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We will remember them

We will remember them

“We will remember them” is perhaps one of the most recognised lines of remembrance in existence, loved by many, recited at memorial services around the world particularly with regard to military service personnel. But who is the man behind these words?

The early life of Laurence Binyon

Laurence Binyon was born Robert Laurence Binyon on August 10, 1869 in Lancaster, England.

He was the second of nine children born to Quaker parents, clergyman Frederick and Mary Binyon. Whilst attending Trinity College at Oxford, gaining a degree in classical moderations in 1890 his poem “Persephone” was awarded the Newdigate Prize.

He married Cicely Margaret Powell in 1904, and they had three daughters together. His career spanned 50 years as a writer and a scholar, during which time he authored numerous poetry collections and plays. Binyon played a pivotal role in helping to establish the modernist School of poetry and introduced imagist poets such as Ezra Pound, Richard Aldington and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) to East Asian visual art and literature.

For the fallen

Binyon was moved and indeed shaken by the onset of World War 1. He served as an orderly in the Red Cross and his experiences would become an important part of his poetry. The military tactics of sending young men to be slaughtered simply to hold or gain a few yards of shell-shocked mud caused Binyon much distress.

He then wrote his seminal poem “For the Fallen” which became an instant classic. Once considered by critics to be “aloof” from common human experience in his writings, the war seemingly gave him a new vigor and new humanity.

His powerful words struck hard into the hearts of those who read and heard them, becoming at the time the focal expression of national grief. So much so that the piece and particularly “we will remember them” became part of a National tribute to those lost in World War I and indeed since.

Its central quatrain was carved on cenotaphs and tombstones worldwide and is still recited at annual Remembrance Day commemorations:

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

Laurence Binyon

Later life

Most of his career was spent at The British Museum where he produced many books particularly centering on the art of the Far East. He retired from the British Museum in 1933 and went on to receive an honorary DLitt from Oxford University. He was also named an honorary fellow of Trinity College.

In his retirement years he travelled to lecture on art and literature at many universities in the United States, Holland, China, Scandinavia, Japan, Rome, Berlin, Vienna, and Paris. Some of Binyon’s greatest poetry was produced during the final decade of his life.

“greater perhaps than that of any of his generation except [W.B.] Yeats”

John Hatcher

Upon Binyon’s death, English author and literary critic Cyril Connolly honored the poet in New Statesman and Nation as someone who understood “how to be both warm and detached, in fact, a sage.”