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Isaac’s War

Before dying in the trenches, the Bristol-born, Lithuanian Jewish painter Isaac Rosenberg became the greatest English war poet that nobody’s ever heard of

Kenneth Sherman
March 31, 2023
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Isaac Rosenberg’s self-portrait, 1915, painted in the year he enlisted. Despite being a pacifist, he believed ‘we must all fight to get the trouble over.’© National Portrait Gallery, London
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Isaac Rosenberg’s self-portrait, 1915, painted in the year he enlisted. Despite being a pacifist, he believed ‘we must all fight to get the trouble over.’© National Portrait Gallery, London

When it comes to First World War poets, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Rupert Brooke are familiar names, but not Isaac Rosenberg, who is certainly their equal. The English-born son of Jewish Lithuanian immigrants, Rosenberg enlisted in the British Army in 1916 and was killed in close combat in the early hours of April 1, 1918, near the French village of Fampoux. He was 27.

Rosenberg was doubly gifted. He began his creative career as a visual artist, his drawings and paintings passing the stringent admissions test at London’s world-famous Slade School of Art where one of his classmates was the future luminary Stanley Spencer. Poetry proved to be his primary passion, leading to some initial success—two of his “trench poems” appeared in the December 1916 issue of Harriet Monroe’s prestigious Poetry magazine. But while he has not been without admirers, Rosenberg’s working-class Jewishness resulted in a late and grudging acceptance into the canon of English poetry.

As a painter and as a poet, Rosenberg defies categorization. He did not take to cubism or vorticism as did several of his Slade classmates. In poetry, he showed no interest in adopting the techniques of the emerging imagists or of the Georgian poets who were popular during his lifetime. He was a traditionalist, working through the masters to fashion a voice. Side-stepping the dictates of modernism, he expressed his prophetic visions in an original language that synthesizes the anachronistic with the contemporary. He seems to have absorbed much of Blake, a kindred spirit in terms of social class, education (or lack thereof), and engraving skills. He would quote stanzas from Keats and Shakespeare and had an exaggerated fondness for Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the other pre-Raphaelites. When he showed up at the front in June 1916, it is reported that he’d forgotten his requisite towel but had remembered to bring a copy of John Donne’s poems, which he carried in his pocket throughout the war.

Rosenberg was born in Bristol in 1890. Seven years later his parents (the father, Dovber, was an unsuccessful peddler, the mother, Hacha, supplemented their income by sewing and taking in lodgers in addition to raising Isaac and her five other children), moved the family to the Jewish quarter in East End London in the hope of improving their lot. The move sent them spiraling deeper into poverty. Rosenberg would later describe a family feast as “a boiled potato and a piece of salted herring.”

At age 14, Rosenberg left school to help support his family, taking a job at a commercial engraving shop in Fleet Street. He disliked the work, took art lessons in the evenings, and dreamt of supporting himself as a full-time artist. That aspiration never bore fruit. In 1911, he received financial assistance to attend the Slade but left before completing his studies when funds ran out.

Most war poets came from comfortable circumstances: Sassoon’s family was rich; Brooke’s and Robert Graves’ were upper middle class. These poets entered the war as officers. Even Wilfred Owen, who came from a lower-middle-class family, was able to secure the rank of second lieutenant. Rosenberg enlisted as a private. This made his soldiering experience more taxing but gave him a perspective that lent a striking authenticity and immediacy to such poems as “Louse Hunting,” “Returning, We Hear the Larks,” and “Dead Man’s Dump.” What follows is a stanza from the latter:

A man’s brains splattered on
A stretcher-bearer’s face;
His shook shoulders slipped their load,
But when they bent to look again
The drowning soul was sunk too deep
For human tenderness.

In her biography Isaac Rosenberg: The Making of a Great War Poet, Jean Moorcroft Wilson astutely notes that when Rosenberg describes such a scene, the reader ought to remember that “he was the stretcher-bearer. And when, in the same poem, he records how ‘the wheels lurched over the sprawled dead’, he was the driver of the limber-carriage referred to, not the officer ordering or witnessing the incident.”

