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Laurence Binyon's "For the Fallen"

Updated on December 12, 2017
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Laurence Binyon

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "For the Fallen"

In Laurence Binyon's "For the Fallen," the speaker honors the brave British soldiers who died in World War I. The poem consists of seven stanzas, each with the rime scheme, ABCB.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

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 our 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.

Reading of Binyon's "For the Fallen"

Commentary

First Stanza: "With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children"

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.

In the opening stanza, the speaker metaphorically compares England to a mother who is in mourning for her children who have died. England's literal children are, of course, her soldiers who have bravely fought and given their lives "in the cause of the free."

Second Stanza: "Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal"

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.

The speaker portrays the profound sorrow of the mourners, emphasizing its significance as he creates his tribute: "Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal / Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres." Sadness of the heart on the earthly level may be transcended if, "There is music in the midst of desolation / And a glory that shines upon our tears."

Third Stanza: "They went with songs to the battle, they were young"

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.

The speaker avers that music is one of the instruments of transcendence for warriors: "They went with songs to the battle, they were young." The young soldiers died heroes as they met their enemy face to face.

Fourth Stanza: "They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old"

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.

With a similar logic used by A. E. Housman in "To an athlete dying young," this speaker declares about the fallen soldiers, "They shall grow not old // Age shall not weary them." Those of us left behind will still face these disfiguring life qualities, and "We will remember [those who fell.]"

Fifth Stanza: "They mingle not with their laughing comrades again"

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

In the fifth stanza, the speaker mourns as he details the activities that are now proscribed the fallen heroes: they will not laugh with their friends again nor share meals with family, nor will they hold day jobs—all because they metaphorically "sleep beyond England's foam."

Sixth Stanza: "But where our desires are and our hopes profound"

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;

Even though the young fallen soldiers will not return to their normal lives on the earth plan, memories of them will be held in the hearts and minds of their fellow countrymen, who will remain profoundly and eternally grateful for their service: "To the innermost heart of their own land they are known / As the stars are known to the Night." They shine brightly for their fellow citizens.

Seventh Stanza: "As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust"

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.

Finally, the speaker concludes his celebratory tribute by similaically comparing their mission to that of "the stars." He states: "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."

The speaker likens the souls of the fallen to the stars, that "march[ ] upon the heavenly plain." Yet the soldiers' souls, of course, will live eternally in God, even if the stars cease to shine.

Portrait of Laurence Binyon

Source

Biographical Sketch of Laurence Binyon

On August 10, 1869, Robert Laurence Binyon was born in Lancaster, England, to the Quaker family of Frederick Binyon and Mary Dockray. His father served as a clergyman. His mother was the daughter of Robert Docray, who was the resident engineer of the London/Birmingham Railroad.

From a very early age, Laurence took an interest in poetry and art. He attended St. Paul's School and then entered Trinity College at Oxford. While at Trinity College, he published a poem, “Persephone,” which received the Newdigate Prize. In 1890, he had four poems published in a book titled, Primavera: Poems by Four Authors. The book featured three other student authors, including Stephen Phillips, who was Binyon's cousin and who also went on to achieve recognition in the literary world.

After graduating from college, Binyon served in the printed books department at the British Museum, later moving to the prints and drawings department, where he remained until his retirement in 1933.

Binyon's career in the English literary arts spanned roughly a fifty year period from 1894 until his death on March 10, 1943. In 1894, he published his first volume of poetry, simply titled Lyric Poems. He turned his attention to paintings and published two books about that art, Dutch Etchers of the Seventeenth Century (1895) and John Crone and John Sell Cotman (1897).

Binyon's two main interests in poetry and painting then dominated his career, as he continued to compose poems and write essays covering the visual arts. He also acquired a deep interest in Eastern culture and art. His Painting in the Far East published 1908 and his volume of poetry, The Flight of the Dragon, which appeared in 1911, demonstrate the result of his study of the culture and art of the East. Ezra Pound praised Binyon's Eastern influenced works, calling Binyon a pioneer in Western understanding and appreciation of the culture and art of China and Japan.

During World War I, Binyon spent time at the front in 1916, where he served in the Red Cross as an orderly. This experience gave him a new subject on which to concentrate, and he used his war experience to compose several poetry collections: The Winnowing Fan, The Anvil, The Cause, and The New World. These volumes appeared between 1914 and 1918, focusing on the war effort. And instead of decrying that effort, Binyon handled it as a noble cause.

While Binyon's reputation as a poet earned him great praise in his own day, he has fallen out of favor with scholars, critics, and other poets, who latched onto the modernist and postmodernist nihilistic view of Western society and culture. This postmodernist attitude is directly responsible for the rise of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, whose works narrowed in on the destructive forces of war and brushed past the fact that historically war has more often than not remained the only weapon against evil and tyranny.

It is indeed unfortunate that Binyon's uplifting works have been overshadowed by inferior thought and skill in war poetry. Perhaps, a new look with fresh eyes can help restore the reputation of this fine writer.

Despite his lack of recognition, Binyon did enjoy a long literary life as he continued to publish and attract readers. In 1920, he brought out two epic poems, The Sirens and The Idols. These long poems focus on the intense struggle of the human mind to understand its own being. Despite his being negatively compared to T. S. Eliot, Binyon continued to travel in the United States, where he lectured on literature and art at many universities. He succeeded T. S. Eliot in the position of Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University. He also traveled and lectured in Berlin, China, Holland, Japan, Paris, Rome, Scandinavia, and Vienna. He occupied such prestigious chairs as chevalier of the French Foreign Legion, He served as a fellow of the Royal Society. At 70 years of age, he was awarded an appointment to the Byron Chair of Letters at Athens.

Shortly before his death, Binyon had been composing a three-part Arthurian trilogy; the first part was brought out in 1947 as The Madness of Merlin.

On March 10, 1943, Laurence Binyon died at the Dunedin Nursing Home on Bath Road in Reading, England. His memorial service was commemorated three days later at the chapel at Trinity College. His ashes were scattered at St. Mary's Church in Aldworth, where a stone memorial has been placed in his honor.

Binyon was featured among sixteen great war poets whose lives were celebrated on November 11, 1985, at Westminster Abbey's Poets' Corner. There is a somewhat bittersweet irony in the quotation placed on Binyon's stone; it is a quotation by his fellow war poet, Wilfred Owen: "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity."

No doubt that quotation exposes the basic belief of Owen and of those who placed that quotation there, but it fails to do justice to the strong thread of feeling Binyon wove into the fabric of his war poetry. His most widely noted poem, "For the Fallen," serves an example of Binyon's superior skill in the art of war poetry.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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