The greatest sport poems selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Poetry and sport may not seen like natural bedfellows, although it’s worth remembering that several poets, including Rudyard Kipling and G. K. Chesterton, to say nothing of Tennyson’s son, were part of the Allahakbarries, J. M. Barrie’s Edwardian cricket team (who were appallingly bad at the sport, but numbered some of the greatest writers of the age). And poets down the ages have put into words the magic and wonder of sport, whether it’s a game of cricket, a football match, or a spot of tennis. Here are five classic poems about sports of various kinds.
Francis Thompson, ‘At Lord’s’. It’s often tempting to look back, nostalgically, at a golden age of sport, or to recall a sportsperson when they were playing at their peak. Harold Pinter once sent a short poem to Len Hutton which read, ‘I saw Len Hutton in his prime, another time, another time.’ (When, upon receiving no response, Pinter wrote to Hutton asking what he thought of the poem, Hutton shot back that he hadn’t finished reading it yet.) Francis Thompson (1859-1907) remembered seeing Hornby and Barlow bat at Old Trafford in their heyday, and when he was invited to watch Lancashire play Middlesex at Lord’s, Thompson declined to go. Instead, he stayed at home and wrote At Lord’s, recalling those glory days of English cricket.
A. E. Housman, ‘Twice a Week the Winter thorough’. ‘Twice a week the winter thorough / Here stood I to keep the goal: / Football then was fighting sorrow / For the young man’s soul.’ So begins this poem from Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, which goes on to mention cricket, so we get two sports for the price of one in this classic sport poem. The power of sport in such situations is the ‘mirth’ it provides the speaker: he can keep his mind from gloomier thoughts by joining his fellow man for a football or cricket match. (We’ve compiled more great football poems here.)
Henry Newbolt, ‘Vitai Lampada’. The title of this poem (which means ‘they pass on the torch of life’ in Latin) may not be familiar, but the last line of this classic sport poem probably is: ‘Play up! play up! and play the game!’ Perhaps the best-known and best-loved poem about the sport of cricket, ‘Vitai Lampada’ might be viewed as a variation on the famous quotation (mis)attributed to the Duke of Wellington, ‘The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.’ Newbolt suggests in this poem that playing cricket at school provided the perfect training for a young soldier, because of the comradeship and sense of duty the game instils.
John Betjeman, ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song’. Anyone for tennis? One of Betjeman’s best-loved poems, this is the ‘Miss J. Hunter Dunn’ one (its opening line is more famous than its actual title). Published in 1945, ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song’ is a love song of a peculiarly English kind. The Joan Hunter Dunn who inspired the poem was a real person, who died in 2008 – Betjeman met her during wartime in 1940 and was struck by her, and wrote ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song’ about what it might be like for the two of them to play tennis, fall in love, and get engaged (Betjeman was a married man when he wrote the poem, and the relationship with Miss J. Hunter Dunn remained a fantasy rather than a reality).
Wendy Cope, ‘Sporty People’. As this poem suggests, sport and poetry aren’t natural bedfellows – but how much of this is down to prejudice and perception than reality? Poets can play football, and tennis champions can read books. In this tongue-in-cheek poem, Wendy Cope tells of how she accidentally befriended a woman who was sporty, only to realise that her friend was nevertheless ‘OK’. A less famous poem by Britain’s greatest living comic poet.
For more classic poetry, we also recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market (we offer our pick of the best poetry anthologies here, and list the best books for the poetry student here).