaking voice, but it’s bound together by sound patterning and rhythm (which may be parts of the same thing).

Yeats and MacNeice were notable practitioners of this, as was Kavanagh on his good days and Heaney a lot of the time.  Graves was more hit and miss and reading his complete poems is an exercise in listening to which poems sing and which don’t.

Campbell’s poems rarely sing the way When Rooks Fly Homeward does. They feel like lyrics to which the tunes have been lost. 


His religion is present throughout, and this is another feature of the poems which separate him from the modernists. While poems like Priests are critical of the Church, it’s hard to imagine either Eliot or Pound writing the collection 'The Gilly of Christ' or a poem like When Rooks Fly Homeward.  Campbell had faith; Eliot had religion. While both are profoundly held, Eliot’s was intellectualised. In ‘The Gilly of Christ’ the poems explore religious folk lore, which is no less important for being folk lore.

There’s a conclusion lurking in here, but perhaps later.

Up Next as a Footnote, Richard Aldington, who I think deserves to be a footnote. But it’s taken me six months to get this far so it may be a while.

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