Tuesday, June 24, 2008

More on Newbolt and the sports-war 'equation'

The interesting comments on my post "The poetry of empire" (June 17) prompt these further remarks.

The large issue of the relation between poetry and colonialism, raised in the comments, is, unfortunately, beyond my competence to tackle here. On the narrower issue of the relation between Newbolt and Kipling, also raised in the comments, I think I was wrong to make a specific link between Newbolt's 'Vitai Lampada' and Kipling's 'White Man's Burden,' since the two poems' particular themes and their audiences (Kipling was addressing Americans in the wake of U.S. annexation of the Philippines, Newbolt was addressing his compatriots) are different. However, Kipling and Newbolt did share the same basic attitudes, a point that has been made before: see, for example, James G. Nelson's review of Vanessa F. Jackson's The Poetry of Henry Newbolt, in the journal English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920 v.37 n.4 (1994), pp.538-41.

Newbolt is mentioned in A.N. Wilson's The Victorians (2003), where is weirdly misdescribed as a "man of the left" (p.292). Newbolt also appears in the opening chapter of Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory (1975). Referring to the "commitment to the sporting spirit" as emblematic of the "innocence" with
which the British entered the war, Fussell quotes 'Vitai Lampada' and notes that it had established "the classic equation between war and sport" (p.25).

Fussell proceeds to tell the story of Captain W.P. Nevill of the 8th East Surreys regiment, who fell on the first day of the Somme. During his last home leave before the battle, Nevill "bought four footballs [i.e., soccer balls], one for each platoon" and "offered a prize to the platoon which, at the jump-off, first kicked its football up to the German front line" (p.27). A private in another regiment who was there that day, quoted in Martin Middlebrook's First Day on the Somme and re-quoted by Fussell, reported seeing "'an infantryman climb onto the parapet into No Man's Land, beckoning others to follow. As he did so he kicked off a football. A good kick. The ball rose and traveled well towards the German line. That seemed to be the signal to advance.'"

Fussell, after noting that Nevill "was killed instantly" and that two of the soccer balls "are preserved today in English museums," continues: "That Captain Nevill's sporting feat was felt to derive from the literary inspiration of Newbolt's poem...seems apparent from the poem by one 'Touchstone' written to celebrate it. This appears on the border of an undated field concert program preserved in the Imperial War Museum:

A Company of the East Surrey Regiment is reported to have dribbled four footballs--the gift of their Captain, who fell in the fight--for a mile and a quarter into the enemy trenches.

On through the hail of slaughter,
Where gallant comrades fall,
Where blood is poured like water,
They drive the trickling ball.
The fear of death before them
Is but an empty name.
True to the land that bore them--
The SURREYS play the game.

"And so on [Fussell writes] for two more stanzas. If anyone at the time thought Captain Nevill's act preposterous, no one said so" (p.28).

For those whose history of World War One may be a bit rusty, it should be noted that the British suffered 60,000 killed and wounded (about 20,000 killed, 40,000 wounded) on the first day of the Somme. They were mowed down by German machine-gunners who had been left largely unscathed by a lengthy but ineffective pre-attack artillery bombardment. It is safe to assume that the First World War is the last time it would have seemed un-preposterous to kick a ball toward the enemy while attacking. This is one way of saying that the First World War changed the way both soldiers and civilians thought about war. The manifestos of the Italian Futurists, the first of which was published in Paris in 1909, advanced the view that war is "the only cure for the world" [guerra -- sola igiene del mondo] (J. Joll, Europe since 1870, p.127; cf. R. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism, p.6). It is hard to imagine any minimally sane person saying something like this after World War One. Although Fussell has been criticized for drawing too sharp a division between World War One and what came before it (see Daniel Pick, War Machine: The Rationalization of Slaughter in the Modern Age, ch. 13), there is plenty of evidence to support the position that the First World War marked a watershed in attitudes about war. One of the casualties of the First World War was the particular view of war and "the sporting spirit" articulated in Newbolt's 'Vitai Lampada'. I will end by quoting the first sentence of James Nelson's review of Vanessa Jackson's book, cited above: "Henry Newbolt was one of several poets -- William Watson and Stephen Phillips also come to mind -- who awoke to sudden and unexpected fame in the Nineties [the 1890s], a fame which did not last, Newbolt's poetry, one might say, having been written as if it were consciously designed not to survive World War I."


hank_F_M said...


A good post. I always like to learn.

WWI did draw a very definite line. Many have said that 1914 was the real split between the 19th and 20th Centuries. 1914 was 99 years from the council of Vienna and 44 years since the reunification of Germany, not just the group you mentioned but there were a number of books advocating/predicting a war to solve all problems. “Chicken Hawks” all. WWI cured that idiocy. But it is over 60 years since the end of WWII, if you dig though the dregs of the net you can find a revival of that garbage. Maybe the old WWII footage will correct the effect of old edited stories on people looking for a challenge and cause.

Britain was not as bad since they had gotten a good knock in the Boar War. Kipling's poetry is very different after that war. 'Vitai Lampada' was written several years before.


weirdly misdescribed as a "man of the left"

I’m not sure. Perhaps not Newbolt but certainly Kipling. A lot of that stuff removed from context and extracted can sound leftish. Kipling is sung folk music style by persons of impeccable left wing status. . (Leslie Fish ) His Birds of Prey except for to much local color would work well at any anti-war rally.

“Large birds of prey will carry us away,
you’ll never see your soldiers any more.”

His cries for justice for the common soldier can be heart breaking. If he was talking abut factory workers he would be accused of being very leftist. From the Last of the Light Brigade. which I used last veterans day.

“Thirty million English sing of England’s might
Twenty broken troopers lack a bed for the night,”

Not a man of the left, but not of the old style right either.


The military has a strange sense of humor sometimes.

The soccer ball thing would be irresponsible on several counts. However I’ve known several individuals to whom that story should not be told, less they imitate the good Captain.

I could see the preposterous stupidity of the thing, while I was laughing.

LFC said...

On WWI as a dividing line, I also might have mentioned, for example, E. Hobsbawm's 'The Age of Extremes' (published about 12 years ago), which takes 1914 to 1991 as its period, calling it the short twentieth century.

I'll defer to you, at least for right now, on Kipling, since I think you know more Kipling than I do.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a superb post. Have learned a great deal from the posts and comments. On a personal note, I might add that the following from Newbolt's Clifton Chapel was a big inspiration for many of us schoolboys on the sports pitches.

"To set the cause above renown,
To love the game beyond the prize,
To honour, while you strike him down,
The foe that comes with fearless eyes;
To count the life of battle good,
And dear the land that gave you birth,
And dearer yet the brotherhood
That binds the brave of all the earth."

Looking back, I am not sure if I should laugh, cry, or just shrug my shoulders.

Thanks again!

LFC said...

Thanks for this additional bit of Newboltiana and for your other contributions here (I hope not the last), and I'm very glad this proved to be of interest.