Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Burning of the Leaves by Laurence Binyon

This is an article I wrote for Annals Australasia magazine (the oldest Catholic magazine in Australia!), where I've had several articles published. My most recent ones have been part of a series about great poems, a subject close to my heart. Kudos to the editor of this magazine for giving space to such a series-- poetry rarely gets column inches of any sort.

Thanks to my brother Turlough for adding the pictures, after I spent more than an hour trying to do so. For some reason, on this particular post, Blogger seemed insistent that it was not going to allow pictures inserted without also including massive spaces after each one.

In previous articles in this series, I have written commentaries on acknowledged great poems. This time around, I am going to be a little bit more adventurous and write about a poem which—though often included in anthologies, and fairly well known—can hardly claim the same cultural stature as ‘Ulysses’ by Tennyson or Psalm 23 of the King James Bible.
The poem is ‘The Burning of the Leaves’ by Laurence Binyon, an English poet who died in 1943. Binyon fought in the First World War and his most famous poem is ‘For the Fallen’, with its oft-recited line: “They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old.”

As ‘The Burning of the Leaves’ is relatively unknown, I am going to quote it in full. Read it slowly, and savour it:

Now is the time for the burning of the leaves.
They go to the fire; the nostril pricks with smoke
Wandering slowly into a weeping mist.
Brittle and blotched, ragged and rotten sheaves!
A flame seizes the smouldering ruin and bites
On stubborn stalks that crackle as they resist.

The last hollyhock's fallen tower is dust;
All the spices of June are a bitter reek,
All the extravagant riches spent and mean.
All burns! The reddest rose is a ghost;
Sparks whirl up, to expire in the mist: the wild
Fingers of fire are making corruption clean.

Now is the time for stripping the spirit bare,
Time for the burning of days ended and done,
Idle solace of things that have gone before:
Rootless hope and fruitless desire are there;
Let them go to the fire, with never a look behind.
The world that was ours is a world that is ours no more.

They will come again, the leaf and the flower, to arise
From squalor of rottenness into the old splendour,
And magical scents to a wondering memory bring;
The same glory, to shine upon different eyes.
Earth cares for her own ruins, naught for ours.
Nothing is certain, only the certain spring.

I first encountered this poem in a modern edition of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury when I was fourteen. Since then it has haunted me, and—while other poems that struck me as an adolescent seem less impressive now—my regard for this one has grown steadily with the years. I consider it one of the very finest poems in the language.

What is so remarkable about it? Well, the first thing to be said is that it is very accomplished. It’s a four stanza poem whose lines are fairly long, but the metre never falters, and each line develops the theme in a very natural way—there are no ‘filler’ lines. This in itself is quite rare.

Over the years, as the poem has seeped deeper into my mind, I have come to notice that the form harmonizes remarkably well with the subject matter. Its crisp, steady, gentle syllables remind me of the crackling of a bonfire. The emotion in each verse swells until the verse’s final line, when there is a dying fall reminiscent of a spark or a cinder falling to the ground. The entire poem has a trance-like, dreamy quality. Accomplished poets often like to introduce irregularities into the metre, to avoid this very ‘sing-song’ quality, but it is very appropriate here.

I have said in previous articles in this series that a great poem needs a great theme. The theme of ‘The Burning of the Leaves’ is one of the oldest and most constant themes in poetry—the theme of transience, mortality, things passing. This theme is so standard that it has a name; Ubi sunt, which means literally ‘Where are?” in Latin. Where are they now? There must be few human beings, even amongst the most cloddish, who have not been spurred into a poetic mood by the sight of their old school, or a yellowed photograph, or the ruins of a castle.
I must admit a particular fascination with this theme, as I am the world’s number one nostalgist. Even when I was a little boy, standing on the circle of burnt-away grass where the previous year’s Halloween bonfire had blazed filled me with a sweet melancholy. I get wistful about the most trivial changes and endings—such as the discontinuation of a bus route, or the parting of brief acquaintances. So it’s obvious why I would find the subject matter of the ‘The Burning of the Leaves’ compelling. 

