Laurence Binyon plaque 101117
Remembrance

"For the Fallen": The Story Of The War Poem That Helps Us Remember

The story of the war poem that helps us remember...

Laurence Binyon plaque 101117

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. 

Laurence Binyon Poem

They're words we're all familiar with.

Recited at every Remembrance Sunday, we resolve never to forget the servicemen and women who have sacrificed their lives for us in conflict.

And yet, few know the origin of those sombre lines. They sound so prayer-like that you'd be forgiven for thinking that they were intended for an act of worship.

In fact, they are taken from a poem by an author otherwise little known.

Laurence Binyon composed his seven stanza ode "For the Fallen" in early September 1914, just months after the advent of what would become one of the bloodiest conflicts in history.

So how did the verse of an otherwise relatively obscure poet and scholar come to be those used in commemoration of military sacrifice all over the commonwealth, over a century after they were written?

There is something very specific about this particular poem that makes it suitable for reading at a service of remembrance.

Laurence Binyon Poem

Its smooth, regulated meter and formal, elegiac language are quite different to the bloody, visceral works of those writing in the trenches, such as Wilfred Owen and Seigfreid Sasson.

In fact, Binyon himself was writing as a civilian. At 45 in 1914, Binyon was too old to enlist, and instead volunteered as a hospital orderly, witness to the carnage of war but not directly a part of it.

In 1914, however, Binyon was still far removed from the conflict.

Having not yet travelled to the front line, he was, like the rest of the country, reliant on newspapers for tales of gallantry from the Western Front.  

At this point in World War One, the mood of the nation was still hopeful - not yet clouded by the sense of futility and bitterness that pervaded as the war rumbled on, and scores of men continued to lose their lives

First published in the Times, alongside reports from the front line, tales of heroism and death, "For the Fallen" anticipates the needs of a country shocked into silence.

Binyon gives the people the words with which to speak of their grief - so much so that the phrase "We Will Remember Them" is repeated at the same time, all over the country, over 100 years after they were written.

There is a mild dispute over the exact location of "For the Fallen's" conception - there are two plaques laying claim to the poem's inspiration, in the towns Portreath and Polzeath in Cornwall

It is generally believed that Pentire Point at Polzeath is the view over which Laurence looked when he was inspired to write his poem of remembrance.

In October half term, Polzeath is like any other Cornish surfing village, busy with tourists and locals enjoying the sea, sand and pasties.

But if you follow the footpath up onto the headland, you can be left in no doubt that there's something special about these Cornish clifftops.

When we arrive it is bleak. The sky is cloudy and the sea an uninviting shade of grey.

But the scenery, unchanged for thousands of years save for the paths worn into the soil by generations of walkers, is breathtaking. 

Almost immediately we spot a seal as it fishes close to the rocks - seemingly as intrigued by us as we are by it.

WWI Newspaper Report

The sound of the sea and the spectacular landscape are likely to make even the least sentimental of us reflective.

So it's easy to imagine how academic and poet Laurence Binyon, on hearing the tales of valour and heroism reported in the newspapers of the day, might have been inspired to write what Rudyard Kipling once called "the most beautiful expression of sorrow in the English language".  

As we make our way along the South West Coast Path, which stretches around the entirety of the Cornish Coastline, we frequently bump into others paused for a quiet moment of reflection whilst they take in the spectacular view.

Most are not locals, but visitors to Polzeath who have been drawn back time and again by the area's rugged natural beauty.

Although most are unaware of the poet himself, the words "we will remember them" bring recognition, and there is little surprise when they learn that it was here that the poem came into being.

"There's something about this place," says one woman, visiting for the second time in a year with her children.

"You can see why he would come here to reflect on what was going on around him".

Laurence Binyon Remembrance

At Pentire Point, overlooking “The Rumps”, an unusual series of jagged rock projections, there is a plaque bearing the poem’s most famous verse.

To Binyon, writing at the start of the war in an increasingly chaotic Britain, the steady, unchanging repetition of the waves crashing against the rocks must have been deeply comforting.

There are times when this sense of fragile security is reflected in the poem.

England is "a mother for her children", and whilst "solemn the drums thrill" there is nevertheless "music in the midst of desolation / And a glory that shines upon our tears". 

There is hope amongst the sadness.

"For the Fallen" was written after the battle of Mons - a campaign in which Britain sustained heavy losses.

One can plausibly suppose, then, that it was this which gave rise to the poem's deeply sombre and reflective tone.

At the same time, the sea's seemingly infinite vastness was clearly a source of inspiration; only heaven exists "beyond England's foam" and it is here that our soldiers are finally at peace.

Stars move "in marches upon the heavenly plane" remaining, much like the memory of those who have died in battle, "to the very end".

For the fallen, written as a traditional ode, invokes past, present and future.

Both sombre and hopeful, the poem highlights the need for the world to remember those who gave their lives for the country, and continue to give them today.

Laurence Binyon Remembrance

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.