By Dr Oliver Tearle
Laurence Binyon’s ‘For the Fallen’ (1914) is one of the most widely quoted poems of the First World War. Unlike Wilfred Owen’s ‘Futility’, it wasn’t written from the trenches but by a poet back home, reflecting on the sacrifice thousands of men on the Western Front were making every week. But how well do we really know ‘For the Fallen’? What follows is the poem, and a brief analysis of its meaning, imagery, and language. It contains some very famous lines of poetry, which many of us will have heard recited on Remembrance Day in November, but the poem as a whole is less famous.
With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.
Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres,
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, 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.
They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.
But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;
As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.
One of the most interesting but overlooked facts about this poem is how early into the War it was written: Binyon wrote ‘For the Fallen’ in northern Cornwall in September 1914, just one month after the outbreak of the First World War. Binyon wasn’t himself a soldier – he was already in his mid-forties when fighting broke out – but ‘For the Fallen’ is without doubt one of the most famous poems of the First World War.
The poem’s central message is clear enough, calling attention to the noble sacrifice made by men who laid down their lives for England. The allusions to grand works of literature help to reinforce this. ‘Flesh of her flesh’, in the third line of the first stanza, echoes Adam’s words in the Book of Genesis: ‘And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’
This allusion lends England’s maternal relationship with her children – the English soldiers fighting abroad – a sonorous and dignified religious connotation. These soldiers are, as Rupert Brooke had argued in ‘The Soldier’, ‘forever England’. Similarly, the reference to ‘immortal spheres’ and ‘music in the midst of desolation’ in the same stanza faintly suggests the ancient philosophical idea of ‘the music of the spheres’, the concept that the Sun, the Moon, and the planets of the solar system move in harmony with each other, producing a sort of sublime ‘music’. This further lends gravitas to the soldiers’ sacrifice, placing their deaths on a grand metaphysical plane.
‘Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn’, the second line of the fourth stanza, is also an allusion, this time to William Shakespeare‘s Antony and Cleopatra and Enobarbus’ description of the Egyptian queen: ‘Age shall not wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.’ As with the Biblical and metaphysical allusions earlier in the poem, this allusion to Enobarbus’ grand description of the regal queen of antiquity associates the soldiers of the Great War with two great figures from the past: Cleopatra, a great leader of her people, and Shakespeare, the greatest English poet. The dominant tone of the poem is proudly patriotic, solemn yet celebratory of the bravery of the soldiers.
The fourth stanza formed the basis of the ‘Ode of Remembrance’ which are the lines often recited at Remembrance Day memorials. Note that it is often misquoted (or misremembered) as ‘they shall not grow old’, rather than Binyon’s actual words, ‘they shall grow not old’. The former line provided Peter Jackson with the title for his startling 2018 documentary film about life in the trenches.
We have more facts about war poetry here and some tips for becoming better at close reading here. More poetry analysis can be found in our analysis of Charlotte Mew’s poem ‘The Farmer’s Bride’ and our analysis of Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’. Click here for tips on how to write a good English Literature essay.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Portrait of Laurence Binyon by William Strang (1901), Wikimedia Commons.