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David Campbell (1915 – 1979)

David Watt Ian Campbell was born on 16 July 1915 at Ellerslie station, near Adelong, in the Monaro District of the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, the third child of a grazier and medical doctor, Alfred Campbell, and his wife Edith Madge (née Watt). From 1930 he attended The King’s School in Sydney, where, he would later claim, he devoted much of his time to playing football, though he also wrote some early poetry. He went on to Jesus College, Cambridge, where he represented England in Rugby Union, and took his B.A. in English in 1937. He returned to Australia in 1938 and at the outbreak of the Second World War joined the Royal Australian Air Force, serving as a flying boat pilot throughout the War, mainly in Australia’s North and in New Guinea against the Japanese, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1943. While serving in the Air Force, he began contributing poems to the Bulletin, a number of which were published through the war years, including his celebrated war poem “Men in Green”.

After the war, Campbell took up farming on a family property near Canberra. His first book of verse, Speak with the Sun, which contained many of his early contributions to the Bulletin, was published in 1949. He would go on to publish over fifteen volumes of poetry and prose. He was poetry editor of The Australian newspaper in 1964–65, and from 1973 to 1976 held a senior fellowship of the Literature Board of the Australia Council for the Arts. He was the recipient of a number of prestigious literary awards, including the Henry Lawson Australian Arts Award (1970), the Patrick White Literary Award (1975), and (posthumously) the Fellowship of Australian Writers’ Christopher Brennan Award. He won the Grace Leven Poetry Prize twice, for his Selected Poems 1942–1968 (in 1968), and The Man in the Honeysuckle (in 1980) – the latter book also won the NSW Premier’s Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry in 1980. Campbell was the posthumous subject of a special issue of Poetry Australia in December 1981. He died at Canberra on 29 July 1979.

Campbell started out as a poet of the local landscape, and a member of a group of poets Vincent Buckley termed the ‘New Bulletin School,’ writing lyric poetry in a style that owed something to the ‘bush ballad’ tradition of Australian pastoral and vernacular verse. Responsive to changes in Australian society in the late 1960s, Campbell unexpectedly changed to a looser form of versification and more contemporary themes with an occasional slightly surreal tone, and became friendly with a younger generation of poets including Michael Dransfield and Martin Johnston. His 1970 poem ‘My Lai’, about an infamous massacre of Vietnamese villagers by US forces, clearly expressed his attitude of opposition to Australia’s involvement in the war in Vietnam. The experimental tone of some of his later poems owed something to work with translations of Russian poetry, a collaborative project with Rosemary Dobson and others.

Poetry Collections
  • Speak with the Sun (London: Chatto and Windus, 1949).
  • The Miracle of Mullion Hill: Poems (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1956).
  • Poems (Sydney: Edwards and Shaw, 1962).
  • Selected Poems 1942–1968 (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1968).
  • The Branch of Dodona and other poems: 1969–1970 (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, [1970]).
  • Starting from Central Station: A Sequence of Poems (Canberra: Brindabella Press, 1973).
  • Devil’s Rock and other poems 1970–1972 (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1974).
  • Moscow Trefoil: Poems from the Russian of Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1975).
  • Deaths and Pretty Cousins (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1975).
  • The History of Australia (Sydney: Macleay Museum, 1976).
  • Encounters (Canberra: Open Door Press, 1977).
  • Words with a Black Orpington (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1978).
  • Selected Poems (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1978).
  • The Man in the Honeysuckle: Poems (Sydney: New South Wales, 1979).
  • Seven Russian Poets: Imitations (St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1979).
  • Hardening of the Light: Selected Poems (Charnwood, ACT: Indigo, 2006).
Suggested Further Reading
  • Brissenden, R.F., “Remembering David Campbell,” Quadrant 24.1-2 (1980): pp. 16-20.
  • Buckley, Vincent, “A New Bulletin School?” Essays in Poetry, Mainly Australian (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1957): pp. 70–78.
  • Heseltine, Harry, ed., A Tribute to David Campbell: A Collection of Essays (Kensington, New South Wales: University of New South Wales Press, 1987).
  • Hope, A.D., ‘Variations on a Theme: David Campbell’s translations,’ in Leonie Kramer, ed. Poetry Australia: David Campbell 80 (December 1981), pp. 62–65.
  • Kramer, Leonie J., “The Surreal Landscape of David Campbell,” Southerly 41.1 (1981): pp. 3-16.
  • McKernan, Susan, “The Writer and the Crisis: Judith Wright and David Campbell,” A Question of Commitment: Australian Literature in the Twenty Years After the War (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1989): pp. 141–65.
  • Page, Geoff, “David Campbell: The Last Ten Years,” Australian Book Review 15 (1979): pp. 21–3.
  • Robinson, Dennis, “David Campbell’s Poetic Mind,” Australian Literary Studies 11.4 (1984): pp. 480–92.
  •  Wallace-Crabbe, Robin, “David Campbell: An Appreciation,” Overland 79 (1980): pp. 55-9.