No-one knows quite when or where the game of cricket began. Passing references suggest it already had a solid foothold by the end of the 16th century in south-east England, but the first detailed account only comes with codification of the “Laws of Cricket” (1744) by several clubs in the London area. Or, we should rather say, the first detailed account in English. For, some four decades before that historic year, a young man wrote a lively Latin poem of 95 hexameters on nothing but cricket. This piece – In Certamen Pilae, literally “On the ball contest” – is glossed with “Anglice, A Cricket-Match”. It thus provides the first treatment – in any language – of how the once rural, but by now urbane, game of cricket was played.
Here we offer the Latin text (tidied of some recurrent misprints) and a close prose translation of the text, which has been insufficiently studied. We hope that it is enjoyable either to those who are interested in observing what was different and similar in cricket as played under William (r.1689–1702) and Mary (r.1689–94) or Queen Anne (r.1702–14), or to those who like seeing how a Neo-Latin poet handled the challenge of describing a game of which the Romans of course knew nothing whatsoever. Needless to say for a man so well trained in the Classics, the poem is stylistically unobjectionable, and repleted with tags and echoes from Virgil, Lucretius, Ovid and a number of other canonical authors.
Before we get to that, a word on the author, one William Goldwin (1683–1747). Born a baker’s son in Windsor, he had the good fortune to attend nearby Eton College (1695–1700), which allowed him to enter the well-trodden path to King’s College, Cambridge (1700–6), where after taking his BA he spent most of his twenties as a Fellow (1703–10). While at Cambridge he published in 1706 a collection of eight mid-length Latin poems entitled Musae Juveniles (a Romantic title amounting to “Youthful verses”). It is probable that the poem on cricket was written around the year 1703, when Goldwin was therefore around the age of twenty. Goldwin’s subsequent career was modest progress in his day: he moved to Bristol, where he was successively Master of the Grammar School (1710–17) and vicar of St Nicholas in that city (1717–47). Yet we only see snapshots of the man via his sporadically published sermons. Goldwin’s subsequent literary output was limited to A Poetical Description of the City of Bristol (1712, expanded posthumously in 1751) – verses since described by one Bristolian as “lamentably prosaic” – and a remarkable and self-effacing epigram outlining his myriad bodily ailments. Perhaps this “great punster” was well loved by those around him; his wife, at any rate, followed him to the grave half an hour after her husband’s death, aged around 64, in 1747.
To return to the poem on cricket, then. Since its date of composition is uncertain, and it describes a general rather than specific occasion, it is unknowable whether Goldwin is describing a game witnessed in Windsor, or at Eton, or in Cambridge; at any event, the poem implies that villagers and townsfolk are involved in the play. Since the poem does not exude a sense of wide-eyed wonder about a novel invention, it presumably describes a mode of play that was already familiar in the Home Counties by the late 17th century.
The poem’s text will largely speak for itself. But for those who prefer to take their surprises sitting down, a few things to note: cricket of this early period required players literally to bowl the ball along the ground, hoping that a clever bounce from a speedy ball would get past the batsman; for his part, the batsman held a curved wooden bat that now brings to mind more a hockey stick than a modern cricket bat; the stumps are two in number, with a single bail balanced atop, the target being appreciably wider and squatter than the modern three-stump wicket. Runs are made between the two opposing wickets, but rather than cross a crease at either end, runners must strike a bat held by the umpire at each end with their own bat. There aren’t boundaries to score fours or sixes from, and indeed the game is played on any flat clearing of short grass, not on a dedicated and marked pitch. OK, that should do for now.
In Certamen Pilae
Anglice, A Cricket-Match
Vere novo, cum temperies liquidissima coeli
arridet, suadetque virentis gratia terrae
veloces agitare pedes super aequora campi;
lecta cohors juvenum, baculis armata repandis
quos habiles ludo manus ingeniosa polivit, 5
in campum descendit ovans; sua gloria cuique.
hic magis aptus humum celeri transmittere planta,
et vigilante oculo variis discursibus omnes
ire redire vias; longe torquere per auras
doctior ille pilam, atque adversos rumpere ventos; 10
tertius arte valet quo non praestantior alter
per sola plana Orbem dextrae libramine justo
fundere, qui rapido cursu praeverteret ictum.
When spring comes, and the most serene weather smiles forth, and the charm of the green grass encourages fast running over a flat field, a select band of youths, armed with curved bats that an ingenious hand has polished into game-ready form (5), heads joyfully down into the field. Each has his own talent: this one is more suited to hot-footing it across the ground, and to keeping a close eye out as he goes up and down in every direction in various ways; that one is more skilled at hurling the ball through the air from afar and breaking the headwind (10); a third is outstripped by no-one else in his skill at launching the ball, with careful balance of his hand, over the flat ground in order to steal a blow by its rapid course.
