One day in early September 1914 the poet Laurence Binyon sat on the Cornish cliffs gazing out at the sea. It was the first few weeks of the First World War and the terrible news of the casualties in France must have weighed heavily on his mind. It was in that moment, so far from the chaos of war, that Binyon wrote his most famous work. Its gravitas, its tenderness and the depth of grief he expressed spoke to a fearful nation, and seemingly predicted the disastrous losses that were to come. ‘For the Fallen‘ was published in The Times newspaper on the 21st September 1914 and Binyon’s words secured a place in our collective history and our consciousness.
He was born Robert Laurence Binyon in Lancaster in 1869. A bookish child he went on to graduate from Trinity College, London and take up a position at the British Museum, first in the department for printed books and then later in the prints and drawings department. He stayed at the museum his entire working life, writing essays on subjects as diverse as the visual arts and oriental culture. Binyon published a large number of volumes of poetry throughout his life and later became Professor of Poetry at Harvard University from 1933 until his death in 1943. He married the historian Cicely Powell in 1904 and had three daughters.
“It has been Cornwall’s destiny to produce few considerable poets and to shelter many. She has forgotten her own Sidney Godolphin and her own Arthur Symons: and most of the others have slipped back across the Tamar with hardly a nod of recognition. Walter de la Mare tiptoes out, carrying in his ears ‘the solemn surge of strange and lonely seas’, Laurence Binyon vanishes to England after scribbling among the grass and samphire of Pentire Head some stanzas which he intends to entitle simply – For the Fallen.John Penwith, The Cornishman, 12th May 1949
I am not entirely sure how Laurence came to be staying in Cornwall, but we can assume that it was a holiday away from London for him and his family. Whatever the case, it seems that Binyon, like so many, was incredibly moved by the events being reported in the papers and felt the need to express that grief. Standing on those Cornish cliffs today I wonder whether he felt as I often do, so wonderfully far away from everything, from the worries of the world, and yet simultaneously deeply connected to it.
Binyon’s inability to act, to play his part, may have frustrated him too. During the course of the war he lost several friends and his brother-in-law but was too old to enlist himself. So he did do the next best thing, he volunteered to serve with the Red Cross as a medical orderly and in 1916 actually found himself working with injured men on the front, seeing first hand the horror of war. Many more poems followed.
For the Fallen
“It was on . . . Pentire Head that Laurence Binyon looked out over the quiet sea and thinking of the dead in France gave England one of its noblest anthems.”The Cornishman, 18th March 1948
We know that Binyon was visiting the north coast of Cornwall in 1914 and in an interview in 1939 he mentioned where he had sat to write the poem, ‘For the Fallen‘. The location is thought to have been between Pentire Head and The Rumps, not far from Polzeath and 2003 a plaque was placed on the headland in commemoration.
The poem that Binyon wrote was actually seven stanzas long but it is the middle three stanzas that are most familiar to us today. They are used in the ‘Ode to Remembrance’ an integral part of Remembrance Sunday services in Britain and Anzac Day in Australia and New Zealand.
The poem in full reads:
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.
The strong sentiments of the poem, the unifying themes of grief, loss, fragility, pride and remembrance continue to speak to us today as they did so powerfully for those living through the First and Second World Wars.
Some Notes on Pentire Head
In Cornish penn means head and tir means land, so the literal translation of Pentire Head is Headland Head. This stunning spot offers wonderful views in all directions and is a Site of Special Scientific Interest because of its unusal geology and rare flora and fauna. The headland itself is formed from pillow lavas, a type of rock found nowhere else in Cornwall. Pentire Mine, close to the point, was the first mine in the area, the extraction of lead began here in 1580.
Along the coast to the east is the headland known as The Rumps. This was the site of an Iron Age Cliff castle, the ramparts of which as still visible, a couple of thousand years ago. To the west is Stepper Point, with Pentire these headlands mark the entrance to the Camel Estuary and the beautiful town of Padstow. Delightfully Enys Tregarthen, a recorder of folktales from the town, believed that Pentire Head was the home of piskies. She wrote that the rings where they danced and the ‘piskey walks’, the tiny paths that they used, could be seen above the cliffs.
The coast of Cornwall, north or south, never fails to impress me and lift my spirits and I have always found walking cathartic in so many ways. Standing on Pentire Point, as I did recently, with a strong offshore wind, the remains of a recent storm, buffeting me about was incredibly grounding. Our Cornwall effortlessly creates for us moments of peace, of passion and of insight, as it did that day over one hundred years ago for Laurence Binyon.