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Roy Campbell

The Serf

Easier questions to cut your teeth on!

Lorraine Knickelbein
Grens High School
Updated: 22 January 2014
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In this poem, Campbell describes a Black farm labourer ploughing a field where his ancestors once fought tribal wars. He compares the field to the man's heart, cut and torn by the insults of White people.

Campbell concludes the poem with a warning: the Black man is patiently waiting for the time when he can destroy the institutions and way of life of the Whites.


Roy Campbell was born in Durban in 1901 and was at one stage considered to be one of South Africa's best poets. His popularity, however, has waned in recent years so that today his poetry is hardly ever read.

Educated at Durban High School, he spent much of his youth in the great outdoors -- something that is reflected in many of his poems like "The Zebras" and "Autumn". As soon as the Great War was over, however, he moved to England where he attended Oxford University.

He married Mary Garman, a marriage which did not carry his parents' consent and therefore meant that, for a time at least, Campbell was struck off from his inheritance. He had two daughters by this marriage.

In 1925, he returned to South Africa and founded a literary magazine called Voorslag which was meant to promote cultural development amongst the Afrikaners whom the poet regarded as backward and uncouth.

Very soon disillusionment set in, however, and he returned to England. His disillusionment continued even there as he fell foul of his own fellow poets because of the many rude things he said about them in his poems -- and even of his wife whom he found was not averse to lesbian affairs.

During the early 1930s he settled in the Provence region of France -- the scene for one of his greatest poems, "Horses on the Camargue". During this time he was slowly drawn to Catholicism and drunkenness.

In the mid-1930s, due to a loss in a civil lawsuit, the Campbell family fled to Spain where the poet became an avid supporter of the fascist dictator, General Franco.

He also supported Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini. This support saw the poet's reputation slump even further amongst his literary colleagues.

When World War II broke out, the poet moved back to England and enlisted for military duty. It was during those years that he became close friends with the Welsh poet and fellow drunkard, Dylan Thomas.

After the war, the poet returned to the Iberian Peninsula but this time settled in Portugal. He died in a car accident over the Easter weekend of 1957.

Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:

Comment on the significance of the title, "The Serf". (5)

[Need help?]

"His naked skin clothed in the torrid mist."
  • What is Campbell's intention when he describes the labourer as "naked"? (3)

[Need help?]

"His naked skin clothed in the torrid mist
That puffs in smoke around the patient hooves."
  • Discuss the effectiveness of the metaphors in these two lines. (4)

[Need help?]

"The ploughman drives, a slow somnambulist."
  • Explain why the serf is described as a "somnambulist". (4)

[Need help?]

"more deeply than he wounds the plain."
  • Identify and comment on the use of the figure of speech in this line. (4)

[Need help?]

"His heart, more deeply than he wounds the plain,
Long by the rasping share of insult torn,
Red clod, to which the war-cry once was rain
And tribal spears the fatal sheaves of corn,
Lies fallow now."
  • Paraphrase these lines (rewrite them in your own words). (5)

[Need help?]

  • Point out what "insult" the serf has had to endure. (2)

[Need help?]

  • Explain why the use of the words "rasping share" is so appropriate. (3)

[Need help?]

"And ploughs down palaces, and thrones, and towers."
  • Discuss Campbell's use of repetition in this line. (3)

[Need help?]

  • Why has Campbell specified the buildings to be destroyed as being "palaces", "thrones" and "towers"? (2)

[Need help?]

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