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SPORT AND LITERATURE.
N this paper it is to be understood that English literature alone is
dealt with ; for not only is the British field quite wide enough for one harvest, but it is the most prolific in the world as regards the combined crop suggested by the heading.
It cannot but be evident to the least sport-loving reader how closely associated are all forms of sports and pastimes with British life and thought ; nor is it possible to disregard the effects of such association upon the manners, and customs, and writings of the nation in question. Suffice it to say, that some of the greatest of our poets and prose writers constantly allude to the subject. Such references are found in likely and unlikely places : in the staid Quarterly and decorous Spectator; in the frivolous, so-called "society” papers; and in publications nominally devoted to the discussions of science, the recording of law doings, or the illustrating of modes and robes.
With the exception of a few specialistic journals-as religious or trade magazines and newspapers--all English publications constantly contain reference, more or less direct, to sport. There are published in the British Isles some hundred magazines and newspapers which proclaim themselves sporting journals pure and simple, whilst of those four thousand others which professedly deal with all things on earth and elsewhere, there are but few indeed which never touch upon
the topic in question. Even the legal journals, and those devoting a large portion of their space to recording the doings in the Courts, necessarily occasionally refer at length to this subject, as witness many recent sensational racing and other gambling cases tried by English judges and magistrates.
It is evident how strong a hold sport has established upon the language ; how its phraseology and similes have been engrafted thereupon—to its enriching ?
In olden times a gentleman's education was held incomplete if he were not a master of all the mysteries and parlance pertaining to sports of the field; all the complicated argot of hawking and hunting:
these things were essential, even though he could neither read nor write. Such paltry matters of erudition as the latter were left to those in holy orders and other mere clerks.
In later days, when fox-hunting took the place of the more ceremonious forms of the science of venerie, which went out of vogue with the extermination of larger and more ferocious beasts of chase than the little red rover, a complicated phraseology still survived. But towards the middle of the present century the pedantry of sporting diction was voted "bad form ;” though enough of it still survives to render the man ridiculous who affects to be a sportsman, and, like Mrs. Malaprop,“ deranges his epitaphs.”
The learned Albert Barrère, in his “ Argot and Slang,” observes that the study of the slang jargon of a nation-a language which is not the expression of conventional ideas, but the unvarnished rude expression of life in its true aspects—may give us an insight into the foibles and predominant vices (as also virtues) of those who use it.
As indicative of the way in which terms of the chase, of field sports, of games, and of the machines, implements, and accessories thereto, enter into the language of the street, the senate, the platform, and the newspaper, I append a few phrases that daily run trippingly off the British tongue. Thus we speak of a man being at bay when he is “driven into a corner," the term being a strictly technical one. In modern stag-hunting the quarry is said to be “set up at bay” when, overrun and exhausted, he gets his back against a rock, and haunch-deep in water, with head and antlers carried warily, defies the baying pack. In the latter case, “bay,” of course, has another significance, meaning bark. Herein lies one of the baffling beauties of the English language. In the “ Taming of the Shrew” one reads, “Your deer doth hold you at a bay ;” the simile is just, though by a humorous method of illustration the ordinary positions are inverted. Speaking of the dead Cæsar, Antony says, “ Here was't thou bayed, brave hart ;” thus most appropriately borrowing a figure from the language of the chase. Again, in Scott's “ Lady of the Lake" (Canto I., The Chase), we find the following spirited lines, showing how “The Knight of Snowdoun, James FitzJames,” ran a gallant stag to bay :
The hunter marked that inountain high,
Take also the verb "to babble" and the substantive “babbler.'
Babbler is a common and most expressive word. In the language of the chase, a hound that gives tongue at all times save the right one, namely, off the scent often, but rarely on : hence an unreliable, irresponsible chatterer. Compare Lord Beaconsfield's famous phrase, “The hare-brained chatter of irresponsible frivolity." Shakespeare says, “I do follow here in the chase, not like a hound that hunts, but one that fills up the cry”—“cry” having two mearings (the Immortal Bard loved juggling double entendre): a pack of hounds, and the music thereof. But, indeed, the great poet's writings contain many references to babbling and babblers. “This babbler shall not henceforth trouble you,” said Julia in “ The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” Elsewhere we find, “And leave thy vain bibble babble.” In “Much Ado about Nothing," Dogberry exclaims : “For the watch to babble and talk is most tolerable, and not to be endured.” The last words of Falstaff, when we are told “'a babbled of green fields,” exhibit a somewhat extended use of the word ; as does also the phrase from “ Titus Andronicus," “Whilst the babbling echo mocks the hounds ;” though the following from the same play strictly shows its use in its derivative sense: "A long-tongued, babbling gossip.” The author of the “Dictionary of Phrase and Fable " opens his preface with the words : “What has this babbler to say?" quoting the bard aforesaid. Plato's pithy aphorism, “As empty vessels make the loudest sound, so they that have the least wit are the greatest babblers," fittingly closes this section of my discourse.
