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TWO FAMOUS POEMS FROM THE FIRST WORLD WAR
| for the fallen | anthem for a doomed youth |

| the story of the poem | what does the poem say? |

 

FOR THE FALLEN by Laurence Binyon

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.


 


"Death august and royal"


NEED TO KNOW:
‘flesh of her flesh’
: family – the people of England
‘the fallen’: men brutally killed in war – the British and their allies, but not Germans and theirs
‘august’: (rhyming with 'for dust') 'majestic', 'inspiring respect'
‘the immortal spheres’: the orbits of the planets, therefore 'the sky', the traditional location of ‘heaven’
‘staunch’: firm, loyal
‘with their faces to the foe’: advancing to kill, not turning to retreat
‘at the going down of the sun…’: evening and sunrise – military tradition starts the day with the bugle call ‘Reveille’ at dawn and ends at sunset with the ‘Last Post’, a bugle call often played at military funerals and Remembrance ceremonies
no lot’: no part in ordinary everyday working life
‘foam’: the sea, here the English Channel and the North Sea
‘well-spring’: a deep source of water (essential to life) which feeds a water well

 

THE STORY OF THE POEM
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. He wrote this poem, which became more famous than its writer, soon after the war began in August 1914. At that time men were volunteering to fight. It was easy then to encourage people to feel a kind of romantic idealism about fighting for one’s country, and to support ‘the cause of the free’ – especially as Britain entered the war to ‘rescue’ Belgium, which the German army had just invaded.

Not many people in Britain in 1914 knew what war was really like. Their ideas of it were associated with fine uniforms, heroic and selfless behaviour, skill in using weapons, and reports of military success. At this time many British men were unemployed and living in poverty, and they saw joining up as a way of earning a wage – and doing something important for their country at the same time. They knew it would be dangerous, but believed it would be a noble and heroic way to die. And many of them would die, as Laurence Binyon realised. So he wrote his poem to express a romantic view of war. He had no difficulty getting it published in a national paper: ideas like these were easier to live with than the harsh truth, and readers bereaved by war might find their sadness a little less hard to bear.

As it turned out, this war was the most horrific there had yet been. People did turn for comfort to Laurence Binyon’s poem. After the war, when Remembrance Day ceremonies began to take place every November, lines from the poem (especially the fourth verse) became familiar to many, whether recited at Remembrance Day ceremonies or as words engraved on headstones in war cemeteries round the world.

In a way, the poem took a significant part in creating the manner and tone of Remembrance, inventing for soldiers’ deaths an almost spiritual grandeur that had little or no basis in the real events of the war.



WHAT DOES THE POEM SAY?
Poets, it’s often been said, are painters who use words instead of paints. Both poets and painters create images. A poet’s images can be seen by the mind’s eye, and poems, just like paintings, can depict people and events and, more importantly, stir ideas and arouse emotions. What images can the mind’s eye see in this particular poem? What is the effect of the language the poet uses – both simple and grand?

The backdrop is space: the vast expanse of the solar system, the sun (as it brings night and day to the earth), and the stars. To Laurence Binyon (and a great many other poets and religious people before him) outer space was a symbol for heaven, prompting spiritual feelings and values which he believed had always existed and would endure for ever. He did not look at the stars with a scientist’s eye. He wanted to find a way of saying that the soldiers – the British soldiers, that is – would be immortal, as he believed the stars to be.

So he wrote of the dead in a series of negative statements. They won’t get old and weary and die. (Does this mean that, being spared old age, they are more fortunate than the rest of us? Is this what one could feel about anyone who dies young?) They will never hang out again with their mates. They won’t have family lives, or jobs. They ‘sleep’ in the foreign lands where they were killed. (The broken and battered bodies of many thousands were buried there, but many thousands more bodies have never even been found. Farmers still turn up bones every year as they plough the former battlefields.) But of course the soldiers were not asleep. And the people who knew them, who mourn them, were awake, alive, and grieving. The idea that the dead men are in some sense not really dead was a false idea, created to help the bereaved.

The poet knew that the young, fit soldiers he was writing about would not come home. But he had little to say about what really happened to them. He painted war as something vague and abstract, but grand and noble, giving young men a chance to show how brave and selfless they could be. In real war that means showing what effective killers they are, too, but the poet did not mention that, except to say they were eager to fight. The drums of war ‘thrill’, he said, and fighting is a fine way to die. War, for him, has its own music, its own ‘glory’.

But most people now have some idea of what the First World War was really like. We know about the thousands killed, on both sides, as they struggled over small patches of territory repeatedly gained and lost. We know about the terrible wounds, the mud, the cold, the frightful noise of the guns, the shell-shock, and the fear. The experience implied in Laurence Binyon’s poem had nothing to do with reality.

Can ‘For the Fallen’ help anyone who is bereaved by war? Even if it can, or did, it does so on the basis of a lie. Hiding the truth keeps people in dangerous ignorance. If we understand the true nature of war, and the true nature of the suffering it creates, we are more likely to look for other, less destructive ways of dealing with aggression and political disputes.

Does the poem have anything to say to people in the 21st century? Technology – and in particular the development of aircraft as war machines – has changed many of the weapons of war. Huge armies of soldiers on foot are no longer pitched against each other. Now, civilians as well as soldiers suffer armed attacks. But not everything has changed. People still attack each other with hand-carried weapons. People still fight using tactics that are centuries old. Soldiers still fight ‘on the ground’, even though their leaders try to avoid it. And people – civilians in far greater numbers now than soldiers - continue to be killed in wars.

It is more important than ever that people know the full facts about war. If they do, they are more likely to choose leaders who will reject war. We must understand that war has nothing whatever noble, heroic or spiritual about it. War wastes human lives. Not even ‘the cause of the free’ (and what does that really mean?) alters that.