Isaac Rosenberg, one of the greatest of the First World War poets and a talented artist, has not received the widespread recognition he deserves. The time has come to remedy this. Click on http://rosenbergww1.weebly.com/ or use the link above to go the Rosenberg Appeal website for more details.
You can help by supporting plans for a statue in his memory at Torrington Square on the Birkbeck College campus in Bloomsbury. The proximity to the two great learning centres in Rosenberg's life. Birkbeck and the Slade, makes this a fitting memorial to his genius.
London has just one sculpture in Britain of a Jewish literary figure (Benjamin Disraeli), and only four statues commemorating great poets.
On April 1 2018, there will be five. The date marks the centenary of Rosenberg’s disappearance on the Western Front. We are having two major events – one at the Liberal Synagogue in St Johns Wood, north London, on April 26 next year, and one at the Reform Synagogue in Seymour Place in the West End in May 2016. Details will be sent put shortly. Any suggestions will also be very welcome.
The article below, by Rosenberg’s editor and biographer Jean Liddiard, appeared in The Cable in 2006.
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 unforseen 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 he sent home poems on scraps of paper 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/1April 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); is the author of Isaac Rosenberg: Poetry Out of My Head and Heart; and editor of Isaac Rosenberg: Selected Poems and Letters (Hardback £12 I 900564 89 0 216 x 138mm 208pp Enitharmon Press November 2003). She was one of the contributors to Whitechapel at War – Rosenberg and his Circle Lund Humphries, 2009, ISBN: 978-0-900157-09-7, and 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.