Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Laurence Binyon: For the Fallen

The line "At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them" is carved beneath the names of the men of Newquay who died in WW1. Photo copyright Judith Hancock

Laurence Binyon and Remembrance Day

You may not have heard of the poet Laurence Binyon, but if you've ever visited a war memorial or attended a Remembrance Day service in a Commonwealth country, you will probably have either read or heard some of his words. In particular, one stanza of his World War 1 poem For the Fallen captured the public imagination when it was published and remains popular today. Binyon's words captured the grief felt for the loss of a generation of young men and the determination of those left behind to remember them.
For the Fallen
Because the lines from For the Fallen are read at so many Remembrance Day services, they are of course associated with great loss and grief. It would be easy to imagine that Binyon wrote his poem in the midst of World War 1, when the British Army was dug into the mire of the Western Front and suffering catastrophic casualties. In fact, he wrote the poem barely a month into the war, in September 1914, far away from the front lines, on a cliff top in Cornwall.
Binyon was moved to write the poem following reports of the heavy casualties suffered by the British Expeditionary Force at the Battle of the Marne (5-12 September 1914). The poem was first published in The Times on 21 September 1914.

Ode to Remembrance
The Ode to Remembrance is the most commonly quoted part of For the Fallen. It consists of the third and fourth stanzas of the poem, though it is the four lines of the latter that are more frequently used.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eyes, 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 to 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.

Laurence Binyon, Poet, Dramatist and Scholar
Robert Laurence Binyon was born in 1869 to a clergyman, Frederick Binyon and his wife Mary Dockray. According to census records, the Binyons moved from parish to parish during Binyon's early life. As a young man, he attended Trinity College, Oxford, where he read Classics. His talent as a poet was also recognised; in 1891 he won the Newdigate Prize for poetry.
1901 Portrait of Binyon by Walter Strang. Public Domain
Despite his literary talent, Binyon took a job with the British Museum's Department of Arts and Paintings and built up a considerable expertise in the area of Oriental art. Binyon produced not just poetry during this time, but catalogues and books about Eastern art. He toured America giving lectures in 1912 and 1914, and again after the war.
Binyon was a Quaker, and so could have avoided the war by attesting to be aconscientious objector. In addition, by the time of the war he was in his mid-forties, yet he nonetheless went to France as a volunteer and worked as a hospital orderly caring for French casualties.
After the war he continued to work at the British Museum. He published several plays as well as continuing to write poetry. After his retirement from the Museum in 1933 he was appointed Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard and then took up a position at the University of Athens, before returning to Britain in 1941. He died in 1943 and is commemorated in Poet's Corner at Westminster Abbey on the memorial to Great War Poets.

Commemorative plaque at The Rumps
By Andy F at English Wikipedia [Public domain],
 via Wikimedia Commons
Laurence Binyon and Cornwall
Laurence Binyon certainly wrote For the Fallen in Cornwall. It is generally accepted that he wrote it on the cliffs at Pentire Head, overlooking The Rumps at Polzeath. In 2003 the poet's grandson, Edmund Gray, joined a ceremony to unveil a plaque to his grandfather's memory. Binyon isn't the only poet to have been inspired by the beauty of this area; Sir John Betjeman, the late Poet Laureate, lived nearby and is buried at St Enodoc Church.
Another Cornish seaside village, Portreath, also claims to be the place where Binyon wrote the poem. This village too has a plaque commemorating Binyon.

Binyon's Other War Poems
For the Fallen is by far the best known of Binyon's war poems, but it is not the only poem he wrote during the war. Whilst in Britain he also wrote The Witnesses, The Zepplin and The Bereaved. His time with the Red Cross brought him into the war zone and during this time he penned Dark Wind, Guns at the Front and The Arras Road.
The poetry he wrote during the war years was published in 1919 in a collection entitled The Four Years.

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