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David Watt Campbell (1915–1979)

by Leonie Kramer

This article was published:

David Watt Ian Campbell (1915-1979), by Graeme Inson, c1964

David Watt Ian Campbell (1915-1979), by Graeme Inson, c1964

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an6077259

David Watt Ian Campbell (1915-1979), poet, was born on 16 July 1915 at Ellerslie station, near Adelong, New South Wales, third child of native-born parents Alfred Campbell, grazier and medical practitioner, and his wife Edith Madge, née Watt. Madge was descended from James Blackman. Her son was registered as David Watt Ian, but baptized with Presbyterian forms David Alfred in 1916. He was educated at home, at a preparatory school and (from 1930) at The King's School, Parramatta, where he held the J. D. Futter memorial scholarship in 1933-34. An outstanding sportsman, he twice won the Buckland Cup for boxing, and was captain of the school, of the Rugby XV and the rowing VIII. By his own apocryphal account, all he did at school was play football: 'They left my mind completely alone . . . I was lucky'. Yet he wrote some poetry, despite his allegation that it was held to be 'very sissy stuff'.

With the support of his headmaster C. T. Parkinson, in 1935 Campbell entered Jesus College, Cambridge (B.A., 1937). While he continued his Rugby career, won a Blue and played in two Test matches for England, he clearly devoted himself to learning in a way he seems not to have done at school. Encouraged by his tutor E. M. W. Tillyard, he changed from the history to the English tripos, and under his influence read widely in literature. The experience of encountering the tradition of English poetry (and its classical antecedents), together with his early knowledge of Australian verse, is reflected in the three poems he published in 1937 in the college magazine, Chanticlere, and the Cambridge Review. It was at Cambridge, too, that he learned to fly as a member (1936-37) of the local air squadron.

Returning to Australia in 1938, Campbell joined the Royal Australian Air Force on 6 November 1939 as a cadet. On 20 January 1940 at St John's Anglican Church, Toorak, Melbourne, he married Bonnie Edith Lawrence; they were to have two sons and a daughter before being divorced in 1973. Having qualified as a pilot at Point Cook, he was commissioned on 17 February 1940. He served in Australia and completed several courses before being sent to Port Moresby in December 1941 as station navigation officer. On 6 February 1942 he piloted a Hudson on a photographic reconnaissance flight over Rabaul, New Britain. A Japanese fighter attacked the aircraft, causing extensive damage and wounding three of the crew. Although Campbell's left wrist was shattered and part of his little finger severed, he managed to bring the Hudson some 500 miles (805 km) home to base and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Back in Australia, he was promoted temporary squadron leader in April 1943 and commanded No.1 Squadron from December. Next year he led the unit (February to July) and No.2 Squadron (July to November) on bombing operations from Darwin. Promoted temporary wing commander on 1 July, he was awarded a Bar to his D.F.C. for 'exceptional energy and leadership'. Campbell's appointment terminated on 3 October 1945. The poem, 'Men in Green', and the stories, 'Zero at Rabaul' and 'Tumult in the Clouds', reflect his war-time exploits.

Douglas Stewart, editor of the Bulletin's 'Red Page', recalled that 'a series of lyrics of remarkable quality' began arriving at the magazine's office in 1942 and that Campbell's ambitions were 'to get back on the land as soon as the war was over, and not to be a poet, if a poet means a long-haired gentleman living in a garret with a geranium'. Stewart, who by 1944 had published six of Campbell's poems, also recorded that when David appeared in the office he had 'a dial Frith described as a mixture of George Carpenter and Jack Hulbert'.

Realizing his ambition to return to the land, in 1946 Campbell settled on a family property, Wells station, near Canberra. From this time his poetry became more closely attuned to the realities of the countryside. His daily life as a grazier, his acute observations of the natural world and his deep understanding of European poetry gave him a distinctive poetic voice, learned but not didactic, harmonious but not bland, vigorous but finely tuned. These early poems, most of which first appeared in the Bulletin, were published in Speak With the Sun (London, 1949). This volume was followed by The Miracle of Mullion Hill (1956) and by Evening Under Lamplight (1959), a collection of short stories.

