ENTRY: Binyon, Laurence.
Laurence Binyon (b. August 10, 1869 at Lancaster – d. March 10, 1943 at Reading, Berkshire)
was an English poet, dramatist and art scholar.
The son of Quakers, Binyon was educated at St Paul's High School and Trinity College, Oxford.
He was already writing poetry by 1890, and won the Newdigate Prize for one poem whilst still at Oxford.
After graduation, from 1893 he worked at the Department of Printed Books in the British Museum.
In 1904 he married fellow historian Cicely Margaret Powell, and the couple had three daughters.
He later moved to the Museum's Department of Prints and Drawings, becoming the Assistant
Keeper of Prints and Drawings in 1909. In 1913 he was made the Keeper of the new Sub-Department of
Oriental Prints and Drawings. Many of his books produced while at the Museum were influenced
by his sensibilities as a poet, although some are works of plain scholarship - such as
his four-volume catalogue of all the Museum's English drawings.
Although too old to enlist in the First World War, he went to the Western Front in 1916
to work for the Red Cross as a medical orderly with an Ambulance Unit. He wrote about
his experiences in For Dauntless France (1918).
He is best known for the poem For the Fallen, still regularly recited on occasions such as
Remembrance Day and Remembrance Sunday. It is customarily read by an old soldier.
Edward Elgar set Binyon's poems to music as "The spirit of England: op. 80, for tenor
or soprano solo, chorus and orchestra" (1917).
After the First World War, he returned to the British Museum and wrote numerous books on art;
in particular on William Blake, Persian art, and Japanese art. His work on ancient
Japanese & Chinese cultures offered strongly contextualised examples that inspired,
among others, the poets Ezra Pound, and W.B. Yeats. His work on Blake and his
followers kept alive the then nearly-forgotten memory of the work of Samuel Palmer.
Binyon's duality of scholarly interests continued the traditional interest of British visionary Romanticism
in the rich strangeness of Mediterranean and Oriental cultures.
In 1931 his two volume Collected Poems appeared. In 1933, he was appointed Norton Professor
of Poetry at Harvard. In 1934 he retired from the British Museum, having risen to be
the Keeper of the Prints and Drawings Department, and went to live in the country at
Westridge Green, near Streatley (where his daughters also later went to live, during the Second World War).
As well as writing poetry Binyon continued his academic work: in May 1939 he gave the
prestigious Romanes Lecture in Oxford on Art and Freedom, and in 1940 he was appointed the
Byron Professor of English Literature at University of Athens. He worked there until
forced to escape just before the German invasion of Greece in April 1941.
Binyon had been friends with Ezra Pound since around 1909, and in the 1930s the two
became especially friendly - Pound affectionately called him "BinBin", and closely
assisted Binyon with his Dante translation work. Another Binyon protege was Arthur
Waley, whom Binyon employed at the British Museum. Binyon also introduced Robert
Frost to the young Robert Bridges.
Between 1933 and 1943, Binyon published an acclaimed translation of Dante's Divina commedia
in an English version of terza rima. At his death he was also working on a major
three-part Arthurian trilogy; the first part of which was published after his death as
The Madness of Merlin (1947).
There is a slate memorial at Aldworth, St. Mary's Church, where Binyon's ashes were scattered after death.
His daughter Helen Binyon (1904-1979) was an artist who studied with Paul Nash and Eric Ravilious.
She illustrated many books for the Oxford University Press, and was also a marionettist.
She later taught puppetry and published Puppetry Today (1966) and Professional Puppetry in England (1973).
Bibliography of selected key works:
Collected Poems Vol 1: London Visions, Narrative Poems, Translations (1931)
Collected Poems Vol 2: Lyrical Poems (1931)
The Burning of the Leaves and Other Poems (1944)
The Madness of Merlin (1947)
2) English arts & myth: William Blake: Being all his Woodcuts Photographically Reproduced in Facsimile (1902)
English Poetry in its relation to painting and the other arts (1918)
Drawings and Engravings of William Blake (1922)
Arthur: A Tragedy (1923)
The Followers of William Blake (1925)
The Engraved Designs of William Blake (1926)
Landscape in English Art and Poetry (1931)
Gerard Hopkins and his influence (1939)
English Watercolours (1944) Further Reading: Hatcher, John. Laurence Binyon: Poet, Scholar of East and West (1995)
Made in Staffordshire, England. © 2007.
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