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Roy Campbell

The Zebras

Easy questions to cut your teeth on!

Keith Tankard
Updated: 4 March 2014
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The poet describes a herd of zebra which he sees on the grasslands at dawn. He is enraptured by their stark beauty as they roam the land freely, and then as a stallion romps with a filly.


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". 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 -- 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. It was this support which saw the poet's reputation slump 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:

From the dark woods that breathe of fallen showers,
Harnessed with level rays in golden reins,
The zebras draw the dawn across the plains.
  • What evidence from the poem indicates that it has recently rained? (2)

[Need help?]

  • What evidence is there that it is no longer raining? (2)

[Need help?]

  • What is a harness? (2)

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  • What is a rein? (2)

[Need help?]

  • How do you know that the sun has only recently risen? (2)

[Need help?]

  • Explain the meaning of the word "plains". (2)

[Need help?]

The sunlight, zithering their flanks with fire,
Flashes between the shadows as they pass
Barred with electric tremors through the grass
Like wind along the gold strings of a lyre.
  • What is a zither? (2)

[Need help?]

  • In what way could the sunlight be "zithering their flanks with fire"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • What exactly is it that "flashes between the shadows as they pass"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • What is a "lyre"? (2)

[Need help?]

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