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        '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

 

 

 

MORE POETRY

TWO FAMOUS POEMS FROM THE FIRST WORLD WAR
| FOR THE FALLEN | ANTHEM FOR A DOOMED YOUTH |


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

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.





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