“A few gashed stumps alone stood here and there on the flayed and pitted surface of the hills. It was absolute desolation. The bones of the horses of a gun-team lying beside the wreckage of a gun; skulls of German soldiers, fallen in battles of the spring, picked clean by the birds; boots, still casing flesh, sticking up from the earth that had buried a man; all kinds of pitiable, mouldering wreckage made a region of pestilential ruin.”
Laurence Binyon, For Dauntless France
Laurence Binyon was much admired by fellow poets, including Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon, TS Eliot and Ezra Pound. This selection of his work brings together for the first time the poems written in response to the two world wars which saw him produce his most enduring poetry.
‘For the Fallen’ is perhaps the most famous poem ever written about the First World War, read at every Service of Remembrance and carved onto thousands of war memorials:
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.
It was written at the outbreak of the First World war, in response to news of the first British casualties reported in the newspapers. After writing this poem Binyon went to France as a hospital orderly, doing hard, menial, emotionally demanding work. The poems he wrote at the Front are urgent and immediate, bearing witness to ‘the misery, the wasting and maiming’ he encountered on a daily basis. His belief in the essential goodness of humanity was shaken by the savagery he saw and touched for himself in the aftermath of the Battle of Verdun.
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.
Poems of Two Wars by Laurence Binyon, edited by Paul O’Prey, was launched at the Imperial War Museum, London, on April 28th, with readings by actor Edward Fox.