This, the last post in the series, is less about the poet and more about the poem, but it’s always good to give a little bit of history.
By the time of the First World War Binyon (August 1869 – 10 March 1943) was
Portrait of Laurence Binyon by William Strang (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
too old for service, although in 1915 he volunteered at a British hospital for French soldiers, Hôpital Temporaire d’Arc-en-Barrois, Haute-Marne, France, working briefly as a hospital orderly. He returned in the summer of 1916 and took care of soldiers taken in from the Verdun battlefield.
Moved by the opening of the Great War and the already high number of casualties of the British Expeditionary Force, in 1914 Laurence Binyon wrote his For the Fallen, with its Ode of Remembrance, as he was visiting the cliffs near Pentire Head in north Cornwall (where a plaque commemorates it nowadays.) The piece was published by The Times newspaper in September, when public feeling was affected by the recent Battle of Marne. The Ode of Remembrance (the third and fourth [more recently just the fourth] stanzas of For the Fallen) became the centre piece of the remembrance services in Britain and Her Empire. Over time it was claimed as a tribute to all casualties of war, regardless of nation. It seems to me a fitting way to end this series. Before we get down to the poem, I would like first to close on the reflection that of the 9 poets I have mentioned who saw action in the First World War, only 3 (Sassoon, Graves and Blunden) survived to see its end. That’s a survival ratio of 1/3, for you maths buffs out there. Anyway, just a thought. Now here she is.
The Ode of Remembrance
They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eyes, 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.
Isaac Rosenberg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Isaac Rosenberg (25 November 1890 – 1 April 1918) is generally considered to be one of the finest, if not the finest, war poets to write in English.
Having left school at the age of 14 to become an apprentice engraver, Rosenberg later became one of the Georgian poets, and was taken up by Laurence Binyon and Edward Marsh.
Unlike Brooke and others, who wrote of war as patriotic sacrifice, Rosenberg was critical of the conflict from its onset. However, needing employment in order to help support his mother, Rosenberg enlisted in the army in October 1915. He was assigned to the 12th Suffolk Folk Regiment, a ‘bantam’ battalion (made up of men under 5’3″). After turning down an offer to become a lance corporal, Private Rosenberg was later transferred to the 11th Battalion, The King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment (KORL). He was sent to the Somme on the Western Front where, having just finished night patrol, he was killed at dawn on April 1, 1918 (reports conflict over whether or not he was shot by a sniper or killed in hand to hand combat).
The poem below was described by Paul Fussell in his landmark study of the literature of the First World War as “the greatest poem of the war.” It has some breathtaking imagery and a firm narrative voice and is one of my favourite poems (if that matters to any of you!)
Break of Day in the Trenches
The darkness crumbles away
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies,
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver -what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in men’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.