Remembering ‘For the Fallen’ by Michael Alexander

Michael Alexander

Remembering ‘For the Fallen’


Laurence Binyon’s poem ‘For the Fallen’ was composed in August 1914, the month Britain entered the First World War. To commemorate the end of that war, four of its lines are recited each November at the Cenotaph and at thousands of war memorials across Britain and the Commonwealth:

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

These lines are said aloud more often and in more places than perhaps any other lines of English verse. In Canada, a French translation follows the English; in New Zealand, a Maori one. In the Returned Services League clubs found in even the smallest Australian cities, the ‘Ode of Remembrance’ – as the lines are known – is recited every single evening. I have seen its words on a wall in a tiny village in Tasmania. This fourth verse is better known than the rest of the poem, and the poem better known than its author.

An anonymous immortality might suit the modest Binyon. The son of a clergyman, he attended St Paul’s in London, read classics at Trinity College, Oxford, and worked as a curator at the British Museum. When he wrote ‘For the Fallen’ he was forty-five, an assistant keeper in the Department of Prints and Drawings and keeper of oriental prints and drawings. He published verse and verse drama all his life, translated Dante’s Commedia into English triple rhyme and was much in demand both as a reader of poetry and as a lecturer on oriental art. The only recording of him reading ‘For the Fallen’ was made in Japan.

The famous verse of ‘For the Fallen’ came to Binyon on the west coast of Cornwall, as the British Expeditionary Force retreated from Mons in August 1914. Rejected by The Telegraph, the poem appeared on 21 September in The Times, which in August had carried Binyon’s poem ‘The Fourth of August’. Newspapers a century ago often carried verse, and verse, learned by heart at school, was also recited at home. Public verse was high on patriotic hope in 1914. A line from the first stanza of ‘For the Fallen’, lamenting those who have ‘Fallen in the cause of the free’, was absolutely meant. Binyon was one of fifty writers who signed a letter to The Times after Germany had invaded Belgium, saying that ‘Britain could not without dishonour have refused to take part in the present war.’ Binyon manned a Lewis machine gun in Holland Park in the hope of ‘firing on Bosche raiders’. Too old to fight, he twice spent his annual leave from the British Museum working as a Red Cross orderly, cleaning, swabbing, fetching in and preparing for surgery French soldiers wounded on the Marne. One of his tasks was to place amputated limbs in a furnace.

Attitudes to the poetry of the First World War keep changing. With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to knock, even to mock, the patriotic hope of August 1914, making Rupert Brooke in 1914 a foil for Wilfred Owen in 1917. To condescend to the dead is to say that we would have been wiser. Binyon’s requiem – ‘England mourns for her dead across the sea’ – now seems prescient. The fifth verse imagines the loss felt by those ‘that are left’. The last two offer a classical but Shelley-like consolation: the fallen are raised as stars, to shine bright in the darkness of our loss; and when we too are dead, they will shine, innumerable in the night sky. This is a late Romantic poem, uplifted, full of echoes from older literature and cadences resonant of the Authorised Version. The poem softens some classical thoughts on death: unlike Rome’s patria, the land of England is maternal and we should honour those who die for her. More sternly, to die young is to escape old age.

For educated readers, the words ‘They shall grow not old’ would not have been new: they were the standard English translation of a key phrase in Pericles’s speech on the Athenian dead in the war against Sparta. Other echoes inhabit this quatrain. Binyon had left behind much of his Christian upbringing, but not the English Bible. A Jewish correspondent wrote to him enquiring about scriptural resonances. Binyon replied that he had wanted a rhythm something like ‘By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept’ or ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me’ and that, having found it, he had sought to vary it in other stanzas as the mood required. These are the Bible’s most weeping verses. The stars, invoked three times at the end of ‘For the Fallen’, recall the first scriptural reference to everlasting life (Daniel 12).

Kipling at first thought the famous lines were ‘old – something classic – and then I realised they were just It’. The poem ‘cut’ him ‘to the heart’. It had a national impact, not just for bereaved parents. In 1915 Edward Elgar sketched a setting for it. Postcards were made of it. Some soldiers valued it, among them Ivor Gurney, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Kipling wanted the quatrain engraved on the Cenotaph, but Lloyd George preferred three words from Binyon’s ‘The Fourth of August’: ‘The Glorious Dead’. So the words recited at the Cenotaph and the words written on the Cenotaph are Binyon’s. The quatrain was, however, engraved by Eric Gill by the front door of the British Museum, above names of colleagues who had fallen. Binyon is on the war poets memorial in Westminster Abbey, the oldest of them and the only civilian.

