Saturday 6 June 2020

Henry Newbolt

On this day in 1862 was born Henry Newbolt, a poet whose works (or a choice few of them) were part of the soundtrack of my boyhood. My father, who loved to recite verse while shaving in the morning, was especially fond of 'Vitai Lampada' (the one in which 'his captain's hand on his shoulder smote, "Play up, play up, and play the game!"') and 'Drake's Drum' ('Captain, art thou sleeping there below?'), the latter in plain English rather than Devonian.
  Newbolt, who was also a novelist, historian and influential government adviser, was to all appearances an utterly conventional establishment figure, but in fact his love life was thoroughly irregular. His wife, one of the Duckworth publishing family, had a passionate and long-running affair with her cousin, 'Ella' Coltman, and, after a couple of years' marriage, Henry too fell in love with Isabella, and they lived from then on in a complicated, but efficiently managed, menage a trois. 
  Newbolt's nostalgic affection for his alma mater, Clifton College, is apparent in many of his poems (including 'Vitai Lampada'), but before getting a scholarship to Clifton he was a pupil at Caistor Grammar School in Lincolnshire (an establishment whose later alumni/ae included comedienne Dawn French and Strictly Come Dancing's Kevin and Joanne Clifton). 
  Newbolt's poems are not all patriotic tub-thumpers, and sometimes, as in this one inspired by film footage of troops at the front, he could be thoughtful and moving: 

The War Films

O living pictures of the dead,
O songs without a sound,
O fellowship whose phantom tread
Hallows a phantom ground –
How in a gleam have these revealed
The faith we had not found.

We have sought God in a cloudy Heaven,
We have passed by God on earth:
His seven sins and his sorrows seven,
His wayworn mood and mirth,
Like a ragged cloak have hid from us
The secret of his birth.

Brother of men, when now I see
The lads go forth in line,
Thou knowest my heart is hungry in me
As for thy bread and wine;
Thou knowest my heart is bowed in me
To take their death for mine.

Finally, here's a curiosity – Henry Newbolt reading his own poems on a 78rpm disc...


  1. That poem is moving - and somehow the more so after talking to one of my daughters on the telephone today, after she had cycled through Westminster and seen "BLM" and "ACAB" graffiti daubed on every monument and many buildings and chaos everywhere.

  2. Don't get me started on that subject, Zoe. I am aghast at what's going on...