Literary Yard

Search for meaning

Lest we forget: The most famous poet you’ve never heard of

By: James Aitchison

On 21 September 1914, a seven-stanza poem appeared in The Times of London.  The First World War had begun in July that year as a glorious Boys’ Own adventure, a chance for every young lad to see the world and become a hero before Christmas when everyone said the war would end.

The War, of course, would rage until 1918, with slaughter on an industrial scale.  But when the poem For the Fallen first appeared, it arguably ran counter to the prevailing mood of excitement and optimism.  Nor did the poem exhort readers to serve God, King, and Country.  Instead, it focused on loss, futility, and desolation.

While most of us are unaware of the entire poem and its author, it is the fourth stanza that lives on to this day.  In fact, rarely have four lines of poetry summed up so simply and poignantly the tragedy of war.  Its words are inscribed on countless war memorials across Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, and are recited at remembrance ceremonies every year:

“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.”

The poet in question was not one of the triumvirate of great First World War poets — Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, and Siegfried Sassoon.  Rather, it was the middle-aged Robert Laurence Binyon, who laboured away in the depths of the British Museum as Keeper of the new Sub-Department of Oriental Prints and Drawings.

Born 10 August 1869 to a Quaker family in Lancaster, England, Binyon won a poetry prize at Trinity College, Oxford, in 1891.  Two years later, he joined the British Museum.  His first book, Dutch Etchers of the Seventeenth Century, was published in 1895.  He married historian Cicely Margaret Powell in 1904 and they had three daughters.

While Binyon’s name is largely forgotten today, he belonged to a circle of intellectuals such as Ezra Pound and Walter Sickert.  His reputation as a poet led to his mention in the press as a likely Poet Laureate.  He was in excellent company: Thomas Hardy, John Masefield, and Rudyard Kipling were also on the list.  But it was not to be.  Binyon continued his work at the British Museum.

Binyon penned For the Fallen on a headland on the north Cornish coast.  Despite being too old for active service, he twice volunteered as an orderly at a British hospital for French soldiers, experiencing the slaughter first-hand.

British composer Sir Edward Elgar, whose Pomp and Circumstance Marches celebrated the stuff of Empire, set three of Binyon’s war poems to music.  Elgar’s The Spirit of England for chorus and orchestra was rivalled only by Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.

At War’s end, Binyon returned to the British Museum where he wrote books on William Blake, Persian Art, and Japanese and Chinese culture.  With his friend Ezra Pound’s editorial help, Binyon dedicated twenty years of his life to the translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy.  Binyon’s many honours included his appointment as Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University.

He died in 1943.

During the Second World War, Binyon wrote a long poem about the London Blitz.  Titled The Burning of the Leaves, it was hailed by many as his masterpiece.  And yet the fourth stanza of For the Fallen remains his most enduring legacy.


Leave a Reply

Related Posts