"At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember him."
The poem was read here:
Place: Beth Israel Cemetery, 232 Fuller Street, Everett, Massachusetts
Date: November 6, 2013
Officiant: Rabbi Baruch HaLevi
Ceremony: Funeral of Ronald Marshall, my father-in-law
"That poem is from World War I," I said.
"For The Fallen" by Laurence Binyon is about the soldiers who died in World War I, also known as the Great War (1914-1918). The poem was written in 1914:
- 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.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them now opens Yizkor prayers of remembrance at the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot. It now shows up in Britiain's Remembrance Day (November 11) commemorations. But it was first chosen by parents and wives for the headstones of their soldiers who died in World War I.
World War I not only structures funerals, war memoirs, and war memorials, but also provides numerous words and phrases used in everyday English: WWI Vocabulary.
The poppy as a symbol of remembrance is also from World War I.
How did this happen?
To make sense of the Great War, the British turned to British literature, says Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory. By the time British troops arrived in France and Belgium, poppies had already accumulated "a ripe traditional symbolism in English writing, where they had been a staple since Chaucer" (page 247). Many carried with them The Oxford Book of Verse.
The British poppy was a meme, an "information-packet with attitude," to use Daniel Dennett's contemporary phrase. The poppy was blood-red, an easy emblem of shed blood, oblivion, sleep, death, forgetfulness, and remembrance. It debuted its new commemorative role in the most popular poem of the Great War, John McRae's "In Flanders Fields" (1915):
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row.
The British Legion made poppy pins for Remembrance Day after the War. The poppies in McRae's poem are one reason why, says Fussell.
Fussell's takeaway for memoir writers is that one notices and remembers what one has been "coded" to notice and remember–usually by literature or its popular equivalent–to notice and remember. Today's codes include incessant, mass, automated, entertainment, advertisement, publicity, news, etc.
The British took note of the poppy because it was already there in British literature. "It would be a mistake to imagine that the poppies in Great War writings get there just because they are actually there in the French and Belgian fields," Fussell advises (page 247).
The poppy meme went viral. It was already in the British "cultural soup" when the Great War came along. A poet picked up on it, the British Legion felt comfortable with it, the poppy pins appeared on Remembrance Day, memoirists wrote about it in their Great War memoirs, and it eventually became the emblem of the Royal British Legion's Remembrance commemorations. The poppy meme is now a mutant mashup on a T-shirt, "Keep calm and wear a poppy."
Also note: Article about the British poppy wars by Dan Hodges at The Telegraph and amusing video How to Wear Your Poppy.
James Gleick says in The Information (2011) that famous portraits are memes. He tells the following anecdote about the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Information, page 313):
"This may not be what George Washington looked like then," the tour guide was overheard saying about the portrait of George Washington. "But this is what he looks like now."
Flanders field may not have looked like this then, but this is what it looks like now.
Thank you to all the men and women–past, present, and future–for your military service to America.
Happy Veterans Day.
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