For the Fallen

For the Fallen

This week’s poems are chosen to mark Remembrance Day, and I have chosen extra poems because marking the sacrifice of millions across two World Wars and the many other conflicts in which soldiers have fallen in the service of their country seems to me to be very important.

Remembrance Day always makes me think of the lines from the Kipling poem “A School Song” which I covered a couple of weeks ago:

They that put aside To-day,
All the joys of their To-day,
And with toil of their To-day
Bought for us To-morrow!

A School Song, by Rudyard Kipling

I have chosen W.B. Yeats’s “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”, Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier”, Laurence Binyon’s “For the Fallen”, Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum”, Sara Teasdales’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” and John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields“.

I also love Leo Marks’s code poem for the French Resistance, “The Life That I Have” which he wrote on Christmas Eve 1943 in memory of his girlfriend who had died in an air crash in Canada. Code poems were used as the key for encrypting secret messages, but this was insecure because the other side could work out the message if a well-known poem was used—Marks, who worked for the Special Operations Executive, countered this by writing original poems that the other side would know nothing of. “The Life That I Have” was issued by Marks to Violet Szabo, the British agent whose activities, capture, torture and execution are portrayed in the film “Carve Her Name With Pride”. We should remember that bravery was not the sole province of those on the battlefields, and that all those who lose their lives in the service of others deserve respect and remembrance.


  • Read about Leo Marks on Wikipedia.
  • Read about Violet Szabo on Wikipedia.
  • Read about “Carve Her Name With Pride” on Wikipedia.
  • Watch Michael Morpurgo read “The Life That I Have” on YouTube.
  • Watch Virginia McKenna as Violet Szabo reading the poem on YouTube.

Poem 94. An Irish Airman Foresees His Death

A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds

W.B. Yeats (1865—1939)
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

I feel that Yeats captures in this poem the “impulse of delight” that motivated a lot of young men to take to the skies in the early days of flight.

The first stanza establishes the fatalistic and indifferent world view of this Irishman: he expects, but does not welcome death and feels just as little for his opponents as he does for the people he protects.

The second stanza shows that he cares for his country and people, though they gain nothing from his sacrifice, nor will they suffer any significant loss. Kiltartan is an area of County Galway, Ireland where W.B. Yeats resided regularly, and at the time this poem was written, many Irishmen were fighting for the United Kingdom while others were fighting just as vehemently for Home Rule and an independent Ireland; such are the dreadful paradoxes of war.

The third stanza tells us that this man, at least, had no need to join the Royal Flying Corps (the precursor to the RAF) — he feels no sense of duty (why should he, it isn’t his country) and nor is he constrained to fight by the law; he just wants that feeling of delight, also expressed by John Gillespie Magee in “High Flight: An Airman’s Ecstasy” which I covered on VE Day this year:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, —and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of —wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

High Flight; An Airman’s Ecstasy, by John Gillespie Magee

In the final stanza, we discover that the airman thinks as little of his past deeds as he does of any promised future: just as the rest of the poem expresses his ambivalent attitude to all else, the final line shows his indifference to life and death.

Yeats wrote the poem in tribute to his friend Robert Gregory, a fighter pilot in the RFC who was killed in Italy in 1918. Gregory was an artist and played cricket for Ireland against Scotland, taking 8 for 80, though he didn’t score a run. His bowling performance is still the fourth best in first-class Irish cricket. Yeats wrote three other poems in his friend’s honour.

The poem is read by a crew member of the Flying Fortress in the film Memphis Belle and was the basis for Keane’s song, “A Bad Dream”: at their live performances a recording of the poem, read by Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy, is played before the band perform the song. It is also included on the Waterboys album, “An Appointment with Mr. Yeats” and performances by Shane McGowan of The Pogues and Lemn Sissay, the English author and broadcaster, are available on YouTube.


  • Read about the poem on WIkipedia.
  • Read about Robert Gregory on Wikipedia.
  • Watch Shane McGowan’s performance on YouTube.
  • Watch Lemn Sissay’s performance on YouTube.
  • Watch Neil Hannon’s performance on YouTube.
    I have set this link to the point where Tom Chaplin introduces the reading because the first minute or so of the clip is the end of the previous song and might be surprisingly loud if you start it up unawares. I’m still waiting for my eardrums to resume their normal shape.

Poem 95. The Soldier

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less,
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given

Rupert Brooke (1887—1915)
If I should die, think only this of me:
  That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
  In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
  Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam;
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
  Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
  A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
  And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

This is one of the most iconic war poems. I love it because it expresses a simple patriotism without any jingoistic imagery.

