Playing the game

In the prologue to her 1993 biography of the “Georgian” poet Walter de la Mare (born in 1873), the late Theresa Whistler acknowledged that in writing it: “I had one great prior advantage by accident of birth. I inherited a friendship with him already intimate through three generations by the time I was born, 1927. My mother’s father, Henry Newbolt, had by then been a close friend of de la Mare’s for a quarter century.”

Theresa, and before her, her sister Jill, was married to the glass engraver Laurence Whistler. He engraved a verse by de la Mare on a window pane of Southend House, Marble Hill, where de la Mare lived at the end of his life. In these later years, de la Mare continued to work. In 1943, he edited an anthology entitled “Love”. He struggled with the Introduction, commenting to his closest work-friend, Forrest Reid: “Sleeping Beauty was not more thornily hedged in than this subject is, and the hardiest bramble is sex.”

Today I am kept from getting closer to the three storey, early Georgian, Southend House not by brambles but by wrought iron gates. I reflect that de la Mare died here, in the early hours of 22nd June 1956: his last words were, “I’m perfectly all right.”

James Campbell notes that , according to the “kindly” Whistler, “De la Mare remained faithful to (his wife) Elfie, even when their union wearied him”. Although he holidayed with “the younger, strikingly modern” Naomi Royde-Smith, in later life she declared that they had never been intimate, though she “had wanted them to be”. Campbell goes on: “His final years were passed largely in bed, in the care of a young nurse, Nathalie Saxton, with whom he had once been in love…..In this case, her Christianity, as well as his principles, forbade consummation.”.

Campbell writes of De la Mare’s “Gothic whimsy and goblin language “. The poetry of Sir Henry Newbolt is more readily identified with Victorian propriety and the Protestant work ethic. Nonetheless, his biographer Susan Chitty explains that Margaret Duckworth accepted Newbolt’s marriage proposal only on condition that her cousin Ella Coleman, with whom Margaret was already in love, became part of their intimate life together.

Robert Fulford records that “In 1923 (Newbolt) made a cross-country lecture tour of Canada and discovered to his dismay that wherever he went, audiences loudly demanded he recite “Play up, ” (“Vitai Lampada”), apparently the only Newbolt poem they knew.”

The poem ends:

“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!’ “

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