Laurence Binyon (1869-1943) was considered by many of his contemporaries to be one of the leading poets of his generation. He was also an eminent art historian, with a specialist interest in Chinese and Japanese art. He worked at the British Museum for forty years, latterly as Keeper of Prints and Drawings.
Binyon was over-age for military service when war broke out in 1914, but he wanted ‘to be made use of’ in some way. He used his holidays and unpaid leave from the museum to work as a medical orderly at the military hospital in Arc-en-Barrois, where John Masefield also served in a similar role. In 1917 Binyon was commissioned by the Red Cross to visit and write about the hospitals and dressings stations in France that were run by them. He wrote about his experiences in a remarkable book called For Dauntless France, published the following year.
In 1933 Binyon succeeded T.S. Eliot as the Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University. The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 triggered a period of deep reflection and renewed creativity for Binyon. ‘The Burning of the Leaves’ is widely regarded as his masterpiece, evoking the fragility of life in an England under threat of invasion and destruction.