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He Fell Among Thieves -- Sir Henry Newbolt

(Poem #456) He Fell Among Thieves
 'Ye have robb'd,' said he, 'ye have slaughter'd and made an end,
 Take your ill-got plunder, and bury the dead:

 What will ye more of your guest and sometime friend?'
 'Blood for our blood,' they said.

 He laugh'd: 'If one may settle the score for five,
 I am ready; but let the reckoning stand til day:

 I have loved the sunlight as dearly as any alive.'
 'You shall die at dawn,' said they.

 He flung his empty revolver down the slope,
 He climb'd alone to the Eastward edge of the trees;

 All night long in a dream untroubled of hope
 He brooded, clasping his knees.

 He did not hear the monotonous roar that fills
 The ravine where the Yassin river sullenly flows;

 He did not see the starlight on the Laspur hills,
 Or the far Afghan snows.

 He saw the April noon on his books aglow,
 The wistaria trailing in at the window wide;

 He heard his father's voice from the terrace below
 Calling him down to ride.

 He saw the gray little church across the park,
 The mounds that hid the loved and honour'd dead;

 The Norman arch, the chancel softly dark,
 The brasses black and red.

 He saw the School Close, sunny and green,
 The runner beside him, the stand by the parapet wall,

 The distant tape, and the crowd roaring between,
 His own name over all.

 He saw the dark wainscot and timber'd roof,
 The long tables, and the faces merry and keen;

 The College Eight and their trainer dining aloof,
 The Dons on the daïs serene.

 He watch'd the liner's stem ploughing the foam,
 He felt her trembling speed and the thrash of her screw;

 He heard the passengers' voices talking of home,
 He saw the flag she flew.

 And now it was dawn. He rose strong on his feet,
 And strode to his ruin'd camp below the wood;

 He drank the breath of the morning cool and sweet:
 His murderers round him stood.

 Light on the Laspur hills was broadening fast,
 The blood-red snow-peaks chill'd to dazzling white;

 He turn'd, and saw the golden circle at last,
 Cut by the Eastern height.

 'O glorious Life, Who dwellest in earth and sun,
 I have lived, I praise and adore Thee.' A sword swept.

 Over the pass the voices one by one
 Faded, and the hill slept.
-- Sir Henry Newbolt
As a poet, Newbolt is very reminiscent of Kipling - he addresses many of the
same subjects, in a similar tone, and if he is not quite as overt a minstrel
of the Empire, its mindset nonetheless permeates his works. Of course, he
was far more minor a poet than Kipling was, and he can get annoying at
times, but he did also write a number of good poems (and one great one,
'Ireland, Ireland')

Today's poem is characteristic of that period - the protagonist laughing
lightly at his murderers, the code of honour that holds both the 'blood for
blood' and the willingness to let the victim live till dawn as natural, were
very much a part of the English view of 'things as they should be'. Also
very characteristic are the scenes that pass through his mind as he lives
his last night, and the fatalistic courage of a 'dream untroubled of hope'
(lovely phrase, too).

Without any overt appeal to the emotions, Newbolt does, I think, manage to
evoke a sense of sadness and of loss; the technique is by no means a new one
but he handles it effectively and without appearing cliched. All in all, one
of the good ones.


What prompted the 'Kipling' line of thought is the fact that today's poem
makes a very interesting companion to Kipling's "Heriot's Ford"


We've run one Newbolt poem in the past, the aforementioned 'Ireland,
Ireland': poem #41

Another vaguely related poem is Longfellow's 'The Slave's Dream',
[broken link]

- martin

5 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

roy.eldridge said...

I understand this poem immortalised Harold Mortimer - but who was he and how did he inspire Sir Henry Newbolt to write it?

Lyn Eldridge

johncevans said...

Always a favourite poem of mine - but why divided into 2 line stanzas ? I
have it as published in 1925 in 4 line verses and I think it makes more
sense like that.

David Charters said...

'He fell among thieves' - a poem by Sir Henry Newbolt. As a schoolboy I
was fascinated by this poem. Imagine, then, my emotions when , travelling
the mountain roads between Chitral and Gilgit in North-West Pakistan at the
time of the Russian war in Afghanistan (1982) our vehicle was brought to a
standstill by a mountain rockfall above the Yassin River and we were forced
to camp by that 'sullenly ' flowing river for 3 days while the road was
being rebuilt . The poem was about a British officer who was murdered by
bandits in that area and his body was ultimately buried at Gilgit.
David Charters.


Newbolt handles a very grave subject - loss, death, and emptiness - in a seemingly light-hearted tone and style which does not, however, diminish the grave implications of the subject. Euphemism and subtlety are used to good effect. One of my favorite reads ever since my form five days in the early 1990s.

Anonymous said...

My son, Roderick Petersen, was killed in a horrific car accident together with his family. The subsequent pillaging of his personal effects in his home within the day of his death,led me to think of this poem. The analogy for me lies in the fact that we often find ourselves in companies whose true intent we are unaware. What I like is that although the circumstances are not the same, it's easy to see the leit-motifs.

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