The torch of life

06Jun10

Well, it’s a Sunday, the weather’s been lovely, and some people play cricket, so …

Vitaï Lampada

There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night

Ten to make and the match to win

A bumping pitch and a blinding light,

An hour to play, and the last man in.

And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat.

Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,

But his captain’s hand on his shoulder smote

“Play up! Play up! And play the game!”

The sand of the desert is sodden red –

Red with the wreck of a square that broke

The gatling’s jammed and the colonel dead,

And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.

The river of death has brimmed its banks,

And England’s far, and Honour a name,

But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks –

“Play up! Play up! And play the game!”

This is the word that year by year,

While in her place the school is set,

Every one of her sons must hear,

And none that hears it dare forget.

This they all with a joyful mind

Bear through life like a torch in flame,

And falling fling to the host behind –

“Play up! Play up! And play the game!”

Thought we’d give that an airing as today (June 6) is the birthday of Sir Henry Newbolt (1862–1938), poet, author, lawyer and sometime civil servant. The poem was written in 1897 and harks back to Newbolt’s schooldays at Clifton College, Bristol where cricket was much more than a game, and something slighly less than a religion. That’s the other famous Clifton cricketer in the pic, AEJ Collins.

At public schools, the young masters of the empire learned all about duty, and about enduring pain and discomfort thanks to the firm smack of willow and leather. But that’s enough about corporal punishment.

By the First World War, ‘Vitaï Lampada’ (it means the torch of life, something that gets passed on from one generation to the next, comes from some Latin poet I think) was both adored and reviled in equal measure. Newbolt himself was a patriot, but hated jingoism. According to the DNB he later regarded the poem as “a Frankenstein’s Monster that I created”.

One of his contemporaries at Clifton was Douglas Haig, commander of the British forces in France from 1915 to 1918 and thus the man more resposible than any other for ordering a generation of young men to their deaths, and it’s been suggested that the boy yelling “play up!” in the poem was Haig himself. Hmmmm …

Henry Newbolt was never the bull-necked militarist imperialist the poem’s detractors think he was. Politically he was centre-left, hanging out with Sidney and Beatrice Webb and the Fabian crowd. His personal life was also very Edwardian; he married Margaret Duckworth in 1889, but she only accepted him on condition that her cousin, Ella Coltman, to whom she was very close, should not be neglected. She certainly wasn’t. Within two years they were all living together. Fastidious, precise Henry Newbolt kept a careful record of how often he slept with both of them, so’s neither would feel neglected. It was by all accounts a very happy arrangement.

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3 Responses to “The torch of life”

  1. Eugene,

    I’m not sure when it is Mister Harper’s birthday, but I hope one day, maybe a hundred years hence, someone writes a similarly generous account of ‘When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease’.

    Phil

  2. 3 William

    Thank you.


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