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.
There is a parallel with Kipling, also unfitted physically for the life he was inspired to write about, but with Kipling the journalist and brilliant pasticheur came first and the true poet was slower to develop. Kipling saluted the British Army’s Dervish opponents (‘Now here’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, in your home in the Sudan / You’re a poor benighted heathen but a first-class fighting man’) and in his early novel The Light that Failed produced a graphic account of the action Newbolt refers to, when a square was broken and a regiment all but destroyed. (Susan Chitty refers to Newbolt’s meeting at Clifton with ‘a survivor of Omdurman’, but that was in the final stage of the war, and an almost bloodless victory from the British Army’s point of view, though the Dervish forces were massacred.) Such imperial dramas – the Zulus supplied another – took hold of the public imagination back home, supplying stirring preludes to the great anti-climax of the Boer War at the century’s end. Memories and legends were still potent when A.E.W. Mason wrote The Four Feathers, made into one of the first Korda colour films in 1939, and much revived on TV.
In Barrack Room Ballads Kipling usually tried to speak from the common soldier’s point of view and in his idiom, or a laundered version of it; and this, as Orwell pointed out, is seldom successful, however politically proper the idea. A convention of rough dialect simply gets in the way, as it does in ‘Drake’s Drum’, another immensely successful poem which Newbolt wrote at the same period. But it is altogether lacking in the ‘breathless hush’ and the inspirational memory which made ‘Vitai Lampada’ and ‘He Fell among Thieves’, Newbolt’s later poem on an incident in Afghanistan, so memorable. In the verses I quoted the setting of the scenes is immensely vivid, the technique and cutting almost cinematic. ‘An hour to play and the last man in’ sets the heroic tone; and the Gatling, an early machine-gun, was indeed all too prone to jam. On top of these facts the chorus line supplies a ritual war-cry rather than a pious exhortation, which would be – as it is apt to sound today – ridiculous. Chanted in its own spirit, ‘Play up! Play up!’ is like the sound rite at a strike meeting or soccer match, and the sober drop in tone – ‘and play the game’ – could be a reminder of the realities of the situation, whether in war or cricket. These things have got to be done properly.
Significantly, the line that makes the verses – ‘England’s far, and honour a name’ – and I suspect the one that brought the tears, climaxes the second stanza and is more or less borrowed from Falstaff and Shakespeare (‘What’s in this word honour?’). Kipling often insists on the panic and emptiness the troops far from home felt in battle, but it is Newbolt who understates that knowledge most effectively. No wonder Larkin and Amis included his best-known pieces in their anthologies, and Betjeman earlier hailed him as a poet ‘far better than Bloomsbury would have us think’, who had written some of the century’s most memorable lines. Quite true, and yet there does linger something profoundly uneasy in the spirit of the poems and of the man behind them: an unease not so much in readers today, who are bound to feel immeasurably distant from these matters, as in Newbolt himself, and in his own sense of his times, as we now look back on them. They weren’t simply pretending, as every age tends to do about the ideals it officially goes in for, but deep down they knew that they were pretending. Like the troops in colonial actions, they were full of panic and emptiness: they had unknowingly lost faith in what they most proclaimed and shouted about. The colonel was indeed dead. The attempt to resurrect the school spirit on the battlefield has a foretaste of doom about it. Tears may after all be in order, tears hardly knowing what they mean, though one knows only too well what they meant for Wilfred Owen in the Somme trenches 24 years later. After that war Newbolt was soon forgotten – in spite of a hugely successful tour of Canada, where ‘Play up! Play up!’ was continuously chanted – and his poems vanished from the anthologies.
But the passage of time brings unexpected revenges. In 1995 ‘Drake’s Drum’ was the most often broadcast of any poem on Radio 4, while the following year ‘Play Up!’ was requested ten times. I suspect that this is not so much because local wars and their accompanying personal dramas are again in the news as because Newbolt’s poems, like many others before them, have been finally severed from their political and ethical associations, and exist simply in their memorability.
In the Introduction to an admirable and revealing biography Susan Chitty observes that she had not expected Newbolt ‘to be a man of humanity, nor to be the man who brought T.S. Eliot to a wider public’. Her researches found these things to be the case none the less, also that ‘he wasn’t even completely English,’ since his mother was descended from Jewish immigrants, and that so far from coming from an establishment family he was reared in black industrial Walsall, where his father, rather like George Eliot’s Rev. Amos Barton, was a struggling clergyman in poor health. Both his parents died when he was hardly more than a child, but his mother’s connections had resources behind them and he was well-schooled and sent to Clifton, which he adored.
As with many 19th-century writers – Jane Austen was one – Newbolt was perfectly familiar with all kinds of life in the middle and upper levels of society, and well accustomed to behave, as it suited, in the manner appropriate to each. It was a subtle form of the hypocrisy which, in a society where ordinary people knew their place, and stayed in it, could be a great advantage for a budding writer or an up and coming professional man. Confidence in hierarchy is the basis for that unquestioning authority which Victorian novels possessed, and can still demonstrate in relation to their modern successors. We don’t like admitting, in our own enlightened and inhibited age, that the Victorians knew more about the workings of society than we do: their curiosity was less hidebound by correctness. Newbolt was no novelist, though he was adroit and adaptable, with as sharp an eye for the financial possibilities of fiction as he later came to have about his verse.