But this poem has something that most others ‘Ubi sunt’ poems don’t. It’s not simply a lamentation for the passage of time, and the disappearance of the past—it dares to also be an affirmation, almost a celebration. Lines such as these are both shocking and bracing, to a confirmed nostalgist such as myself:

Let them go to the fire, with never a look behind.
The world that was ours is a world that is ours no more.

Perhaps there is a unique relief in letting go of the things that we have held onto with the most resilience. Even the idea that we could possibly let go of them is strangely exhilarating—exhilarating and scary at once. We are so used (especially the nostalgists amongst us) to seeing ourselves as the playthings of time and change that the idea we can view these forces with equanimity—perhaps even with approval— is thrilling. We can warm ourselves by the very flames which consume all we love.

This sense of mingled shock and exhilaration is heightened by the violence of the language used:

All the spices of June are a bitter reek,
All the extravagant riches spent and mean.
All burns!

There is a glee to language like this. It would be merely glib if the poem did not contain a corresponding measure of melancholy and lyricism.

The single passage in the poem which has affected me the most strongly is this one:

The reddest rose is a ghost;
Sparks whirl up, to expire in the mist: the wild
Fingers of fire are making corruption clean.

The last line, indeed, is the line that has haunted me the most.

I think we are all puritans-- of one kind or another. Whether in the confessional, or in the gymnasium, or at the protest march, we are all striving towards some kind of purity. The 'corruption' which we are trying to 'make clean' may be sin, or flab, or social prejudice. It might be one of a thousand other things. But each of us-- or most of us, at least-- are trying to chisel away the parts of us (and the parts of the world) that do not correspond to our ideal, to our vision of perfection. Sometimes the prospect that this will be painful or bitter is a strangely satisfying one. The poetry of this idea is expressed in the final line of Oscar Wilde's autobiographical essay De Profundis, where he says of nature: "She will cleanse me in great waters, and with bitter herbs make me whole."

In Scripture, the image of purifying fire is a common one: “Our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29), “Your faith (much more precious than gold which is tried by the fire)” (1 Peter 1:7), “If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.” (1 Corinthians 3:15). Secular sources draw on this image too. Take Harold Wilson’s famous reference to “the Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this [technological] revolution”.

So this is a venerable image, one that seems to naturally occur to the human mind. But I don’t think it has ever been expressed better than “the fingers of fire are making corruption clean”. And the line intensifies, of course, the general air of mingled exhilaration and loss.

Finally, the poem closes with a triad of single-sentence lines, the epigrammatic power of each one reinforcing the next:

The same glory, to shine upon different eyes.
Earth cares for her own ruins, not for ours.
Nothing is certain, only the certain spring.

That last line is so memorable and elegantly expressed that I wonder why it has not become a standard quotation. But then, I wonder why the poem as a whole has not been added to the ranks of all-time classics. I feel entirely justified in adding it to my series of truly great poems.


  1. This was a really good read - thanks for posting this here. I am fond of poetry and music with this slow misty melancholia, and autumn itself. The poem is something to savour.

    1. Thanks, Dominic! That is one of the reasons I love the poem so much-- I love the same atmosphere. And that is why I included so many pictures of leaves burning, where one might have been thought to do the trick!

  2. I agree, but point out these four stanzas are just the first section of a five-part meditation on the effects of the second world war in 1942, just before he died. (Binyon wrote "They shall grow not old" .. in his poem The Fallen after the first world war in 1919. These four stanzas do make a good stand-alone poem, but take a look at the rest of it some time. His mastery of poetic technique is brilliant and apparently effortless.

  3. Thanks, Anonymous. I didn't mention the rest of the poem for two reasons: 1) I encountered it as a stand-alone poem and that's how it remains with me, and 2) I didn't wnat to confuse or distract the reader. I have to admit that I never looked at the rest of the poem, but I will do so given your recommendation.

  4. I am old enough to remember when as a boy all the neighbors in Connecticut would rake their leaves into the street and burn them. The air in 1950 was not polluted. This poem eloquently brought back such vivid memories. Thank You.