I like the idea that the earth where the soldier lies buried will be sanctified in a different sense than the purely religious one, and I think that this poem transcends nationality—it speaks of England but anyone of any country can appreciate familiar sights and sounds, dreams, laughter and gentleness: they are not exclusively English.

The soldier considers these things precious—fame isn’t the goal: there is a passionate love for these pleasures but a kind of acceptance of their loss if, as the last six lines suggest, some portion of the soldier’s soul—a memory of those pleasures that made life worth living—will resound in eternity.

Something that has struck me in reading this poem is that it makes no implication that the soldier is male or female—that seems quite unusual to me, given that it was written in 1914 or 1915, when women weren’t permitted to join the army as combatants, and a man of Brooke’s background might well have chosen a construction that employed male pronouns. It is as gender-neutral as it is independent of nationality, which I think is remarkable.


  • Read about the poem on Wikipedia.
  • Watch Sophie Okonedo perform the poem on YouTube.

Poem 96. For the Fallen

As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

Laurence Binyon (1869—1943)
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.
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.
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.

This is Laurence Binyon’s poem in tribute to the casualties suffered by the British Expeditionary Force in 1914. I have chosen it because it demonstrates the rather blinkered view of warfare at that stage of the conflict and contrasts starkly with Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est”.

The first stanza personifies England as a mother weeping for her lost children: “flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit”, but proud of their courage and selflessness.

The second evokes the solemn music of funerals: “Death august and royal/Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres” suggests Death as a regal personage, charged with conducting the music of grief up to heaven. Unlike the Yeats and Brooke poems, Binyon suggests that a kind of glory can be discovered in the way these young men died.

The third stanza describes them: handsome, virile, entirely admirable and “Staunch to the end” (courageous) despite facing overwhelming odds and dying bravely “with their faces to the foe” rather than fleeing in fear. This seems the worst kind of pride since many of those who were justifiably frightened by their situation were shot by their own side for cowardice.

It is the fourth stanza that is read at British Remembrance Sunday services, and which expresses most clearly the debt we should all feel to the men who have sacrificed their lives, their futures to secure our present day.

The fifth stanza emphasises the pathos: these men will never re-join and enjoy the mundane activities of peacetime; instead, they “sleep beyond England’s foam” (i.e. in foreign graveyards across the world rather than in the English churchyards where they would probably have been buried in less violent times).

The last two stanzas express the idea that these men deserve a place in our hearts and memories as permanent and inviolable as the light of the eternal stars.

I like this poem mostly because of its sentiment towards the fallen soldiers, but I find its expression of unquestioning bravery rather too patronising and the implication that the consequent deaths were glorious I find difficult to agree with.


Poem 97. Dulce et Decorum Est

In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

Wilfred Owen (1893—1918)
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

This is one of Wilfred Owen’s counterblasts to the kind of propagandists who encouraged young men to join up and fight in the trenches and the poets like Brooke and Binyon who presented the war as a glorious adventure. It is a horrific description of a gas attack and its aftermath.

The poem starts by describing the weary soldiers making their way through the mud and away from the front line towards a resting place; the men are so fatigued they hardly hear the soft sounds of the gas shells as they fall around them.

The second stanza describes the dreadful panic engendered by the encroaching green gas clouds, the frenzied shouts of warning and the desperate struggle to secure the masks, and the dreadful agonies of the man who fails to do so in time. The third stanza likens the poisoned man to one who chokes or drowns, the narrator, like a man in a dream, is incapable of rendering assistance.

In the third stanza, Owen has us trudge behind the wagon where the injured man lies, watching “his hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin” and hearing the terrible sound as he coughs blood from his tortured lungs. In the final lines Owen admonishes those who were peddling the sentiments of the Roman poet Horace: “Dulce et decorum pro patria mori” means “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country”. Owen, with this graphic and terrifying image of the horrors of war to support him, bluntly calls this “the old Lie”.

Owen was one of the leading First World War poets, inspired by Siegfried Sassoon who he met while recovering from shell shock in Edinburgh. Sassoon apparently threatened to stab Owen in the leg if he tried to return to the trenches, but Owen did so without Sassoon’s knowledge and subsequently won a Military Cross at Joncourt. A month later and one week before the signing of the Armistice, he was killed in action. Truly, if any poet understood the dreadful realities of conflict, Wilfred Owen did, and he had the confidence and skill to express his reservations and opinions to the public.


