Henry Newbolt was born in 1862 at Bilston in Staffordshire. In 1889 he married Margaret Duckworth. This proved to be good for him because he began to write stories and poems encouraged by Margaret and her close friend Ella Coltman. His first slim volume, entitled Admirals All, was published in 1897. It contained only twelve poems. 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. Another one, entitled ‘Vitaz Lampada,’ the story of a schoolboy cricketer who becomes a soldier and exhorts his fellows to ‘Play the Game,’ soon became one of the most quoted poems in the English language.
A Ballad of Sir Pertab Singh Summary by Sir Henry Newbolt
The publication details of this poem are unknown. It tells the story of the great friendship between an Englishman and the Maharaja of Jodhpur (also spelled “Jodhpur”), Pertab Singh (which is probably an Anglicized version of the name “Pratap Singh”). Go through this write-up for a detailed summary of A ball of Sir Pertab Singh.
The setting of the poem:
This poem is set entirely in the kingdom of Jodhpur, the seat of Maharaja Pertab Singh. This is the site of an unusual friendship between an Indian king and an Englishman (that is, one of the so-called enemies). This is also a place where it is important to maintain caste purity. Hence it is an accurate picture of 19th-century India.
The poem consists of 81 lines in total. These lines are not divided into stanzas. Here they are divided into meaningful segments for the purposes of this summary in order to make the poem easier to follow and understand.
Lines 1 – 8:
In the first year of his first
Were Emperor and King,
A rider came to the Rose-red House,
The House of Portable 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.
In these lines, the poet tells us how an Englishman came riding to the palace of Maharaja Pertab Singh of Jodhpur in the first year of his reign. Portable Singh was a king of the Rajput clan and hence was also a soldier. Seeing the sword and boots of the English soldier, Pertab Singh is filled with passion as he recalls the sounds of a soldier’s sword striking against another of its kind.
Lines 9 – 12:
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.
In these lines, the poet describes how Pertab Singh and his English friend rode horses together from morning till evening and how they both believed that they had fought in the same kind of war.
Lines 13 – 16:
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.
In these lines, the poet says that Pertab Singh and the English rider spoke of the women of their native lands, that is, of the women belonging to the Orient as well as to the Occident, but they agreed that they both loved a soldier more than they loved any woman.
Lines 17 – 24:
So ran their joy the allotted days.
Till the last day’s end
The Shadow stilled the Rose-red House
And the heart of Pertab’s friend.
When morning came, in the narrow chest.
The soldier’s face they lit.
And over his fast-dreaming eyes
Shut down the narrow lid.
In these lines, the poet says that Pertab Singh and his friend had a good time together till, at last, his friend passed away. He was laid in his coffin, and the lid was shut over his closed eyes.
Lines 25 – 28:
Three were there of his race and creed.
Three only and no more:
A fourth in all, Jodhpur.
In these lines, the poet says that four men were required to bear the coffin to the burial ground, but only three other Englishmen were present.
Lines 29 – 36:
“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.”
In these lines, the poet says that the three Englishman asked the Maharaja to send a sweeper for he could bear the coffin of a foreigner without losing his caste. However, Portable Singh refused to do so, saying he would carry the coffin himself.
Lines 37 – 40:
“Maharaj, O passionate heart,
Be wise, bethink you yet:
That which you lose today is lost
Till the last sun shall set.”
In these lines, the three Englishmen try to convince the Maharaja to rethink his decision, for he will never have the chance to regain his caste.
Lines 41 – 44:
** God only knows,” said Pertab Singh,
“That which I lose today:
And without me no hand of man
Shall bear my friend away.”
In these lines, Pertab Singh says that he will not be losing his caste but only a dear friend that day and that no one other than him will be the fourth one to bear the coffin.
Lines 45 – 48:
Stately and slow and shoulder-high
In the sight of all Jodhpur
The dead went down the rose-red steps
Upheld by bearers four.
In these lines, the poet describes how the Maharaja took his place with the other pallbearers and carried his friend’s coffin down the steps of the palace in an elegant manner with all of Jodhpur watching.
Lines 49 – 52:
When dawn relit the lamp of grief
Within the burning East
There came a word to Pertab Singh,
The soft word of a priest.
In these lines, the poet describes how Pertab Singh awoke with a heavy heart the next day and was called out by a priest.
Lines 53 – 56:
He woke, and even as he woke
He went forth all in white,
And saw the Brahmins bowing there
In the hard morning light.
In these lines, the poet describes how the Maharaja dressed in white garments and walked out to meet a group of Brahmins who were bowing before him.
Lines 57 – 62:
“Alas! Maharaj, alas!
O noble Pertab Singh!
For here in Jodhpur yesterday.
Befell a fearful thing.
*’ O here in Jodhpur yesterday
A fearful thing befell.”
In these lines, the Brahmins lament to the Maharaja that a terrible thing had happened in Jodhpur the previous day.
Lines 63 – 69:
“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 passed
In the sight of all Jodhpur, you lost —
O, Maharaj! — your caste.”
In these lines, the Maharaja says that it was indeed a terrible thing to lose his dear friends, but the priests reminded him that even more terrible was the fact that the Maharaja had lost his caste before all of Jodhpur.
Lines 70 – 73:
Then leaped the light in Pertab’s eyes
As the flame leaps in smoke,
** Thou priest! thy soul hath never known
The word thy lips have spoken.
In these lines, the poet describes how Pertab Singh became angry and berated the priest, saying that he had spoken a lie.
Lines 74 – 81:
** 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 exemplary soldier’s faith.”
In these lines, the Maharaja tells the priest that he is unaware that our humanity is above and beyond our caste identity. Both Brahmins and Rajputs are descended from the same ancestors. Moreover, all soldiers are bound by a sacred bond, and hence he has not lost anything by bearing the body of his English friend. Suggested reading: A Ballad of Sir Pertab Singh Analysis
You can also check out the summary of The Seven Ages of Man by Shakespeare.
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