Friday, August 11, 2017

BIRTH: Laurence Binyon, Who Wrote "For the Fallen"

Laurence Binyon
August 11, 2017 – Today is the birthday of poet and playwright Laurence Binyon, born to a Quaker family in Lancaster, England in 1869.  His 150th birthday will be in 2019.

Binyon studied at St Paul's School, London and came up to Trinity College, Oxford as a Scholar in 1888. He read Classics and published his first book of poems as an undergraduate. He won the Newdigate Prize for poetry in 1891.

His first job after taking his degree in 1893 was working for the Department of Printed Books of the British Museum, writing catalogues for the museum and art monographs. His first book, Dutch Etchers of the Seventeenth Century, was published in 1895. In 1913, he was made the Keeper of the new Sub-Department of Oriental Prints and Drawings.

During the pre-war period in London, he helped form Modernism by bringing East Asian visual art and literature to young Imagist poets such as Ezra Pound, Richard Aldington and H.D.  His group, which often met at the Wiener Café, included Edmund Dulac, Lucien Pissarro, Charles Ricketts, Sir William Rothenstein, and Walter Sickert.

On the death of the Poet Laureate Alfred Austin, in 1913, Binyon was among those mentioned as a likely successor, along with Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, and John Masefield. Robert Bridges was the winner of the position.

Moved by the high number of casualties of the British Expeditionary Force in the Great War, in 1914 Laurence Binyon wrote "For the Fallen" when he was visiting the cliffs on the north Cornwall coast. Binyon knew Flanders well and was deeply affected by the losses suffered in the early weeks of the Great War. Written only a surprisingly few weeks after the conflict started, "For the Fallen" was published in The Times on September 21, 1914. His prescient words had an immediate impact on the nation’s feelings about the war, as when the poem was published, Britain was mourning its losses in the Battle of Marne. Unfortunately these feelings did not halt the carnage in the trenches.

Within the poem is the "Ode of Remembrance" – an excerpt from the poem,  either the third and fourth stanzas (out of the seven stanzas in the poem) or simply the fourth, starting "They shall grow not old...". Today, "For the Fallen" or the shorter "Ode" is often recited at Remembrance Sunday services in the UK; at Anzac Day services in Australia and New Zealand, and Remembrance Day services in Canada:
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.
At centennial remembrances of World War I in 2016, Professor Michael Alexander (Trinity, Oxford 1959), former Berry Professor of English at the University of St Andrews, spoke about Binyon.  He noted that Binyon retired from the British Museum in 1933, and the same year was elected to an Honorary Fellowship at Trinity. Pinyon continued writing and lecturing; in 1939 he delivered the Romanes Lectures, on "Art and Freedom". He died in 1943 at 73. His excellent presentation, which elucidates classical references in Binyon's poems, starts on page 29 of the Trinity College Report.

Poetry Foundation biography

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