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Vitaï Lampada -- Sir Henry Newbolt

(Poem #946) Vitaï Lampada
 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 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
The glorious game of cricket has inspired its share of prose writers, from
Neville Cardus and P. G. Wodehouse to Woody Allen and Stephen Fry... but
poets? Oh yes; "there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are
dreamt of in your philosophy" [1], and one of those things is this week's
Minstrels theme: poems about or inspired by or at least tangentially related
to those "flannelled fools at the wicket" [2], cricketers.

Newbolt is not, unfortunately, a poet with whose ideology I sympathize; he's
too much the imperialist, buying into the "white man's burden" argument
without displaying the sensitivity to other cultures of, say, Kipling or
even Tennyson. That said, he does have a knack of coining memorable phrases:
the refrain of today's poem, the opening lines of "Drake's Drum", the
entirety of "Ireland, Ireland". It's not enough to ever elevate him from
minor poet status (the third eleven, so to speak), but it's sufficient for
him to be remembered. And what more could anyone ask, really?


[1] Bill Shakespeare
[2] Ruddy Kipling

[Minstrels Links]

Sir Henry Newbolt:
Poem #731, A Ballad of John Nicholson
Poem #41, Ireland, Ireland
Poem #456, He Fell Among Thieves

58 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

breezers said...

Who was it who described cricket as "organised loafing"?

surendranathc said...

Newbolt's definition of the 'white man's burden' does not even extend to
the common gardner / labourer class. His 'white man' is the starched,
pucca sahib imperialist, educated at Eton/Harrow/Oxbridge, and well
versed in the ways of the sahib, cricket, tennis and an education in the
classics, with a ingrained belief that somehow, the English gentry was
put at the pinnacle of creation, to liberate and uplift the rest of

The notions of the Victorian English were finally buried in the trenches
of France during WWI

Graham Michael Payne said...

I was taught this poem at school and it should be put back on the curriculum straight away, the sentiments are noble and the fact that they can now be ridiculed is a sad comment on how far we have allowed our noble past to be forgotten. I lived in France for many years and they knew how to respect the achievements of their Empire. Half the world laughs at us for what we are but half the world would be uncivilised without us........or however the quote goes.

Graham Payne

Iggulden said...

I love this poem. I seem to remember it was written after the British square was broken in the Sudan - quite a shocking event for an army used to overwhelming military dominance. Obviously the schoolboy/cricket references are from an age long past, yet my father also loved it and he fought for King and country in World War II.

To me, it is a glimpse of a time when the English considered themselves the noblest breed, unashamed of schoolboy notions of honour and 'keeping one's word'. In addition, it is a cultural marker - a poem that English men and women learned and taught to their children to show them not the reality of war, but the innocence of courage.

It is easy to pour scorn on such a poem of empire when the world has changed, but all the revisionists and their familes cannot change the fact that there were some noble aspects to the struggle and damned be he who denies it.

C. Iggulden

RCPortraitist said...

"Vitaï Lampada" My father has recited this poem ever since I can remember
He would very much like to know what the words "Vitaï Lampada" translate to
in English.
Thanks Richard

Graham Michael Payne said...

Vitae Lampada means "Light of Life"
I used to live in the south of france in the
cami de la pedra llampada
which means
road of the stone lanterns

Ian Wilkinson said...

The sentiments are noble - unselfishness and a greater cause than to self, principles learned at an impressionable age applied to fraught situations in later life, and the same principles handed to the generations following. Should we be ashamed of that? Incidentally, 'The Close' is a playing field at Clifton College, Bristol, where I believe Newbolt was educated. Perhaps he fits Orwell's definition applied to Kipling as a 'good bad poet'. But - like it or not - it is memorable. Will the same be said about the works of Andrew Motion in a 100 years time?

Ian Wilkinson said...

Interesting to read what I could of Bill Whiteford's comments, but sadly a part of them dissappears off the right of my page. I believe there is a promenade concert planned for 'The Close' in the summer, which is what put the poem in my mind.
I.W. 20th Feb 2003

Ian Wilkinson said...

The poem 'Fuzzy Wuzzy' by Kipling describes this breaking of the square in the Sudan, and pays tribute to the fighting qualities of the Sudanese.

Ian Wilkinson said...

Don't know, but 'flannelled fools at the wicket and muddy oafs in goal' is Kipling, again, from 'The Islanders'.

Philip TAYLOR [PC87S-O/XP] said...

