They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn…

Image“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.” 

The famous words with which we introduce of two minutes of silence on Remembrance Sunday every year.

I was speaking to someone this week who hates those words – “what kind of comfort is that?” she asked “not growing old?”; and suggested that we would do better to read the Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen.

I had to agree that Anthem for Doomed Youth is a more profound reflection on warfare, but I always though the traditional words were full of irony: it’s puny comfort but it’s  the best we can say.

I will end my sermon with the Anthem for Doomed Youth, but I will also spend some time with the traditional “Ode to Remembrance” and use those words to introduce the silence.

Whatever it’s merits as a poem, the fourth stanza of the poem, which gained the title the “Ode of Remembrance” is regularly recited at memorial services all over the world commemorating World War I, such as ANZAC Day, Remembrance Day, and Remembrance Sunday. In Australia’s Returned and Services Leagues, and in New Zealand’s numerous RSA’s.  In Canadian remembrance services, a French translation is often used along with or instead of the English ode.  Most touchingly, it is read every evening at the Menin Gate in Ypres at 8p.m., after the last post and followed by a minute of silence.

There is something to be said for knowing that we are hearing the same words as thousands of others across the world this morning. 

The “Ode of Remembrance” is a stanza taken from Laurence Binyon’s poem, “For the Fallen”, which was first published in The Times in September 1914.  Here is more of the poem:

From ‘For The Fallen

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, 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.

As I said, I have never taken the idea of not growing old as a source of comfort.  I’ve always held to Woody Allen’s view on the ageing process; when asked about the subject he said “growing old isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.”

I think the irony is appropriately disturbing.  Binyon does understand the tragedy that  “They mingle not with their laughing comrades again /They sit no more at familiar tables of home…”  I have always been happy to see ‘not growing old’ as a bitterly ironic response to the death of soldiers, because I have never seen Remembrance Sunday as a source of comfort.  If remembrance Sunday is about comfort or celebration we have missed the point.

In the ancient Jewish tradition their thinking was greatly influenced by the idea of our ancestors and successors.  There was no clear idea of eternal life, immortality was obtained through having children and grandchildren who we lived on through after our own deaths (ideas that reemerged with an atheistic facelift in Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene).  This is why to be infertile was seen as such a terrible burden; and to kill someone before they had children was to blot their name out from the land.  To kill someone was not just to end one life, but to destroy the lives of the children they never had, and the grandchildren those children would have had, and so on… 

Wilfred Owen’s story reflects to us the tragedy of war:  he spent considerable time on the front-line: he was blown up, concussed and suffered shell-shock; then he won the Military Cross by seizing a German machine-gun.  He lived through so much, then, just as the war was about to end on 4th November he was shot and killed near the village of Ors. The news of his death reached his parents home as the Armistice bells were ringing on 11 November 1918.

Anthem for doomed youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? 
Only the monstrous anger of the guns. 
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle 
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; 
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells; 
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all? 
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes 
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes. 
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall; 
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds, 
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

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