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WWI Poetry: On Veterans Day, The Words Of War

Nov 12, 2012
Originally published on November 12, 2012 5:39 am

Veterans Day — originally Armistice Day — was renamed in 1954 to include veterans who had fought in all wars. But the day of remembrance has its roots in World War I — Nov. 11, 1918 was the day the guns fell silent at the end of the Great War. On this Veterans Day, we celebrate the poetry of World War I, one of the legacies of that conflict.

Soldiers like Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, John McCrae and Rupert Brooke wrote evocative poems about their experiences. One of the most famous poems of the war is Brooke's "The Soldier." Brooke died of dysentery aboard a troop ship headed for Gallipoli in April 1915. The opening verse of "The Soldier" reads:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

Every schoolchild learns some of these World War I poems and the classroom is one of the only places they can be found today.

There's another poem — one most Americans don't know — that lives on around the world. Every year since 1921, the fourth verse of Laurence Binyon's "For the Fallen" has been read aloud at remembrance services in Britain and across the British Commonwealth countries.

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 wrote the poem in the fall of 1914, at the very beginning of the war, says Sarah Cole, an Associate Professor at Columbia University and author of Modernism, Male Friendship, and the First World War.

"It certainly represents an early moment of the war," Cole says. "... It's memorializations as anticipatory. ... They are setting the stage for thinking about and remembering the dead that are oncoming now."

As for the poet himself, Binyon isn't that well known, largely because he wasn't a "soldier" poet, but Cole says he did play his part in the war — but as a non-combatant. At 46, he was too old to fight but he volunteered in with a hospital unit in France.

"He was in-between generations," she explains. There was the older generation of fathers "who are often condemned by some of the famous war poets as being kind of callously irresponsible and even kind of criminal in sending their sons off to be killed, but nor was he young enough to fight."

Binyon wrote "For the Fallen" while sitting on the cliffs at Pentire Head in Cornwall after reading early casualty reports from the Western Front. A plaque commemorating his life was placed there in 2003. It's inscribed with the four lines that are still read aloud every year — nearly 100 years later.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

As we celebrate Veterans Day, let's think back to its beginning World War I. The holiday started as Armistice Day, when the guns fell silent at the end of that war. In 1954, it was renamed Veterans Day to include those who had fought in all wars.

One of the legacies of World War I is poetry. Soldiers like Seigfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, and John McRae wrote evocative poems about their experiences.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Reading) If I should die, think only this of me: That there's some corner of a foreign field that is forever England. There shall be in that rich earth a richer dust concealed, a dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware, gave once her flowers to love, her ways to roam, A body of England's, breathing English air, washed by the rivers, blessed by suns of home.

MONTAGNE: That's the opening verse of "The Soldier," by Rupert Brooke, one of the most famous poems of the war. Brooke died of dysentery aboard a troop ship headed for Gallipoli in April 1915.

Schoolchildren learn some of these World War I poems. In fact, often the classroom is the only place they can be found today. But there is another poem, one most Americans don't know, that lives on around the world.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Reading) 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.

MONTAGNE: That's the fourth verse of the poem "For the Fallen," by Robert Laurence Binyon. Every year since 1921, this verse has been read aloud at remembrance services in Britain and across the British Commonwealth.

Sarah Cole teaches at Columbia University and she's author of "Modernism, Male Friendship, and the First World War."

SARAH COLE: He wrote this poem at the very beginning of the war, about six weeks in, in the fall of 1914. And it certainly represents an early moment in the war. In a way, we might think of it, it's memorializations as anticipatory. That is, they are setting the stage for thinking about and remembering the dead that are oncoming now.

MONTAGNE: As for the poet himself, Binyon isn't that well known, largely because he wasn't a soldier poet. But Cole says he did play his part in the war.

COLE: He was in-between generations. We might say the generation of the sort of fathers who are often condemned by some of the famous war poets, as being kind of callously irresponsible and even kind of criminal in sending their sons off to be killed. But nor was he young enough to fight. He was a noncombatant though he was very involved in the war effort. He volunteered - I believe he was 46 - to serve in a hospital unit in France.

MONTAGNE: Robert Laurence Binyon wrote "For the Fallen" while sitting on the cliffs at Pentire Head in Cornwall, after reading early casualty reports from the Western Front. A plaque commemorating his life was placed there in 2003. It's inscribed with the four lines that are still read aloud every year.

On this day when we're remembering veterans, you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

I'm Renee Montagne.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.