Paul O’Prey, editor of Laurence Binyon, Poems of Two Wars, reads and discusses
‘The Burning of the Leaves’, Binyon’s extraordinary poem set in London during the Blitz
When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Laurence Binyon was 70 – but that didn’t stop him feeling that same sense of wanting to be made use of that he had experienced in 1914. He offered his services to the government and in 1940 they asked him to go to Greece for four months to help uphold the British presence in Athens by giving a series of public lectures on poetry, for the British Council.
Binyon had retired in 1933, after forty years of working at the British Museum. He and his family moved out of London to the countryside, and as the world sank back into another cycle of extreme violence and chaos he reflected on his own relationship to these events. Binyon is very much a London poet, who wrote a great deal about the city, and the sight of much-loved streets being destroyed by the Blitz brought him feelings that were close to despair.
It also led him to write his masterpiece, ‘The Burning of the Leaves’, in 1942. It is widely regarded as one of the most remarkable poems written about the Second World War. It was published in the literary magazine Horizon and its editor Cyril Connolly later thought it the best single poem ever published in the magazine. The reviewer for the New Statesman said that Binyon had written the finest single poem of the First World War (‘For the Fallen’) and now had written the single best poem of the Second World War.
‘The Burning of the Leaves’ is a very different poem to ‘For the Fallen’. It is not a poem to be read aloud in church, or to be carved onto a war memorial. It is more ambiguous, more mysterious and more personal. It is a poem of private consolation, rather than about publicly shared grief.
‘The Burning of the Leaves’ by Laurence Binyon, read by Paul O’Prey
(Soundcloud version here)
It is a long poem in five parts. Part one starts with the poet at work in his garden, burning the autumn leaves, and his reflection on the seasons and the natural world, which is more enduring than the transient world of men and women and the wars they wage. It then moves to a London theatre – Binyon had a passion for the theatre and wrote a number of verse dramas that were successfully performed, and he is now saddened by the theatre’s emptiness and abandonment:
The voices are gone, the voices
That laughed and cried.
It is as if the whole marvel of the world
Had blankly died,
Exposed, inert as a drowned body left
By the ebb of the tide.
In part four a mysterious figure enters the poem – with a beautiful wearied head leant back against his arm, and a dead python at his feet. This is the god Apollo – among other things the god of poetry – and probably refers to the Lycian Apollo in the Louvre, a classical statue which Binyon would have known well because there is a copy in the British Museum, in the room he would have known as the Kings Library which held George III’s remarkable book collection.
The statue shows Apollo with his right arm behind his head and the python which he killed coiled around a stump of tree. The python is the monster that wrought evil on mankind and which Apollo slew on Parnassus. On the spot where the python died he built his sanctuary and then opened the mountain springs so that the waters of inspiration could flow – and these are the unstoppable springs and waters that Binyon describes in the poem, as they flow through the bombed ruins of London.
These cold springs among black ruins represent the forces of art and the imagination, in a world that has been reduced to the bare elements of fire, light and water. In ‘The Burning of the Leaves’ Binyon seems to accept that life contains both darkness and light, as well as the fire that destroys and the water that brings new life. Humanity may be caught in a frenzy of self-destruction, but that will pass. The goodness of heart and mind represented by poetry and art will endure. Just as the earth endures, and the cycle of nature becomes for him the ultimate source of consolation and redemption.