Laurence Binyon

Robert Laurence Binyon had a long and successful career in English arts and letters, managing to produce almost a book a year in the span between 1894 and 1944. His father, Frederick Binyon, was a clergyman, and his mother, Mary, was the daughter of Robert Benson Dockray, resident engineer of the London and Birmingham Railroad. Binyon showed an early interest in art and poetry. After attending St. Paul’s School, he attended Trinity College at Oxford, where his poem “Persephone” was awarded the Newdigate Prize. In 1890 he took a first-class degree in classical moderations, and in 1892, a second-class degree in litterae humainoires. In 1890 he also published four poems in a volume called Primavera: Poems by Four Authors, which included the work of three other young Oxford undergraduates, one of whom was his cousin, Stephen Phillips, who would also achieve a measure of fame as a poet.

Following his undergraduate education, Binyon took a position at the British Museum, in the department of printed books, and in 1895 moved to the department of prints and drawings where he would stay until retiring in 1933, with promotions to assistant keeper and keeper along the way. He published his first book of poetry in 1894 called Lyric Poems, and he followed this publication quickly with two books on painting, Dutch Etchers of the Seventeenth Century in 1895 and John Crone and John Sell Cotman in 1897. These two interests would govern his career, as he alternated between poetry and essays on the visual arts. He was also interested in Oriental art and culture: books such as Painting in the Far East (1908) and the book of poems The Flight of the Dragon (1911) reflect this interest. Ezra Pound was highly complimentary of the later work, and thought of Binyon as a pioneer in the Western appreciation of Chinese and Japanese art.

Binyon married Cicely Margaret Powell in 1904, and they had three daughters together. When World War I broke out, he became an orderly in the Red Cross, and managed to visit the front in 1916. He turned this experience into numerous books of verse that took the war as a subject. The Winnowing Fan,The Anvil,The Cause, and The New World, published from 1914 to 1918, all dealt with the war as a noble cause, though his work became progressively less sentimental. One reviewer from Literature Digest said “Laurence Binyon’s poetry once was somewhat coldly ‘literary’—aloof from common human experience, but the war has given him new vigor and new humanity.” He produced one poem out of this experience that became a touchstone, “For the Fallen.”1 The poem was frequently anthologized and inscribed on war monuments throughout England. In the most memorable stanza of the poem, Binyon pledges that the living will not forget their sacrifice: “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.” Compared to other war poets such as Seigfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, Binyon’s efforts lack some of the visceral charge and disillusionment that characterizes much of the response to the war, but his sentiment nevertheless was embraced by the public. Susan Millar Williams, writing in Dictionary of Literary Biography, describes his style as “concise and spare …[he] was a staid, serious, and scholarly man, he was not humorless and liked a joke.”

In the 1920s Binyon wrote The Sirens and The Idols, two long epic poems that treat man’s struggle to come to terms with himself. The latter prompted a New York Herald Tribune reviewer to write, “Mr. Binyon’s penetration into the centers of ultimate darkness, which takes place in “The Idols,’ rewards him with many jewels of his own finding.” In the 1930s he traveled and lectured on art and literature at various universities. He followed T.S. Eliot at Harvard as Norton Professor of Poetry, and also lectured in the United States, Holland, China, Scandinavia, Japan, Rome, Berlin, Vienna, and Paris. He was also named a chevalier of the French Foreign Legion and a fellow of the Royal Society. He was appointed to the Byron Chair of Letters at Athens at the age of 70.

During his career, Binyon became interested in experimental versification. He had been influenced by John Masefield, who argued that verse should be spoken aloud, and, at Oxford, Robert Bridges had shared with him the complex rhythms of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s sprung verse, whose poetry could not yet be found in print. His experiments were not as radical, however. Mainly, he was skillful at manipulating verse within narrowly defined limits. This culminated in his translation, done throughout the 1930s, of Dante’s Divine Comedy. He translated it in its original terza rima, a feat M. J. Alexander, writing for Reference Guide to English Literature called “remarkable.” Alexander went on to praise Binyon for the quality of the translation, saying “the skills of versification and the profound culture that produced Binyon’s poetic language are not likely to be found again in any of his successors to this task (translating Dante) of unique importance for English literature.” The Dante translation was published beginning in 1933, and perhaps stands as his last contribution.

Binyon’s poetry was generally thought to be highly refined, and, adjectives such as “stately,” “dignified,” and “grave” are frequently used to characterize his verse. But such praise has drawbacks for a poet. One reviewer from Bookmansaid of Selected Poems, “It is the sort of verse teachers used to like to read aloud in school because of its academic sense and the perfect beat of its feet. Every poem shows traces of careful workmanship which effectively irons out the initial inspiration.” Indeed, while Binyon enjoyed a reputation for craft and elegance, especially among a more conservative audience, this lack of vitality prevented him from being appreciated on a wide scale beyond his own age. Binyon spoke to a late Victorian context from well within its aesthetic, moral and ideological assertions; this is nicely summed up by Archibald MacLeish in a review in Saturday Review of Literature of The Idols, in which he writes, “the ode is the kind of cultivated, scholarly, well-bred expression of emotion which will certainly receive the praise of well-bred, scholarly and cultivated people, and the praise or dispraise of others can hardly be important to its author.”

It is this limited purview that constituted both Binyon’s charm and his major defining characteristic as a poet: his poetry was not entirely didactic, though it did have a tendency to contain an uplifting message. Williams quotes James Granville Southworth, writing for the Sewanee Review: “In contrast to the poetry of Mr. T.S. Eliot, Mr. Binyon affects a reconstruction of beauty against the forces of disintegration—forces against which Mr. Eliot seems powerless to act. Mr. Eliot’s poetry is a balm to the contemporary who lacks the strength to combat the anticultural forces of the present day. Mr. Binyon’s poetry is a constant challenge to a fuller life.” His distinguished career was exemplary of a certain breed—he was often described as a perfectionist—that slipped out of fashion as the twentieth century gained further distance from Victorian England. The academic remove from which he surveyed his subjects was indeed “cultivated,” “scholarly” and “well-bred”; that these adjectives are subtly critical when applied to a poet does not detract from his eminent position as a skilled and respected poet and man of letters in his time.

  1.  The poetry foundation