It's one of the few poems that moves me to tears whenever
I read it -- how anyone can think of it as "Imperialist"
simply defeats me. As others have already written, it is
about honour and duty, simple virtues which were once taught
at school, just as today we teach "citizenship" (whatever that
may be). The poem no way demeans or even diminishes those against
whom "the gallant square" was deployed, and (for my money) is,
together with "He fell among thieves" more than sufficient to
propel Sir Henry into the first league of poets (under the
Captainship of Sir John Bethemann, of course).

Philip Taylor

Paul McDermott said...

In common with other contributors I learnt this poem as a child and identified with its message of selflessness. I have tried (not always successfully) to live in accordance with the noble sentiments it eulogises.

I got into a heated discussion with an Aussie following the results of the Rugby World Cup this week, and quoted the poem (which he did not know) - I hope I left him with something to ponder upon.

Can I change the subject slightly and refer to one of my 'other' favourite poets? Compare this poem with the sentiments of one of Owens' most memorable (IMHO) verses, the central theme of which I define as "forgiveness"

Wilfred Owen
Strange Meeting
It seemed that out of the battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which Titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall;
With a thousand fears that vision's face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
"Strange, friend," I said, "Here is no cause to mourn."
"None," said the other, "Save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something has been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress,
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery;
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery;
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now..."

Reference is made by another contributor to the way in which we saw "Victorian/imperialist ideals .... dying on the battlefields of WW1"

This is probably true - but the world is a poorer place for it!

Ian Wilkinson said...

Yes - and how poignant a line is 'I am the enemy you killed, my friend'.


In my childhood there was always some doubt as to whether Henry Newbolt
actually wrote this poem but only he has gained the respect of fellow poets

from CUBLEY BARD the prince of verse

Robert Handford said...

Should the title not not be translated as The Torch of Life, rather than The Light of Life?
Robert Handford.

Laurence Feldman said...

As a former Britisher, raised in England, I have nothing but affection for this poem, which calls up memories of Empire and Victorian Britain, and especially the now, unfortunately, discarded value of "playing the game."

PamLomax said...

Play up and play the game!
My father used to recite this poem as a party piece. He was a simple man and
not well-read. He must have learned it at school and because he was a great
cricketer it had a life-long impact on him. I do not think he would have known
what 'imperialist' meant. He died last week.

G Edward Cartwright said...

I have actually played (for an away team) at the close;
There’s a buzz of traffic in the close tonight,
30 to make and the game to win
And Cartwright skittled for a duck.

Not so poetic, but I was out playing up. I feel that there is no
imperialism in the poem, just an ethic that whatever one does one “plays
the game” and does so playing up the pitch (an offensive shot, for the
uninitiated). This quality is still taught in public schools, the match
I mention was only 6 years ago, but is sadly lacking from modern state

Lynnette Dixon said...

I am an Englishman lost in the colonies for over 35 years. I was taught this poem when a child 55 years ago and love it with a passion. I claim pride in what it says and try to measure myself with its words. I am not well read or clever with fancy words but that is the beauty of the poem, from colliery worker to King it reminds us of who we really should be rather than who we are.


Greg Cugola said...

Sir Henry Newbolt was a Jew.

He appears in The Jewish Contribution To Civilization 1940 p.137 edited by C.A. Stonehill with a preface by the wonderful Viennese writer Stephan Zweig.

'Sir Henry Newbolt (b. 1862)

poet and chronicler of the British Navy. Official Naval Historian. President of the English Association, 1911-21. Professor of Poetry at Oxford. Grandson of Dr. Samuel Solomon of Liverpool.

His Works Include

Aladore. First edition 1914 12/6

Clifton Chapel and Other School Poems. First Edition. 1908 30/-

The Island Race. First Edition. 1898 £3/3/-
Contained three of the most popular poems in English language, Drake's Drum, Admirals All, and Vitaï Lampada.

A Naval History of The War, 1914-1918. First Editions, ND 18/-
The official naval history of this period.

The New June. (A Novel.) First Edition. 1909 12/6

The Old Country. A Romance. First Edition. 1906 12/6

The Sailing Of The Long Ships, and Other Poems. First Edition. 1902 10/6

St. George's Day, and Other Poems. First Edition. London, 1918 8/6

Songs Of Memory and Hope. First Edition. 1909 10/6

Tales Of The Great War. Illus. First Edition. 1916 12/6

The Year Of Trafalgar. First Edition. Illus. 1905 15/-

Vitaï Lampada as far as I know is Latin for the Lamp of Life.

My father often used to recite this poem to me and like Phillip Taylor it also had the power to reduce me to tears.

