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Isaac Rosenberg

1890–1918

On November 25, 1890, Isaac Rosenberg was born 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's poems from this time rival those of England's most famous "trench poets," including —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).

Isaac Rosenberg
Self-portrait, 1915

By This Poet

11

God

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!

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 on our upturned listening 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. 

Louse Hunting

Nudes, stark and glistening,
Yelling in lurid glee.    Grinning faces
And raging limbs
Whirl over the floor one fire;
For a shirt verminously busy
Yon soldier tore from his throat
With oaths
Godhead might shrink at, but not the lice,
And soon the shirt was aflare
Over the candle he’d lit while we lay.

Then we all sprang up and stript 
To hunt the verminous brood.
 Soon like a demons’ pantomime
This plunge was raging.
See the silhouettes agape,
See the gibbering shadows
Mixed with the baffled arms on the wall.

See Gargantuan hooked fingers
Pluck in supreme flesh
To smutch supreme littleness.
See the merry limbs in that Highland fling
Because some wizard vermin willed 
To charm from the quiet this revel
When our ears were half lulled
By the dark music
Blown from Sleep’s trumpet.

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