Break of Day in the Trenches -- 4 Poems of Isaac Rosenberg
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
(And God knows what antipathies).
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 you inwardly 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 the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the boom, the hiss, the swiftness,
The irrevocable earth buffet --
A shell's haphazard fury.
What rootless poppies dropping? ...
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.
Dead Man's Dump
By Isaac Rosenberg
The plunging limbers over the shattered track
Racketed with their rusty freight,
Stuck out like many crowns of thorns,
And the rusty stakes like sceptres old
To stay the flood of brutish men
Upon our brothers dear.
The wheels lurched over sprawled dead
But pained them not, though their bones crunched;
Their shut mouths made no moan,
They lie there huddled, friend and foeman,
Man born of man, and born of woman,
And shells go crying over them
From night till night and now.
Earth has waited for them,
All the time of their growth
Fretting for their decay:
Now she has them at last!
In the strength of her strength
Suspended—stopped and held.
What fierce imaginings their dark souls lit
Earth! Have they gone into you?
Somewhere they must have gone,
And flung on your hard back
Is their souls' sack,
Emptied of God-ancestralled essences.
Who hurled them out? Who hurled?
None saw their spirits' shadow shake the grass,
Or stood aside for the half-used life to pass
Out of those doomed nostrils and the doomed mouth,
When the swift iron burning bee
Drained the wild honey of their youth.
What of us, who flung on the shrieking pyre,
Walk, our usual thoughts untouched,
Our lucky limbs as on ichor fed,
Immortal seeming ever?
Perhaps when the flames beat loud on us,
A fear may choke in our veins
And the startled blood may stop.
The air is loud with death,
The dark air spurts with fire,
The explosions ceaseless are.
Timelessly now, some minutes past,
These dead strode time with vigorous life,
Till the shrapnel called "an end!"
But not to all. In bleeding pangs
Some borne on stretchers dreamed of home,
Dear things, war-blotted from their hearts.
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.
They left this dead with the older dead,
Stretched at the cross roads.
Burnt black by strange decay,
Their sinister faces lie
The lid over each eye,
The grass and coloured clay
More motion have than they,
Joined to the great sunk silences.
Here is one not long dead;
His dark hearing caught our far wheels,
And the choked soul stretched weak hands
To reach the living word the far wheels said,
The blood-dazed intelligence beating for light,
Crying through the suspense of the far torturing wheels
Swift for the end to break,
Or the wheels to break,
Cried as the tide of the world broke over his sight.
Will they come? Will they ever come?
Even as the mixed hoofs of the mules,
The quivering-bellied mules,
And the rushing wheels all mixed
With his tortured upturned sight.
So we crashed round the bend,
We heard his weak scream,
We heard his very last sound,
And our wheels grazed his dead face.
By Isaac Rosenberg
----In his malodorous brain what slugs and mire,
Lanthorned in his oblique eyes, guttering burned!
His body lodged a rat where men nursed souls.
The world flashed grape-green eyes of a foiled cat
To him. On fragments of an old shrunk power,
On shy and maimed, on women wrung awry,
He lay, a bullying hulk, to crush them more.
But when one, fearless, turned and clawed like bronze,
Cringing was easy to blunt these stern paws,
And he would weigh the heavier on those after.
Who rests in God's mean flattery now? Your wealth
Is but his cunning to make death more hard.
Your iron sinews take more pain in breaking.
And he has made the market for your beauty
Too poor to buy, although you die to sell.
Only that he has never heard of sleep;
And when the cats come out the rats are sly.
Here we are safe till he slinks in at dawn.
But he has gnawed a fibre from strange roots,
And in the morning some pale wonder ceases.
Things are not strange and strange things are forgetful.
Ah! if the day were arid, somehow lost
Out of us, but it is as hair of us,
And only in the hush no wind stirs it.
And in the light vague trouble lifts and breathes,
And restlessness still shadows the lost ways.
The fingers shut on voices that pass through,
Where blind farewells are taken easily . . .
Ah! this miasma of a rotting God!
By Isaac Rosenberg
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?
A portrait of Isaac Rosenberg
From The Academy of American Poets
Isaac Rosenberg was born in 1890 in Bristol, England. His father and mother, Dovber and Hacha Davidov Rosenberg, had recently arrived from Russia and settled in London's Jewish ghetto. Dovber (who changed his name to Barnett Rosenberg) opened a butcher shop, but the authorities soon seized it and he spent the remainder of his life as an itinerant peddler. Isaac grew up in extreme poverty and worked in the afternoons as an apprentice engraver. In the evening, however, he pursued art and by 1907 he had enrolled in night classes at Birkbeck College. His talent as a painter garnered him a number of student awards and allowed him in 1911 to receive a sponsorship for the Slade School, an important center for English painting.
While at the Slade School, Rosenberg's interests gravitated increasingly towards poetry. He began to send his poems to editors and journals, and in 1912 at his own expense he published Night and Day. This twenty-four-page pamphlet showed a strong Romantic influence, particularly from the poems of Keats and Shelley. It was at this time that Rosenberg became acquainted with Edward Marsh, a leading figure in the art world of London. Marsh encouraged Rosenberg's writing and purchased some of his paintings; he also introduced him to many of the important writers and painters of the day such as Ezra Pound and T. E. Hulme. Through this connection Rosenberg came into contact with Imagism and although he did not become an Imagist himself, he did learn from its techniques.
In 1913 Rosenberg's health began to fail and he spent the following year in Cape Town, South Africa. He returned to England in 1915 and again self-published a pamphlet of the poems he had written in the preceding two years. This pamphlet, entitled Youth, demonstrates the influence of the Imagists and also shows Rosenberg developing a more distinctive and mature style. Lacking any job prospects and with the war in Germany heating up, Rosenberg decided to enlist in the Bantam Battalion of 12 Suffolk Regiment. He was sent to the Western Front in 1916, and would never rise above the rank of Private.
Rosenberg was a delicate and small man in poor health and found himself in an army rife with anti-Semitism. Ironically, he developed under these circumstances into one of the finest poets of his generation. His poems from this time rival those of England's most famous "trench poets"—Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, and Rupert Brooke. Rosenberg's poems, such as "Dead Man's Dump" or the often-anthologized "Break of Day in the Trenches," are characterized by a profound combination of compassion, clarity, stoicism, and irony. On April 1, 1918, while on night patrol south of Arras, Rosenberg was killed in battle. His body was never found. His poems were posthumously collected and published in London in 1922. In 1979 all of his work was gathered and published in The Collected Works of Isaac Rosenberg: Poetry, Prose, Letters, Painting, and Drawings (Oxford University Press).More Resources on Isaac Rosenberg: