Manuscript of South African Poet Roy Campbell at Bonhams

A hand-written manuscript of South African poet Roy Campbell’s translation of Saint John of the Cross, will be offered for sale at Bonhams auction of The Roy Davids’ Collection of Manuscripts to be held in London on 10 April where it is expected to fetch more than 70,000 Rand.


Campbell (1901-1957) made the vow to translate the works of the saint during his escape from death at the hands of a Republican mob in Toledo in 1936, when he rescued the saint’s papers from destruction.

As anti-clerical riots swept Spain, churches were burned in a series of attacks in which priests and nuns were also targeted. During these bloody disturbances, Campbell gave shelter to several of the Carmelite monks from the neighbouring monastery as well as their precious archives — including the personal papers of Saint John of The Cross. The monks were eventually rounded up and shot in the street by the partisans, where Campbell discovered their unburied bodies.

Several days later, Campbell was visited by a search party of militiamen. Expecting such an intrusion, he had already taken the precaution of removing all crucifixes and religious pictures from the walls, and hiding the remaining papers. During the search, he prayed to Saint John, making a vow that he would translate the saint’s poems into English if his family’s lives were spared. Miraculously, the precious cache remained undiscovered, and the family escaped with their lives.

Later, during the Second World War, Campbell fulfilled his obligation to the saint, translating the poems to great critical acclaim. The poet and critic Kathleen Raine, writing for New Statesman, encapsulated the critical consensus that Campbell’s translations represented a superlative achievement in English verse: “Of all living English poets Roy Campbell is the most masterly in his use of rhyme, and he is able to use metre so as to convey a sense of intense passion. He has reproduced the Spanish rhymes and metres as closely as possible, and yet his English versions have the freshness of original poems.” Meanwhile, Edith Sitwell described the translation as “among the great poems of our time.” Indeed, Campbell was considered by T. S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas and to have been the greatest poet of the inter-war period.
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