I first encountered Irish poet Joseph Campbell (1879–1944) in Helen Carr’s extensively-researched literary history, Verse Revolutionaries: Ezra Pound, H.D. and the Imagists. Campbell, a.k.a. Seosamh Mac Cathmhaoil, figures prominently in the book along with well-known English and American poets H.D., Ezra Pound, T.E. Hulme and Richard Aldington. I immediately wondered why I hadn’t heard of him before.
I spoke to some Irish friends who knew of Campbell, vaguely. Some wanted to know his class or religion, as though that might help ring a bell. Google thought I meant Joseph Campbell, writer of A Hero with a Thousand Faces. The more I sought him, the more Joseph Campbell seemed to have many faces, biographically and poetically. Who was Joseph Campbell, I wondered, and why—despite the quality of some of his poems and his importance in the Imagist movement—have so few read him?
The main reason, I suppose, is that The Poems of Joseph Campbell (edited by Austin Clarke in 1963) is out of print and difficult to find. After traipsing around to several used bookshops in Dublin, I had to order it online—though it was heartening that some knowledgeable booksellers did know who I was talking about. As I waited for the book to come in the post, my Google-stalking of Campbell continued, leading to the acquisition of his biography (Joseph Campbell: Poet & Nationalist, 1879-1944 by Norah Saunders and A.A. Kelly) and his prison diary (edited by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin).
I also found a few of his poems anthologized in the Field Day Anthology and John Montague’s Faber Book of Irish Verse, and some others online, including three on the website of the esteemed Poetry magazine that had originally appeared in its early editions (1913 and 1916). Among these is the vibrant and mythopoetic ‘At Harvest’, which thunders like the Book of Isaiah or ‘The Song of Amhergín’: ‘Womb-fellow am I of the sunburnt oat,/Friendly gossip of the mearings;/Womb-fellow of the dark and sweet-scented apple;/Womb-fellow of the gourd and of the grape:/Like begotten, like born.’ These amuses-bouches intensified my interest. The books finally arrived in the post.
Campbell’s life was varied and vivid. He was born in Belfast, and his father, a road contractor, was a Catholic and a Nationalist. His mother’s family included Catholics and Presbyterians. Campbell married Nancy Maude, a London-born daughter of a prominent Protestant English and Anglo-Irish family. He lived and wrote in London at the height of the Imagist period. Austin Clarke has said that Campbell ‘was the first to write free verse in Ireland’. A life-long republican, he was interned by the Free State at Mountjoy Prison and then for two years at the Curragh. Following his release and the disintegration of his relationship with Nancy, he emigrated to New York where he founded the first school of Irish Studies before becoming disillusioned with the politics of academia. After twelve years in America, he returned to Ireland and continued to write poems. He died in 1944 on his farm at Glencree, County Wicklow.
His relative invisibility is mysterious not only because of his colourful life. His literary contributions include several poems of high quality and a commitment to experimentation in form, style and subject matter. A website dedicated to Ulster history admits of Campbell’s position within Irish letters: ‘His several volumes of poems have not worn well; he survives through the English words he wrote for “My Lagan Love.”’ Now that I’ve read most of Campbell’s work, I don’t think this beleaguered status is deserved.
Campbell began his literary career collecting and writing English lyrics to Donegal folk tunes with composer Herbert Hughes, publishing a book of them in 1904. Soon after, the hero changes face again, and Campbell writes a strange and seductive book dedicated to the legends of Christ wandering in Ireland (The Gilly of Christ, 1907). The Mountainy Singer (1909), includes experimental verse well worth reading as its poems range from vivid Whitmanesque proclamations to imagist gems such as ‘The Dawn Whiteness’—‘…A bank of slate-grey cloud lying heavily over it./The moon, like a hunted thing, dropping into the cloud.’
A later book, Irishry (1913), is comprised of inventive and sonorous portraits (or in some cases, tongue-in-cheek caricatures) of the Irish people, including ‘The Gombeen’ who, ‘like a spider sits,/Surfeited; and, for all his wits,/As poor as one who never knew/the treasure of the early dew.’ His prison poem, ‘Ideal and Reality’ appears in Montague’s anthology, likely due to Campbell’s adept image-laden descriptions of an Irish prisoner’s daydream of continental European art and architecture that contrasts so resoundingly with the reality of his prison cell: ‘…nail-booted feet/Batter a Munster hornpipe overhead;/A toilet flushed; someone, endlessly,/Shouts in a snuffling, strident, Meath Street voice/For Johnny Pigeon, till the tyrannized ear/ Rebels, and curses Johnny Pigeon’s name…’
These and several other poems in Campbell’s oeuvre stand out. And though some might pronounce that dreaded dismissal ‘uneven’, to whose poetry of his period or any period could that adjective not be applied?
A.A. Kelly argues for Campbell’s work in the foreword to the biography: ‘Political and economic stringencies should not allow enduring work to sink into an Irish bog of forgetfulness… Campbell is more than a museum piece, more than the author of a few well-loved songs.’ It seems that every twenty years or so someone puts Campbell forward again: Clarke’s edition in 1963, the biography in 1988, the prison diary in 2001. More recently, he’s been gathering steam with a prominent place in Carr’s literary biography in 2009, a key chapter in Julia Whittredge’s PhD dissertation on Irish literary modernisms in 2011, an article examining his life in a recent Times Literary Supplement, and this small piece that argues, quite simply, that Campbell’s poetry should be read (again).