Lest we forget: binyon’s ode of remembrance

First published in The Conversation

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”.

laurence_binyonOn 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.

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”

BINYON, LAURENCE (1869-1943) AUTOGRAPH MANUSCRIPT OF THE IMMORTAL FOURTH STANZA OF HIS POEM 'FOR THE FALLEN',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.

controversies

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.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.

the sale

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.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
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Foreword: Best Australian Poetry 2004

The Best Australian Poetry 2004 is the second of our projected annual surveys of contemporary Australian poetry published in literary journals and newspapers. Guest Editor Anthony Lawrence has established himself as one of Australia’s premier poets with a passionate and distinctive voice celebrated for its lush undulating movement, kaleidoscopic vision, and musical complexity.

Guest Editor: Anthony LawrenceGuest editor: Anthony Lawrence
Series editors: Bronwyn Lea and Martin Duwell

The Best Australian Poetry 2004 is the second of our projected annual surveys of contemporary Australian poetry published in literary journals and newspapers. We are encouraged by the over-whelming reception of the inaugural edition, The Best Australian Poetry 2003, (pre-sales made necessary a second reprint before the book was officially released) and this has given us confidence in the future of the series. Already we can see the benefits of a policy of engaging a different Guest Editor each year — this year, poet and author Anthony Lawrence — in that this selection feels radically different to last year’s. Rather than attempting a magisterial overview, we have always felt that the varied perspectives of changing Guest Editors will make, in the long run, for a rich and more accurate portrait of what is happening in poetry in Australia. At the practical level, this second edition has enabled us to think more carefully about those matters of policy which seem commonsensical in the abstract but which, in practice, come down to irritatingly minute decisions. Matters of nationality for eligible poets comprise one set of thorny examples, as do the list of journals from which the poems will be selected. In both cases, we have reconsidered but decided to continue our policy of including only poems by Australian citizens and residents published in Australian print journals and newspapers. In the case of the former, we learned its stark consequences when Lawrence returned his selection of his ‘best forty poems’ which included a poem by a well-known American poet who had somehow slipped through our filter: jettisoning the poem and requesting a replacement was a decision made not without considerable pain. In the case of the latter, we felt our decision was a bit harsh on journals such as Antipodes — the journal of the American Association for Australian Literary Studies — which has, for a number of years now, done a magnificent job of bringing Australian literature into the North American ambit and which, at the same time, continues to publish a number of fine Australian poems in each issue. But as well as celebrating Australian poets and poetry, we had decided at the outset to celebrate those journals and newspapers which, in the difficult climate of Australian culture with its attendant problems of lack of financial resources and lack of broad community support, nevertheless continue with a commitment to the poetry of Australia.

In a year in which Australia went to war, albeit as a small component of the ‘Coalition of the Willing,’ it is perhaps not surprising that one of the issues raised during 2003 involved poetry’s commitment to the public sphere. The positions of poets, as always, covered a span. At one end is an essential, though sometimes despairing, quietism inevitably invoking Auden’s ‘poetry makes nothing happen: it survives / in the valley of its making,’ though perhaps missing Auden’s point that, although the overarching cultural and physical conditions do not change (Ireland remains mad and its weather remains terrible), poetry’s survival as ‘a way of happening, a mouth’ is itself a cause for hope. At the other end is a belief in poetry’s capacity to be at least a component of protest. In March 2003, a collection of poems by 119 Australian poets was delivered to Australia’s Prime Minister as part of an international Day of Poetry Against the War. The poets included ten associated with this year’s Best Australian Poetry anthology: Robert Adamson, Adam Aitken, Judith Beveridge, Peter Boyle, MTC Cronin, Anthony Lawrence, Emma Lew, Les Murray, Thomas Shapcott and Chris Wallace-Crabbe. Speaking on behalf of Australian poets against the war, Alison Croggon’s comment that the collection was a ‘flotilla of poems which matches [Australia’s] military presence in the Middle-East — small, but symbolically significant’ perhaps strikes the right note for poetry in its engagement with the world’s macro-events: ambitious but realistic.

