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.
The first world war
- Introduction GO
- In Flanders Fields GO
- For the Fallen GO
- Dulce et decorum est GO
- On Passing the New Menin Gate GO
the second world war
crimes against humanity
the nuclear age
'the fallen': men brutally killed in war - the British and their allies, not Germans and theirs
'august': (rhyming with 'disgust') 'majestic', 'inspiring respect'
'the immortal spheres': the orbits of the planets, therefore 'the sky'
'staunch': firm, loyal
'with their faces to the foe': advancing to kill, not turning to retreat
'age shall not weary them...': these words echo lines from Shakespeare's play 'Antony and Cleopatra': a friend of Antony says of Cleopatra
'Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety; other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies...'
- It's not a useful echo.
'foam': the sea, here the English Channel
Laurence Binyon, who was 45 in 1914, was a British academic and poet. He worked for the Red Cross during the First World War, and did not visit the front line until 1916, two years after writing this poem.
Lines from one single stanza , the fourth, became familiar not only when recited (with or without the rest of the poem) at Remembrance Day ceremonies but also as words engraved on headstones in war cemeteries round the world.
'For the Fallen' was written shortly after the start of the war, when many who volunteered to fight were filled with romantic idealism about it. The poem echoes this, and much of it provides a good example of the hollow centre of such ideals.
This poem came into its own in 1918 as a comfort to the bereaved and as a way of encouraging its readers to feel that in some way the deaths in the war had been noble, glorious and beautiful - an idea easier to live with than the truth.
In a way, the poem could be said to have taken part in creating the manner and tone of Remembrance in the future, by inventing a grandeur which had little or no basis in the real events of the war.
In seven often uneven stanzas not much is said. Close inspection of the meaning reveals muddled images and confused thinking (the sixth stanza is particularly difficult). It is easier to pick out the 'poetic' words and phrases that press patriotic and ceremonial buttons. However genuine the poet's wish to pay respect to the dead and console the living, the ideas here are not sound even as metaphors and the feelings they arouse are a cheat. There was no glory; the men were sent to their deaths by the army and government of 'England'; the odds were callously counted in the Generals' strategy of war; and that 'they grow not old' was the dead soldiers' loss and certainly no sort of immortality.
It perhaps seems unkind to find fault with a poem that has been a source of comfort to many people for so long. But finding fault with it is not to show disrespect either to the dead or those that have mourned them. This poem has the sound and powerful emotional effect of an incantation or religious ceremonial ('at the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them'). Poetic images, incantations and ceremonial words should, however, be rooted in truths: that is the responsibility of poets to their readers. It's essential that truth is not disguised when dealing with a subject so serious as the crime against humanity that is war.