Born in Bristol but brought up in the East End, the multi-talented Isaac Rosenberg has been unduly neglected. Two of his biographers, Jean Liddiard and Jean Moorcroft Wilson, wrote articles for The Cable, the JEECS magazine, in 2006 and 2008 respectively aiming to redress the balance. Both are fascinating reads, and are now here on our website to mark the anniversary of his birth in 1890.
ISAAC ROSENBERG 1890 - 1918: The Half Used Life. Jean Liddiard
Isaac Rosenberg has long been regarded as one of the most important artistic figures of the First World War. His poems, such as Dead Man’s Dump and Break of Day in the Trenches, have been included in every significant war anthology and have earned him a place in Poets’ Corner.
Living with his Jewish immigrant family in the East End, he had to leave school at 14 and earn his living as an apprentice engraver. He snatched what time he could for drawing and writing, meeting friends such as the painters Mark Gertler and David Bomberg and the poet John Rodker at the Whitechapel Library and Art Gallery in the evenings. Afterwards they walked the streets discussing art and literature, pausing under lamposts to read their poems.
Thanks to some wealthy Jewish ladies he was able to study at the Slade School of Art at the same time as Bomberg and Gertler; and other students such as Stanley and Gilbert Spencer, CW Nevinson and Dora Carrington. He showed promise as a painter but struggled to make a living.
In 1914 he visited his sister in South Africa to improve his health and earn some money through painting. War was declared while he was there. In spite of family pressure to stay he returned home in 1915 and, unable to find work, enlisted as a private soldier, ending up in the Kings Own Royal Lancasters.
He wrote: “I never joined the army from patriotic reasons. Nothing can justify war. I suppose we must all fight to get the trouble over….I thought if I'd join there would be the separation allowance for my mother.”
Three lives hath one life
Iron, honey, gold,
The gold, the honey gone –
Left is the hard and cold. (August 1914)
His poverty, education and background made him an outsider. Yet it was just that experience that equipped him to cope with the unforeseen horror of war in the trenches: “I am determined that this war, with all its powers for devastation, shall not master my poeting.”
It was astonishing that as a private soldier he managed to write anything at all, yet on scraps of paper he sent home poems that were among the greatest of the war. As a private soldier he had no privacy, only his pack to store possessions, and nowhere warm, dry and well lit to write. His letters are full of thanks for small gifts that kept him going: pencil and paper, chocolates, small sums of money. Books got lost so he had to read them and send them home, as he did with his verses for his sister Annie to type out.
Behind the lines he used YMCA notepaper to set down his verses, explaining to his patron Edward Marsh: “It is only when we get a bit of rest and the others might be gambling or squabbling, I add a line or two, and continue that way.”
In August 1916 he wrote, to Marsh: “I am enclosing a poem I wrote in the trenches, which is surely as simple as ordinary talk….” This would become one of his best-known poems, Break of Day in the Trenches, where the “queer sardonic rat” runs between the “strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes” of the human beings on both sides of the lines. The rat observes the “athletes”, while the poet, sticking a poppy behind his ear, considers the rat. The rat does not, however, have the last word. It is the poppy that, though damaged, ends the poem.
Poppies, whose roots are in men’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe –
Just a little white with the dust.
His best work is remarkable for its ambition, its largeness of vision combined with a painterly, sensuous response to physical detail, splendid and sordid, as in his greatest poem Dead Man's Dump.
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.
Early in 1918 Rosenberg had been trying for a transfer to the Jewish Battalion in Mesopotamia, and his last three poems concentrated on biblical themes. In his last letter to Marsh on 28 March 1918 he wrote: “I wanted to write a battle song for the Judaens, (sic) but can think of nothing strong and wonderful enough yet. Here’s just a slight thing…. I’ve seen no poetry for ages now so you mustn’t be too critical – my vocabulary small enough before is impoverished and bare.” This, his last poem, evokes the passion he senses in his Jewish comrades.
Through these pale cold days
What dark faces burn
Out of three thousand years,
And their wild eyes yearn…
He died, probably on patrol in No Man’s Land, on the night of 31 March/1 April 1918, and is buried in Bailleul Road East British Cemetery near Arras.
