Robert Laurence Binyon isn’t a name we’d probably be familiar with if it wasn’t for the now ubiquitous remembrance ode, For the Fallen. Even then, most people are only familiar with those famous lines from the final verse…
And although it’s taken for granted that the words refer to all the dead of the two World Wars – indeed, all the dead on every side of all wars – Binyon wrote his seven-verse poem as early as 1914 in memory of the then few thousand British causalities.
But it’s the first line of the final verse that has always fascinated me. The oft recited They shall NOT grow old is worlds away in terms of meaning and I’ve always cringed when some Churchman or other worthy has bowdlerised the line in a remembrance reading. Binyon’s original is unusual, sure; we might think he’s made an error but he hasn’t. The dead will continue to grow, as they do year on year, not only in terms of the ever-increasing casuality figures from subsequent wars and conflicts but also from our yearly public and private remembrance. They grow in stature, is respect and in the honour and gratitude we increasingly owe. But they ‘grow not’ old.
I was a little shocked to find that when Elgar set the words to music he actually seems to have got these two words the wrong way round. He worked closely with Binyon – whose boss at the British Museum had suggested the collaboration – so perhaps the poet approved or even suggested it as a legitimate alternative. I’d love to know what the reasons were. Because, for me, it always has and always will be ‘grow not’.
But then Elgar’s setting is so sublime, so moving and so memorable, I can forgive him anything.