Homo Newboltiensis

Do we need to resurrect the species homo newboltiensis?

Sir Henry Newbolt (1862-1938) was one of the best-loved poets of late-Victorian and Edwardian England.

His best-known poem is the 1898 production “Vitaï Lampada”, each of whose three stanzas ends with the exhortation to:  “Play up! play up! and play the game!”

‘Vitaï Lampada’ means the torch of life, something that gets passed on from one generation to the next, and it’s a poem with a meaning that we certainly need to pass on today.

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!”

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!”

The Newbolt man (or woman) is honorable, stoic, brave, loyal, courteous, resilient and never gives up. Isn’t this what character education is all about instilling today?

Newbolt’s poem harks back to his schooldays at Clifton College, Bristol where cricket was much more than a game and the young masters of the British Empire learned all about duty, enduring pain and discomfort and soldiering on.

It was written about a schoolboy cricketer who grows up to fight in Africa, the Battle of Abu Klea in Sudan in January 1885 during the unsuccessful expedition to rescue Major General Gordon. 

It aims to teach a lesson and provide a guiding principle for the demeanor of a better life and valuing personal discipline. The team are in a difficult situation and the motivation of the batsman isn’t about winning a medal or fame but playing the game for the glory of the team.

Newbolt tells us the principles of selflessness learnt on the cricket pitch can relate to the bitter reality of the battlefield. Fighting for survival, the rallying cry that inspires us to keep fighting and to keep on going when things get tough is “Play up! play up! and play the game!”

The final verse reminds us that not giving in or not giving up is something we have to hand down from generation to generation.

Play up! play up! and play the game! is something we can take with is through our lives and pass this ethic on to those coming behind us.

So, yes, Play up! and try your hardest and play the game and fight in a spirit of sportsmanship. How many of us are willing to play up and play the game? We all have our own battlefields and we all have to keep fighting.

Looking around me I’m not sure that I see many of homo newboltiensis species. The haunting poetic refrain of Newbolt’s poem insisting on heroic self-sacrifice and camaraderie was something we saw in the Great War but what about today?



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