Sunday, 20 February 2011

Learn from the classics - poetry that challenges and inspires

My wonderful father in law reminded me of one of my favourite poems during a discussion on military tactics last night. This may sound unlikely but is a perfect example of how poetry, once learned, is never forgotten.

The poem in question is "Vitai Lampada" by Sir Henry Newbolt. Written at a time when England's public schools were producing a generation which would fight for the Empire, the poem is an mix of the reality of war ("the square that broke" ie the remains of the formation of men after the Battle of Abu Klea and the puncturing of the myth of infallibility) and the love of honour and companionship embedded in the school system. The title roughly translates as "the passing on of the light"; an idea which is echoed in the third verse. From schoolboy dreams to carnage on the battlefield, the poem is at once stirring and desperate.



Vitai Lambada - Sir Henry Newbolt

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!"

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!"


This is a poem which reminds us of bravery and comradeship in the face of adversity. Don't over- dramatise your reading and allow the beauty of the alliteration and repetition to shine out. The vivid imagery of the poem and the strength of sentiment will stay with you long after your first reading is a vague memory.

Clear explanation of and insight into the Sudanese campaigns