Daily we hear or read of "trying back," "on a false scent," "off the scent," "a cold scent,” and the like, all of which are borrowed from the vocabulary of hunting, and require no explanation. Of all the various branches of sports and pastimes, hunting appears to have supplied more phrases and forms of illustration in English literature than
any other. In Holy Writ we read of the hart heated in the chase panting for cooling streams, an allusion strictly accurate and practical. “To run with the hare and hunt with the hounds” is every man's most natural illustration of a trimmer. The “whips” in the British Houses of Parliament marshal their respective packs just as do whippers-in their hounds.
Quitting hunting for awhile, and passing on to other sections of the subject of sporting phrases and allusions, the expression “ in the first flight” suggests itself. This, though borrowed from the language venatic, is primarily derived from the habits of birds, the most wary of which, with Dædalian promptitude, instinctively first take wing upon occasion, due or otherwise. “Wide of the mark," a familiar
expression, originally referred to archery ; but though bows have long since given place to rifles, it is to-day as appropriate and expressive as it was in the time of Robin Hood. “To shoot at a pigeon and kill the crow” has for centuries served Englishmen to express a lucky accident; while in the phrase, “ A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” there is a distinct allusion to the ancient method of fowling. “Hoodwinked” is derived from hawking; for falcons or other trained hawks were, and are, carried with hoods over head and eyes till such time as it is required to despatch them after their quarry.
Our omnivorous tongue has not scrupled to turn to the baser forms of so-called “sports” for felicitous, though vulgar, adages. From the cock-pit comes the expressive saying: “This cock won't fight.” To the racecourse the politician, the lecturer, and the leader-writer have recourse when they speak of being overmatched, hampered, or “handicapped.” From the racecourse this convenient trope doubtless comes; though for its actual derivation the card-table must be sought. Originally, handicap was a game at cards not unlike loo, but with this difference : the winner of one trick has to put in a double stake, the winner of two tricks a triple stake, and so on. Thus, if six persons are playing, and the general stake is one shilling, and A wins three tricks, he gains six shillings, and has to “hand i' the cap,” or pool, three shillings for the next deal. Says Pepys in his “Diary : ” “ To the Mitre Tavern, in Wood Street, a house of the greatest note in London. Here some of us fell to handicap, a sport I never knew before, which was very good.”
From cards also are derived such familiar sayings as, “A card up his sleeve ” (a clever, if not a very commendable action); "a trump card ;” “to play your cards well,” &c. From billiards we borrow “a fine stroke ;” from cricket, “a good innings ;” and from football “he has the ball at his feet.” Many others will suggest themselves to the reader, the foregoing being just jotted down as they occur to the mind of the writer, by way of examples.
Shakespeare's plays and poems abound with references and allusions to sport and pastime, together with direct quotations from the jargon thereof. He directly mentions such topics upwards of two hundred and fifty times-indirectly on thousands of occasions. And no wonder. Loving the air and living greatly in the same ; a very joyous and manly man ; born and bred in one of the loveliest portions of beautiful England, hard by the silver Avon ; surrounded by all the attributes of rural and sylvan life, and in an eminently sporting and sportive age (England was “ Merrie England” then); a sympathiser with lovers of " cakes and ale” and all jollity ; it would be strange indeed were one so keenly alive to all his surroundings mute as regards such subjects—failed to draw illustrations from such a copious source. In addition to those already given, I venture to quote a few passages from the works of the “Great Heir of Time” in elucidation of this. And it is to be noted that our bard was evidently well versed in all matters pertaining to hounds and horses. Take the following admirable description of a horse :
Round-hoofd, short-jointed, fetlocks strong and long,
Save a proud rider on so proud a back. Then, as to hounds and their glorious music, the following extracts from "A Midsummer Night's Dream” (it being borne in mind that fashions change, and that the style of hound so nobly delineated by the poet, though utterly unlike his modern descendants was precisely the animal beloved of children of Artemis in the Elizabethan era). Hippolyta says to her royal lover :
I was with Hercules and Cadmus once,
So musical a discord, such sweet thunder. And presently Theseus takes up the theme, informing his fair inamorata that he is the happy owner of a noble pack:
My hounds are bred out of the Spartan kind,
Was never holla'd to, nor cheer'd with horn. Again, Shakespeare alludes some half-dozen times to the game of tennis, so popular and fashionable in his day; and once to billiards, hardly then the game now in vogue, nor played upon such tables as are used at the present time. No less than one hundred and fifty times is the word "sport" used by the bard in his deathless plays and poems; but not, of course, in the restricted sense in which the writer of this article uses it. Shovel-board and shove-groat shilling (2 Henry IV. 11. 4) are allusions to a somewhat similar game. It will be remembered -