Poetry Review: Greatest Hits of Sir Henry Newbolt

By “greatest hits”, I  really mean “the three poems by Newbolt that anyone remembers nowadays,” and to give him credit he was a bit more than a one-hit wonder. Newbolt lived from 1862 to 1938, and worked at various times as a lawyer, literary journalist and government adviser-cum-war-propagandist. However, his lasting fame is as “the poet of the British Empire at its peak,” or at any rate “its other poet,” since he was a contemporary of Rudyard Kipling. Naturally, that also makes his work undisputably macho (Newbolt would probably have preferred, “manly”).

Wikipedia also claims that he more or less lived in a harem with his wife, Margaret and her cousin Ella, who was both of their lovers, so no doubt the anime version of his life, Moe Moe, Newbolt-Chan!, in which there are wacky hi-jinks and Henry keeps getting beaten up for accidentally stumbling into the bathroom whilst one or other of the women are naked, will be made eventually.

“Vitai Lampada” (1892) is undoubtedly Newbolt’s best-known poem. It’s also annoyingly difficult to spell, because apparently it isn’t “Vitae Lampada” as I always thought (Latin conjugation, eh?), and should have two dots above the “i”. I have no idea how you make a keyboard do that.

Anyway, the theme of the poem is basically how values of selflessness and team-spirit learned through an English public school, specifically its sport, even more specifically its cricket, goes on to inspire one of its pupils through his life. That life is probably a short one, since the next time we see him he’s on the losing side of a battle in a colonial war in Sudan (apparently based on the battle of Abu Klea in 1885), bravely rallying his troops. “Play up, play up and play the game,” is the refrain, which sounds like the sort of “encouragement” you dreaded hearing from that PE teacher you always hated, as you carefully avoided getting too involved in some rugby match he insisted you play in. Or is that just me?

To be honest, I am very late to the snark on “Vitai Lampada.” The poem played its part in inspiring a generation of public schoolboys to volunteer for service in the First World War, and as you can imagine, many those who survived were left with strong and negative feelings about it. I don’t think anyone still accepts the “warfare is just a larky extension of sport” trope that some people pre-1914 do seem to have genuinely believed, and to be fair to Newbolt, the British troops we see are on the point of being wiped out (“the river of death has brimmed his banks”), so it’s not as if he presents war as a jolly jape with few negative consequences.

However, what he does do, like a lot of people at the time, up to and including generals, is suggest that the key factor in war is spiritual, not physical. The crucial thing in the battle he describes is that “the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks”, most likely too late, not that the British are better armed or organised than the Sudanese (even if they are, they’re still losing). That wasn’t particularly true even in the colonial wars of the British Empire, where the British usually won mostly precisely by virtue of having modern weapons that their enemies didn’t. By the end of the First World War, it was very obviously hopelessly outdated.

A more fundamental criticism of the poem, however, is that at crucial points it is, quite simply, far too idealistic to be believable. A cricket team is inspired to win by a desire to “play up and play the game,” not by “the sake of a ribboned coat Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame”, when in practice, most sports teams are precisely driven by the wish to win trophies and have everyone else know they’ve done that.  A posh young officer can rally the working class rank-and-file of a losing army by telling the soldiers to “play up and play the game” according to the values of the good old school, when most of the men he was talking to would (a) have no idea what he meant and (b) not care, since they were more interested in escaping with their lives. And they wouldn’t be wrong, either.

In effect, Newbolt thinks his ideology of selfless duty is universally held and universally true. I can only assume he lived life in something of a bubble if he believed that was the case even in 1892, and it’s worth pointing out that this is a poem about battle written by a man who was never in one. Next to Newbolt, Kipling looks far more of a realist on these matters (and, interestingly, he usually tried to write about them from the ordinary soldier’s perspective).

“Drake’s Drum” (1897) is, as they would have said in Friends, The One Where Drake He’s In His Hammock An’ a Thousand Mile Away (“Capten, art tha sleepin’ there below?”). Basically, this is Newbolt’s contribution to the genre of “there’s an old, long-dead, national hero, who will in the right circumstances, come back from the dead to save us.” In this case, the hero is Sir Francis Drake and the right circumstances are “if the Dons sight Devon” and someone beats on his drum. The drum really exists, in Buckland Abbey (or at any rate, that’s where a replica of it’s on display). Newbolt wrote the poem in pseudo-West Country dialect whose accuracy you can debate, and phonetically, which is always pretty corny. Having said that, it can’t be denied that, like Vitai Lampada, it is memorable, and the corny pirate talk helps achieve that. Once you’ve read these poems, they aren’t easily forgotten, and of course they haven’t been.

The main problems I have with the poem are (a) that if Drake is only going to respond to Spanish invasions, as he says he is, then that isn’t much use because Spain hasn’t posed a serious invasion threat to Britain since the early 17th century and (b) he claims to have “drum(med) them up the Channel”, which he didn’t, at least not if he’s talking about the Spanish Armada in 1588. The whole Spanish objective in that campaign was to sail up the English Channel, to meet with their army in what is now Belgium and mount a joint invasion of England.

The English didn’t drive them up it; they went there voluntarily, losing a few ships along the way. Then they anchored off Calais, and the whole plan fell apart, because they couldn’t communicate reliably with the Spanish army and so didn’t know what exactly to do next. All they could do was sit where they were, and it was while they were doing so that the English successfully attacked them and the surviving ships had to go on the run. At best, Drake is shading the facts in his favour here (although I suppose he’s entitled to – it is fiction).

“He Fell Among Thieves” is a poem that would seem supremely dated, but has been given a bit of a new lease of life through the recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. British adventurer (exact details of who he is and what he’s up to are kept vague) is somewhere on the North-West Frontier, when he somehow befriends (again, the details are vague), some guys who reveal themselves to be bandits. They slaughter everyone he’s got with him and whilst, badass that he is, he kills five of them, in the end he just hasn’t got enough bullets for all of them.

Although, unsurprisingly, wanting “blood for our blood” for their fallen comrades the bandits, rather more surprisingly, agree to wait until morning before taking it. James Bond would undoubtedly take advantage of this time to escape or something, but Newbolt, this time, is more of a realist. The protagonist spends the night remembering his childhood and youth back in England, which is exactly what you would expect from Newbolt (apparently one of the high-points of his life was winning a race at school) and then the bandits behead him.

The advantage of this poem over the other two, particularly “Vitai Lampada”, is that this time Newbolt isn’t out to prove a point, just tell a story. The title is clearly a reference to the Bible story of the Good Samaritan, perhaps because in this case, there clearly won’t be one and it wouldn’t help if there were. However, the only point at which religion is really mentioned in the poem itself is when the protagonist says some final words to God, just before his death, and they’re phrased so vaguely that it isn’t entirely clear he’s referring to God in the Christian sense at all.

With the return to the world of people who like to behead kidnapped Westerners, and of Westerners getting involved in dangerous situations in the same part of the world, “He Fell Among Thieves” has become a poem that, by and large, could still be written today. The details would certainly differ. Apparently, the only family member that the protagonist bothers thinking about before death is his father, and he takes patriotic pride in having come across in a ship flying a British flag in a way that it’s hard to believe a man facing his death really would even then, let alone now.

However, in this poem Newbolt is a bit less hopelessly a fly stuck in Victorian amber. Perhaps that’s why it’s my favourite of the three.



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