Wednesday, 6 December 2017

More poetry

Over the years certain bits of poetry seem to have been absorbed into normal usage. For example I have heard people say things like 'The boy stood on the burning deck' and 'The Gatling's jammed and the Colonel's dead' without knowing which poems they are quoting (or sometimes misquoting) from or which poets wrote them.

In the latter case the misquote is not from the first line of the poem VITAI LAMPADA (The Torch of Life) by Sir Henry Newbolt, but from the first line of the second stanza.

VITAI LAMPADA
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!"
The title is taken from a quotation by Lucretius and refers to how a future soldier learns selfless commitment to duty whilst playing cricket on Clifton College's famous Close. The poem uses the events of the Battle of Abu Klea in the Sudan in January 1885 as a backdrop for the second stanza. The Colonel referred to is Frederick Gustavus Burnaby (one of my heroes!), who was killed during the battle when a Gardner Machine Gun (not a Gatling as stated in the poem) jammed, and almost caused the Mahdists to penetrate the British square.


'The boy stood on the burning deck' is the first line of Felicia Dorothea Hemans's poem CASABIANCA, which tells the story of Giocante de Casabianca. He stayed on the deck of the French warship Orient (his father's ship) during the Battle of the Nile despite the fact that the ship was burning and later exploded when the fire reached the powder magazine.


Unfortunately I've never been able to take the poem seriously since I read Spike Milligan's parody:
The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled –
Twit!

16 comments:

  1. 'The boy stood on the burning deck,
    His feet were scorched to blisters.
    A flame roared up and burnt his pants,
    So now he wears his sister's.' I heard that at school when I was 12, I think. Damme, if it were not the teacher who recited it!

    I had seen the first two stanzas of Vitae Lampada before, but not the third. That's new to me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Archduke Piccolo,

      The version that we used to recite at school went:

      The boy stood on the burning deck
      His pockets full of crackers.
      A spark flew up his trouser leg
      And blew away his kn*ackers.

      All the best,

      Ob

      Delete
    2. Clearly, burning decks are dangerous places upon which to stand.

      Delete
    3. Archduke Piccolo,

      Particularly if you are young and not bright enough to dive overboard?

      All the best,

      Bob

      Delete
  2. Most likely an officer rather than a 'common' soldier if he's been to College.

    I grew up hearing less serious poetry from my mother, "Time is money and money is time
    and don't you be forgetting it
    Always get as much Money as you can
    But don't get Time for getting it!"

    (the 3rd line never took but the 4th did)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ross Mac,

      The young man is most definitely a gentleman ... and very possibly a junior officer.

      My mother also used to recite a certain ‘poem’ ... but it does not bear repeating as it neither scanned very well and was full of potential double entendres.

      All the best,

      Bob

      Delete
  3. Bob,
    'Spike Milligan'? Now there IS a name I've not heard in a long-long time....back in 1976 I delighted in reading Spike's novel 'Gunna Who' ( I think that was the title- Or 'How I out-fought Rommel')...absolutely a must read - extremely rivitting and funny. Cheers. KEV.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Kev Robertson,

      My first career was in banking, and Spike Milligan was one of the clients I had to deal with. He may have been a very funny man, but he could be very awkward to deal with when he chose to be.

      All the best,

      Bob

      Delete
    2. Years ago I bought a home=grown WW2 rule set that had on its front cover a picture of Field Marshal Rommel gazing contemplatively down the tarmac road in the Western Desert. I could not resist adding a thought balloon with the legend: "Gunner Who?"

      Delete
    3. Archduke Piccolo,

      I love the idea!

      All the best,

      Bob

      Delete
  4. I recall you printing VITAI LAMPADA several years ago in a posting about the Battle of Abu Klea. At the time I composed a comment in my head but never got round to writing it but I’ve decide to recycle my original thoughts. I also seem to recall you commenting even earlier (on Conrad Kinck’s site?) that it is one of your favourite poems, so maybe I should apologise in advance.

    My feelings are very much mixed. I don’t think that the “play up...” lines work now and I’m not sure that they ever did; for me they actually spoil the poem, making it hard for me to take the sentiments seriously. Instead I find myself wondering whether a “schoolboy” was still in the ranks (presumably as a young ensign?) in 1885 and just what would a newly inducted ensign actually cry out as a rallying call. Once when looking into whether “Die hard 57th, die hard” was ever said at Albuera (answer: probably not) I came across a letter quoting the real rallying words of a young (really schoolboy age, soon to die) ensign and it was much more of a technical command telling the troops how to manoeuvre. Unfortunately, I cannot now find the article to remind myself of his actual words (Google giveth and Google taketh away.)

    Despite my dislike of the last line of the verses I actually think that the rest of the first two verses are very good. The war imagery of the first six lines of the second verse is really extraordinary and can rarely if ever have been bettered in poetry or prose.

    From Newbolt’s poetry I actually prefer “He Fell Among Thieves”, though for some reason this always brings to my mind Kipling’s “Arithmetic on the Frontier”, another young officer’s death, but very differently presented.

    As for CASABIANCA, yes Spike Milligan killed it, and he was right to do so!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Mike Hall,

      This was one of the few poems we had to learn at school that I enjoyed reading, mainly because it reflected the education I received. We were definitely educated to be robust, Christian gentlemen and sportsmen who would go forth into the Empire and rule. The only problem was that by the time I passed through the school, the Empire was no more and the values that were inculcated into us (no cheating and playing with a straight bat) were no longer relevant.

      All the best,

      Bob

      Delete
    2. I think those values are still relevant, Bob, but they are bally hard to come by. You know it was only quite recently I discovered that the kinds of 'values' popular these days among the soi-disant 'movers and shakers - 'greed is good', 'serve yourself right and let everyone else go hang', 'Charity begins in your own back pocket' - is actually regarded as a moral standpoint. I've even seen it argued as the truest morality.

      It is no wonder that we woke up one morning and discovered that our governments and public officials are scarcely even pretending to probity.

      Delete
    3. Archduke Piccolo,

      In the immortal words of Francis Urquart ...

      ‘You may well think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment’

      Long live those values! In my opinion they made for a fairer and more caring society.

      All the best,

      Bob

      Delete
  5. I just remember
    "The boy stood on the burning deck
    eating peanuts by the peck."

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Fitz-Badger,

      That not one I’ve heard before!

      All the best,

      Bob

      Delete