Rosenberg’s decision to enlist is baffling. He certainly wasn’t motivated by patriotism. In a letter to Edward Marsh, Winston Churchill’s private secretary and Rosenberg’s loyal patron and correspondent, he states flatly, “I never joined the army from patriotic reasons. Nothing can justify war.” To the novelist, Sydney Schiff, prior to the war, he writes, “I am thinking of enlisting if they will have me—though I would be doing the most criminal thing a man can do.” While large numbers of assimilated Anglo Jews rushed to volunteer, the vast majority of first-generation Jews, especially those whose parents had emigrated from Russia and Eastern Europe, did not. Their parents had grim memories of relatives having served in the czar’s army. Among the many in his close-knit circle of East End writers, painters, and intellectuals, only Rosenberg and the painter David Bomberg chose to join.

Money was a constant worry, and it is often suggested that Rosenberg signed up for the soldiers’ pay and the Separation Allowance that the British government would send his mother. There are other theories. Some suggest that Rosenberg, the self-conscious outsider, enlisted to remove any doubt in his mind, and in those of others, that he was acceptable to English society. In his intriguing 1975 biography, Journey to the Trenches, Joseph Cohen follows a dark thread of self-recrimination in Rosenberg’s personality. He suggests that in enlisting, Rosenberg “gave in to his long-suppressed death-wish.” Rosenberg never revealed his reasons, though my sense from reading his letters is that his motive was not as negating as Cohen proposes. Whether consciously or unconsciously, poets at times put themselves in situations of conflict and risk. They do so to write themselves out of hell.

Rosenberg had already published two collections prior to enlisting so we cannot say, as we can of Wilfred Owen, that the war made him a poet. What it did do was sharpen his language so that it was leaner and more focused.

In the trenches Rosenberg drew self-portraits, captured the likenesses of his fellow soldiers, and wrote poems on scraps of paper as if he were employing his creativity to push back against the surrounding carnage and chaos. On several occasions he is reprimanded for forgetting duties while taking time to write. “My not being able to get poetry out of my head and heart causes me sufficient trouble out here,” he wrote to his fellow poet Gordon Bottomley. And then, “Personally, I think the only value in any war is the literature it results in.” When his clothes are consumed with lice, he speculates whether private Aeschylus had a similar problem. He wonders whether he is up to writing a war poem as great as Whitman’s “Drum Taps.”

Astonishing in their details, the letters provide a close-up of the war. To Bottomley, again, in August 1916, he writes: “I often find bibles in dead men’s clothes and I tear the parts out I want and carry them about with me … Yesterday we had a lively time carrying chaps to the hospital in a handcart; it’s a toss-up whether you’re going to be the carried or the carrier.”

A month prior: “I’ve got to rummage behind the lines among shattered houses and ruins for salvage. We come across all kinds of grim and funny odds and ends. More material for poem.” Material for poem becomes the motivator. In the autumn of 1916 Rosenberg writes to another poet, Laurence Binyon, articulating his overall objective:

I am determined that this war, with all its powers for devastation shall not master my poetry—that is if I am lucky enough to come through all right. I will not leave a corner of my consciousness covered up, but saturate myself with the strange and extraordinary new conditions of this life and it will all refine itself into poetry later on.

Harold Bloom called Rosenberg “an English poet with a Jewish difference” and that “difference” has been, for some, an impediment. The critic Kenneth Alcott believed that Rosenberg’s fluency in Yiddish accounted for an “unpleasant poetic diction.” There is the infamous put-down from Ezra Pound, who in recommending Rosenberg’s work to Harriet Monroe in 1915, remarked, “I think you may as well give this poor devil a show … He has something in him, horribly rough but then ‘Stepney, East.’” Even his patron, Edward Marsh, referred to the poet after his death as “poor little Isaac Rosenberg.” (One is tempted to retort with Leonard Cohen’s “I’m the little Jew who wrote the bible.”)

