This particular posy is a lengthy one. And it has been pretty difficult for me to take time out of my busy schedule to make this post. However, I have done so only because this piece of poetry also happens to be one of my favourites from the school days.
About the Poet (Source)
Henry John Newbolt was born in Bilston, Wolverhampton (then located in Staffordshire, but now in the West Midlands), son of the vicar of St Mary’s Church. Newbolt attended Queen Mary’s Grammar School, Walsall, and Caistor Grammar School, from where he gained a scholarship to Clifton College, where he was head of the school (1881) and edited the school magazine.
Henry Newbolt died at his home in Campden Hill, Kensington, London, on 19 April 1938, aged 75. A blue plaque there commemorates his residency. He is buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s church on an island in the lake on the Orchardleigh estate of the Duckworth family in Somerset.
A Ballad of Sir Pertab Singh
In the first year of him that first
Was Emperor and King,
A rider came to the Rose-red House,
The House of Pertab Singh.
Young he was and an Englishman,
And a soldier, hilt and heel,
And he struck fire in Pertab’s heart
As the steel strikes on steel.
Beneath the morning stars they rode,
Beneath the evening sun,
And their blood sang to them as they rode
That all good wars are one.
They told their tales of the love of women.
Their tales of East and West,
But their blood sang that of all their loves
They loved a soldier best.
So ran their joy the allotted days.
Till at the last day’s end
The Shadow stilled the Rose-red House
And the heart of Pertab’s friend.
When morning came, in narrow chest
The soldier’s face tkcy lit.
And over his fast-dreaming eyes
Shut down the narrow lid.
Three were there of his race and creed.
Three only and no more:
They could not find to bear the dead
A fourth in all Jodhpore.
“O Maharaj, of your good grace
Send us a Sweeper here:
A Sweeper has no caste to lose
Even by an alien bier.”
“What need, what need ? ” said Pertab Singh,
And bowed his princely head.
“I have no caste, for I myself
Am bearing forth the dead.”
“Maharaj, O passionate heart,
Be wise, bethink you yet:
That which you lose to-day is lost
Till the last sun shall set.”
** God only knows,” said Pertab Singh,
“That which I lose to-day:
And without me no hand of man
Shall bear my friend away.”
Stately and slow and shoulder-high
In the sight of all Jodhpore
The dead went down the rose-red steps
Upheld by bearers four.
When dawn relit the lamp of grief
Within the burning East
There came a word to Pertab Singh,
The soft word of a priest.
He woke, and even as he woke
He went forth all in white,
And saw the Brahmins bowing there
In the hard morning light.
“Alas! Maharaj, alas!
O noble Pertab Singh!
For here in Jodhpore yesterday
Befell a fearful thing.
*’O here in Jodhpore yesterday
A fearful thing befell.”
“A fearful thing,” said Pertab Singh,
“God and my heart know well —
“I lost a friend.”
“More fearful yet I
Went down these steps you past
In sight of all Jodhpore you lost —
O Maharaj ! — your caste.”
Then leapt the light in Pertab’s eyes
As the flame leaps in smoke,
** Thou priest! thy soul hath never known
The word thy lips have spoke.
** My caste! Know thou there is a caste
Above my caste or thine,
Brahmin and Rajput are but dust
To that immortal line:
*’ Wide as the world, free as the air,
Pure as the pool of death —
The caste of all Earth’s noble hearts
Is the right soldier’s faith.”
– Sir Henry Newbolt
This poem is a short episode from the life of Maharaja Pertab Singh of Jodhpore. In the very first year of Sir Pertab Singh as a king, a rider came to the house of the Maharaja. The rider was a striking young British soldier (soldier hilt and heel emphasizes that the young rider looked professional and oozed the qualities of a soldier by virtue of his looks).
The Maharaja being a brave warrior himself was struck by the personality of this English soldier and soon both became very good friends. (And he struck fire in Pertab’s heart as steel strikes on steel).
