He fell among Thieves
by Sir Henry Newbolt (1862-1938)
The mise en scène here has to be teased out from the narrative.
We have a young Englishman of good family (his childhood home has a terrace), educated at one of the traditional British "public" schools (with a School Close) and one of the old universities (the Dons on the daïs, the College Eight crew). He'd traveled to India on a liner — presumably in some kind of civilian-administrative capacity for the Raj, since the liner doesn't sound like a troop ship (troop ships aren't "liners" and don't have "passengers"). Wandering alone on the Northwest Frontier, he'd fallen in with a friendly crowd of locals, who'd treated him as a guest. Then he'd discovered that they were in fact a robber band. He'd fled from them (he has his own "camp below the wood," so he must be traveling alone again), but they'd tracked him down. There'd been a fight, in which he killed five of them. His revolver empty, he is defenseless; they have him cornered. Now read on.
I have a long note on Sir Henry Newbolt here.
"the Yassîn river" — I can't locate a Yassîn river; but there is a town named Yasin in the far north of Pakistan, up by the Afghanistan panhandle.
"the Laspur hills" — I can't find these either, though the town of Laspur is 30 miles west of Yasin, and there sure are a lot of hills around there.
• Play the reading
• Text of the poem
He fell among Thieves
by Sir Henry Newbolt
"Ye have robb'd," said he, "ye have slaughter'd and made an end,
Take your ill-got plunder, and bury the dead:
What will ye more of your guest and sometime friend?"
"Blood for our blood," they said.
He laugh'd: "If one may settle the score for five,
I am ready; but let the reckoning stand till day:
I have loved the sunlight as dearly as any alive."
"You shall die at dawn," said they.
He flung his empty revolver down the slope,
He climb'd alone to the Eastward edge of the trees;
All night long in a dream untroubled of hope
He brooded, clasping his knees.
He did not hear the monotonous roar that fills
The ravine where the Yassîn river sullenly flows;
He did not see the starlight on the Laspur hills,
Or the far Afghan snows.
He saw the April noon on his books aglow,
The wistaria trailing in at the window wide;
He heard his father's voice from the terrace below
Calling him down to ride.
He saw the gray little church across the park,
The mounds that hide the loved and honour'd dead;
The Norman arch, the chancel softly dark,
The brasses black and red.
He saw the School Close, sunny and green,
The runner beside him, the stand by the parapet wall,
The distant tape, and the crowd roaring between,
His own name over all.
He saw the dark wainscot and timber'd roof,
The long tables, and the faces merry and keen;
The College Eight and their trainer dining aloof,
The Dons on the daïs serene.
He watch'd the liner's stem ploughing the foam,
He felt her trembling speed and the thrash of her screw;
He heard her passengers' voices talking of home,
He saw the flag she flew.
And now it was dawn. He rose strong on his feet,
And strode to his ruin'd camp below the wood;
He drank the breath of the morning cool and sweet:
His murderers round him stood.
Light on the Laspur hills was broadening fast,
The blood-red snow-peaks chill'd to a dazzling white;
He turn'd, and saw the golden circle at last,
Cut by the Eastern height.
"O glorious Life, Who dwellest in earth and sun,
I have lived, I praise and adore Thee."
A sword swept.
Over the pass the voices one by one
Faded, and the hill slept.