Verse came readily to Binyon all his life, but he was more than a poet. At the British Museum his first assignment was English watercolours; he championed John Sell Cotman and Samuel Palmer. Soon he was building up the Museum’s holdings of Japanese wood-block prints and of Far Eastern pictorial art generally. He helped open up Asian art for this country. His The Flight of the Dragon still gives insight into the aesthetics of the East. He deepened Ezra Pound’s appreciation of this art, reflected in Pound’s most attractive volume, Cathay (1915). The ‘very learned British Museum assistant’, Pound called him in another poem.

Much of Binyon’s verse has dated, but as he got older he got better. In ‘For the Fallen’, Miltonic inversions fall as thick as leaves in Vallombrosa: ‘grow not old’; ‘they mingle not’; ‘Death august and royal’; ‘odds uncounted’; ‘our hopes profound’. An early poem begins ‘O World, be nobler for her sake’. Slowly, however, the Victorian classicist became sparer, less nobly uplifted, less poetical in diction, closer to speech, always keeping his sensitive management of rhythm. He did not fall into the gulf between Victorian and Modernist poetry opened up by Pound and Eliot. As an undergraduate he heard Robert Bridges recite poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins. In middle age he encouraged young writers and artists, among them Pound, Isaac Rosenberg, Percy Wyndham Lewis. In his youth he received advice from Matthew Arnold; in retirement he received advice on translating Dante from Pound and Eliot. He bridged generations and belonged to no group.

Do we that are left remember the fallen every morning and evening? Swings in the public mood affect the kinds of poems that are acceptable. ‘For the Fallen’ owes some of its reputation to its timing, from what it said and from the uses to which it was later put. Its fame was amplified by Elgar’s choral setting, sung on six successive nights at the Queen’s Hall in 1916 (Elgar included the setting in his larger work The Spirit of England, completed in 1917, its title taken from ‘The Fourth of August’). Poetry written later in the war by Sassoon and Owen brought old ideals of honourable soldiering up against mud, machine guns, shells and poison gas. These trench poems similarly gained weight from what they said and from the uses to which they were later put. As relief at the war’s conclusion gave way to realisation of its cost to Britain and Europe, poems such as Sassoon’s ‘The General’, Rosenberg’s ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’, Ivor Gurney’s ‘To His Love’ and Owen’s ‘Futility’ and ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, followed by the disillusioned prose of Richard Aldington, Robert Graves and others, created an anti-war orthodoxy. Secondary school pupils were taught that it was Owen and Sassoon who were ‘the war poets’. A poem is more moving if written in the trenches by a young man likely to be killed. A conviction that the wastage of the trenches must not be forgotten gave an edge to Sassoon’s protest and the pathos of Owen.

Most war poetry has been written by noncombatants. Homer was not at Troy; he heard about it later. A parson in Ireland wrote ‘The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna’ having read a report about the Peninsular War. Civilian poets, such as Hardy and Kipling, wrote good Great War poems. So did Eliot and Pound, who offered their services to the US military. Cathay, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley and The Waste Land are partly about the war. Binyon, Pound and Eliot are perhaps the only poets whose poems of both the First and Second World Wars appear in anthologies. The adoption of ‘For the Fallen’ into Armistice Day ceremonies made it part of our civic religion. Its fourth stanza is a proper act of public remembrance, hallowed by use.

Poets must have noticed which poems achieve public use. Here is how Auden dedicated his first book, Poems, in 1930:

Let us honour if we can
The vertical man,
Though we value none
But the horizontal one.

We should honour the living more than we value the dead. ‘Horizontal’ may or may not refer to Binyon’s ‘Fallen’. It must, however, relate to how the deaths of soldiers were announced at the kind of boarding school that Auden had attended during the war. A reaction to Binyon’s title is more clearly found in the title that Geoffrey Hill gave his first book: For the Unfallen.

In 1961 Philip Larkin wrote a satirical poem entitled ‘Naturally the Foundation will Bear Your Expenses’, a fictional letter from an academic, an admirer of Bloomsbury, who sneers at what he calls ‘that solemn-sinister/Wreath-rubbish in Whitehall’. For such attitudes to the Cenotaph ceremony Larkin felt contempt. His poem ‘MCMXIV’ (the numerals that appear on the Cenotaph) was written on the fiftieth anniversary of 1914 and was inspired by the photographs of men queuing to volunteer. It ends, ‘Never such innocence again’ – words on which to pause as ‘we that are left’ remember those killed in the Great War. As we remember them, we should not forget the poet who wrote that we would.

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