Watch this Space 17 February 2016

Calderonia is an experiment in biography through a blog. It tells the story of George and Kittie Calderon’s lives from 30 July 1914 to 30 July 1915 from day to day as it happened, but exactly 100 years afterwards. It therefore feels like a biography in real time. When no facts were known for a particular day, the author posted on subjects ranging from the Edwardians, recently published biographies and his own problems as a biographer, to translating Chekhov and the Commemoration of World War I.

The blog-biography can be accessed in various ways. To read it from the beginning, go to the top of the column on the right and click the appropriate link. You can then read forward in time by clicking the link at the end of each post. If you wish to start at a particular month, scroll down the column on the right to Archive at the bottom. Posts can also be selected through Search Calderonia and the Tags on the right. An update on the complete biography of George Calderon always follows this introduction.

17/2/16. The weekly digests of events in World War 1 keep coming in from The Times, every day the media run items and features connected with it, the public debate about commemorating the fallen continues. Although I left the field of battle, as it were, on 7 June 1915, there is no chance of getting away from the War. It gets to you

I have no desire to revive the debate about commemoration, ‘making peace with the Great War’, empathy/sentimentality, ‘war porn’, historicisation etc — new visitors can see from Recent Comments, the archive of ‘Watch this Space’, and a search on ‘Commemoration’, how much we thrashed these subjects out last year, and that by December some of us felt we had said our last word. But with the Battle of Loos and the collapse of the Russians’ Polish front last autumn, the evacuation from Gallipoli last month, the battle for Verdun this month, and the Somme coming soon, one inevitably continues to mull issues. Perhaps since December some followers have acquired new angles on previous themes. Personally, I want to address only a small poetical matter, but I know it ‘ramifies’.

It’s common knowledge that line 13 of Laurence Binyon’s ‘For the Fallen’ is often recited as ‘They shall not grow old’, when it should be ‘They shall grow not old’. Is this done through mere forgetfulness or ignorance? I don’t think so.

If, as is natural, we assume that the words are expressing a plain negative, namely that the fallen, being dead, will not grow old, then we would expect the metrical, iambic stress to be on the negating word ‘not’: ‘They shall not grow old…’ In terms of subject and predicate, we could represent this as: ‘They shall not (grow old).’ However, that is not what Binyon has written. In his version the metrical stress is on ‘grow’: ‘They shall grow not old…’ The half-line therefore rises appropriately on ‘grow’. Grammatically, this might appear to be just an archaic inverted negative. But actually it makes ‘not’ an unstressed syllable, produces a slight pause after ‘grow’, and could be represented structurally as: ‘They shall grow (not old).’ In other words the movement of the line is towards making ‘not’ qualify ‘old’ rather than qualify ‘grow’. Growing into a state of not-oldness sounds odd, and I would suggest that it is this apparent non sequitur that causes readers to stumble and ‘correct’ the line to ‘They shall not grow old’.

However, if you read the line as Binyon wrote it, it seems to me inevitable that you visualise the fallen as growing into an affirmative new state of being ‘not-old’, and that this is what the poet intended. What could this state be? Well, transfiguration, immortality, glory. Glory is a very tricky word today, debased and even pejorative. I note that it is given fifteen different meanings in The Chambers Dictionary, ranging from ‘renown’ and ‘triumphant honour’ to ‘boastful or self-congratulatory spirit’ and ‘presence of God’. But the ‘not-old’ state of the fallen in Binyon’s poem reminds me of nothing so much as the lines from Henry Vaughan’s poem ‘They are all gone into the world of light’:

I see them walking in an air of glory,
Whose light doth trample on my days:
My days, which are at best but dull and hoary,
Mere glimmering and decays.

Most of Binyon’s poem is concrete and fastidious; but in ‘They shall grow not old’ I feel it approaches the transcendent dimension of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Greater Love’. The soldiers’ act of supreme love, namely their ‘ultimate sacrifice’ for others, has removed them to that place of transfiguration where ‘you may touch them not’ (Owen). By comparison, ‘we that are left’ live out days that are ‘but dull and hoary’, in Vaughan’s words.