It is sad to have to record, in this introduction to our second volume, the passing of one of the contributors to the first volume. Norman Talbot, who died in January 2004, was a fine, if underrated, poet and a thoroughly distinctive voice in Australian poetry. His first two books, Poems for a Female Universe (1968) and its whimsically named sequel, Son of a Female Universe (1971), contain poems that one remembers fondly after more than thirty years. Talbot’s prize-winning poem sequence, ‘Seven New South Wales Sonnet-Forms,’ is included in this volume, and it was our sad task to inform Lawrence who, tucked away in Hobart, had not heard news of Talbot’s passing but had nonetheless selected this poem on merit. Another passing of importance was that of Clem Christesen, a Brisbane poet and prose writer who began Meanjin Papers as a small magazine in late 1940 in Brisbane. After the war the journal moved to Melbourne, contracted its name to Meanjin, and established itself as Australian premier cultural journal in the post-war period.

As we’ve stated, one of the many aims of this series is to celebrate those journals, such as Meanjin and the new and impressive literary journal Salt-lick Quarterly, which continue to publish quality Australian poems, as well as to celebrate those editors who devote immense stretches of time and infinite energies to produce quality magazines. On a more coercive (though suitably muted) note, we hope that the series will also encourage poets to renew contact with these journals. While emerging poets derive immense support and confidence from publication in small magazines, established poets sometimes withdraw while preparing book-length manuscripts and contribute poems to magazines not as a matter of course, but only when asked. There is a certain irony in the fact that the Guest Editor of this volume did not appear in the inaugural issue, having published no poems in literary journals in 2002. While he did publish poems in journals in 2003 — perhaps inspired by this series? — we are grateful that he agreed to forego possible inclusion in The Best Australian Poetry 2004 and agreed to be its Guest Editor instead.

In a series of books, beginning with Dreaming in Stone (UQP, 1989) and now his most recent The Sleep of a Learning Man (Giramondo, 2004), Lawrence has established himself as one of Australia’s premier poets with a passionate and distinctive voice celebrated for its lush undulating movement, kaleidoscopic vision, and musical complexity. Lawrence’s poems and collections have won just about every prestigious poetry prize in Australia, including the Newcastle Poetry Prize (1997) and the Josephine Ulrick Poetry Prize (2001), as well as the Judith Wright Calanthe Poetry Prize (1991) and the New South Wales Premier’s Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry (1996). His poetry is rightly admired by many for its exploration of the immense drama of the Australian landscape, capturing not only the harshness of rural life but also meditating on the intricate and startling details of native birds, fish, and animals. But Lawrence is also intensely interested in the human animal and, in this aspect, his poems are often set into continual motion, converging and dispersing in a kinetically-charged human drama. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that his selection here contains not only many poems about animals — dogs, horses, birds, bats, fish, and the platypus — but also many poems about love — romantic and familial — with all the violence and tenderness that these relationships incite and demand. There are poems too that explore the human at home in the body — a body that oozes, bleeds, and aches, but one that also loves, desires, and heals — as well as poems that are intensely interested in language, another of Lawrence’s own interests, and in how poetry might effectively address the cerebral and political dimensions of creative life. Lawrence’s selection is not only intelligent but also dramatic and flamboyant, revealing an unquenchable and quirky passion for life immersed in the magnificent clutter of lived reality.

During the proofing of this introduction we received word of the death of Bruce Beaver at the age of seventy-six. He was one of Australia’s greatest poets, an indefatigable writer and a great celebrator and lamenter. His most admired book was his fourth, Letters to Live Poets, published in 1969, but the volumes that followed it — Lauds and Plaints and Odes and Days — as well as the volumes that followed these books, are really major contributions to Australian poetry. Beaver showed Australian poets how it was possible to be wide-ranging and international in one’s reading and one’s concerns while writing in a way that seems absolutely Australian. He was always concerned with poets and his two totemic poets were Po Chu-I (whose unstoppable ability to turn life into poetry was something he admired) and Rilke. One of the best poems in Beaver’s first book, Under the Bridge (1961) is ‘Remembering Golden Bells…and Po Chu-I,’ which retells the story of the Chinese poet’s loss of his little daughter, Golden Bells. It seems fitting that in one of his final poems — from his postumous collection The Long Game and Other Poems (UQP, 2005) — Beaver recalls his Chinese mentor:

Late Afternoon

A last radiance of sunlight
illuminates an empty chair, an empty couch.
Visitors are few and when they come
I don’t wish them away
but do hope they won’t stay too long
for my closest friends are books and blank paper.
My fingers itch for the pen and later
my eyes focus on the pages of others.
It’s understandable: I’m in my seventies
and though the days moving into summers
are growing longer, my years are growing shorter.
Like Po Chu-I, I have been away from the Capital
a long time; though I have not lost any children
I watch the faces of acquaintances
and see in them a lost child here and there.
Surely parenthood is a vocation
like poetry, unlike poetry.