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From Vitai Lampada:

There's a breathless hush in the Close to-night—
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!"

I looked up the meaning of play up in several online dictionaries and the main meaning seems to be "misbehave", the second meaning is "emphasize (something)". Both seem unfit in this context.

What is the meaning of play up in this poem?

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  • Not sure about the grammar of smote. Is it a past-participle there?
    – TimR
    Sep 26, 2017 at 17:19
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    I've found "Play up!" in a British poem about a tennis match dating from 1879. The lookers-on yell the words to the players who are tied at 15-all. I take it as a kind of exhortation to "step up and play, play hard".
    – TimR
    Sep 26, 2017 at 17:39
  • @Tᴚoɯɐuo Google is telling me "smitten" is the past participle of "smite," but I've literally never heard that before in that meaning. I can see how "smote" could be a simple past here (with the narrator simply telling us that the captain hit the guy on the shoulder). But I can also see how it could be a past participle that is the object describing what the guy plays for: not for a coat or for fame, but literally for a hit on the shoulder by his captain – figuratively, then, he plays for his captain/teammates, who are counting on him not to fail. That makes more sense to me, honestly.
    – cjl750
    Sep 26, 2017 at 19:09
  • @cjl750: With smote as simple past I find the lines difficult to parse, and it's not much easier taking smote as past participle of smite; it is a variant form ( had smote, had smitten).
    – TimR
    Sep 26, 2017 at 20:25
  • @Tᴚoɯɐuo do you mind posting a link or more information about the poem you found?
    – mathewb
    Sep 28, 2017 at 14:40

5 Answers 5

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I would take it to mean "play on" or "step up." However, you must consider the way that it is used in the other verses, as well, to get a better picture of how it should be interpreted. It is not just in the context of a game, but in the context of life itself.

These words, according to Coulson Kernahan, author of Six Famous Living Poets, were a call to all men and women to defend their country in an hour of need. These famous lines demand that “in life’s battle-field [sic], whether a battle-field only figuratively, or a battle-field in reality to play the game.”

(https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/henry-newbolt)

So when I use those two phrases above, it is more a matter of persevering in the face of the present challenges being faced, than it is simply a call to start up the game again. The first verse describes a very tense situation in the cricket match. The game is drawing to a close. The penultimate batter was just caught out. The captain is encouraging his (final) batsman as he sends him in to make the last ten runs needed to win the match. That encouragement that will stay with the man throughout his life, to spur him on in the middle of a dire situation in WWI, and it's the exhortation he will leave to the generations to follow him as his life ends.

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  • I also felt that the meaning is "Play on", from the overall context. I wonder why it does not jar with the meaning "misbehave". Sep 26, 2017 at 18:06
  • @CowperKettle that particular meaning of the phrase is informal. I would guess that its usage is much more recent than the poem you're citing.
    – mathewb
    Sep 26, 2017 at 18:10
  • @CowperKettle "misbehave" would not fit in with the tone of the poem, which is, at its heart, deadly serious. My guess is that "play up!" was a common expression in English boarding schools, familiar to the author and his intended audience.
    – Andrew
    Sep 26, 2017 at 20:15
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In order to understand the meaning of this, we need to have the full context, which would have been obvious to a contemporary reader but is perhaps not today.

The setting in this verse is a school cricket match played at Clifton College school, a leading public (aka private) school in England. We can tell the location from the reference to "the Close" which is a sports ground in Bristol1.

The team playing is ten runs down ("Ten to make and the match to win") with an hour left to play and the next batsman to be out will end the match ("An hour to play and the last man in").

10 runs in an hour is entirely achievable, but the conditions are extremely difficult for a batting team due to the rough pitch and the low level of the sun in the sky ("A bumping pitch and a blinding light").

A game which will have taken most of the day now depends on the performance of a single batting pair - who are generally the weakest in the team. It will have been a tense moment.

In the context of cricket "playing up" has two meanings.

The first, is to play at a level beyond your typical level; for instance an 11 year old playing with 13 year olds would be "playing up".

The second, which is what I think this is a reference to, is often called "playing the ball on the up". There's an extensive discussion of this here but the summary is that this refers to "making contact with the ball before it reaches the top of the bounce" which is. This is a stroke which is , in the words of Bob Woolmer's Art and Science of Cricket "risky, but to the well-set batsman on a good pitch it can pay excellent dividends" (p.138).

In short, the captain here is telling his player to play to the best of his ability and play boldly. He's telling him to be brave.

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I believe his captain is exhorting the player to play forward defensive shots. That is usually the best way to play defensively in English conditions. As the last man he would likely be the worst player, but batsmen in cricket bat in pairs, so his job is to stay in long enough for the other batsmen to score the remaining runs. However on a bumping pitch that is somewhat dangerous. By moving forward you give yourself less time to react should the ball bounce more than expected, which is likely to happen on a "bumping pitch".

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The expression means "do your best within the rules of the game". The reference to war was not a direct reference to WW1 as suggested above because - although Newbolt and his poem were recruited to the propaganda effort during the Great War - the poem dates from 1897.

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refers to holding the line and standard of a cause (winning a game) not giving up even in the face of certain loss. Play for principle -because principle is the best and only reason to be in the game/in the fight.

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  • Welcome slef! Can you provide a little more explanation about where this information is coming from, preferably by citing a source?
    – Era
    Nov 10, 2019 at 20:40

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