Poem 98. There Will Come Soft Rains

Not one would mind, neither bird not tree,
If mankind perished utterly

Sara Teasdale (1884—1933)
There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;
And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white.
Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;
And not one of them will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
Not one would mind, neither bird not tree,
If mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

This seems like a kind of warning, a reminder that we are tenants of the earth, not its landlords. If we should evict ourselves through war, disease, disaster or plain idiocy, the world and nature will carry on without even shrugging or acknowledging our extinction.

There is a lot of loose talk about saving or destroying the world—the world is ancient beyond our understanding and does not care if we live or die. In four and a half billion years, it has experienced forces and environments far beyond what our feeble efforts might be capable of—no, what we mean when we jabber about saving the world is a purely selfish desire on the part of humanity to keep things much as they are so that we can continue to exist. Personally, I’m all for it—let’s not give the beetles their chance to shine just yet. Tyrannosaurus Rex, Triceratops, Stegosaurus and their ilk existed for 180 million years or so before a combination of natural forces put paid to their posterity, so let’s hope we can do better than half a million years or so without intentionally or inadvertently encompassing our destruction.

However, Sara Teasdale is writing about war and disease. She wrote this poem after Germany started its Spring Offensive in 1918 and while the flu pandemic was raging, so it seems particularly poignant at the moment. The poem’s message is that regardless of the human costs and horrors of conflict, the natural world reasserts itself when allowed to and does not care whether we are in the next field, the next country or the next world. Birds sing and swoop, trees blossom, and petrichor, the smell of the earth after rain, will be unchanged. Life goes on, as we constantly say without stopping to wonder if it is the kind of life we’d like to pursue.

It makes me think of the middle part of Eric Bogle’s song, “The Green Fields of France”:

The sun, now it shines on the green fields of France
There’s a warm Summer breeze, it makes the red poppies dance
And look how the sun shines from under the clouds
There’s no gas, no barbed wire, there’s no guns firing now.

The Green Fields of France, by Eric Bogle

Ray Bradbury used the name of this poem for his short story on a similar theme about an automated house that survives the destruction by an atomic bomb of the surrounding city and its inhabitants.


Poem 99. In Flanders Fields

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Lt. Col. John McCrae (1872—1918)
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

This poem was written by John McCrae, a Canadian medical officer, after conducting the funeral of a friend who had died in the second Battle of Ypres in 1915. He noted how quickly poppies sprang up around the graves of the dead, and wrote the poem the next day.

The first stanza is reminiscent of Sara Teasdale’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” with its references to the apparently peaceful graveyard with the blowing poppies and the singing larks but a brutal note is sounded by the guns.

The second stanza tells us who is speaking—the fallen soldiers who are ordinary people (in the words of Kipling’s Tommy, “most remarkable like you”) who enjoyed life and are now buried in the cemeteries of Belgium and France.

The third stanza brings a note of patriotism which reflects McCrae’s own opinions, suggesting that those who come after should perpetuate the conflict for fear of incurring the displeasure of the fallen.

Like the poetry of Rupert Brooke and Laurence Binyon, this poem carries the sense of the early years of the war when optimism and patriotic fervour had not yet been silenced by the terrible toll taken by the machinery of death. These poems are suitably counterpointed by the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, which present a far more realistic and gritty viewpoint from their experiences over the whole of the conflict.

A writer at the time of the Napoleonic Wars first noted the prevalence of poppies on soldiers’ graves—the damage done to the soil by the constant battles increased the lime content, making it difficult for plants to grow, but the poppy flourishes.

The American professor Moina Michael, inspired by this poem, began wearing a poppy in 1918 to honour the fallen soldiers. She distributed silk poppies to her circle and campaigned to have them adopted as an official symbol, which happened in 1920 in the United States. In 1921 Madame Guérin, who had been at the 1920 convention, sent poppy sellers to London and Field Marshal Haig supported and encouraged their work so that the practice spread throughout the British Empire.

John McCrae died of pneumonia near the end of the war and was buried with full military honours in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission section of Wimereux Cemetery near Boulogne. He is commemorated in his native Canada in the names of several schools, memorials, museums and statues.

I think that the central message of his poem is that we should keep faith with the dead. In McCrae’s view, the best way to do that was to pursue the conflict but I think we do them most honour by remembering their bravery and sacrifice and by pursuing peaceful solutions to the problems that face us all.

We will remember them.