As Remembrance Day approaches once again, Harold Heys looks at the roots, in North West England, of the man who wrote one of the most famous war poems of the 20th century: Laurence Binyon's ‘For the Fallen' has become probably the most memorable and certainly the most touching in the English language.
Childhood memories often stay remarkably sharp. The first day at school ... having to go to hospital ... getting a ticking off from a policeman ... your first puppy. Few make as lasting an impression as the memories of the Lune Valley and Ingleborough that poet and scholar Laurence Binyon took with him into adulthood.
Lancaster-born Binyon, son of the vicar of Burton-in-Lonsdale where the Pennine reaches of the West Riding of Yorkshire met the sharp north east corner of Lancashire and the southern edge of Westmorland, awoke each morning to a view of Ingleborough which he never forgot.
The family headed south when Binyon was five years old but many of his poems looked back to his childhood where he developed ‘a craving for the hills', adding: ‘It is odd how persistent that is when mixed with one's earliest recollections.'
Towards the end of his life he wrote ‘Inheritance', a lengthy poem which recalls ‘the things that are dearest' and it concludes:
They come over the mind
When the world's noise is still
As to me comes the vision
Of one blue hill,
The first of England
That spoke to me.
He wrote hundreds of poems, essays, critiques, plays, lectures and biographies but, it is for one quatrain that Binyon, born at No 1 High Street, Lancaster, on St Laurence's Day, 10 August 1869 - while the new church and vicarage were being built a few miles away just over the county border at Burton - will always be remembered. The fourth of the seven stanzas of his 1914 poem ‘For the Fallen' has become probably the most memorable and certainly the most touching in the English language.
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.
It graces memorials and gravestones worldwide and will be spoken again, many times, this November when Remembrance Day services are held for the war dead, not only of the Great War of his day but of other, later conflicts. The words are especially revered in countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
Binyon's family had strong Northern roots. His father Frederick was born in Manchester and was curate at St Peter's Church, just off King Street, Blackburn, during the Lancashire cotton famine of the American Civil War years in the early 1860s. There was considerable hardship among the textile workers as the supply of raw cotton was cut off and Binyon's father organised sewing and other classes and was very popular. He was curate at Halton, Lancaster, from 1864 to 1866 when he was appointed to the new Living of Burton-in-Lonsdale. It was also the year of his marriage.
Mighty Ingleborough dominates the village. Photograph: Kit Dodson.
After happy but rather impecunious years in the impressive new vicarage, the family moved to Chelmsford and on to London whilst Binyon went up to Trinity College, Oxford, where he won the Newdigate Prize for poetry in 1890 before beginning a lengthy career at the British Museum.
When war broke out in August 1914 Binyon, in his mid 40s, was too old to fight although he later spent several months working in two spells as a volunteer medical orderly at Arc-en-Barrois, south east of Paris, tending the horrifically wounded among what he called the ‘hideous slaughter and indescribable valour...'
Binyon's elegy ‘For the Fallen' was first published in The Times of 21 September 1914 when the war was just seven weeks old. It had been written a few weeks earlier, after the retreat from Mons, and was quite a contrast to the jingoistic fervour of the early months of the war; the Let's-bash-the-Boche! Over-by-Christmas! and Don't-miss-the-fun-lads! idiocies. It wasn't hard to draw in the volunteers, most of whom had led hard and impoverished lives in the factories and the shops, down the mines and on the land. The prospect of heroic adventure had a broad appeal.
The first three verses of ‘For the Fallen' follow the accepted lion-hearted pattern, but then the mood darkens in the middle section. Dr John Hatcher, in his excellent biography of Binyon, writes that to be ‘straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow' meant little in the midst of industrialised trench warfare, which pitted expendable flesh against mass-produced metals and chemicals. There was no chivalric significance in whether victims of artillery, machine gun fire or chlorine gas ‘fell with their faces to the foe'
Binyon well realised this and, after the expected platitudes, introduced the sudden, jarring note of death and sorrow. Dr Hatcher writes: ‘In the last four stanzas the romantic clichés give way to a clairvoyant sense of the sheer scale of the grief that would need to be consoled.'
He also made this point: ‘The poem grew in stature as the war progressed, accommodating itself to the scale of the nation's grief, so that by 1918 it was an infinitely better poem than it had been in 1914.'
The poem was described by arch-jingoist Rudyard Kipling as ‘the most beautiful expression of sorrow in the English language.' Kipling lost his only son in the war and it broke his heart.
Binyon came through the Great War, unlike many of his young friends and contemporaries, and until his death in 1943 he continued to build a worldwide reputation as dramatist, poet, art historian, museum curator, editor, critic, biographer, lecturer, essayist and, principally, as a pioneer scholar and interpreter of Eastern art.
But he never forgot his early, questioning, years in the shadows of the vast strength of mighty Ingleborough - that ‘bare blue hill' of his early childhood. As a young man the imagery of nature was already shining through his poetry. In ‘On the Heights' he wrote of ‘... the tranquil scene, / The blue, soft distance, the hill's rough green, / And over all the wind-washed perfect sky.' The towering fell probably had such a lasting effect as he travelled extensively and seldom stayed anywhere long enough to put down strong roots. His parents had moved back North and his father died at Newlands, Grange, the home of his oldest son John, in 1900.
Binyon often returned to the themes of mountains and memories in his poetry. In ‘Malham Cove' he asks: Who has longed for a strength past pain?
That hour when the heavens are shaken
within the mind,
and the world is an enemy armed,
have I not known?
For the strength of the stony mountain
have I not pined?
And Dr Hatcher came across the poem that Binyon was working on when he died. It was called ‘Winter Sunrise' and in it he wrote of the beauty of shadows: ‘... a memory stealing out of the mind's slumber, / A memory floating up from a dark water, / Can be more beautiful than the thing remembered.'
His adored wife Cicely, who bore him three daughters, said he ‘always thought of himself as a Northcountryman.' He wrote to T. Cann Hughes, a former Town Clerk of Lancaster: ‘My first memories are of Ingleboro' which we could see from our house, and of the Vale of Lune.' And he added that he had always taken great pride in having Lancaster for his birthplace. He gave a hand-written copy of the manuscript of ‘For the Fallen' to his home-town library.
The vicarage was built with stone from a nearby quarry and young Laurence's nursery was on the first floor. It became a nursing home in the mid-70s. St Peter's Church, Blackburn, where Binyon's father first worked, was demolished in 1976 after standing for more than 150 years. The adjoining graveyard can still be seen close to Blackburn town centre.
As Remembrance Day nears, the famous Binyon quatrain will again be heard and tears will again be shed. But, dear reader, try and find a little time from life's madding whirl to look up and read the whole poem. It ends:
As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches across the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.
Article and images submitted by Harold Heys. Burton in Lonsdale pic by Kit Dodson.
Author's personal note:
One of my many interests over the years has been the poetry of the Great War and it is easy enough to trace the enthusiasm of the early days through the gradual dawning of the abject horror of it all. Binyon led the way to be followed by Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Ivor Gurney and all the other war poets.
My grandchildren could recite John McCrae's ‘In Flanders Fields' when they were quite small but I steered them away from the numbing horrors of Wilfred Owen's ‘Dulce et decorum est' in which he dismissed Homer's thought that it was glorious to die for one's country as: ‘The old Lie'.
Web Editor's note: I am very grateful to Harold Heys and to Lancashire Life (wherein this article first appeared) for giving The Western Front Association permission to use this piece.
Binyon donated a handwritten and signed manuscript of ‘For the Fallen' to Lancaster Library. Courtesy: Lancashire Records Office