Light on a Dark Horse; An Autobiography
London: Hollis & Carter, 1951. First edition. Octavo, original brown cloth, original dust jacket. Book fine, minor creasing and wear to corners and spine ends of dust jacket. A fresh, bright copy. Item #1358
"IT IS FAR LESS OF A CRIME TO MISHANDLE THE GIFTS OF GOD THAN TO DESPISE THEM"
First edition of Roy Campbell’s Light on a Dark Horse—the "often beautiful and always bee-loud autobiography" (Dylan Thomas) of the controversial South African poet and translator. Illustrated with a 1924 frontispiece portrait of Campbell by Augustus John.
With the publication of The Flaming Terrapin, "almost overnight, Roy Campbell, still only 22 years old, was rocketed into the ranks of the illustrissimi of English letters." Campbell's work was "being discussed in the same breath, and with the same reverence as that of T.S. Eliot. The comparison between Campbell and Eliot, who's hugely influential The Waste Land had been published 18 months prior to the appearance of The Flaming Terrapin, is singularly appropriate. Both poets, and both poems, were displaying an embryonic rebellion against the prevailing cynicism, born out of post-war angst, which afflicted the younger generation in the years following the carnage of World War I. Eventually both poets would reject the superficiality and shifting sands of modern cynicism for the sure foundation of traditional Christianity" (Joseph Pearce). After gaining fame as a poet, the combative and restless Campbell became as well-known for his enemies as he was for his literary talent. He harbored a special disdain for the Bloomsbury Group: "Campbell began to see the three aspects of the new elite—sexual inversion, anti-patriotism, and progressive politics—as aspects of a single frame of mind. These three qualities amounted, for Campbell, to a refusal to grow up. The new elite, in Campbell's opinion, lived as bloodless parasites on their social inferiors and moral betters; they jettisoned real responsibilities in favor of utopian fantasies and flattered themselves that their precious sensibilities were signs of moral refinement, rather than the marks of a fastidious narcissism" (Roger Scruton).
As the publisher of Hollis and Carter explained: "Roy Campbell's Light on a Dark Horse was a hilarious autobiography. In those days, and because all concerned were still living, I had to bowdlerise his vivid account of Harold Nicholson's homosexual advances towards him and Vita Sackville-West's reciprocated lesbian passion for his wife Mary. 'But it's all true, Tom,' exploded Roy, 'they can't go to court because they know it.' Nevertheless I judged, with Newman, in another context, that 'certain truths are inexpedient'" (Tom Burns). The book ends with the Campbell family's move to Spain, where they converted to Catholicism in 1935. Campbell fell in love with Iberian culture and became a skilled translator of French, Spanish and Portuguese poetry. In 1951, he was awarded the Foyle Prize for his translation of the poems of St. John of the Cross but Light on a Dark Horse was published in the same year "to a mixed reception, scattered reviews, and disappointing sales." Campbell and his wife were returning from Holy Week festivities in Sevilla when he was killed in a car accident in Portugal in April 1957. Menendez, The Road to Rome: An Annotated Bibliography, 487; Tom Burns. The Use of Memory: Publishing and Further Pursuits; Joseph Pearce. Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of Unbelief.