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Poems of Isaac Rosenberg

Isaac Rosenberg self portrait © Ben Uri, The London Jewish Museum of Art.

Isaac Rosenberg self portrait © Ben Uri, The London Jewish Museum of Art.

Letter from Isaac Rosenberg, Private 22311 A Coy. 3rd Platoon 11th Battalion K.O.R.L  B.E.F., to Laurence Binyon, Autumn 1916

‘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.’
On Receiving News of the War: Cape Town
 
Snow is a strange white word.
No ice or frost
Have asked of  bud or bird
For Winter’s cost.
 
Yet ice and frost and snow
From earth to sky
This Summer land doth know,
No man knows why.
 
In all men’s hearts it is.
Some spirit old
Hath turned with malign kiss
Our lives to mould.
 
Red fangs have torn His face.
God’s blood is shed.
He mourns from His lone place
His children dead.
 
O! ancient crimson curse!
Corrode, consume.
Give back this universe
Its pristine bloom.
 
1914
 
August 1914
 
What in our lives is burnt
In the fire of this?
The heart’s dear granary?
The much we shall miss?
 
Three lives hath one life –
Iron, honey, gold.
The gold, the honey gone –
Left is the hard and cold.
 
Iron are our lives
Molten right through our youth.
A burnt space through ripe fields,
A fair mouth’s broken tooth.
 
1916
 
Marching–as seen from the left file
 
My eyes catch ruddy necks
Sturdily pressed back –
All a red-brick moving glint.
Like flaming pendulums, hands
Swing across the khaki –
Mustard-coloured khaki –
To the automatic feet.
 
We husband the ancient glory
In these bared necks and hands.
Not broke is the forge of Mars;
But a subtler brain beats iron
To shoe the hoofs of death,
(Who paws dynamic air now).
Blind fingers loose an iron cloud
To rain immortal darkness
On strong eyes.
 
1915–16
 
Break of Day in the Trenches
 
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 the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled 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.
 
June 1916
 
Returning, we hear the larks
 
Sombre the night is.
And though we have our lives, we know
What sinister threat lurks there.
 
Dragging these anguished limbs, we only know
This poison-blasted track opens on our camp –
On a little safe sleep.
But hark! joy – joy – strange joy.
Lo! heights of night ringing with unseen larks.
Music showering our upturned list’ning faces.
 
Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song –
But song only dropped,
Like a blind man’s dreams on the sand
By dangerous tides,
Like a girl’s dark hair for she dreams no ruin lies there,
Or her kisses where a serpent hides.
 
1917
(Poems following the versions in 21st-century Oxford Authors: Isaac Rosenberg, edited by Dr Vivien Noakes, OUP 2008)