November 25, 2014

For the Fallen, and Other Poems

Robert Laurence Binyon (1869–1943) was a poet and art historian who spent his entire career at the British Museum, where he wrote studies of Dutch, British, and Asian art. He published his first poem at the age of 16 and continued to write poetry throughout his life. On September 21, 1914, shortly after the outbreak of World War I, Binyon published, in The Times of London, what would become his most famous poem, the elegy “For the Fallen.” Prophetic of the enormous losses that Great Britain would sustain over the next four years of war, the poem was later set to music by Sir Edward Elgar in his choral work The Spirit of England (1916–17). After the war, passages from “For the Fallen” were carved on numerous tombstones and cenotaphs, and it was frequently recited at Remembrance Day services commemorating Britain’s losses during the war, a practice that continues to the present. Presented here is For the Fallen and Other Poems, a small volume published in 1917 containing three of Binyon’s wartime poems, “For the Fallen,” “The Fourth of August,” and “To Women,” with accompanying plates. The book is a noteworthy example of a World War I poetry collection. All three poems had previously appeared in a longer work, The Winnowing Fan: Poems on the Great War, which was published in late 1914.

Swollen-headed William: Painful Stories and Funny Pictures after the German!

At the time of the First World War, the children’s book Struwwelpeter (Shock-headed Peter) was a familiar nursery classic in both Germany and Britain. In this British wartime parody, the original cautionary tales of naughty children and their fates are all turned against Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. The “shock-headed Peter” of the title poem becomes “swollen-headed William,” while “fidgety Phil,” whose dinnertime antics knock over the table and ruin the food, becomes “fidgety Will,” who destroys his country’s prosperity. The last poem departs more from the original tale of “flying Robert,” who is carried away by a storm, but it uses the same picture-frame format to show the kaiser assembling a gallery of “lethal aviation” with pictures of Zeppelin raids on Belgian cities.