Sir Henry Newbolt, “Vitaï Lampada” (1897-98)

Sir Henry Newbolt, a childhood friend of Douglas Haig (later to command World War I’s British Expeditionary Force), wrote the following poem, which became popular early in World War I, in the late nineteenth century. Its equation of warfare with cricket, of valor with sportsmanship, represented an ideal of rugged bravery and an expectation that wars could follow game rules that many British soldiers and generals followed. These expectations proved completely inadequate to the realities of trench warfare. The poem’s title, which means “The Torch of Life,” is taken from the Latin poem De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) by Lucretius, where it refers to a torch handed off in a relay race.

 

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!'”

 


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