Henry Newbolt was born in 1862 at Bilston in Staffordshire, the son of the local vicar who died four years later. His mother moved to Bristol and sent him to the recently-founded Clifton College which, under its first headmaster, John Percival, had quickly won an outstanding reputation. Newbolt entered the school as a day boy in 1876, rose to be Deputy Head Boy and won a Scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he read Classsics.

After this he moved to London and was ‘called to the Bar’ [appointed a Barrister] at Lincoln’s Inn in 1887. Two years later he married Margaret Duckworth and, encouraged by her and her close friend Ella Coltman, began to write stories and poems. His first slim volume, entitled Admirals All, was published in 1897, the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, and was an instant success, selling 21,000 copies in a few months. It contained only twelve poems, but six of them, ‘Admirals All’, ‘Drake’s Drum’, ‘San Stefano’, ‘The Fighting Temeraire’, ‘Hawke’, and ‘Vae Victis’ concerned heroic episodes in Britain’s naval past, while ‘Vitaz Lampada’, the story of a schoolboy cricketer (on the Clifton Close at Bristol) who becomes a soldier and exhorts his fellows to ‘Play the Game’ soon became one of the most quoted poems in the English language.

His second book of poems, The Island Race (1898), included seven ballad poems on naval themes and was also very well received. He wrote about warfare over the ages as a fine and chivalrous calling, emphasizing the courage of soldiers and sailors. In the backlash against war that followed the horrors of the Great War of 1914-18, he was denounced by some critics as a warmonger and a blimp, both of which accusations were very wide of the mark: in politics he was a lifelong Liberal while his approach to any issue was measured and scholarly. In all he wrote twelve published collections of poems and a further 28 books which include historical novels, stories for boys, literary criticism and works of military and naval history. Very influential in the political world of his day as well as the literary one, he was knighted in 1915 and made a Companion of Honour in 1922. He died in 1938.

Suggested reading:

Newbolt, Henry, Poems New and Old, John Murray, 1912 (Collected Poems).
Newbolt, Henry, My World as in My Time, Faber and Faber, 1932 (autobiography).
Newbolt, Margaret, (ed) The Later Life and Letters of Sir Henry Newbolt, Faber, 1942.
Dickinson, Patric, (ed.) Selected Poems of Henry Newbolt, Hodder and Stoughton, 1981.
Winterbottom, Derek, Henry Newbolt and the Spirit of Clifton, Redcliffe Press, 1986.
Furse Jackson, Vanessa, The Poetry of Henry Newbolt, ELT Press, University of North Carolina, USA, 1994.
Chitty, Susan, Playing the Game, A Biography of Henry Newbolt, Quartet, 1997.

Derek Winterbottom, December 2004.



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