By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old’: this is a familiar quotation to many people, but where does it come from? The answer lies in one of the most famous and yet most obscure poems of the First World War. Laurence Binyon’s ‘For the Fallen’ (1914) is one of the most widely quoted poems of the First World War, and yet how well does anyone know it? Could anyone quote any other lines from it apart from the stanza from which that line, ‘They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old’, is taken?
In fact, even that line everyone gets slightly wrong, as we will see. But let’s take a closer look at the poem first.
One of the most interesting but overlooked facts about Binyon’s ode to the war dead is how early in the conflict 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 and deemed too old for military service) but ‘For the Fallen’ has become one of the most important war poems in the English language, thanks in large part to its use at the annual Remembrance Sunday memorial service.
But what of that famous line, ‘They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old’? It appears in the fourth stanza:
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.
Binyon goes on to talk of how the men may have gone from the earthly lives they led, spending time at home with their families, or at work, but he ends the next stanza by saying that the men now ‘sleep’. They are at peace:
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.
The poem’s central message is clear enough, calling attention to the noble sacrifice made by men who laid down their lives for England. And Binyon’s allusions to grand works of literature help to reinforce this.
‘Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn’, the second line of that fourth stanza, is one of the more prominent allusions. It’s a nod to William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (itself a literary work with war running through it) 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.
Like Cleopatra and Shakespeare, the war dead will become immortal, remaining just as they were when they died: unlike those of us who are left behind, who will continue to age and wither away until we die in old age, old age will not be allowed to weary the soldiers who were cut down in their prime.
Binyon’s poem treads the delicate line between sounding breezily callous (‘well, look on the bright side, at least they won’t have to endure old age’) and verging on the maudlin (‘what a pity they will now know the joys of growing old’). It’s offered instead as a simple statement of fact: they shall not grow old, as we will.
What matters is what follows: the message that ‘age shall not weary them’. This says two things: that they will not be wearied by old age, and that their memories will not ‘weary’ or grow faint as time passes and the war becomes a distant memory. They will still be remembered.
Except, of course, that Binyon doesn’t write ‘they shall not grow old’. That’s the title of the remarkable Peter Jackson film which plays voice interviews (with survivors of the Great War) over authentic cine-footage from the war: footage which changes from black-and-white to colour footage until we feel as though we could almost be back there in the trenches, over a hundred years ago, with the men who fought and, in many cases, died in the conflict. Jackson’s film reorders the wording of Binyon’s original: ‘They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old’.