I wanted to remember, and to draw attention to, Isaac Rosenberg, a British soldier of the First World War and a visual artist, but chiefly remembered for his war poems. Chiefly remembered, but too much forgotten. Most of the poets who wrote from the trenches about the horror of the First World War were young men from public schools (that is, private, fee-paying schools!) or established writers gone to war. They mostly knew one another – and they were officers. Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden, Robert Graves and many others (most of whom did not survive) fit this broad description. Rosenberg was from a quite poor Jewish immigrant family (his parents had come from Russia) and he was a private.
It’s possible to exaggerate the extent to which he was an outsider. He caught the attention of influential figures in the art world, both as an engraver and as a poet. But some collections of the war poets exclude him and I’ve read articles about the British war poets that don’t mention him. Between his death in 1918 at the age of 27 and the late 1960s his work was relatively little known, though his war cemetery plaque says “artist and poet”. Yet to me he stands with Owen and Sassoon to make up a trinity of the best of the war poets.
Even the details of his death vary from account to account. 1 April 1918 was the date, in the early stages of the last great German offensive on the Western Front, the desperate and nearly successful effort which exhausted the Germans and led to their defeat in the autumn. But I have read in accounts that should be authoritative: that he and two other soldiers were killed by a shell and their remains could not be disentangled; that he was killed on night patrol; that he was killed just after a night patrol, possibly by a sniper; that his body was identified and disinterred from a mass grave; that his body was not at first found, but in 1926 the remains of eleven soldiers of his regiment were found together and it was clear that he was one of them but his remains could not be separated. All I can say from what I know of practice in that war, is that if he was killed by a sniper, unless the position was then rapidly overrun, then the confusion about the whereabouts of his body is surprising.
His poetry displays a natural lyricism together with a willingness to experiment and abandon conventional forms. He hates the war, hates death and destruction, but describes them with less discretion and reserve than many of his fellow poets: for example, he describes a cart running over the face of a dying soldier. But he displays also a wry humour, as here:
Break of Day in the Trenches by Isaac Rosenberg
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…
He was acutely aware of being Jewish (others wouldn’t let him forget it) and in his self-portrait, his Jewish features seem exaggerated to the point of caricature compared to photos of him. I’m sure in writing of the rat, he was well aware that “cosmopolitan sympathies” were quoted by people who did not trust the Jews as supposedly not being fully committed to any country. I cannot forget that within a few years of his death, Nazi propagandists were using swarms of rats to symbolise the “Jewish menace”.
Now I am posting a poem, but out of order. I’ve been posting a selection of poems in the order I wrote them, but here I’m jumping to a very recent one. I originally subtitled it “In Menory of Isaac Rosenberg”, but I deleted that because although I had the death of a First World War soldier in mind, the circumstances I describe do not fit those of Rosenberg’s death. I would like to dedicate it to him all the same.
THE DEAD SOLDIER
Green grows the grass where died my friend,
Darkly shade the trees
Over the hill you sought, my friend,
Where you’d have seen the seas.
Among the rest you lie, my friend,
With language, love and shape;
They’re buried when you die, my friend,
And bitter grows the grape.
The trees have tumbled down, my friend,
The blood runs down the hill.
They’ve fought another fight, my friend,
The triumph of the Will.
The breeze comes off the sea, my friend,
The trees will rise and spread.
The air will make us free, my friend.
Shall it raise the dead?
Vivat Isaac Rosenberg.