The lyrical curator

Laurence Binyon
October 25, 1996

The British Museum attracts six million visitors every year. Most of them are, however, tourists who manage to see just a few treasures from antique lands. As they climb the steps under the portico, hardly any of them would notice a four-line stanza carved on the wall. But those who survived the vortex of the 20th century would share the feeling evoked by the blunt truth of the first line, "They shall grow not old," for it is universal. The name of the poet is not given there; but only those of the fallen. Laurence Binyon (1869-1943) is best remembered today for the epic grandeur of his Great War poem as against the intense personal feeling for the fallen of Rupert Brooke.

Though he is not much read today, Binyon was not only an accomplished poet of his time but a man of remarkable achievement in several different fields. Son of a clergyman, he had a good classical training at St Paul's, London, and a good "total" education at Trinity College, Oxford. Starting his career at the British Museum in printed books in 1893, he then spent 18 years in prints and drawings before he was put in charge of oriental prints and drawings in 1913. It was an ideal milieu for the man whose lifelong interests were poetry and painting (and for his young assistant Arthur Waley). During his 40-year career at the museum, he wrote on English watercolours, built up the oriental art collections, and became a pioneer scholar and interpreter of Far Eastern art, while publishing many small volumes of poetry at short intervals. He was also a critic (by necessity), and his rendering in terza rima of Dante's Divina Commedia was said to be the best English verse translation of his time.

Recent decades have seen many books and articles on Yeats, Pound, Eliot and the Bloomsberries; but hardly any on Binyon. And, unlike many of his contemporaries, he left no memoir. The first biography of Binyon, by John Hatcher, is thus most welcome and his labour highly commendable. Writing biography is no easy task, particularly in the case of a creative personality. The first duty of the biographer, declared Lytton Strachey, is to preserve "a brevity which excludes everything that is redundant and nothing that is significant." Hatcher has kept personal anecdotes and the details of Binyon's private life to a minimum. The result is a compact and yet scholarly literary biography, revealing Binyon as a man of surprising depths and restoring him to the place he deserves in the history of British cultural and intellectual enterprises. Equally important, it brings to light an important phase of the East-West cultural dialogue.

Versatile as he was, poetry was the keynote of Binyon's life. It was to him a whole way of being and responding to life. If he sang to few muses, it was to be expected - England looked to ancient Greece in the 19th century. But some of his urban poems (London Visions) sound surprisingly contemporary.

They that all night, dozing disquieted, Huddled together on the benches cold, Now shrank apart, distrustful and unfed, And by the growing radiance unconsoled.

"Trafalgar Square" Where William Morris, once the paradigm for Binyon, was an outspoken romantic revolutionary, Binyon was soft-spoken and his poems remained "a statement of intentions". Hatcher's detailed account of this ever-experimenting poet - "whose poetry got better as he grew older" - is very illuminating.

If poetry was what Binyon lived for, art was his other passion, almost a spiritual discipline. "The deepest institutions of a race are deposited in its art," he wrote in 1911, and only those who understood their own native traditions could understand those of others. Binyon laid the foundation for the study of British drawing with his publications such as the four-volume catalogue of drawings in the museum or English Water Colours.

But it was Far Eastern art that opened a new vista for Binyon - "a new world of beauty" - almost a creed. With Sydney Colvin's support he built up the museum's oriental art collections. In 1908 he produced Painting in the Far East, the first study of its kind in a European language, treating the Far Eastern pictorial tradition as a whole, though his approach was personal and romantic. The Flight of the Dragon (1911) went through many reprints until 1972. It exerted "a subtle influence" on Pound's aesthetic; but the author was accused by G. K. Chesterton of promoting the philosophy of the oriental "heathens". In 1923 Binyon produced Japanese Colour Prints, the standard text for many decades, assisted by others including Waley.

It is true that Binyon's scholarship was tinted with romanticism and a touch of orientalism. But it is only fair to point out that the romantic image of the other operated both ways between East and West. It was perhaps natural for any art lover in Whistler's London to be drawn to Far Eastern art. But what differentiated Binyon from others was his intense gaze in search of philosophical meaning and his completely unprejudiced attitude to the other (so it was with Arthur Waley). His encounter with an Indian boy, "an unaccountable apparition from an unknown hemisphere" and through him Indian philosophy during his formative years at St Paul's was undoubtedly a contributory factor. His poem "Koya-san", written during his first and last visit to Japan, when her expansionism was already casting a dark shadow over East Asia, testifies to simple and basic humanity in him (rare even today) and Hatcher's book is a just tribute to this quiet missionary of beauty and truth.

Fragments we are, and none has seen the whole.

Only some moment wins us to restore The touch of infinite companionship.

I that had journeyed from so far a shore Found at the world's end the same pilgrim soul, And the old sorrow, no flight can outstrip.

Shozaburo Miyamoto is professorof English for area studies, Chubu University, Japan.

Laurence Binyon: Poet, Scholar of East and West

Author - John Hatcher
ISBN - 0 19 812296 9
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £40.00
Pages - 345

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