JEAN LIDDIARD wrote the biography The Half Used Life: Isaac Rosenberg Poet and Painter 1890-1918 (Gollancz 1975); organised two exhibitions on Rosenberg for the National Book League 1975 (with catalogue) and Rosenberg’s centenary at the Imperial War Museum 1990. Since 2001 she has compiled readings on The War Poets for Westminster Abbey and on Rosenberg for the National Portrait Gallery, the Jewish Cultural Festival, the Ledbury Poetry Festival and Southwell Festival, all featuring actor Sam Dastor. She edited Isaac Rosenberg: Selected Poems and Letters Hardback £12 I 900564 89 0 216 x 138mm 208pp Enitharmon Press November 2003 (www.enitharmon.co.uk).
Isaac Rosenberg: a Great War Poet for the 21st Century. JEAN MOORCROFT WILSON
Siegfried Sassoon praised Isaac Rosenberg’s “genius”, T.S. Eliot called him the “most remarkable” of the Great War poets, and F.R. Leavis equated him with Wilfred Owen but found him “even more interesting technically”. Yet even now, 90 years after his death on April 1 1918, he has not been fully recognised as such: it is over 30 years since there has been a full-length biography. He has certainly not been absorbed into the national consciousness in the way that Rupert Brooke, together with Sassoon and Owen, have. How many people can quote, or even identify one line of Rosenberg’s verse? Yet this is the poet who wrote some of the most devastating and at the same time humane words about Front Line experience ever penned:
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.
It is not that Rosenberg has lacked his admirers. But there has often been a condescending, slightly grudging note to the praise.
Rosenberg died on the Western Front aged only 27, his tragic early death resembling that of many other well-known poets of that conflict. But he differed from the majority of First World War poets in almost every other respect ‒ race, class, education, upbringing, experience and technique. He was a skilled painter as well as a brilliant poet. The son of poor immigrant Russian Jews and brought up in London’s East End, he served as a private in the army and his perspective on the trenches is quite different from the other mainly officer-poets, allowing the voice of the “poor bloody Tommy” to be eloquently heard.
His Jewishness alone gives him a unique position among them. Sassoon, it is true, was half-Jewish, but on his father’s side and he was brought up as a Christian. And though many of Rosenberg’s friends from the East End, such as David Bomberg, John Rodker, Joseph Leftwich, Stephen Winsten and Abraham Abrahams, wrote verse during the First World War, they will not be remembered among its greatest poets. While Sassoon, like the majority of his fellow war poets, drew largely on the Christian and Classical mythology he had absorbed through his traditional public school education, Rosenberg’s different cultural heritage distinguishes his work in a number of ways, lending to it, as Sassoon himself claimed, “a racial quality ‒ biblical and prophetic. Scriptural and sculptural…” The fact that Rosenberg had been exposed to an English education and would eventually read widely among the English poets only adds to his interest, his work displaying, as Sassoon again argued, “a fruitful fusion between English and Hebrew culture”. For his part Rosenberg claimed that Jewishness gave him and his fellow-Jewish artists “that which nothing else could have given”. “The travail and sorrow of centuries,” he wrote in a review of two Jewish painters, “have given life a more poignant and intense interpretation, while the strength of the desire of ages has fashioned an ideal which colours all our expression of existence.”
Rosenberg’s working-class origins and deprived upbringing in Bristol and the East End of London also mark him out among the mainly middle-class public schoolboys who make up the war poets. Like one of his earliest, and most enduring models and fellow-engraver, Blake, he was largely self-made, a fact that helps account in both for their fierce originality as well as occasional clumsiness.
Rosenberg’s reasons for enlisting, unlike the visions of valour, patriotism and sacrifice that motivated poets such as Brooke and, initially, Sassoon, were economically driven. He freely admitted to Edward Marsh, a patron of young poets and writers, that he “never joined the army for patriotic reasons”. It was simply because he could not get work and needed some money to send home to his struggling mother. She, like his father, who had to leave Lithuania to avoid conscription in the Russian Army, was a pacifist and their son had understandably no desire to fight on the same side as the hated Russians. Many of his Jewish friends of similar origins became conscientious objectors.
