September 21, 2007

Poetry Friday: To remember for ever and ever, as if it were always now

How to Make a Memory
by Laurence Binyon (1869-1943)

The rain was ending, and light
Lifting the leaden skies.
It shone upon ceiling and floor
And dazzled a child’s eyes.
Pale after fever, a captive
Apart from his schoolfellows,
He stood at the high room’s window
With face to the pane pressed close,
And beheld an immense glory
Flooding with fire the drops
Spilled on miraculous leaves
Of the fresh green lime-tree tops.
Washed gravel glittered red
To a wall, and beyond it nine
Tall limes in the old inn yard
Rose over the tall inn sign.
And voices arose from beneath
Of boys from school set free,
Racing and chasing each other
With laughter and games and glee.
To the boy at the high room-window,
Gazing alone and apart,
There came a wish without reason,
A thought that shone through his heart.
I’ll choose this moment and keep it,
He said to himself, for a vow,
To remember for ever and ever
As if it were always now.

Sara Lewis Holmes at Read Write Believe has today's Poetry Friday round-up here and here. Thank you, Sara!

* * *

(Robert) Laurence Binyon, the English poet, playwright, and art scholar, was born in 1869 at Lancaster. While at Oxford University's Trinity College, Binyon was awarded the undergraduate Newdigate prize for English verse for 1890. His first volume of verse, Lyric Poetry, was published four years later.

Upon graduation in 1893, Binyon went to work at the British Museum in the Department of Printed Books. He married a Museum colleague, Cicely Margaret Powell, in 1904 and together they had three daughters, Helen, Nicolete Mary, and Margaret. In 1912 a separate sub-Department of Oriental Prints and Drawings was created under Binyon, by now "a connoisseur of Persian and Indian miniatures."

Binyon's most famous work is his World War I poem, For the Fallen, published by The Times in September 1914 in the earliest months of the war, while Binyon was still working at the British Museum. The poem continues to be recited at Remembrance Day services around the world and is inscribed on countless war memorials. Already in his forties, Binyon volunteered for the Red Cross and was sent to the front in 1916. He returned to the British Museum after the Armistice, working as Keeper of the new sub-department of Oriental Prints and Drawings. Binyon retired from the Museum in 1933, succeeded by the art historian Basil Gray, the husband of his daughter Nicolete, a medievalist; Gray would be assistant first, then Keeper.

After his retirement, Binyon taught at Harvard University as Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry in 1933-34. In 1939, Binyon was invited to give the prestigious annual Romanes lecture at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford; he spoke of "Art and Freedom". In 1940 Binyon was appointed to the Byron chair of letters at the University of Athens, narrowly escaping Greece after its invasion by the Germans. He died in an English nursing home at the age of 73; at his death he was working on a major three-part Arthurian trilogy, the first volume of which was published posthumously as The Madness of Merlin.

His was an artistic spirit that found expression not only in writing and painting but also in music; after 1916, Edward Elgar set some of Binyon's poems -- The Fourth of August, For the Fallen, and To Women (all from his The Winnowing Fan) -- to music as the requiem, The Spirit of England.

Binyon's daughter Helen (1904-1979) was an artist who studied with landscape painter Paul Nash. She was a friend of noted English wood engraver Eric Ravilious (1903-1942), who died on an RAF rescue mission while working as a war artist. Helen remembered him with her work Eric Ravilious: Memoir of an Artist. She was a keen puppeteer, teaching and publishing Puppetry Today (1966) and Professional Puppetry in England (1973). And in 1938 she provided the wood engravings for an edition of Pride and Prejudice for Penguin Illustrated Classics.

Biographies of Laurence Binyon at:


Counter-Attack (Michele at Scholar's Blog's comprehensive World War I poets website)

the online Dictionary of Art Historians

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