On an autumn day in 1914 Laurence Binyon sat on a cliff in North Cornwall, somewhere between Pentire Point and the Rump. It was less than seven weeks after the outbreak of war, but British casualties were mounting. Long lists of the dead and wounded were appearing in British newspapers. With the British Expeditionary Force in retreat from Mons, promises of a speedy end to war were fading fast.
Against this backdrop Binyon, then Assistant Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, sat to compose a poem that Rudyard Kipling would one day praise as “the most beautiful expression of sorrow in the English language”.
“For the Fallen”, as Binyon called his poem, was published in The Times on 21 September 1914. “The poem grew in stature as the war progressed”, Binyon’s biographer John Hatcher observed, “accommodating itself to the scale of the nation’s grief”.
Nearly a century on, Binyon’s poem endures as a dignified and solemn expression of loss. The fourth stanza - lifted to prominence as “The Ode of Remembrance” - is engraved on cenotaphs, war memorials and headstones in war cemeteries throughout the English-speaking world. Recited at Remembrance services in Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the poem serves as a secular prayer:
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.
These lines, situated at the heart of the poem, lay out an argument for consolation in which the dead are immortalised in the memory of the living.
Binyon died on 10 March 1943, and his ashes were scattered on the grounds of St Mary’s Church in Aldworth. His name is commemorated on a stone plaque in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey, alongside 15 fellow poets of the Great War. Wilfred Owen - who died in action at age 25, exactly one week before the signing of the Armistice - provided the inscription: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.”
The handwritten “Ode”
Earlier this month, “an autograph manuscript of the immortal fourth stanza”, signed by Laurence Binyon, came up for auction at Bonhams.
The manuscript is a mere four lines, written in Binyon’s hand, on a single octavo page of ruled notepaper. The header contains a YMCA symbol and the imprimatur of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). Small letters at the foot instruct: “To economise paper, please write on the other side, if required”.
Binyon did not date the manuscript, but he likely penned it before the war ended in 1918. The BEF notepaper adds a particular poignancy, as the poem was written to honour British soldiers who died on the Western Front - many of whom Binyon, as a volunteer medic, would have served alongside.
Every year, after ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs in Australia receives scores of letters about “The Ode”. The issue of greatest concern, according to the DVA, is whether the last word of the second line should be “contemn” - meaning to despise or treat with disregard - or “condemn”. Both words fit the context.
Despite all official versions of the poem using “condemn”, some people have suggested this usage is a typographical error.
However, the British Society of Authors, executors of the Binyon estate, is adamant that “condemn” is correct. Likewise the DVA assures: “Binyon was very precise in his use of words. There is no doubt that had he intended ‘contemn’, then it would have been used.”
The condemn/contemn issue is considered a distinctly Australian phenomenon (oddly, the Academy of American Poets uses “contemn” in its publication of “For the Fallen”). Perhaps now, with confirmation coming from Binyon’s own hand, the issue may be put to rest.
But that’s not the only anomaly.
In the Bonhams manuscript, Binyon has used an alternative construction of the famous second line. Instead of “weary” he uses “wither”, which echoes Enobarbus’s compliment to Cleopatra - “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety” - in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.
“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal”, so TS Eliot posited in The Sacred Wood. “For the Fallen” might be uneven in quality, but in turning his theft “into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn”, Binyon proves himself to be a great poet.
Bonhams expected Binyon’s manuscript to fetch around £5,000, but the poem once again exceeded expectations when an unnamed buyer parted with £10,000 (AU$15,000) for the honour of holding history in his or her hands.