Given that ‘For the Fallen’ is the most famous war poem in the English language, it is difficult to believe that this point has not been discussed, and analysed better than I can, many times before. However, I cannot find any discussion of it on the Web.

By contrast, you will find plenty of discussion on the Web of the second half of Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Dulce et decorum est’, about a gas attack, and specifically of the line ‘His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin’. This discussion was possibly triggered by Seamus Heaney asking his students at Queen’s University whether the poem wasn’t ‘over-written’, ‘artistically bad’, and the lines in which ‘devil’s sick’ occurs weren’t ‘a bit insistent’, ‘a bit explicit’ (see his The Government of the Tongue, Faber & Faber, pp. xiv-xvi). Heaney seems to focus this into a conflict between ‘truth’ and ‘beauty’, ‘life’ and ‘art’, although his final take on the matter seems ambiguous; some might say specious.

The reason, in my view, that Owen’s words here are ‘over the top’ (‘If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood/Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,/Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud/Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues’) is that his reaction is naturally to use the strongest words he can find, this backfires on him, yet ultimately produces an incoherence that perfectly enacts his horror.

If you have read as many personal accounts of WW1 warfare as I have in the past year (Ypres and Gallipoli), you too become incoherent if you try to express your reaction to the horror and degradation of it. I cannot think that there has been another war in which the human savagery and sheer filth have reached these depths. We have to accept, which I think Heaney never really did, that ‘devil’s sick of sin’ etc is not an iota too strong for it.

The poles of our World War 1 poetry are ‘devil’s sick’ and ‘glory’. We are rightly being overwhelmed by the former in these anniversary years, but we must never forget the latter either. Apparently it was Lloyd George who proposed the words ‘The Glorious Dead’ on the sides of Lutyens’s Cenotaph. If so, he was a genius, but so many contemporaries were involved in the post-war memorialisation that I expect it was really a consensus. There is no ‘To’ in it, just the three words, as if to mean ‘This says all we can about them’. It is an age removed from Rupert Brooke’s understandably tawdry line of autumn 1914 ‘Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead!’. After our protracted, ‘wordy’ discussions of Commemoration last year, a follower of Calderonia emailed me that it was all very interesting but ‘The Glorious Dead’ remained; that was in a way all that could be said…

‘Lapidary verse’ is an interesting, classical art (Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes produced notable inscriptions for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee), and perhaps this recent anonymous example drives at what I have been trying to say:


Their uniforms of shit
their lives of shit
their deaths of shit
we live.
What means forget

I should inform new visitors to the blog that Laurence Binyon was a lifetime friend of George Calderon’s and wrote an ode In Memory of George Calderon whose last verse bears a resemblance to the final lines of ‘For the Fallen’.

I am currently revising Chapter 6, ‘Russianist, Novelist, Cartoonist’, which at sixty-five printout-pages is by far the longest. It covers the years 1900-1905. I keep thinking I must split it, but it is really the backbone of the book, because it attempts to show from analysis of George’s essays and novels that he is a first-rate Russianist and a significant Edwardian writer… Unfortunately, following discoveries in the last year I have to add 500 words to it about George and Taoism. The research and evaluation have been done, but it’s still going to be difficult to know where to splice this subject in. I will then have edited/rewritten nearly half of the book.

This is the most recent ‘Watch this Space’ post. For the archive of ‘Watch this Space’, please click here.


About Patrick Miles

I am a writer who specialises in Anton Chekhov and is writing a biography of George Calderon.
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1 Response to Watch this Space 17 February 2016

  1. Jim D G Miles says:

    Very interesting post. Particularly so Heaney’s provocative line of discussion. “Over-written” is one of my favourite backhanded descriptors, but I think I agree that it was not truly valid here.

    I’m with you on the “grow not old” vs “not grow old” interpretation, and Binyon’s intention in wording it precisely the way he did.

    These are the sorts of examples I use with non-native speakers to illustrate importance of word order in English, and the subtleties of meaning they can carry.

    …but, sometimes, even native speakers fail to recognise the distinctions.

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