Age does indeed wither the beautiful red rose.
But so proudly she stands until the bitter last.
Unlike the subjects of Laurence Binyon’s poem:
For the Fallen
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 fourth stanza is traditionally repeated at many Remembrance Day commemorations. The poem was composed in 1914 in honour of the British Expeditionary Force which had suffered casualties at the Battle of Mons and the Battle of the Marne on the Western Front.
‘Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn,’ is a reference to Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, ‘Age cannot wither her nor custom stale.’
Binyon was born in 1869 in Lancaster, Lancashire, (so a red rose seemed appropriate for him). He was too old to enlist in the First World War, so instead he volunteered as a hospital orderly. He died aged 73 in 1943.
I suspect the poetry of Sir Herbert Read is less well known. Read was born in 1893, near Kirkbymoorside in the North Riding of Yorkshire. Have to add a Yorkshire poet, given the Battle of the Roses.
Read went to Leeds University but then enlisted with the Green Howards, also known as the Yorkshire Regiment at the time.
He received the Distinguished Service Order and the Military Cross in 1918.
Read wrote two volumes of poetry and two volumes of autobiography based on his war experiences.
For all those aspiring self-publishers out there, his first volume of poetry, Songs of Chaos, was self-published in 1915. A hundred years ago. Nothing new under the sun.
He became an outspoken pacifist during World War 2 and was also regarded as an anarchist.
The Refugees (1914)
Mute figures with bowed heads
They travel along the road:
Old women, incredibly old
and a hand cart of chattels.
They do not weep:
their eyes are too raw for tears.
Past them have hastened
processions of returning gunteams
baggage wagons and swift horsemen.
Now they struggle along
with the rearguard of a broken army.
We shall hold the enemy towards nightfall
and they will move
mutely into the dark behind us,
only the creaking cart disturbing their sorrowful serenity.
Read and Binyon are among 16 poets commemorated in Westminster Abbey by a memorial stone. They survived the war but six of the poets were killed during World War One:
They may have died early, but their work lives on for us to contemplate the brutality and savagery that is war.