A Ballad of Sir Pertab Singh Summary by Sir Henry Newbolt

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 Maragaret 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.


The publication details of this poem are unknown. It tells the story of the great friendship between an Englishman and the Maharaja of Jodhpore (also spelled “Jodhpur”), Pertab Singh (which is probably an Anglicized version of the name “Pratap Singh”). Go through this writeup for a detailed summary of A ball of Sir Pertab Singh.

A Ballad of Sir Pertab Singh Summary by Sir Henry Newbolt

Setting of the poem:

This poem is set entirely in the kingdom of Jodhpore, 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 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.

In these lines, the poet tells us how an Englishman came riding to the palace of Maharaja Pertab Singh of Jodhpore in the first year of his reign. Pertab 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.

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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 wars.

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 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.

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:

They could not find to bear the dead

A fourth in all Jodhpore.

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, Pertab Singh refused to do so, saying he would carry the coffin himself.

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Lines 37 – 40:

“Maharaj, O passionate heart,

Be wise, bethink you yet:

That which you lose to-day 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 to-day:

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 Jodhpore

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 Jodhpore 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 himself in white garments and walked out to meet a group of Brahmins who were bowing before him.

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Lines 57 – 62:

“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.”

In these lines, the Brahmins lament to the Maharaja that a terrible thing had happened in Jodhpore 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 past

In sight of all Jodhpore 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 Jodhpore.

Lines 70 – 73:

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.

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 right soldier’s faith.”

In these lines, the Maharaja tells the priest that he is unaware of the fact 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 bond that is sacred, and hence he has not lost anything by bearing the body of his English friend. Suggested reading: A Ballad of Sir Pertab Singh Analysis

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