While working sporadically at the Bar, he came to know a cluster of thoughtful young women who called themselves ‘the Grecians’ and were dubbed ‘the Settee’ by the father of one of them, Mary Coleridge, ‘because they just sat and sat’. Together with Mary, Newbolt set about writing a historical thriller called The Debt of Honour, which both admitted to be ‘not very good’. Cassell offered to include it in their ‘cheap department’ but the offer was proudly refused. Newbolt went on to much greater success with a tale called Taken from the Enemy, about a French attempt to rescue Napoleon from St Helena (Conan Doyle has a story on the same theme). It sold 21,000 copies in a year – not at all bad in the days before paperbacks – and to Newbolt’s great delight Mary Coleridge did almost equally well with The King with Two Faces, a novel based on the murder of the Swedish king, in which the author identified herself closely and obviously with the aristocratic young hero.
Newbolt was soon enveloped and adored by these dashing and masculine young women, perhaps because he was himself basically a feminine type. To the members of the Settee he constituted a sort of one-man harem. They valued his understanding and generosity; he had found a publisher for Mary Coleridge’s novel and sincerely thought her poems better than his own, in which judgment posterity has inclined to agree with him. His status with the Settee emboldened him to propose marriage to Margaret Duckworth, its most dashing and masculine member, and she finally accepted him on condition that her bosom friend, Ella Coltman, joined the ménage. Her father, a country squire, raised some opposition, but it was overcome and the three set up house together in London. Newbolt seems to have divided himself sex-wise impartially between the two, although at that period Ella could not have borne him any children and also remained a woman in society. While the Newbolts raised their children, Ella seems to have been a paragon of family and business helpfulness, a sort of Sonya out of War and Peace, though mistress as well as ‘sterile flower’. Invisible strains seem, however, to have told on her health and she suffered breakdowns in later life.
They may have been caused in part by Newbolt’s third attachment – he appears to have soon acquired a taste for these things – to the beautiful and accomplished Alice Hylton, wife of the seemingly complaisant Baron Hylton and mother of his four children. Margaret and Ella cherished an intense though well-concealed dislike of her from the start, but their own principles made it hard for them to complain to Newbolt, who for his part was quite ready to tell them all about it, and to write happily to his wife that ‘his sense of fellowship’ with Alice ‘is grown a radiant mystery’. (Margaret no doubt understood the nature of the mystery all too well.) He wrote a remarkably bad poem for Alice when he found her weeping in the Italian garden she had designed for her very special friend – ‘a sort of Ella’ – who had been widowed in Florence and lost her child. He also wrote a novel, The Twymans (a well-chosen Jamesian name), discreetly modelled on the situation, with himself, the suitor, as the gallant young man he felt he had once been. It was sentimentally illustrated by Alice. Margaret and Ella meanwhile ground their teeth in the background and referred to Alice as ‘Lydia Languish’. Susan Chitty, whose husband is Newbolt’s great-nephew, understands all these matters perfectly, and writes about them with skill and humour.
Meanwhile honours were flowing in: a knighthood, a new professorship of poetry, which involved bestowing a gold medal on Thomas Hardy in partnership with W.B. Yeats, a supremely embarrassing occasion – all the honours which a literary man with the right attitudes (Edmund Gosse was such another) might expect to receive in those days. Newbolt’s private life remained uncriticised, and on the whole did him credit, though when the war came he made an effort to re-animate the spirit of ‘Drake’s Drum’ and ‘Vitai Lampada’. But the young stalwart of the early poems has gone dreadfully to the bad.
Where a boy’s voice and a boy’s hand
Close up the quivering rank,
Who under those all-shattering skies
Plays out his captain’s part.
He was also canny enough (after all, as Susan Chitty says, the rent of Netherhampton House had to be paid) to cash in on the wartime boom with stirring collections like The Book of the Thin Red Line, dedicated to an idealised Boy addressed as ‘My Dear Man’, and lavishly illustrated in colour with charging Highlanders, ‘sporrans abristle’. Newbolt’s sons survived active service, though one had severe shell-shock about which his father unsympathetically commented, ‘I wish his hands wouldn’t shake so,’ lamenting also that he had got an extension of leave on medical grounds. ‘I’m sorry that he isn’t doing more for his country.’
After the war the debts were paid, as by so many patriotic and uncomprehending parents. Newbolt was forgotten and sank slowly into a decline. He felt the cold and his wife was always opening the windows. ‘I am on the downward slope,’ he confided to Alice. ‘I am put away in a corner of the dusty past like Nelson in the Abbey.’ Their loving correspondence now became his last lifeline. For a time he kept up, interesting himself in The Waste Land, encouraging Walter de la Mare, who had always been his protégé and whom he had originally rescued from a depressing job with an oil company. The apparently incongruous pair, the dreamy poet and the would-be poet of action, sport and high valour, got on surprisingly well. Nor, when one looks into it, are their verse techniques so greatly dissimilar. ‘The Listeners’ – ‘“Is there anybody there?” said the Traveller’ – is as helplessly memorable as is ‘Vitai Lampada’; and de la Mare’s curious early attempts at Shakespearean pastiche seem to have been half inspired by the young Newbolt’s strange epic drama playing down King Arthur, and glamorising his bastard nephew and betrayer Mordred. Making a villain the real hero was not untypical of Newbolt’s creative urge, at its most interesting when most devious. He was certainly a double man. (Robert Louis Stevenson had perceptively commented on ‘the note of ambiguity and deceit’ which already ‘brooded over’ Taken from the Enemy.) And a more than Edwardian richness, as well as ambiguity, broods over Susan Chitty’s biography.