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Life Sketch of WWI Poet, Laurence Binyon

Life sketches of poets and other writers afford readers a glimpse into the writing process, backgrounding the creativity of each artist.

Family, Education, Early Interest in Poetry

World War I, also known as the Great War, which raged in Europe from July 28, 1914, to November 11, 1918, produced a number of fine poets, who had served a soldiers, medics, journalists, and volunteers. A few of these war poets became famous for their poems, including Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.

Although Laurence Binyon was highly praised and appreciated in his own time, he has fallen out of favor in the late 20th and early 21st centuries through the influence of postmodern nihilism that disdains patriotism, duty, and responsibility.

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 Dockray, who was the resident engineer of the London/Birmingham Railroad.

As a very young student, Laurence Binyon became interested in poetry and art. After he attended St. Paul's School, he entered Oxford’s Trinity College. While a student at Trinity College, he published his first poem, "Persephone,” which received the Newdigate Prize.

In 1890, Binyon published four poems 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 graduation 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.

In 1894, Binyon 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).

Poetry and Painting

Laurence Binyon's two main interests, poetry and painting, 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 in 1908 and his volume of poetry, The Flight of the Dragon, published 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. Binyon also published works on such diverse artists a Botticelli and Blake.

During World War I, Binyon spent time on the front lines in 1916, where he served in the Red Cross organization 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 the war effort, Binyon treated it as a noble cause.

"War Is Hell"

Decrying war, the battle-tested soldier, General William T. Sherman, claimed, "War is hell." But he also averred, “War is the remedy that our enemies have chosen, and I say let us give them all they want.”

It is an indisputable fact hat war remains one of humankind’s most horrific and disgraceful events. Nations killing one another’s citizens violates humanity’s basic natural right—the right to life.

However, aggression against one’s nation or against a nation’s allies by a belligerent, tyrannical foe requires redress, and therefore throughout history the ultimate act of defending life has resulted in war.

Warriors who defend their country on the battlefield in whatever capacity do so with a sense of duty. These responsible soldiers do not "glorify" the horror that they endure and even as they describe the horror, they understand the necessity of defense.

The world is a dangerous place, and "man’s inhumanity to man" will not be willed away by denigrating the warriors who engage in that necessary defense, nor will it be quashed by lamenting the fact that war exists, as war poets such as Wilfred Owen have too often done.

Reputation as a Poet

While Binyon's reputation as a poet earned him great praise in his own day, he has fallen out of favor with contemporary scholars, critics, and other poets, who latched onto the 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 ultimate 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 could help restore the reputation of this fine writer.

Long Literary Life

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. Binyon succeeded T. S. Eliot in the position of Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University.

Binyon also traveled and lectured in Berlin, China, Holland, Japan, Paris, Rome, Scandinavia, and Vienna. He occupied the prestigious chair as chevalier of the French Foreign Legion. He also 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.

Bittersweet Irony

Laurence Binyon's career in the English literary arts spanned roughly a fifty year period from 1894 until his death on March 10, 1943. He died at the Dunedin Nursing Home on Bath Road in Reading, England.

Binyon’s 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 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.

"Ode of Remembrance"

Laurence Binyon’s most widely noted poem, "For the Fallen," serves as an example of the poet's superior skill in the art of war poetry.

The fourth stanza has become an important part of memorials for soldiers who have fought and died in battle; that fourth stanza (and sometimes the third stanza is included) is often recited at memorial services.

The fourth stanza, referred to as the "Ode of Remembrance," appears on many war memorial statues in many countries.

Sources

Portrait of Laurence Binyon by William Strang

Portrait of Laurence Binyon by William Strang

Introduction and Text of "For the Fallen"

In Laurence Binyon's "For the Fallen," the speaker is paying tribute to 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 "For the Fallen"

Commentary on "For the Fallen"

The speaker is celebrating the transcendence of the soldiers who have fought so bravely and died for freedom.

First Stanza: England as Mother

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 her soldiers who have bravely fought and given their lives "in the cause of the free."

Second Stanza: Profound Sorrow

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. He describes the scene in which drums beat in a slow, formal, and dignified fashion. The deaths of these soldiers has brought sorrow to the mourners.

Sadness of the heart on the earthly level may be transcended because these ceremonies will feature music amidst the sorrow wherein the glory of their sacrifice will "shine upon our tears."

Third Stanza: Music of Transcendence

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. A the young soldiers march off to battle they chants songs that bolster their courage. The songs stiffen their spines and those who die do so as heroes because they bravely meet their enemy face to face.

Fourth Stanza: A Special Logic

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 that they will not grow old and endure being disfigured by age.

Those of us left behind will still face these disfiguring life qualities, but because of their heroic service to their country those left behind will honor and offer memorials to their service.

Fifth Stanza: Mourning Proscriptions

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: Profoundly Grateful

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.

The sacrifice of these fallen soldiers will stir the emotions of their relative and fellow countrymen. They will remain in the memory through tributes that celebrate their brave actions, and they will continue to shine like stars shine upon the night sky.

Seventh Stanza: Celebratory Tribute

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 suggests that like the stars that remain ever shining in brightness even as human beings die, the souls of those brave soldiers who fought fiercely for the worthy cause of freedom will continue to march through the astral world.

Those valiant souls will continue to exude their bright valor even as hellish events continue to blight the physical world. As all souls continue their existence, so will those who gave their physical encasements so others would live.

Their value will remain even unto the end of all existence, for the soldiers' souls will exist eternally in God, even if the stars cease to shine.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on July 31, 2020:

Thank you, Umesh. Laurence Binyon is one of the poets who deserves more attention. His work is clear and forceful with wonderful insights. Such poetry always satisfies the heart and mind, intellectually profound and emotionally honest.

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on July 31, 2020:

Very well explained and nicely presented.