In our part of the world at this time of the year leaves are gathered. Sometimes an industrial blower is used to push the leaves into a neat pile. More often than not the task requires the use of brushes, rakes and shovel. Leaves are binned, bagged and taken away by trucks. Careful householders who are ecologically aware pile the leaves into their compost heaps where next spring nutritious mulch will be produced for fertilising gardens. The cycle of life continues.
Some time ago I came across a poem, The Burning of the Leaves, by Lawrence Binyon. I greatly admired the verses and their theme of destruction, death, renewal and new life. Mistakenly, I had thought at first that the burning of the leaves referred to the annual autumnal leaf burning, a practice now forbidden on ecological grounds. It turns out, on closer reading, that the burning of the leaves refers, in fact, to a forest fire. We now know that forest fires contribute directly to the renewal of growth in a forest. Foresters engage deliberately in tree burning to promote new growth.
Lawrence Binyon was born to a distinguished Quaker family in Lancashire, England, in 1869. He went on to read classics at Oxford. He took up a position at the British Museum where he went on to become the Keeper of its Oriental Department. Following his marriage to Margaret Powell in 1904 he became acquainted with a circle of artists and poets, among whom were Ezra Pound and Walter Sickert.
HIs most famous poem, often cited at Remembrance Day services, at this time of the year is For the Fallen. Although written prior to the war, it has now become firmly associated with the commemoration of the dead of World War I. He himself participated in the war as an ambulance driver. Following the war, he resumed his work at the museum and continued to publish poetry. In the 1930s he was named Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard and on his return to England was honoured by further academic and literary honours. During World War II he was living in Athens and narrowly escaped the Germans when they invaded Greece. He returned to England where he died in 1943.
The poem, The Burning of the Leaves, was published posthumously in a book of poetry of the same name in 1944.
The Burning of the Leaves
Some verses from The Burning of the Leaves:
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.
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.
The freshness of leaves is from them, and the springing of grass,
The juice of the apple, the rustle of ripening corn;
They know not the lust of destruction, the frenzy of spite;
They give and pervade, and possess not, but silently pass;
They perish not, though they be broken; continuing streams,
The same in the cloud and the glory, the night and the light.
For the Fallen
They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eyes, 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