It was March 1936. A series of anti-clerical riots swept through Toledo.
During the following day, republican forces advanced through the city, forcing the defenders to fall back towards the Alcazar. Without the soldiers of the garrison to defend them, the priests, monks and nuns fell prey to the republican militiamen. The seventeen monks from the Carmelite monastery were rounded up, herded into the street and shot.
In the square outside Toledo's town hall, the Madrid militia lit huge bonfires which were fueled with crucifixes, vestments, missals and any other religious items discovered in looted churches and houses. From their home, the British poet and his family watched in horror as they saw the Carmelite library set ablaze.
Several days later, the Campbells were visited by a search part of militiamen. Expecting such an intrusion, Roy and Mary had already taken the precaution of removing all crucifixes and religious pictures from the walls. Their main fear was that the trunk containing the Carmelite archives, including the personal letters of San Juan de la Cruz, would be discovered. The search, however, was not particularly thorough. At one stage some of the militiamen even leaned their rifles on the trunk without thinking of opening it.
In a broadcast talk on San Juan de la Cruz for the BBC in 1952, Campbell stated that the success of the poems was due more to the grace obtained by the saint's supernatural intervention than by any innate ability of his own. "Were I superstitious I should say that San Juan brought me luck," he said. "not being superstitious, I say that he wrought a miracle." In similar vein, after Campbell had just finished delivering a lecture at the Ateneo in Madrid in 1954, he was asked by a priest in the audience to what he attributed the extraordinary success of his verse translations of San Juan de la Cruz. "But the good saint helped me father," Campbell replied. "You see, when I got tired, or my spirit flagged, or I got stuck, I would just look over my shoulder and there San Juan would be, sitting against the sky, smiling down at me. He would call out Arre burrito! And I just went on trotting ... " This charming mixture of mischievous humour and mystical humility delighted his Spanish audience, who erupted in spontaneous laughter and applause.
They had initially arrived in Barcelona in the autumn of 1933, having lived for several years in Provence. Their arrival coincided with the anarchist strikes that had followed the right-wing victory in the recent elections. "For the Catalonians, as with the Irish, politics is a national industry," Campbell wrote to a friend. In spite of the turbulence of the times, the Campbells fell in love with Spain and Spanish culture. Mary's enduring love for the figure of St Teresa of Avila had fired her imagination for Spain since her youth, and she had evidently passed this imaginative fire infectiously to her husband, as is evidenced by the poetry about Spain that he wrote after his arrival in the country. "My parents were romantics," stated Anna, the younger of Campbell's daughters. "They saw life, they saw Spain, through a romance. They saw it through a cloud, a sort of imaginary Spain."
"From the very beginning my wife and I understood the real issues in Spain," wrote Campbell. "There could be no compromise ... between the East and the West, between Credulity and Faith, between irresponsible innovation ... and tradition, between the emotions (disguised as Reason) and the intelligence."
Tired of the brief interlude of urban life, the Campbells moved to the village of Altea, near Alicante, in May 1934. It was here that the whole family was received into the Catholic Church. "I don't think that my family and I were converted by any event at any given moment," Campbell wrote later. "We lived for a time on a small farm in the sierras at Altea where the working people were mostly good Catholics, and there was such a fragrance and freshness in their life, in their bravery, in their reverence, that it took hold of us all imperceptibly."
Father Gregorio, the village priest, was delighted that a whole family of "English" was being won over to the Church. Two years later, the priest would be murdered by militiamen sent from Valencia. By this time, as we have seen, the Campbells had moved to Toledo, which Campbell eulogized in one of his poems as a "sacred city of the mind".
On April 23 they set off back to Portugal, crossing the border in the early afternoon. A front tire burst, and the car swerved out of control and hit a tree. Mary survived but Roy died at the scene of the crash. Thus ended, at the age of 55, the life of one of the finest and most controversial poets of the twentieth century, a poet who counted George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, T. S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis among his friends. This, however, is another story.
As for the story of the man who saved the original letters of San Juan de la Cruz, it could be said that Spain and the Catholic Church are indebted to him for his role in preserving a priceless part of their inheritance. As for Campbell, he was equally indebted to Spain, describing it as "a country to which I owe everything as having saved my soul".
Joeseph Pearce. "The Man Who Saved the Original Papers of San Juan de la Cruz." Crisis Magazine (March 28, 2012).
Reprinted with permission of Crisis Magazine.
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