The Ode of Remembrance
The Ode for commemoration services is the famous fourth stanza from For the Fallen, a poem by the English poet and writer Laurence Binyon, which was first published in London's The Times newspaper on 21 September 1914.
This compelling verse, which became the Ode of Remembrance in common usage across the Commonwealth, has been used in association with commemoration services since 1921:
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.
( Audience responds) We will remember them.
Did Binyon mean 'condemn' or 'contemn'?
Binyon wrote For the Fallen in the early days of WW1. By mid September 1914, less than seven weeks after the outbreak of war, the British Expeditionary Force in France had already suffered severe casualties. Long lists of the dead and wounded appeared in British newspapers. It was against this background that the poem was written.
When first published in The Times on 21 September 1914, the word 'condemn' was used. Some people suggested that the use of 'condemn' (meaning to strongly disapprove of, or to impose penalty on) in The Times was a typographical error and that 'contemn' (meaning to treat someone with contempt) was intended. However, in The Winnowing Fan, published a month or two later and for which Binyon would have had galley proofs on which to mark amendments, 'condemn' was again used.
Binyon was a highly educated man and very precise in his use of words. There is no doubt that had he intended 'contemn', then it would have been used.
Dr John Hatcher, who in 1955 published a biography of Binyon, does not refer to any doubt over condemn/contemn, despite devoting a solid chapter to For the Fallen.
The British Society of Authors, executors of the Binyon estate, says the word is definitely "condemn", while the British Museum, where Binyon worked, says its memorial stone also shows "condemn". Both expressed surprise when told there had been some debate about the matter in Australia. The condemn/contemn issue seems to be a distinctly Australian phenomenon. Inquiries with the British, Canadian and American Legions revealed that none had heard of the debate.
'Contemn' is not used in Binyon’s published anthologies and the two volume set, Collected Poems, regarded as the definitive version of Binyon’s poems, also uses 'condemn'. The RSL handbook shows 'condemn' and a representative of the Australian War Memorial said it always used 'condemn' in its ceremonies.
There would seem to be no grounds to argue otherwise: 'age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn'.
See further: In Flanders Fields, page 2 – 'The Ode: Is it condemn or contemn?' (Australian War Memorial website) (PDF 120 kb)