Saturday, 7 November 2009

Laurence Binyon: 'For the Fallen'

As Remembrance Day approaches, we are likely to encounter a familiar stanza from a poet whose works are otherwise almost entirely forgotten: Laurence Binyon. Binyon was a brilliant man: Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum; scholar of William Blake and of Oriental Art; a Red Cross volunteer at the Western Front; Norton Professor at Harvard in the early 30s; friend of Ezra Pound, Walter Sickert, Edmund Dulac and countless others.

Binyon was not always careful of his acquaintances' reputations. During the British Library’s move to St Pancras in 1995, a box of papers was discovered which had once belonged to him. It contained six letters from Rosenberg to Binyon and twenty-eight more from Rosenberg to another poet, Gordon Bottomley, as well as alternative versions of some of Rosenberg’s best-known poems and several memoirs of Rosenberg collected by Binyon after the war. Having made the initial effort to preserve these markers of Rosenberg's achievement, he had then lost or forgotten about them. Nevertheless, in the early 1920s Binyon did write a fifty-page tribute to Rosenberg, praising in particular the younger poet's 'ardent toil' and 'continual self-criticism'.

Geoffrey Hill has called Binyon's 'For the Fallen' 'perhaps the most widely known and widely quoted poem of the Great War'. Its challengers would presumably be Brooke's 'The Soldier' and Owen's 'Dulce et Decorum Est' and 'Anthem for Doomed Youth'. Taken as a whole, 'For the Fallen' is less known than any of those, but its fourth stanza is proclaimed at Remembrance Day events worldwide.

For the Fallen

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres,
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in the labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England's foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

It is easy to see why that fourth stanza, alone, should have been rescued from oblivion. It constitutes the turning-point, the moment when the poem's argument for consolation emerges: the dead enjoy an eternal youth, immortalised in the memory of the living and in other more permanent ways. They are 'As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust'. Their everlastingness exists outside memory, in a form of stellification which harks back to a common motif in Greek myth.

For formal reasons as well, that fourth stanza is especially effective. Its foreshortened final line, 'We will remember them', states without embellishment. It expresses a profound recognition which would only be cheapened by rhetorical flourish. But most of all, the stanza seems sonorous because of its echo of Enobarbus's compliment to Cleopatra: 'Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety'. It may seem a long stretch from Cleopatra's beauty to the fallen youth of the First World War, but a similar principle applies: each achieves a perfection immune to the ravages of time.


  1. Thanks, Tim, and don't forget John McCrae's 'In Flanders Fields', which people are fond of quoting at this time of year (though they are more fond of quoting the first verse than the inconvenient last!) Thanks also for that Shakespeare link between Binyon and Enobarbus, which seems exactly right.

  2. I admire without enjoying much Hill's difficult poetry, but this opinion of his seems unlikely. The reason the fourth stanza here is quoted is because it's the only one worth remembering, at whatever Day. The rest are intermittently soggy, soppy, and awkward (the whole third stanza). "A glory that shines upon our tears"? "Stars that are starry"? "Beyond England's foam"? (Would that be the beer on tap?) Please tell me this is a hymn rather than a much-quoted poem!

  3. I agree with Ed Leimbacher about For the Fallen. Binyon's poems of WWII in The Burning of the Leaves are better, though.

  4. Sir, I am new to war poetry, well, nothing to be proud about as it is, but I am thankful for Binyon's peom produced here, I am quoting the same in my blog with due acknowledgement! Thanks, look forward to more such posts!

  5. I am very critical about this poem, some of the verses show glimpses of genius, others I could have written better.

  6. I believe In Flanders Fields wins over any other Warp Poem, it is poetic in the description of the terrible Battlefields of WW1, and with the constant message of Remebrance both in Poem and song. I sing this Poem every remembrance day and at other Military gatherings.

  7. The third line in the fourth stanza ends with "condemn," whilst many argue that it should have been the more exact "contemn."

    By the way, it is good to see an article by someone who knows the difference between "stanza" and "verse."

    With regards to the use of "condemn" or contemn," I have found no reference to Binyon ever commenting on the subject, in spite of having half a century after its first publication to comment.

    I have found no comment as to why Binyon did not use either "will" or "shall" in the other six stanzas, even though there are places where they would have made the writing easier. I think he did this in order to make their eventual use stronger.

    "Will" means an intention, while "shall" is a command (as in the Ten Commandments). My analysis is that Binyon is saying that "they" are at least immortal, and will grow in other respects ("They shall grow not old..." positions "not" to strengthen this notion). The passage of years will not treat them or their ideas with contempt (hence my preference for the more exact "contemn" than the commonly accepted word: unlike Wikipedia, I do not think "condemn" and "contemn" mean the same thing).

    The third line is interesting, given its mixture of metaphores and the feelings in 1914 about the future of "...the Empire on which the sun never sets." I think Binyon was saying that as the Empire died and was replaced with something else, his sentiments hidden in the last verse of this stanza would occur.

    It is the last verse of this stanza that he replaces "shall" with "will,", and thereby gives the whole stanza an ironic twist (more ironic in that no one seems to notice - perhaps why he refused to comment on the ode).

    In the language of poets, I understand "We will remember them" to be an accurate rendering of today's attitudes: we intend to think about "them" occasionally, in passing, for our own ends. How ironic, in an age when we clearly understand that soldiers are sent to fight and die for purely political purposes, the Australian RSL repeats that verse twice in its Ode.

  8. I agree with the comment that Binyon's poetry on the memory (and commemoration) of war and its consequences is probably best expressed in the title poem of his last collection, The Burning of the Leaves (publ 1944). Written at the end of his life, and during the most 'uncertain' years of World War II, when Binyon had time to return to the standard of his best poetry after his long public service as an art historian, curator, educator, etc, that poem has a powerful and affecting mix of the Eliotian 'memory and desire'. In terms of Binyon's poetry on the First World War, then his best piece is easily 'Fetching the Wounded'.

    ... ... ...
    We carry up our wounded, one by one.
    The first cock crows: the morrow is begun.