Vitai Lampada
(They Pass On The Torch of Life)

by Sir Henry Newbolt
(1862-1938)

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 Honor 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!"


In the earliest part of the nineteenth century little children were indoctrinated with such gentle virtues as honesty, charity and industry. With the spread of British colonization 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 to fight a clean fight, keep a straight bat, maintain a stiff upper lip and to be magnanimous towards a beaten foe. Vitai Lampada (Translated "Torches of Life") was typical of the imperial strain, and it 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

Notes:

"the close" - the playing fields adjoining the school. This first stanza concernes 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 weakestbatsman. This man has to makwe ten runs - a lot, in these circumstances - if his team is to win the match.

"a bumping pitch" - on its way from the bowler (pitcher) to the batter, the ball has to hit the ground and bounce up. If the ground is uneven, this causes 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 last batsman: he has an hour at most to get his ten runs.

"ribboned coat" - private 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. Variations of dress coats or uniforms designated different positions in the school's hierarchies.

 


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