Adventum excipiunt Manus Adversaria laetis
alloquiis nectuntque moras, – mox jurgia miscent 15
civilesque iras, quod vult imponere ludo
quisque suas leges. Nestor, cui cana senectus
conciliat cultum turbae veniamque loquendi,
se densae immiscens plebi vice fungitur aequi
judicis, et quanquam positis campestribus armis 20
jamdudum indulsit senio, non immemor artis
proponit justas leges, et temperat iras.
The opposing team welcome their arrival with cheerful greetings and cause delays – and soon they are starting arguments (15) and cordial bickering because each wants to impose his own rules on the game. Nestor, whose hoary old age secures the respect of the crowd and the leave to speak, enters into the thickly-packed locals to discharge the role of a fair judge; and although he has long since laid down his rustic tools (20) and enjoyed his old age, he has not forgotten the skill, so proposes fair rules and calms down their anger.
Deinde locum signant, qua se diffundit in aequor
plana superficies; hinc illinc partibus aeque
oppositis bifido surgentes vertice furcae 25
erectas modicum quas distinet intervallum
infiguntur humo; tum virgula ponitur alba,
virgula, qua dubii certaminis alea pendet,
et bene defendi poscit: Coriaceus Orbis
vi ruit infesta, quem si fortuna maligna 30
dirigit in rectum, subversaque machina fulcris
abripitur, cedas positis inglorius armis.
Then they point out the place where an even surface spreads out flat; on this side and that stumps are erected and driven into the ground directly opposite each other, rising to two points (25) with a small gap separating them once upright; then a white bail is placed on them, the bail on which the doubtful contest rests and which demands defending well: a leather ball hurtles with aggressive force, which if wicked fortune (30) directs it straight, and the device collapses, snatched from its supports, you would lay down your weapons and leave ingloriously.
Stant Moderatores bini stationibus aptis
fustibus innixi, quos certo attingere pulsu
lex jubet, aut operam cursus perdemus inanem. 35
Parte alia, visus qua libera copia detur,
parvo in colle sedent duo pectora fida, parata
cultellis numerum crescentem incidere ligno.
The two umpires stand in their appropriate positions, leaning on their bats, which the rules stipulate should be touched with clear contact, or we’ll waste the empty effort of running (35). In another place, where a clear vantage point exists, two loyal-hearted men sit on a small hill, ready to incise the growing score into wood with their penknives.
Tum Certatores digitis capita aequa recensent
ordine dispositi: medias it nummus in auras 40
arbiter, et primas partes decernit agendas
aut his, aut aliis. nondum discrimine coepto
stant in procinctu juvenes; dum cautior ille,
mittere cui data cura pilam, rursusque remissam
effugio prohibere, manu alterutraque tenaci 45
excipere attactam, praescripta ad munia jussit.
en! quali studio sese disponit! ut acres
excubias agitat circum diffusa juventus
expectans ludi monitum, trepidantiaque haurit
corda pavor pulsans, famaeque arrecta cupido. 50
Then the competitors count on their fingers an equal number of people, while standing in a line: a coin flies up into the air (40) as the arbiter, deciding whether the first innings should be played by this team or the other. While the match is still not begun the youths stand ready for battle; when the more careful man who is resonsible for bowling the ball, stopping it from escaping when it has been thrown back, catching it with a good grip by either hand (45) when it has been hit, ordered them to their agreed roles, see, with what zeal they position themselves! How the youths when spread around keep energetic guard, awaiting the signal for play, throbbing fear drawing their beating hearts, their desire for glory piqued (50).
Et jam dulce paratur opus: par nobile primum
heroum certamen init, duo fulmina ludi;
inde, dato signo, pila lubrica viribus acta
carcere prona fugit, volitansque per aequora summa
radit iter rapidum: sese Hostis poplite flexo 55
inclinat, cita currentis vestigia lustrans
si modo subsultet, tum certum assurgit in ictum
brachia vi torquens celeri, longeque propellit
clangentem sphaeram. superas volat illa per auras
continuo stridore ruens, atque aethera findit. 60
And now the lovely business is ready to go: first a noble pair of heroes enters the contest, two thunderbolts of the game. Then, once the signal is given, a greased ball thrown with force flies headlong from its trap, and flying over the top of the ground it sweeps its rapid course. The Opposition leans over with bended knee (55) and watches the fast footsteps of the running ball, seeing whether it leaps up, then at once he drives into the certain impact, twisting his arms with swift power, propelling the ringing ball far. It flies through the upper air, rushing with a constant whistle as it cleaves the sky (60).
