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James Kirkup

Rugby League Game

More challenging questions!

Keith Tankard
Updated: 18 January 2014
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The poet takes a sarcastic look at the men who play rugby league, overgrown males who are attempting to make heroes of themselves by behaving like little boys once again.


James Falconer Kirkup was born in April 1918 in South Shields, County Durham, the only son of a carpenter. He was educated at South Shields Secondary School before attending Durham University where he graduated with a BA (Hons) in Modern Languages in 1941.

He lived his entire life as a flamboyant and provocative figure but nevertheless remained a lonely person -- which was understandable because he was a self-professed gay at a time when homosexuality was severely frowned upon.

During World War II he declared himself to be a conscientious objector. Instead of fighting, he worked on the land as an agricultural labourer in the Yorkshire Dales.

He later taught at The Downs School in Colwall, Malvern, where he wrote his first book of poetry, The Drowned Sailor at the Downs which was published in 1947.

Kirkup was a prolific English poet and writer, producing over 30 books which included autobiographies, novels and plays. He was the first resident university poet in the United Kingdom and would become a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1962.

He nevertheless left England in 1956 to live and work in Europe, the Americas and the Far East, before finally settling in Japan where he found both acceptance and appreciation for his work. He lived there for more than 30 years, lecturing in English Literature at several universities.

Kirkup leapt to public attention in 1977, when a gay newspaper -- Gay News -- published his poem "The Love that Dares to Speak its Name".

The poem described the homosexual fantasies of a Roman centurion as he contemplated the body of Jesus Christ which was in his care after it had been removed from the cross.

Not only does the poem describe in lurid detail the actions of the centurion but it also attributes homosexual acts to Jesus himself with a host of New Testament characters, including Pontius Pilate, John the Baptist, Paul of Tarsus and Judas.

The newspaper was prosecuted in a private case by Mary Whitehouse -- a "decency defender" -- for what she called "blasphemous libel".

Whitehouse won her case in a trial which appears to have been severely biassed against the newspaper -- several key witnesses were refused permission to testify. The poem is still banned in the United Kingdom.

Kirkup died in May 2009. He was then 91 years of age.

Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:

"Like great boys they roll each other,
In the mud of public Saturdays,
Groping their blind way back
To noble youth."
  • In these lines, the poet sums up his version of the purpose of rugby. What is it? (2)

[Need help?]

  • What does the poet mean when he says that they "Grope their blind way back to noble youth"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Comment on the poet's use of the word "groping". (4)

[Need help?]

"Groping their blind way back
To noble youth, away from the bank,
The wife, the pram, the spin drier,
Back to the Spartan freedom of the field."
  • What is BATHOS? Can you find an example of bathos in these lines? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Why would the poet specify "the bank" as the ultimate place of employment? (2)

[Need help?]

  • What is the "Spartan freedom" of the field? (4)

[Need help?]

"Back, back to the days when boys
Were men, still hopeful, and untamed.
That was then: a gay
And golden age ago."
  • The poet appears to be applying a deliberate contraction when he says, "Back to the days when boys were men". What is this contradiction? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Comment on the term "gay" in the line "a gay and golden age ago". (2)

[Need help?]

"Now in vain, domesticated,
Men try to be boys again."
  • Comment on these lines as a fitting conclusion to this poem. (4)

[Need help?]

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