This elegiac poem was written around the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. ‘For the Fallen‘ appeared in The Times when it was first published and characterized the general sentiment at the time regarding loss and celebration of the heroic deeds of local men and women.
‘For the Fallen’ is an incredibly popular poem the readers may have heard at World War I-related services and memorials. The unforgettable imagery in this poem makes it an ideal way to remember all that was lost during the war.
Explore For the Fallen
‘For the Fallen’ by Laurence Binyon addresses the loss of lives in World War I and how they will live on forever in the stars.
In the first lines of ‘For the Fallen,’ the speaker begins by personifying England. He depicts the country as a mother to all her citizens. She thanks them for the services they’ve given to her. She “mourns her dead across the sea.” They are lost to her shores, but she recognizes the sacrifice they’ve made. It soon becomes clear that they were fighting for freedom, specifically in the First World War. Despite how terrible these losses are, there is still music. It celebrates their bravery.
The following stanzas depict what the soldiers were like who marched into battle. They were sharp, young, loyal, filled with patriotic duty, and firm in their stance against the enemy. They knew their chances of surviving the war were slim, but they fought on and faced down death until it took them.
The speaker discusses how things have changed drastically for these men. They are never going to return home to their families and sit around the table again. They’ve been put to rest far from their native land. But, they will live on in their family member’s memories and in the hearts of all those who benefit from their surface. They will shine in the sky as eternal stars, outlasting those who did not die in the war.
Throughout this poem, the poet engages with themes of life/death as well as sacrifice and love for one’s country. The speaker acknowledges the enormous loss England suffered and even depicts the country as a mourning mother. They don’t dwell on the losses for the entire poem, though, preferring to celebrate what as achieved and the bravery of the soldiers who faced death every day. They sacrificed themselves for a higher goal—freedom and are never going to be forgotten. Their love of their country was so strong that they did not fear death at the end, the speaker suggests. Instead, they were willing to do whatever it took to achieve their country’s goals.
Structure and Form
‘For the Fallen’ by Laurence Binyon is a seven-stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABCB, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. The pattern remains consistent throughout, without any slant or half-rhymes being employed at the end of lines. The meter is different, though. It sometimes uses iambic pentameter, but on the whole, the poem is not unified by a particular metrical structure. The ninth line of the poem is one of the only examples of iambic pentameter in the poem, and even this line contains an anapest.
Throughout this poem, Binyon makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “mother” and “mourns” in the first two lines and “faces” and “foe” in the fourth line of the third stanza.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts of a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the second stanza as well as three and four of the sixth stanza.
- Personification: occurs when the poet imbues a non-human thing, creature, or experience with human characteristics. For example, in the first lines, the poet describes England as a mother who is mourning the loss of her children.
- Caesura: seen when the poet inserts a pause in the middle of a line. For example: “Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal” and “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.”
Stanzas One and Two
With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.
Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres,
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.
In the first stanza of ‘For the Fallen,’ the speaker begins by speaking about a “mother,” that is, England. He personifies the country, depicting it as other poets before him have done, as a mother figure caring for her children. In this case, they’ve gone far from her shores, and she’s unable to protect them. They’re lost to the battles and horror of World War I, and the only thing she can do is mourn. They are her “flesh” in the same way that a biological child is its mother’s flesh. This is an interesting way to emphasize the connection these men have to their native land.
The poet uses sound imagery in the following lines as they speak about the drumming of what could be an instrument or the soldier’s heartbeats. Death is filling the air but so is music. Despite the losses that have been suffered, there is still something to celebrate—the soldiers’ steadfastness and bravery.
Stanzas Three and Four
They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, 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.
In the next lines, the poet goes on to describe what the men were like when they died. They were “young” and strong. They had patriotic intentions and the willingness to sacrifice themselves in order to preserve their country. These men shall not, he adds, “grow old,” nor will they ever return home. They’re buried on a foreign shore, having lost their lives bravely. They won’t get weary, nor will they worry about the future. The fourth line of the fourth stand reminds the reader that these men are going to live on in the minds and hearts of those they left behind.
Stanzas Five, Six, and Seven
They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.
But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;
As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.
In the fifth stanza of ‘For the Fallen,’ the speaker speaks solemnly of the fact that these men won’t enjoy the warmth and company of friends and family ever again. They won’t get labor nor will they sleep within the borders of their country. But, they will remain in the stars at night. There, they are going to shine on. In this way, they’re going to live forever. This isn’t something that other men and women can say about themselves. This is also something to be celebrated. Anyone who wants to can look up and see the stars and know that the men who died in the First World War are living on in a different form. Readers should note the use of repetition in the final line. This drives home the poet’s point but also makes the last line more lyrical and impactful.
The speaker of the poem is English. Other than that, it’s not clear who that person is. They use third-person pronouns like “we” and “our” to speak about a group they belong to, that of English men and women.
The setting is England during the First World War. The speaker does not reference other specific locations but does allude to the deaths of soldiers. Readers might imagine battlefields and trenches.
The message is that soldiers who died fighting for their country and did so bravely, are going to live on forever in the sky as metaphorical stars. They are never going to be forgotten.
Binyon wrote this poem as a way of honoring those who died in the First World War and were still going to die in the coming years. The poem speaks about the bravery of the soldiers in such a way that one can celebrate their actions.
‘For the Fallen’ was written in 1914 at the start of the First World War. It was published in The Times in England and is often used at World War I memorial services.
Readers who enjoyed ‘For the Fallen’ should also consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘Joining the Colours’ by Katharine Tynan – was published in the midst of the First World War and details the lives of Irish soldiers joining Britain in the fight.
- ‘August, 1914’ by Vera Mary Brittain – another World War I poem that is staunchly anti-war. It depicts God looking out over humankind and deciding they have forgotten him.
- ‘The Bombardment’ by Amy Lowell – is about the bombing of “Cathedral square.” The narrative is told by a woman, a scientist, and a child.