Against all this, Rosenberg saw his Jewishness as an enduring asset. Early on, he understood its effect. In a review published in the May 1912 issue of the Jewish Chronicle he discusses two Jewish painters who had exhibited in January of that year, noting that aside from their names, no one could tell by looking at the paintings that the artists are Jewish. Yet he asserts that their Jewishness gives the paintings “that which nothing else could have given. The travail and sorrow of centuries have given life a more poignant and intense interpretation, while the strength of the desire of ages have fashioned an ideal which colours all our expression of existence.” He concludes with his belief that the Jewish artist shows a commitment to reality and to “the life of ideas.”

Those characteristics are apparent in his most anthologized poem, “Break of Day in the Trenches,” written in June 1916:

The darkness crumbles away.
It is the same old Druid Time as ever.
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies.
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems, odd thing, you grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurl’d through still heavens?
What quaver—what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping,
But mine in my ear is safe—
Just a little white with the dust.

In analysing the poem, critics, out of diffidence perhaps, have never stated what is obvious: namely, that the rat with its “cosmopolitan sympathies” is a stand-in for the Jew. Of course, the irony is amplified because we know what Rosenberg could not have known: that in two decades the Nazis would refer to Jews as rats, Ungeziefer, to be exterminated. But Rosenberg’s rat is fortunate—he is enduring, and his odds of survival are greater than those of the young “haughty athletes” who will pour out of the trenches and into the meatgrinder once the order to attack is given.

“… you have touched this English hand / You will do the same to a German”: Rosenberg, the poet who did not sign up out of patriotism and who was suspicious of nationalism, identifies as the very rat which he describes. For the rat is not only the Jew, it is also the unaffiliated poet: As the poet Marina Tsvetaeva stated: “The reason one becomes a poet is to avoid being French, Russian, etc., in order to be everything.”

There is much that could be said about the poem’s technique: the tension created by opposing “Druid” with “cosmopolitan”; the lulling repetition of sounds in “green,” “between,” and “thing”; the powerful effect of the long sentence beginning with “It seems,” building to the devastating “torn fields of France.” The horror of war is kept in check throughout, counterbalanced by the speaker’s relaxed tone that Rosenberg described in a letter to Marsh “as simple as ordinary talk.”

There are echoes: “What quaver—what heart aghast?” is a nod to Blake’s, “What the anvil, what dread grasp / Dare its deadly terrors clasp?” from “The Tyger.” As for the concluding “dust,” the obvious associations are with Ecclesiastes (“all are of the dust and all return to dust again”) and Shakespeare (“Golden lads and girls all must / Like chimney-sweepers come to dust.”). But we must bear in mind that the poem was written by a man who spent close to two years on the front in the most appalling war mankind had seen, and the scene he is describing is rooted in experience. We know, from an earlier version of the poem titled “In the Trenches,” that the “dust” is from an exploding artillery shell:

Down—a shell—O! Christ.
I am choked … safe … dust-blind—I
See trench floor poppies
Strewn …

In his classic study, The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell calls “Break of Day in the Trenches,” “the greatest poem of the war.” His book is a comprehensive study of irony in the literature of the First World War and its objective is to map the modern sensibility that arose out of that conflict. Fussell observes that both the speaker of the poem as well as the poppy which he has picked are fated to die. Therefore, he concludes, “the most ironic word in the poem is the safe of the penultimate line.” This, I believe, is a misreading.

Rosenberg’s poem succeeds not through irony, but through ambiguity. We speak of a musician or a poet as having “a good ear.” The poet who wrote “the torn fields of France” had a superb ear and trusted in the durability of art. The following fragment was found among Rosenberg’s papers after the war: “like the artist who creates / From dying things what never dies.” The penultimate line of “Break of Day in the Trenches” is telling us that the poppy is safe within the poem. The last line attempts to minimize death (“white,” “dust”) by qualifying it with “Just a little.”

But in poetry tone is everything. Working against these final assurances is a voice that is cautious, moderately fearful. Achingly human.

Kenneth Sherman is a poet and essayist. His most recent book is the memoir Wait Time.