»  Sir Henry Newbolt's "Vitaï Lampada"


Vitaï Lampada

by Sir Henry Newbolt, 1862-1938


•  Background

I have a long note on Sir Henry Newbolt here.

In his teens (late 1870s) Sir Henry attended Clifton College, a private boys' boarding school — "public school" — near Bristol, in the southwest of England. This poem honors that school.

Michael Turner's indispensable Parlour Poetry has the following comment.

In the earlier part of the nineteenth century little children were indoctrinated with such gentle virtues as honesty, charity and industry. With the spread of British red over the map of the world, sterner, more pugnacious qualities were needed to serve the cause of Empire, and lads of the Island Race were exhorted in Boy's Own Paper and other journals to fight a clean fight, keep a straight bat, maintain a stiff upper lip and to be magnanimous towards a beaten foe. "Vitaï Lampada" (which may be translated as "Torches of Life") and Kipling's "If—" were typical of the imperial strain, and it even appeared in America in such works as "Alumnus Football" by Grantland Rice, which has the immortal lines:

                For when the One Great Scorer comes
                    To write against your name,
                He marks — not that you won or lost —
                    But how you played the game

The Latin vitaï lampada is actually better translated as "the torch of life," Turner's confusion perhaps arising from the fact of lampada being in the accusative case. The reason it is in the accusative case is that Sir Henry lifted the phrase intact from Book II, lines 77-79 of Lucretius' epic philosophical poem De rerum natura ("On the Nature of the Universe").

augescunt aliae gentes, aliae minuuntur,
inque brevi spatio mutantur saecla animantum
et quasi cursores vitai lampada tradunt.

In Leonard's translation:

The nations wax, the nations wane away;
In a brief space the generations pass,
And like to runners hand the lamp of life
One unto other.

The spelling is vitai in all the editions of Lucretius I can find on the Internet. That "ai" would indeed be pronounced in Latin not as a diphthong, but as two separate vowel sounds. Sir Henry puts an umlaut over the "i" to emphasize this fact. It seems to me the word should be written vitae, with the "ae" diphthong (pronounced like the English "long 'i',") but I'm not much of a Latinist. It's possible Lucretius forced vitae into vitai to meet some structural requirement of Latin verse. Those requirements are quite strict, especially in regard to vowels.

•  Notes

"the Close" — the playing fields adjoining the school. See here. This first stanza concerns a cricket match.

"ten to make …" — in cricket, as in baseball, teams alternate at bat; but in cricket, when you've run through your roster, that's the end of the innings, or of the game. The last man on the roster is the weakest batsman. This little chap has to make ten runs — a lot, in these circumstances — if his team is to win the match.

"a bumping pitch" — on its way from the bowler to the batter, the ball has to hit the ground and bounce up. If the ground is uneven, this makes extra difficulties for the batsman.

"a blinding light" — a school cricket match will go on until evening. Now the sun is low and in the batter's eyes, putting him at an even further disadvantage.

"an hour to play" — whatever the state of play, the match would be ended in time for the boys' evening meal. This puts a further constraint on our gallant little batsman: he has an hour at most to get his ten runs.


"ribboned coat" — these private boys' boarding schools are intensely self-absorbed little societies, shot through with an infinity of gradations of status and privilege, most of them connected with sporting achievement. I have borrowed the adjoining photograph from Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy's 1977 book The Public School Phenomenon, which explains it all. Gathorne-Hardy's caption to the picture reads as follows: "Durham schoolboys in 1900. In this simple scene there are at least ten articles or variations of dress designating different positions in the school's hierarchies." (Click on the picture for a larger version.)

"a square that broke" — the square was the defensive formation formed by a small unit of the Victorian army when under attack from all sides. Compare Kipling's poem "Fuzzy-Wuzzy":  "But for all the odds agin' you, Fuzzy-Wuz, you broke the square."

"Gatling" — an early machine-gun


•  Play the reading

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•  Text of the poem

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 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!"