Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The poetry of empire

In 1897, barrister and writer Henry Newbolt (1862-1938) published a poem called Vitai Lampada, which said, in essence, that fighting for the British empire against African "natives" demanded the same qualities of teamwork, loyalty, and sacrifice required of a schoolboy cricketer. In the poem, a soldier, far from home and facing almost certain death in a hopeless situation, imagines himself back on the school cricket close, feels his team captain's encouraging hand on his shoulder, and manfully proceeds to do his duty for monarch, country, and empire.

'Vitai Lampada' (rough translation: [they pass] the torch of life) arguably belongs to the same genre as Kipling's better-known "The White Man's Burden" (1899); today one can still find references, almost always deprecatory or satirical, to the refrain of Newbolt's poem: "Play up, play up, and play the game." If one ignores its imperialistic, militaristic, jingoistic message (a big "if"), 'Vitai Lampada' is undeniably stirring, though its strictly literary merits are slight to nonexistent. It was very popular in some circles in Britain in the years leading to the First World War and less popular, for understandable reasons, thereafter.

With this as background, you will perhaps appreciate my surprise at finding 'Vitai Lampada' reproduced in a kind of handbook called The Mammoth Book of Boys' Own Stuff, which I recently saw prominently displayed in a bookstore. This book is full of chapters on how to do various (if I may be permitted a sexist phrase) boy things (e.g., build a model rocket, camp in the wild, etc., etc.), but it also has a section with a few poems, of which 'Vitai Lampada', identified simply as a "patriotic" poem, is one. Reproducing an ode to Empire in a sort of bloated scout manual aimed at 12 and 13-year-olds, and published in 2008, is somewhat bizarre.

For those who may be curious, here is the poem.
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 the 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!"


P.s. See also the post More on Newbolt and the sports/war equation.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

Incidentally, Newbolt wrote the college song for one of Sri Lanka's most prestigious schools, Trinity College, Kandy.

Naren

LFC said...

Naren,
Very interesting! Should I ask you how the song goes? or on second thought, maybe not -- I'm not sure how much Newbolt I can take. :)

hank_F_M said...

LFC

I do not really think that is in the same vein as Kipling’s White Man’s Burden.

Kipling was commenting (warning?) on the cost of Empire, which even so he thought was worthwhile. Being obstinate at times I would think the cost portrayed is good complaint against Imperialism.

Newbolt’s Vitai Lampada is a paean to the value of team work and determination, learned as youth, producing positive action as an adult, which in a different context than a colonial war would be completely unobjectionable.

LFC said...

Hank,
Perhaps I was a *bit* too hasty with the Kipling comparison (I'll reread White Man's Burden), but as far as your last point is concerned, I personally have difficulty separating Newbolt's message about teamwork etc. from the broader context of the poem.

To me Newbolt's overarching theme here is the connection between sports and war -- not sports as a substitute for or 'moral equivalent' of war, but the sporting attitude or spirit harnessed to the service of war. This is not at all unique to Newbolt, of course, but it does seem to be the basic point of the poem. In later years he apparently became somewhat disenchanted with
'Vitai Lampada', or at least with being asked to recite it so often, e.g. on a tour of Canada that he went on -- this is from the Wikipedia Newbolt entry, so I can't vouch for its reliability.

Incidentally, I'm planning a follow-up post growing out of this topic in the next 2 or 3 days, which will draw on Paul Fussell, so perhaps the discussion will continue....

LFC said...

p.s. of course I meant the spirit only of *team* sports, not all sports.

hank_F_M said...

LFC

I went and found some more of Newbolt’s poetry.

Vitai Lampada is clearly his best or the best of what I found.

All pretty much in the same spirit as “vitai.” The last four lines of “Vitai” sum up his message.

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!"


Which coming from that time and place often has a military and or colonial context, but I think the virtue is applicable in other times and places. This would by why "Play up! Play up! And play the game!" was often quoted by people who did not know the poem or his work.

A poet for a certain time and place with one poem that can reach beyond that time and place.

I’m looking forward to your next post.

Anonymous said...

The British empire was sustained not only through coercion, but also, through education. Newbolt and a number of other poets and writers inspired secondary education in the colonies, geared towards civilizing the natives. This of course,in turn, led in many places, for demands for independence. However, on account of the success of the educational mission of the empire, these demands for independence (and reform movements that precipitated the independence movements themselves)were articulated on the terrain already laid out by the British.
N

LFC said...

N,
Point taken. And I might add ,just to spell out further the implications of what you said, that, e.g., in the case of India (and Sri Lanka?), the fact that some or many of the future leaders of the independence movement were educated partly in Britain, or in schools in the subcontinent modeled on British schools, turned them into admirers of British institutions, which helps explain why the subcontinent's political and judicial systems owe so much to the British example. An empire based solely on coercion probably could not have led to this result.

Anonymous said...

LFC,

I would love to know more about Newbolt and his poetry. The exchange between Hank and you has got me thinking about the role of poetry and the success of British colonialism. I would love to hear more on this. has there work been done on this? Where does Newbolt's poetry and politics fit in with the ideas of Empire? I know nothing about Newbolt, but now I am very curious.

Sentiments of team work, civic value, and tradition (a certain kind of trdition mind you) etc..that Newbolt and others express were a big part of my own primary and secondary education which occurred in the 1980s...On the one hand, it gave us a sense of mission and was meant as a way of preparing us for citizenship, and more specifically, leadership. One other hand, it also perpetuated a distinction between the colonial and the native, except in our case, the colonials happened to be from within the country. This is a broad brush stroke that needs more nuance, perhaps in the fall.

Many thanks for the initial post on Newbolt.
N

bro said...

I have only one comment. Where LFC writes "Vitai Lampada is undeniably stirring, though its strictly literary merits are slight to nonexistent," I would substitute "and" for "though" because I think generally that literary merit and stirringness are antithetical. -- signed, your house Modernist.

LFC said...

bro,
touche (sorry, can't do the accent on the "e").
the question might arise, however, of various speeches in Shakespeare (e.g. just to take one example "all the conspirators, save only he, did that they did in envy of great Caesar"), or Pericles' funeral oration in Thucydides (hmm, it's been a while, might have to glance at that again), and various others, including from non-Western sources; sorry to leave this vague, but it's too early in the a.m.

Anonymous said...

LFC,
Where is the post you promised?

LFC said...

It will be up either tonight (Tues.) or tomorrow a.m.