»  Sir Henry Newbolt's "Drake's Drum"


Drake's Drum

by Sir Henry Newbolt, 1862-1938


•  Background

Sir Henry Newbolt (1862-1938) was a lawyer who, in his thirties, transferred his attention to literature and became one of the best-loved poets of late-Victorian and Edwardian England. He put forward an ideal of English manhood, an ideal that people of that period, by no means only English people, found admirable and inspiring. 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!" Of this poem and its author, Paul Fussell has the following to say in his classic literary survey of World War One:

The author of these lines was a lifetime friend of Douglas Haig [commander of British forces in WW1]. They had first met when they were students together at [private boys' boarding school] Clifton College … Much later Newbolt wrote:  "When I looked into Douglas Haig I saw what was really great — perfect acceptance, which means perfect faith."  This version of Haig brings him close to the absolute ideal of what [WW2 hero and author] Patrick Howarth has termed homo newboltiensis, or "Newbolt Man": honorable, stoic, brave, loyal, courteous — and unaesthetic, unironic, unintellectual and devoid of wit.

Newbolt was knighted by George V in 1915 for his contributions to Imperial élan.

"Drake's Drum" appears in a collection titled Admirals All, published in 1897. On the strength of this book Newbolt was sometimes tagged as "the naval Kipling."

The poem relates to a legend about the late 16th century (1545-1595) English explorer and admiral Sir Francis Drake, who died while on a raiding expedition against Spanish settlements in the West Indies. The legend concerns Sir Francis's drum — the one that would have been beaten on his ship to summon the sailors to their battle stations. This drum was brought home and hung in Buckland Abbey, near Sir Francis's home port of Plymouth, in the county of Devon. It can still be seen there. According to the legend, if this drum is beaten when England is in danger, Sir Francis will return to save his country once again. (Although an alternative version says only that the drum will be heard beating itself at moments of national crisis.)

•  Notes

"in his hammock … slung atween the round shot" — To bury a sailor at sea you wrapped him in his hammock with a cannonball at head and foot to sink the package. That was the tradition; but Sir Francis was buried wearing his armor and in a lead-lined coffin, so the cannonballs may not have been necessary.

"Nombre Dios Bay" — Sir Francis's place of burial; properly "Nombre de Dios," a small town on the north coast of Panama.

"Plymouth Hoe" — A hoe is a promontory, a piece of land sticking out into the sea. The city of Plymouth includes such a promontory.

"the island" — St. Nicholas' Island in Drake's time, now called Drake Island; in Plymouth Sound, visible from the Hoe.

"the Dons" — The Spanish, England's great enemy all through Drake's career.


•  Play the reading


•  Text of the poem

Drake he's in his hammock an' a thousand mile away,
    (Capten, art tha sleepin' there below?)
Slung atween the round shot in Nombre Dios Bay,
    An' dreamin' arl the time o' Plymouth Hoe.
Yarnder lumes the island, yarnder lie the ships,
    Wi' sailor lads a-dancin' heel-an'-toe,
An' the shore-lights flashin', an' the night-tide dashin'
    He sees et arl so plainly as he saw et long ago.

Drake he was a Devon man, an' ruled the Devon seas,
    (Capten, art tha sleepin' there below?),
Rovin' tho' his death fell, he went wi' heart at ease,
    An' dreamin' arl the time o' Plymouth Hoe,
"Take my drum to England, hang et by the shore,
    Strike et when your powder's runnin' low;
If the Dons sight Devon, I'll quit the port o' Heaven,
    An' drum them up the Channel as we drummed them long ago."

Drake he's in his hammock till the great Armadas come,
    (Capten, art tha sleepin' there below?),
Slung atween the round shot, listenin' for the drum,
    An' dreamin' arl the time o' Plymouth Hoe.
Call him on the deep sea, call him up the Sound,
    Call him when ye sail to meet the foe;
Where the old trade's plyin' an' the old flag flyin',
    They shall find him, ware an' wakin', as they found him long ago.