Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Death could drop from the dark / As easily as song – / But song only dropped - all Isaac Rosenberg poems become war poems

Isaac Rosenberg is now, inescapably, a “war poet.”  Rosenberg was killed in action in France in April 1918.  He was 27.  His great poetic achievements are a couple dozen poems about the war and soldiering, mostly written while Rosenberg was in the service, delivering barbed wire and sending poems off to Poetry magazine, which published “Break of Day in the Trenches,” with its “queer sardonic rat,” in 1916:

Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies…
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?

But Rosenberg was not always a war poet.  He was a young post-pre-Raphaelite, a devotee of Keats, D. G. Rossetti, and some mishmash of 1890s poets, Francis Thompson, that sort of thing.  This sort:

These, my earth-sundered fantasy
On pillared heights of thought doth see
In the dark heaven as golden pendulous birds,
Whose tremulous wings the wind translates to words… (from “Night,” 1912)

Promising, although the most likely thing it promises, once he has shed some excesses – or really indulged them, is a good minor poet.  Or maybe a Romantic counterweight to the Eliot and Pound.

Rosenberg’s first chapbook, Night and Day (1912) is seen above.  There are “No symboled answers to my questionings,” the poet fears, but the poet’s job is to try.  Youth (1915) is better – more taut and grounded, even if the one war poem, “The Dead Heroes,” is almost abstract:

Flash, mailèd seraphim,
Your burning spears;
New days to outflame their dim
Heroic years.

I do not think of this one as a good poem, but it is a step towards the poems to come.  Rosenberg is preparing to meet that rat and to hear the larks along the “poison-blasted track” to camp:

Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song –
But song only dropped…  (“Returning, We Hear the Larks”)

Or the lice in “Louse Hunting”:

See Gargantuan hooked fingers
Pluck in supreme flesh
To smutch supreme littleness…

As with Pasternak and Akhmatova, the strong aspect of Rosenberg’s biography, colors everything about him.  I include his Jewishness, the side of Rosenberg I find most puzzling.  In poems like “The Destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian Hordes” he uses imagery from the Hebrew Bible that only obliquely matches with what I understand of the war.  They are another kind of “symboled answers” that I do not know how to decode.  An exception is “The Jew,” a painful cry against prejudice:

Moses, from whose loins I sprung,
Lit by a lamp in his blood
Ten immutable rules, a moon
For mutable lampless men.

The blonde, the bronze, the ruddy,
With the same heaving blood,
Keep tide to the moon of Moses.
Then why do they sneer at me?

The first stanza is especially fine, almost distracting me from the pointed end of the poem.

Although I tracked down more of his earlier poems, the 1922 Selected Poems is a good place to read Isaac Rosenberg. 


  1. The whole of Rosenberg - or all that is left - fits in a fairly short Oxford English Poets volume.
    He was also pre-Raphaelite in that he doubled up as poet and painter.

  2. His self-portraits are striking.

    I found all of Rosenberg worth reading, even the formative stuff, except for the verse play "Moses" and another verse play fragment called "The Unicorn" - both baffling.

  3. In all my reading of the War Poets, I could never get into Rosenberg, not at all. Of all these, I think I like "Dead Heroes" best.

  4. He is a lot harder than Wilfred Owen, more abstract, less dramatic. Until the rats crawl into the trench, at least.

  5. Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory concentrates on Owen, Sassoon, Blunden, Graves...and depicts them as old-fashioned pastoral writers dealing with events their ideas of literature could not fit in. Rosenberg was a modernist before the war: urban, jewish, the child of immigrants aware of his foreignness. Psychologically, he knew more of what the war would be like before it began.

  6. That's very interesting, Rosenberg really does stand apart, then.

    I should read Fussell.

    1. I think that studying art was an important aspect of Rosenberg's modernism. Modernism reached Britain earlier in art than literature and there was a cross-over: Wyndham Lewis and David Jones are other obvious examples of modernist artist-writers,

  7. Thanks, that is a useful context. I have meant to read Jones for decades now, for all the good that has done me.