In 1961 Campbell moved to Palerang, near Bungendore, New South Wales. He continued to publish regularly in the Bulletin, but also began to appear in journals—in particular Australian Letters—and to be published abroad. His sequence of poems, 'Cocky's Calendar', in Australian Letters in March 1961 marked a new phase in his writing. The longest poem he had so far attempted was the title poem in The Miracle of Mullion Hill, but he now showed an interest in developing themes more substantial than a short lyric could hold by bringing poems together in a sequence or set. The volume, Poems (1962), collected some of the work from the late 1950s. His output was relatively small from mid-1962 until the end of 1969. He edited the 1966 edition of Australian Poetry, and in 1968 published Selected Poems 1942-1968 for which he received the Grace Leven prize. In that year, too, he moved from Palerang to The Run at Queanbeyan.

The publication of The Branch of Dodona and Other Poems in 1970 opened a decade of extraordinary productivity. It also announced a degree of complexity and obliquity in his thinking which had not been so conspicuous in the early work. The Vietnam War provoked reflections on violence and the brotherhood of man; the seasonal activities of the land continued to preoccupy him; and an underlying sense of personal dislocation and anxiety was disguised in myth, dream and fantasy. That year he edited an anthology, Modern Australian Poetry (Melbourne), and won the Henry Lawson Australian Arts award. Between 1973 and 1979 five volumes of his poetry and two volumes of selected poems were published. With Rosemary Dobson, Campbell produced two books of translations in verse of a selection from Russian poets (1975 and 1979), and with the painter Keith Looby, The History of Australia (Melbourne, 1976). A selection of short stories, Flame and Shadow (Brisbane, 1976), also appeared. He became well known for his public readings and for his support of young poets.

On 18 February 1974 Campbell married Judith Anne Jones, née Dale, at the registrar general's office, Sydney. From May to September 1975 they travelled in England and Europe—his first trip abroad since his Cambridge days. The group of poems, 'Mottoes on Sundials', some of which appeared in Words with a Black Orpington (1978), are a precise record of their travels.

David Campbell was a gregarious man who enjoyed company and conversation. Tall and fair and craggy, he was physically large and large minded. To Manning Clark, 'his very presence encouraged everyone in the room to give of their best'. Campbell counted among his close friends Stewart, Clark, Dobson, Patrick White, A. D. Hope and many others, especially those who lived and worked in and around Canberra. He was keenly interested in painting, and many of his poems begin with a painting or painter. A member of the Hawks Club, Cambridge, and Royal Sydney Golf Club, he played polo with more enthusiasm than skill and later took to potting. He shared with Stewart a love of fishing. Throughout his life he was remarkably consistent in his interests and in his view of the world. He loved the land, and valued its history as part of his own, through his family's early and continuous connection with farming. Intuitively grasping the symmetry of natural forms, he acknowledged the force of a creative intelligence. He was serious but not solemn, and his wit was genial and without malice. He had a great passion for life, and was courageous in confronting death. Survived by his wife and the sons of his first marriage, Campbell died of cancer on 29 July 1979 in Royal Canberra Hospital, having proof-read his last volume of poetry, The Man in the Honeysuckle, published posthumously that year. His estate was sworn for probate at $192,611. The National Library of Australia, Canberra, holds his self-portrait.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Odgers, Air War Against Japan 1943-1945 (Canb, 1957)
  • D. Gillison, Royal Australian Air Force 1939-1942 (Canb, 1962)
  • M. Clark, David Campbell 1915-1979. Words Spoken at his Funeral (Canb, 1979)
  • H. Heseltine (ed), A Tribute to David Campbell (Syd, 1987)
  • Australian Book Review, Oct 1979, p 21
  • Age (Melbourne), 4 Aug 1979
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 4 Aug 1979
  • Australian, 4-5 Aug 1979
  • Campbell papers (National Library of Australia)
  • The King's School (Parramatta) archives.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Leonie Kramer, 'Campbell, David Watt (1915–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 16 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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