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Two Poets of War

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Laurence Binyon

Many Remembrance Sunday speakers recite from the poem For The Fallen by Laurence Binyon.

‘They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eyes, 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.

Binyon, a product of St Pauls School and Trinity College Oxford, was a prominent London intellectual before the war. The Keeper of Oriental Prints at the British Museum, he was close to poets like Ezra Pound and Richard Aldington and artists such as Walter Sickert and Lucien Pissarro.

He was also a Quaker. Shaken by the casualties of 1914, but too old to enlist, he volunteered at a hospital on the Front. Later, after the war, he became professor of poetry at Harvard. Binyon is among 16 Great War poets commemorated in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner.

Vernon Scannell was another poet of war. Born poor in 1922, he developed equal passions for boxing and literature. He saw much service during World War Two but, hating army life, repeatedly deserted and was rewarded with court martial and a mental institution. He went on to work intermittently in teaching and boxing, and became widely recognised for his poetry. He even became a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

But he was no fan of Binyon’s poem.

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Vernon Scannell

I was there, at Wipers and the Somme.
I left one leg at some place near Cambrai
And counted myself lucky, not like Tom,
My pal, what I won’t see till Judgement Day.

So when this civvy poet says they ‘fell
With faces to the foe’ it don’t sound right.
My pal, he never fell. A Jerry shell
Smashed him up to smithereens that night.

Another thing he says that’s far from true:
That they – and he means us – was ‘straight of limb’.
But half of our platoon, I swear to you,
Had bandy legs and wasn’t tall and slim.

He says – and he means Tom and all those poor
Lads that got wiped out – ‘they won’t grow old’,
As if it’s something to be thankful for.
They aint no Peter Pans. They’re muck and mould.

They’re dead, and Death’s ‘august and royal’
This poet claims. In civvy street maybe
It looks like that. These fibs make my blood boil.
Tom’s dead and I’m alive – well most of me.

Scannell wrote the poem A Binyon Opinion as late as the year 2000, by which time he’d endured decades of Remembrance Day services. Viewed from today, his life seems a typical tragedy of post-traumatic stress disorder. He was on the beach at D-Day and seriously wounded in Normandy. His later binges, blackouts and brutality suggest a man severely damaged by war.

As were, no doubt, so many men after 1918. Few then explored the roots of trauma. They just lived with it. But every 11th November, on hearing yet again those words 'they fell with their faces to the foe … age shall not weary them' the pews perhaps pulsed with anger. Ranks of silent, shaking rage, from men as bitter as Vernon Scannell.