Saturday, October 23, 2010

Robert J. Pope - NZ poet and cricketer

In January of this year I discovered two poetry books published by colonial poet Robert J. Pope, a “Kaiwarra” (now known as Kaiwharawhara) School Principal and Wellington cricketer (old Star club and Wellington club). Robert grew up in Dunedin and was the son of Henry Pope who founded the native school system.
Pope, among other things, wrote two poem tributes to the late Wellington College Headmaster and Wellington cricketer J.P. Firth (1859-1931) as well as music and lyrics for various songs (including a Wellington College school song).
Pope and Firth were noted Wellington cricketers. Pope features in A Tingling Catch with his poem 'King Willow', which was penned at the opening of the 1932 cricket season. In Pope's manuscript collection in the Alexander Turnbull Library there is a newspaper clipping on his cricket club days after the Star Club won the local Wellington league. Pope is in the list of notable cricketers of the club. Firth, unlike Pope, played First Class cricket from 1880/81-1885/86 and is the more well known of the two. Firth was an all-rounder for Nelson and Wellington with a top score of 56 as a right-hand batsman and he took 32 wickets as a left-arm fast bowler at an average of 8.06. He helped foster the development of cricket in Wellington.
Firth must’ve appreciated the poems and song. He was well known at the college for his morning verse recitations taken from the Spectator. In the Turnbull, I found, among the Robert Pope manuscript books, a hand-written note from J.P. Firth to Robert:

My Dearest Bob,
It was most kind to send me a copy of your verses, which I like very much. The dedication to me makes me feel very proud…
Your generous words will always be treasured and will give me never failing pleasure…
Yours sincerely,

J.P. Firth

Here are Pope’s verses for Firth:

Mourn for the Brave

To J. P. FIRTH, E.S.Q., C.M.G.
(Late Headmaster, Wellington College.)

(Published in the NZ School Journal)

Mourn for the brave,
   That loyal steadfast band
Who sleep their last lone sleep
   Far from their Native land,
Roused by their country’s call,
   Unmindful of the cost,
These risked in Freedom’s cause
  Their all – and nobly lost
With wreaths of laurel green
  Sweet rosemary entwine,
Fit tribute to the dead,
  Whose mem’ry we enshrine.

Mourn for the brave:
  Now low in death they lie;
So long as Time remains,
  Their glory shall not die.
They shrank not from the blow
  That made the wide world quake;
They leapt into the breach,
  And died for England’s sake,
No more with kindling eye
  Ambition’s height they climb;
They reached Life’s utmost peak –
  The sacrifice sublime.

Mourn for the brave;
  Though tears must vainly flow;
Our grief can ne’er repay
  The boundless debt we owe.
What monument can we
  To their great name upraise
Whose honours far transcend
  The clarion voice of praise?
O let our off’ring be
  A brotherhood so wide
That all the world shall know
  ‘Twas not in vain they died.

“The Boss”
(An affectionate tribute to Mr J.P. Firth on his retirement,
after nearly 30 years as Headmaster of Wellington College.)

Who taught us how to play the game,
How might and right are not the same,
That honest work is more than fame?
“The Boss.”

Who led us all to strive with vim,
To scorn all methods that were “slim”,
To prize a word of praise from him?
“The Boss.”

Who, happ’ning on us unaware,
When mischief dire was in the air,
Politely asked, “How will you square?”
“The Boss.”

Who from his modest six-feet-five,
Would hope in four-feet-two revive,
Thenceforth the proudest boy alive?
“The Boss.”

Who in our school-days sowed the seed
That blossomed in the Empire’s need,
And gave us Honour for our creed?
“The Boss.”

Who shared our joys of bat and ball,
Who roused us at our country’s call,
And won the hearts of one and all?
“The Boss.”

J.P. Firth was known after he retired as “The Boss”.
I note further that Robert J. Pope (1863-1949) was a regular contributor to the Evening Post and the NZ School Journal and had a reputation as a violinist and composer. His two books of verse published late in his life (Some New Zealand Lyrics (1928) and A New Zealander’s Fancies in Verse (1946)) appear to be the only poetry he published in book form. The two world wars had a significant influence on Pope's verse. He also wrote many prose works. His song ‘New Zealand, My Homeland’ was published in the School Journal and became used in schools from North Cape to the Bluff. There is a copy of the sheet music in the National Library of New Zealand. In 1970 there was newspaper correspondence over the song being made the National Anthem. I am currently preparing a fresh selection of his poems for publication.

Article © Mark Pirie, 2010

Below: Photo of Robert J. Pope, from The Evening Post newspaper, 1949.

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