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‘A Ballad of Sir Pertab Singh’ is a ballad written by Sir Henry Newbolt. As the title suggests, it revolves around the life of an Emperor named Sir Pertab Singh in India. It sheds light on how things were during the British rule and the rigid caste system prevalent in India.
About the Poet:
Sir Henry Newbolt (1862-1938) was an eminent English poet. In addition, he was also a notable novelist and barrister. Famous works of his include ‘Days to Remember’, ‘Submarine and Anti-Submarine’, and ‘Mordred’.
The theme of this poem is the tyranny of caste system. The ballad shuns it, highlighting what a man’s true caste is and ought to be.
This poem, as clearly mentioned, is a ballad. It follows the rules of the ballad by consisting of twenty stanzas that are quatrains. Each stanza follows the rhyme scheme ‘abcb’.
In the first year of him that first Was Emperor and King, A rider came to the Rose-red House, The House of Pertab Singh.
The ballad narrates the tale of Sir Pertab Singh, who was an Emperor and King during the British rule in India. During his first year of rule, a rider visits him in his ‘Rose-red House’.
Young he was and an Englishman, And a soldier, hilt and heel, And he struck fire in Pertab’s heart As the steel strikes on steel.
This unnamed stranger was a young man, an Englishman at that. He was a soldier through and through. Despite the blatant animosity and violent tension existing between the Indians and the British, Sir Pertab Singh felt drawn to the fire in this soldier, taking an instant liking to him.
Beneath the morning stars they rode, Beneath the evening sun, And their blood sang to them as they rode That all good wars are one.
A deep friendship blossomed between the duo. They rode together all day and night, with their blood singing in their veins in joy.
They told their tales of the love of women. Their tales of East and West, But their blood sang that of all their loves They loved a soldier best.
They shared their tales of romance and tales of the vasty different lives they’ve shared due to their respective nationality. Yet, they did not let their differences come in the way of their friendship as above all, what they loved was a good soldier, one they found, respected, and admired in one another.
So ran their joy the allotted days. Till at the last day’s end The Shadow stilled the Rose-red House And the heart of Pertab’s friend.
These days filled with joy, however, were numbered. A shadow fell over the Emperor’s house and his friend’s heart. The soldier had passed away.
When morning came, in narrow chest The soldier’s face they hid. And over his fast-dreaming eyes Shut down the narrow lid.
The next morning, they buried him in a coffin. The narrow lid of it covered his face, shutting off those eyes of his which dreamed big.
Three were there of his race and creed. Three only and no more: They could not find to bear the dead A fourth in all Jodhpore.
Four people were required to lift his coffin. However, only three people from his caste could be found in Jodhpore, the land of King Pertab Singh.
“O Maharaj, of your good grace Send us a Sweeper here: A Sweeper has no caste to lose Even by an alien bier.”
To solve this issue, the Emperor is advised to send a Sweeper as the fourth person to lift the coffin as he is of a lower caste and would not be slandered by touching an ‘alien bier’, referring to the foreign friend’s casket.
“What need, what need?” said Pertab Singh, And bowed his princely head. “I have no caste, for I myself Am bearing forth the dead.”
The Emperor the questioned the need for it. Despite being the monarch, he proclaimed himself to be of no caste and declared that he would bear his beloved friend himself.
“Maharaj, O passionate heart, Be wise, bethink you yet: That which you lose to-day is lost Till the last sun shall set.”
Scandalized people forbade him. They advised him to be wise and not do such a deed for if he ‘lost’ his caste for touching a deceased man of another caste, it would never be redeemed throughout his life.
“God only knows,” said Pertab Singh, “That which I lose to-day: And without me no hand of man Shall bear my friend away.”
Pertab Singh aptly replied that God knows what he had lost that day, referring to his friend. He remains unmoved in his resolve to carry his friend’s coffin in his own hands.
Stately and slow and shoulder-high In the sight of all Jodhpore The dead went down the rose-red steps Upheld by bearers four.
With the whole of Jodhpore present, the King and the three others bury his beloved friend down the rose-red steps.
When dawn relit the lamp of grief Within the burning East There came a word to Pertab Singh, The soft word of a priest.
As the next morning arose, a grief-stricken Pertab Singh was greeted by a priest.
He woke, and even as he woke He went forth all in white, And saw the Brahmins bowing there In the hard morning light.
As he woke and went out, dressed in white, he saw a mass of Brahmins assembled there, waiting to have a word with him.
“Alas! Maharaj, alas! O noble Pertab Singh! For here in Jodhpore yesterday Befell a fearful thing.
They proclaim, anguished, that a fearful thing had befallen Jodhpore the previous day. They bemoaned this even as they praised the King.
“O here in Jodhpore yesterday A fearful thing befell.” “A fearful thing,” said Pertab Singh, “God and my heart know well”
Upon them repeating it, a saddened Pertab Singh misunderstood what they were hinting at. He agrees that a fearful thing had befallen indeed, that which his own heart and God knew for his friend had passed away.
“I lost a friend.” “More fearful yet! Went down these steps you passed In sight of all Jodhpore you lose O Maharaj! -- your caste.”
The priests however, correct him. They say that something even more fearful had occurred the previous day for their Emperor, with the whole of Jodhpore bearing witness, had lost his caste on account of touching a man of another caste.
Then leapt the light in Pertab’s eyes As the flame leaps in smoke, “Thou priest! thy soul hath never known The word thy lips have spoke.”
The Emperor flew into a rage, his eyes lighting with flames of fury. He reprimanded the priest, chastising him that he doesn’t know what he had just spoke.
“My caste! Know thou there is a caste Above my caste or thine, Brahmin and Rajput are but dust To that immortal line:
He firmly asserts that the he, or the Brahmins there, did not know of his caste and did not know which caste was above or below his. He further states how he, a Rajput and a Kshatriya, and him, a Brahmin, were just dust in the grand scheme of things of the world.
“Wide as the world, free as the air, Pure as the pool of death The caste of all Earth’s noble hearts Is the right soldier’s faith.”
He declares that as wide as the world, as free as the air one breaths and as pure as death is how the Earth’s noble caste is, that caste that is a soldier’s faith.
This is an awe-inspiring poem on a King who rose above the rigid caste system in India. His noble act of stepping forward to bury his friend and honour him, an Englishman at that, speaks volumes for, in a country which held bias for its own, he was willing to rise above it for the other, the one considered the enemy.