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Life Sketch of WWI Poet, Laurence Binyon

Writing life sketches and/or interviews that focus on well-known poets, philosophers, and others remains part of my writing toolkit.

Introduction: 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 that 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 the that necessary defense, nor will it be quashed by lamenting the fact that war exists, as war poets like 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.

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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

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.

© 2020 Linda Sue Grimes

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