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 not grow 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.