A Subtle Form of Hypocrisy

John Bayley

  • Playing the Game: A Biography of Sir Henry Newbolt by Susan Chitty
    Quartet, 288 pp, £25.00, July 1997, ISBN 0 7043 7107 3

On the jacket of Playing the Game is a portrait of the man who played it: a portrait by William Strang (1859-1921), a Late Victorian artist now much undervalued. He did what is by far the best portrait of Hardy, and his special ability seems to have lain in pleasing his subjects and their public by making them look suitably grave and important, even a shade portentous, while at the same time revealing hidden traces of weakness, perhaps of meanness. Newbolt’s is a close little face, the small mouth primly clenched over an aggressively cloven chin, the brows knitted in a frown which seems to tell less of imperial visions than of inner worries and embarrassments. It is the kind of face to whose owner a bank manager might think twice before making a loan. No wonder Newbolt felt uneasy when he went to look at the portrait exhibited at the Tate. ‘Had a good laugh,’ he none the less gamely recorded.

In fact there would have been no need for the bank loan: Newbolt’s success as a poet was phenomenal, and financial, though with a wife and two mistresses to support he can never have been exactly flush with the ready. Neither he – nor they – had expensive tastes, but even a successful Victorian or Edwardian poet had to keep going in order to bring in the money, and turn his hand to any literary business – anthologising, series contributing, preface writing, an opera libretto – which might come his way. Not that he wrote his best-known poems for money – far from it. The ‘breathless hush’ in his most celebrated poem was the hush of ecstasy he always felt in recalling his old school, Clifton in Bristol, and the cricket matches held on the sports ground in front of the school buildings – ‘the Close’.

There’s a breathless hush in the Close tonight –
   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!’

When I read these verses to my wife, in as straight a voice as I could manage, she burst spontaneously into tears. They were, in a sense, happy tears, for the sudden emotion generated by effective poetry is always a kind of release, whatever the subject. Newbolt would have been gratified by this demonstration of his vatic powers, abruptly producing what Owen Barfield in Poetic Diction called ‘a felt change of consciousness’. My wife had not the faintest idea what the verses were about, what or where the Close was, or what incident of warfare was abruptly conjured up in the sudden switch between the stanzas. But the immediacy of the poetry had taken charge. Newbolt wrote the poem early on in his career, when he was working at the Bar and disliking it. Although school sports had meant so much to him he had never played them effectively. He was slight in build and not strong. But at a Clifton reunion he had encountered a veteran of the Sudan wars. ‘At 3 in the morning I was still sitting on his bed, reading extracts from his diary of the Soudan.’ A fit of inspiration came upon him, and he produced ‘Vitai Lampada’ (‘The Torch of Life’), of which these are the first two verses.

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