To understand this, one must realize the nature of a soldier’s work. While a soldier is a professional just as any other, his job is on a different paradigm vis-a-vis other professional careers because it involves constant risk of life and laying down life for someone else. They stay away from their families for many months, some time several years together to fight wars and train hard at their barracks. The fellow soldiers they live with become their fast friends and they fight and die together on the battlefield, mourn each others losses and celebrate their victories together. That is the reason Pertab Singh and the Englishman became friends very quickly.
Both warriors used to enjoy riding together sharing their experiences of wars, women and their countries. However they agreed with each other that their profession as a soldier was above all else. They continued to enjoy themselves until suddenly one day the English soldier passed away. (So ran their joy the allotted days. Till at the last day’s end. The Shadow stilled the Rose-red House. And the heart of Pertab’s friend)
The body of the Englishman was lying in the coffin awaiting the final rites. However there were only three people of the Englishman’s caste in all of Jodhpore. And in those days no one in India would touch the body of a person from another caste due to the rigid belief in caste system and untouchability. Therefore it was suggested that a sweeper be called to lend a fourth shoulder to the coffin so that the final rites may be completed. The priests claimed that as a sweeper belongs to the lowest possible caste in the cadre, he has nothing to lose by carrying the coffin of the Englishman.
However, the kind-hearted Maharaja, plunged into grief by the death of his friend, decided to lift the coffin along with others. He believed that he had nothing to lose by lifting a friend’s coffin. When he announced this decision, his advisors intervened by saying that once the Maharaja lifts the coffin and loses his caste, he will never regain it (Be wise, bethink you yet. That which you lose to-day is lost. Till the last sun shall set)
To this the grief-stricken maharaja replies that its only god who knows what he has lost today (In this statement, the Maharaja says that the loss of his caste is nothing compared to the real and colossal loss he has had due to the death of his friend). And the Maharaja announces that no one else other than him shall be the fourth bearer of the coffin. And then the final rites of the Englishman were performed as the Maharaja along with others bore the coffin away (And without me no hand of man Shall bear my friend away. Stately and slow and shoulder-high, In the sight of all Jodhpore, The dead went down the rose-red steps, Upheld by bearers four.)
The next two lines in the poem are one of my favourite. The poet has made excellent use of language to inform the reader that the the maharaja was so grief striken that as soon as he awoke all he remembered was the death of his friend. The literal meaning of these two lines is that the onset of dawn “relit the lamp of grief” i.e. the sun, as it rose in the East (When dawn relit the lamp of grief, Within the burning East).
While the Maharaja was in his bedroom, the priests softly called to the maharaja to awaken him. The maharaja who was already awake and mourning his friend’s death, upon hearing the priest got up and proceeded to meet them. The maharaja who was just out of bed and draped in white saw the priests bowing to him in the hard morning light. The morning light was hard for the maharaja as he had just awakened from sleep a while ago.
The priests told the Maharaja that a terrible and fearful thing happend in Jodhpore yesterday. The maharaja, assuming that they were referring to his friend’s death responded that he knows about it. Then the priest replied that an even more terrible thing that happened the previous day was that the Maharaja lost his caste in front of all of Jodhpore. (*’O here in Jodhpore yesterday, A fearful thing befell.” “A fearful thing,” said Pertab Singh, “God and my heart know well — “I lost a friend.” “More fearful yet I Went down these steps you past In sight of all Jodhpore you lost — O Maharaj ! — your caste.”)
The maharaja expected this topic the least, as his mind was completely occupied with the death of his friend. The maharaja was probably almost annoyed as suggested by the use of words eyes and flame (Then leapt the light in Pertab’s eyes, As the flame leaps in smoke). The Maharaja responds to the priest (probably angrily) by saying that, “your soul does not know the words you have spoken”. He explanined further by saying that there are some things which are much above petty things such as caste and religions. There are some things that we value so much that all caste and religion seem to be zilch infront of them.
He calls this most valuable thing as belonging to an immortal line. He glorifies it by calling it “as wide as the world, as free as the air and as pure as the pool of death”. Undoubtedly and rightlfully it is the caste of the noble hearts i.e. a soldier’s faith.