Laurence Binyon was a poet, playwright, art-historian (an authority on Far Eastern painting), and in his old age a professor of literature, though employed for most of his working life as a civil servant in the British Museum's Department of Prints and Drawings. He was born, a vicar's son, in Lancaster in 1869 and went to St Paul's, one of the great public schools, and Trinity College, Oxford, where he won the Newdigate Prize for poetry. In 1893 he joined the staff of the British Museum and stayed there, off and on, until 1934, retiring as Keeper of Prints and Drawings. In 1904 he married Cicely Powell: they had three daughters. In 1916, now aged forty-seven, he served as an orderly with the Red Cross on the Western Front. His book about it all, For Dauntless France, was published in 1918.

Post-war he went back to the Museum where, as well as his day job as a Keeper, he wrote books on (among other things) Blake, eighteenth-century English watercolourists (Girton, Cotman, Towne), and Persian and Japanese art. His own Collected Poems came out in 1931 when he was already sixty-two. The following year he was appointed Companion of Honour and the year after that Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard. Then in 1940, now aged seventy-one, he became Byron Professor of English Literature in Athens University. His tenure was cut short in 1941 by the German invasion and occupation. Binyon died in Reading in 1943. Four years later the first, and only, part of his Arthurian verse trilogy was published under the title The Madness of Merlin.

While he was at Oxford he met Robert Bridges who showed him Gerard Manley Hopkins's still unpublished poems. Binyon himself began writing poetry in what Hopkins called ‘sprung rhythm' which simply means paying attention to the stresses and letting the unstressed syllables to take care of themselves. It was a style he followed for the rest of life. His plays, too, were in verse. One, Attila, staged in 1907 was set to music by Sir Charles Stanford. Binyon was also interested in the spoken verse movement associated with Masefield. It's said, as well, that he introduced Edward Thomas to Robert Frost (who then persuaded Thomas to write poetry). He was also a friend of Ezra Pound and Arthur Waley, the translator of Chinese poetry into English.

Binyon is little read nowadays and in fact is hard to find. The reason, I think, is simple: he wasn't a very good poet. Between 1933 and 1943 he translated Dante into English terza rima. His friend Pound approved ("melodious smoothness is not the characteristic of Dante's verse") while Lowell thought it was awful, finding the diction "cramped and knotted" - so bad, in fact, that the reader is "constantly looking at the Italian to discover what Binyon is saying." These are the first twelve lines of Purgatory Canto 27.

As when his first beams tremble in the sky
There, where his own Creator shed his blood,
While Ebro is beneath the Scales on high,
And noon scorches the waves on Ganges' flood,
Such was the sun's height; day was soon to pass;
When the angel of God joyful before us stood.
Outside the flames, above the bank, he was.
Beati mundo core we heard him sing
In a voice more living far than comes from us.
Then ‘None goes further, if first the fire not sting.
O hallowed spirits, enter unafraid
And to the chant beyond let your ears cling.'

Once only in his life as a poet did he touch the public's deepest feelings, so deeply in fact that the fourth stanza of For The Fallen - a poem about the dead of the Great War - is recited every November on Remembrance Sunday not only in England, but in Canada, New Zealand and Australia as well.

They shall not grow 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.

Two things are worth mentioning, I think. First, this poem was first published in The Times in September 1914 — only a few weeks, in other words, after the outbreak of war and long before the terrible pitched battles of the later years when the dead were counted in their hundreds of thousands. It is also the work of a middle-aged civilian who'd not yet experienced war. All the other War Poets were young front line fighting men.

The Persistence of the Victorians: Things Remembered and Things Forgot

References

Dante in English. Ed. Eric Griffiths and Matthew Reynolds. Penguin Books.London, 2005

Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Oxford. 1975

Hatcher, John. Laurence Binyon: Poet, Scholar of East and West. Clarendon Press. Oxford. 1995.


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Last modified 12 June 2008