Moreover, when Rosenberg eventually arrived in France in summer 1916 he almost certainly found conditions there less harsh than men from privileged backgrounds, though life for a private on the Western Front was undoubtedly tougher than for an officer. He was used to sharing a bedroom with the lodgers his mother was obliged to take in and army food must have come as less of a shock to someone whose idea of a “banquet” was “salted herring, boiled potatoes, bread and butter and coffee”.
On the other hand, and this is where the difference most clearly affects his work, his background did mean that he was automatically enlisted as a private, rather than an officer, unlike the majority of the war poets. So that when he wrote the lines quoted earlier, of “a man’s brains splatter[ing] on a stretcher-bearer’s face”, he was the stretcher-bearer. And when, in the same poem (Dead Man’s Dump) he recorded “the wheels lurched over sprawled dead”, he was the driver of the limber-carriage referred to, not the officer ordering or witnessing the incident. In other words, his position as a private gives an even greater immediacy and authenticity to his account of the War. Certainly it is more grittily realistic.
The time has come for a reassessment of Rosenberg. His poetry is nearer to our own age, in terms of both its themes and technique, I believe, than that of almost any other of the war poets, including Owen and Sassoon. It was Robert Graves who labelled him a “born revolutionary” and his work certainly reveals a poet trying, as Charles Tomlinson put it, “to realise new potentiality in life by saying ‘This is and I accept it’”. Moreover, attitudes towards important areas of Rosenberg’s life, such as his race and class, have changed greatly since the last major biographies were written30 years ago. And we are now far more inclined to understand and identify with the ordinary “Tommy” in the First World War than its officers. Leone Samson made an important point in her recent examination of Rosenberg’s war poetry when she wrote: “Only by shifting the framework of the body of First World War poetry to include the voices of the lower ranks can the full experience of the trenches be revealed.” Additionally, interest in that war, rather than diminishing is ever-increasing. And openness to inter-disciplinary studies, which has grown considerably since the mid-seventies, means that we are now more prepared than ever to evaluate the profound effect of Rosenberg’s training as a painter on his vision and technique.
Fortunately we now, for the first time, have a definitive edition of the poet’s work, gathering together all but the most recent of the fresh manuscript material that has appeared over the past three decades, including that published in Ian Parson’s invaluable Collected Works of 1979. Work on related areas of Rosenberg’s life, such as an excellent study of the attitude of immigrant Jews and their families towards the First World War, and new biographies of significant figures in his life (David Bomberg and Mark Gertler, for instance) have also been written. And, since Rosenberg was involved in some of the most interesting cultural movements of his age ‒ Imagism and Modernism as well as Georgianism; Post-Impressionism, Vorticism and Futurism as well as Impressionism ‒ a fresh look at his life involves a different approach to the period. As I wrote of Sassoon, a study of his life is a study of an age.
Most excitingly of all, I have unearthed a significant body of new material about Rosenberg himself, including a detailed unpublished description of him by a close friend, possibly lover, at a crucial stage of his development; unpublished information from David Bomberg about a largely uncharted period of his life; and fresh evidence of his activities in South Africa between 1914 and 1915. The Cape Town material includes a hitherto unknown self-portrait of Rosenberg and several extraordinary letters from him to Olive Schreiner’s close friend, Betty Molteno, also a friend of Gandhi, to whom she may have introduced Rosenberg. Last but not least, just as I was completing my biography I was fortunate enough to learn of new material recently discovered at the British Library, consisting mainly of letters from the Front, and to which I was given access enabling me to incorporate it into my text. All this makes, I believe, for a fascinating life of a Great War poet for the 21st century.
Dr Jean Moorcroft Wilson is the author of, among other books, an acclaimed biography of Siegfried Sassoon. Her life of Rosenberg, Isaac Rosenberg. The making of a Great War Poet, is published by Wiedenfeld and Nicolson.