In an era of Victorian propriety and emphasis on the seriousness of the protestant work ethic, Sir Henry Newbolt (1862-1938) exemplified and championed both characteristics in both his writing and in deed.

Eminently respectable, Newbolt was a lawyer, novelist, playwright and magazine editor. Above all, he was a poet who championed the virtues of chivalry and sportsmanship combined in the service of the British Empire.

Born in Bilston, Staffordshire, and following studies at Clifton College and Oxford University, Newbolt became a barrister.

Although his first novel, Taken from the Enemy, was published in time for his thirtieth birthday in 1892, Newbolt’s reputation was established in 1897 in a poem written about a schoolboy cricketer who grows up to fight in Africa, Vitai Lampada. There, in the panic of battle the boy is stirred to heroic action by schooldays memories: “his Captain’s hand on his shoulder smote - / Play up! Play up! And play the game!”

“Play up! Play up! And play the game!” – words that have become famous through the years - symbolised Newbolt’s view that war should be fought in the same spirit as school sports.

The poem was well received both critically and publicly at the time, and his work underwent a further revival at the outbreak of the First World War, when optimism was high; however as gloom set in, Newbolt’s verse consequently suffered in popularity.

Newbolt came to dislike his most famous poem Vitai Lampada. During a 1923 speaking tour of Canada he was constantly called upon to recite the poem: “it’s a kind of Frankenstein’s Monster that I created thirty years ago,” he complained.

The poem retained its popularity in Canada long after it fell out of favour in Britain.

(From: firstworldwar.com)

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Clifton College Close

Probably the best known of all Newbolt's poems and the one for which he is now chiefly remembered is Vitaï Lampada. It refers to how a future soldier learns stoicism in cricket matches in the famous Close at Clifton College, Bristol:


VITAI LAMPADA
("They Pass On The Torch of Life")

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 his 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!'

Sir Henry Newbolt (1862-1938)