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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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Play up and Play the Game
Having idle occasion to look into the origins of baseball, I was led by Wikipedia to this image from John Newbery's A Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744), which is apparently the word's first appearance in print.


Isn't it curious that the first mention of baseball and the first children's book (depending how you define it) coincide in the same small volume? But I'm as interested in the rhyme, which takes running round the bases as a metaphor for Britain's maritime trade.

The Ball once struck off,
Away flies the Boy
To the next destin'd Post,
And then home with Joy.

Thus Britons for Lucre
Fly over the Main;
But, with Pleasure transported,
Return back again.

Echoes here of Donne's compasses, perhaps, and the poem also gives an interesting resonance to phrases such as "naval base" and "trading post". It may be the earliest example - unless you know different? - of a poem in which a childhood game is taken as a model, and perhaps a preparation, for adult imperial endeavours, a trope that found its locus classicus 150 years later in Newbolt's "Vita Lampada". (Rolf Harris's version of "Two Little Boys was perhaps a step too far down the same road.)

It sounds more like modern cricket's two wickets than modern baseball's four bases.

I've always been puzzled by the exact wording of the poem alluded to in your post title. What does "play up" mean that's different from "play the game"?

It sounds more like modern cricket's two wickets than modern baseball's four bases.

And the picture shows three!

I have always taken "play up" to be a kind of exhortation to give one's all, and to play in the spirit of the thing. I'm not sure where I got that idea, except that it fits.

Smiling to think of the long ago boys. The games of kids have not changed much, kites, tag, foot races, dolls, pretend... I see them often. Ball games boil down to hitting, kicking, throwing and running.

And, in my case, dropping.

Is Rolf Harris's version further down the road than the original?

I'm not familiar enough with earlier versions to say. The song teeters on the edge of sentimentality looked at from any angle, I dare say, but when sung by a paedophile it's hard not to hear it as emotionally manipulative - at least, for me.

It dates to 1902, I think. It's not clear, but I'm pretty sure the war referenced is the US Civil War.

I assumed so, from the reference to "ranks of blue".