I think it is true to say that, of all our sports, it is cricket that is the most literary. The library at the New Zealand Cricket Museum has many literary anthologies based around the game and it would appear that the sport has featured in novels and short stories since it’s inception. A major barometer of the marriage between cricket and literature, though, has always been poetry.
From the 1890s onwards, poems about cricket have appeared across the cricket playing world with persistent regularity. The other day I was reading through the large anthology The Poetry of Cricket edited by Leslie Frewin (Macdonald: London, 1964.) Coming in at 530 pages it is a huge collection and is well worth spending time with if you can find a cop. Readers might be interested to know that the volume in the Museum Library belonged to Martin Donnelly!
Most anthologies reflect the interests of their editor and I presume that this one is no exception. As I wrote earlier it is a huge collection made up, primarily, of poets from the UK. Nearly all the poets are men and the overwhelming feeling one has browsing the poems is one of sadness – not, I hasten to add, at the quality of the poetry, much of which is actually pretty good, but for the sense of time passing and something ending.
There are some wonderful poems on the game itself – Alan Ross’ Watching Benaud Bowl is a fine example and there is much humour and parody in the poems chosen. Grounds are celebrated, from large to small and the individual skills of all sorts of cricketers are trumpeted and yet, of all the emotions, sadness remains with the reader when the book is put down. On reflection it surfaces in two ways. The first, always lurking in the background, is the sadness brought about by the effect of war on cricket and cricketers. In Siegfried Sassoon’s The Dreamers (1917), soldiers are described as:
..in the foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,
And in the ruined trenches, lashed by rain,
Dreaming of things they did with balls and bat
And we realize that nothing can be further from “the sloping sunshine on the verdant turf” (E.J. Milburn, Ins and Outs) where cricket is played. The photographs we have in the Museum of young men in their flannels and blazers sitting and standing in front of cross bats, apparently at peace with their world and innocent of what is to come, make their deaths in such unimaginable conditions as Sassoon describes all the more poignant. There is a wonderful poem by RW Moore called The Air Is Hushed which articulates that sadness exquisitely. Nothing in the rhythm of the game, nothing in the apparent tranquility of the cricket ground in the wonderful summers of 1914 and 1939 could have led those young men to believe their world could change so dramatically. 1964 was 19 years after the end of World War 2 and 46 after World War 1. The effects were there for all to see in the empty chairs and the memories of those who had been there. Generations had been lost and they are the shadows on the outfield in this anthology. As Moore writes:
And those who shall return to play
Shall scan the scorebook all in vain.
The second kind of sadness is brought about by the realisation of the inevitability of time passing. The days of summer fade to autumn and winter. Cricket becomes a metaphor of youth and hope. So much is possible when the season begins yet when it ends there is a sense of desolation. This is exemplified in the following excerpt from George Francis Wilson Summer’s Ending:
Imperial Summer bows her golden head-
The Wickets are laid low, the Bails are dead
Kenneth Allott’s powerful, if bleak, Lament For A Cricket Eleven takes this idea to it’s ultimate conclusion. A picture of a team from 1905 is being developed by a photographer years after it was taken and their individual fates reported to the reader – the schoolmaster “eaten by a wicked cancer”, another cricketer “went mad by a tape-machine”. If cricket is summer then autumn and winter are not necessarily kind to the players of the game. Other poets are a little less bleak. Cricket lights up and warms the grim winter of life as Norman Gale writes in Long Ago:
The sour turned sweet, the dark grew bright
Long, long ago
But uncertainty and sadness are never far away, as written by Francis Colegate Benson in Memory:
And when you fill the cup……….
And make the rafters ring with songs we used to sing
Will you remember me?
Even when it was published one senses that this anthology was rather old-fashioned. It’s not only with it’s reflection of the shadow of war and the progression of age. Cricket is generally portrayed as a rural sport, from GD Martineau’s The Last Spring:
The roller’s clanking on the square;
The village lads are thronging there
No sign here of how many of us played cricket at the time when the anthology was produced – on a side street, avoiding the infrequent cars, a dustbin for stumps surrounded by houses and industrial estates. Instead it’s rather bucolic and pastoral. The anthology is old fashioned in another way also. The association with summer and youth that threads through this poetry may well have run it’s course. Cricket was always “The Summer Game.” Less so now, where we can watch cricket from all over the world all the year round, and where once near mythical players only glimpsed every four years or so can now be seen all the time. We can read statistics, op ed pieces and news 24/7, if we choose. As the poetry decreases the statistics appear to flourish like some never ending stream. Of course poetry created it’s own myths. Perhaps cricket was what people wanted it to be rather than what it really was, but one wonders if cricket is more Silicon Valley than Hambledon now. It seems unlikely that will we ever have quite the same feelings:
When primroses are out at Hambledon
Eric Parker, Windmill Down