At coelo observans catus Explorator in alto
insidias parat, erectis palmisque cadentem
excipit exultans, dextraque retorquet ovanti.
hinc laetus sequitur clamor, dolor obruit illos
moerentes tacite casum infelicis amici; 65
grande malum! ast uno avulso non deficit alter.
aemulus hic laudum furiisque ultricibus actus
ingreditur scenam, et damnum reparare minatur:
successum dea dira negat: vix terque quaterque
cursum Orbis peragit, vix dum tria sensit ab hoste 70
verbera, praecipiti cum protenus impete missa
virgam sede levem rapit, eluditque minantem.
But the clever fielder who is keeping watch of the high heavens prepares his ambush and leaps up to catch the falling ball with palms outstretched – and he throws it back with a triumphant hand. Hereon follows a happy cheer, while anguish falls over those who silently grieve the fate of their unfortunate friend (65). A huge loss! But, with this one man removed, there’s another man at hand. This one strives for praise and, driven by the avenging furies, he enters the stage, threatening to make good the loss. The cruel goddess denies him success: scarcely has the ball made three or four passes, scarcely had it felt three hits from the opposition (70), when suddenly it was hurled with headlong force and snatched the light bail from its place, thus eluding the threat.
Ille indignanti vultu sua tela reponit
atque Deos atque astra vocans crudelia, donec
succurrens partes implerit proximus haeres, 75
qui jam languentem causae socialis honorem
instaurare velit; sed et hic quoque numine laevo
orditur lusum; nam dum cursusque recursusque
alternos iterat, vestigia lubrica ponens
labitur infelix, pronus metamque sub ipsam 80
procumbit; tremefacta gemit sub pondere tellus
ingenti, risuque exultat rustica turba.
quemque manent sua fata, trahit suus exitus omnes
ah! nimium properans; seu fors, sive artis egestas
nisibus invidet; retro sublapsa refertur 85
spes omnis juvenum vultusque et corda relanguent.
With indignant expression he lays down his weapon and invokes the gods and cruel stars, until his next successor runs on to take his place (75), one who would like to restore the languishing honour or his team-mate’s cause. But he too begins his game with ill fortune, for while repeating his runs back and forth, the poor man had a slippery footing and fell over, falling face-first before his very goal (80); the earth growns under his huge weight, and the crowd of country-folk leap with laughter. Each man’s fate lies in wait for him, and each man’s ending drags away everyone, hastening (alas!) all too fast; either fate, or lack of skill, hinders any effort; all the youths’ hope collapses and retreats (85), and their faces and hearts sink.
Adversum auspiciis melioribus agmen arenam
intrant, perpetuisque fatigant ictibus orbem;
fervet opus; manat toto de corpore sudor;
mox ubi ludendi processerit ordo tenore 90
felici, litemque unus discriminat ictus,
impete pulsa pila in coeli sublimia templa
provehitur rapiente Noto, lusumque coronat;
concertata diu Victoria concrepat alis,
et complet clamore polum fremituque secundo. 95
The opposing team enters the arena under better auspices and wearies the ball with constant whacks. Their work glows; sweat drips from all their body; when soon the order of play has passed in fine fashion (90), and one strike decides the contest, the ball is struck with force into the highest regions of the sky: it flies on, snatched by the wind, and crowns the game. Victory, so long contested, beats her wings and fills the heavens with a favourable shout and roar (95).
If you see something here that doesn’t look right, see it, say it, sort it by arguing with us about what you think is wrong. We honestly do like that kind of thing!
|⇧1||Other than a passing reference in a newspaper of the 1860s, Goldwin’s poem seems to have been overlooked until it was reprinted in an issue of the OE magazine Etoniana in 1922. It was there accompanied by a loose English translation into rhyming couplets by Harold Parry, on which most historians of the game have come to rely, for better or worse.|
|⇧2||Alongside cricket, the other topics cover Great Britain, the death of John Churchill, Marquess of Blandford (Feb. 1703), the arrival of Archduke Charles of Austria at Windsor (Dec. 1703), the death of a friend “G.R.”, a storm (Nov. 1703), the rainbow, and Valentine’s Day “or the copulation of birds”! Presumably most were written in the years 1703–5.|
|⇧4||Literally “small stick” or “twig”.|
|⇧5||The adjective lubrica literally means “slippery”, so this may refer to the historic practice of greasing the ball; it is not impossible, however, that the metaphorical sense of “dangerous” or “tricky” is intended.|
|⇧6||Literally “scout” or “explorer”.|