It has a wonderfully stirring quality, full of pathos, melancholia and loss.

Sir Francis Newbolt (b. 1863) and Sir John Newbolt were both descendents of Dr Samuel Solomon of Liverpool.

Francis being the author of The Enchanted Wood. First Edition. Original boards. 1925 10/6


Greg Cugola

Susan Edwards said...

How I agree with your comments written on " Vitai Lampada" and "He Fell
Among Thieves"

I remember when I was about 12 years old, a teacher read "Vitai Lampada" to
us during assembly, and it stuck in my mind and I sought it out and
memorised it. Such memories are evoked when I hear it! It is a great pity
that some of the youth of today cannot take this up and live by its

Poetry is one of my passions, and I can never get enough of poetry of this

Susan Edwards

EAW TED SMITH - said...

The poem ( Vitai Lampada) reminds one of The Duke of Wellington's
ridiculous comment ( The battles of Waterloo were won on the fields of

EAW Ted Smith

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Phil Rogers said...

Around 4 years ago my dear old Dad recited the middle verse and I quickly
wrote it down as he spoke. He explained what a "square" was in military
terms. Reading the entire poem just now, I discovered he'd missed out the
fifth line. This verse he had to "learn off by heart" and recite to his
school class in Tonbridge Wells, Kent about 1935.
He was called up in 1942 and fought in Greece and Italy as a signalman until
the War's end. Presumably the verse ran through his mind during "tight
spots" in action during WWII. Probably a fitting verse for what he was to
later endure. He often spoke about his time during service in the British
Army and recountered his experiences on the battlefield and of wartime
Greece and Italy with vivid recollection. I often get the impression his
time in the army 1942-1945 counted as a "grand adventure" but he never
applied for his medals on returning to England. I don't know if he knew of
the connotations to cricket back then - he was never a follower of sports.
But it's too late to ask him if he knew this or if he thought much about the
verse on the battlefield - he passed away March, 2006 along with his short
and long term memories perfectly intact aged 82.
Phil Rogers

P Bradbury said...

This poem had been on my mind for several weeks. I learned it in school and never forgot it. I played cricket among other sports at my all girl school. Eng.Lit was always a welcome subject and I never thought this poem 'imperialistic'. I am talking about over seventy five years ago. Must be something special to have these words still in my mind. Those were better days in UK. I think we still played the game well through the war that followed. At least we did our best.I know my RAF pilot husband played the game well. I have been away for sixty years and I know it is no longer my England but I still remember what it once was.

Charles Oliver said...

This poem represents all that is the best and the worst of the British
That is why it endures.


phyllis williams said...

'Vitaia Lampada' To think I thought I alone was really interested in this poem, but not so. I learnt it at school, loved the rythm and was actually too young to know the significance of the words. When reciting it at home my Father was able to explain the poem to me,better than my teacher. I have always thought it a great poem. I was taught the translation was 'Lamp of light'. Phyllis Williams. Auckland, New Zealand.

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Anonymous said...

I well remember my late Father telling me of this poem .Only now have i realised the meaning of it,s importance ,i once owned NEWBOLTS book which coverd all his poems .I almost lost my life through alcohol ,when i lost my dear Father ,and whenever i feel a tad depressed i think of this poem and of my dear father and the wonderful ,halcion days we spent together .

Anonymous said...

doing an Essay, what does the term "wreck of a square that broke" mean? What is a square in military? And... what is the last stanza describing? War or school, or both?

Anonymous said...

To the Essayist above, a square was a formation used by infantry against attacking cavalry, in the days of single shot rifles and before. The men would form a square, several ranks deep, close together, with fixed bayonets facing outward on all sides. Each horse attacking would be facing from six to eight bayonets, and as the drill instructors told their recruits, "Horses is stupid, but they ain't THAT stupid!"

If the square broke formation, all that protection was lost, and the cavalry rode through with swords and lances, slaughtering the individual infantrymen. A broken square was a military disaster.

The last verse is about the passing of the torch for generation to generation through the school. "Vita Lampada" is "the Torch of Life" in Latin.

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michael scuffil said...

I have always thought this to be possibly the most unpleasant poem in the English language, at least among those with any claim to literary status. Comparison of war to a game of cricket is disingenuous, not to say downright disgusting. It reminds me of an interview given by the Kaiser from his Dutch exile in the 1920s, in which he complains that the Allies were unsporting by bringing on the Americans. No one who's actually fought in a battle (and I've known one or two) would ever think in these terms.

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