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A self-portrait by Isaac Rosenberg. (Public domain)
A self-portrait by Isaac Rosenberg. (Public domain)
War of words

The destitute UK Jew who became one of WWI’s greatest poets from the trenches

On the centennial of his violent death comes the story of Isaac Rosenberg, the son of penniless Lithuanian immigrants whose anti-war poems lit up the battlefield

LONDON — In the south transept of Westminster Abbey — the imposing Gothic church in central London where Britain has crowned and buried its monarchs since 1066 — lies Poets’ Corner.

It commemorates many of the nation’s most revered and beloved playwrights, writers and poets — men and women such as William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and the Bronte sisters.

Among those honored is the son of penniless Orthodox Jews who fled to Britain from Lithuania to escape Tsarist anti-Semitism as the 19th century drew to a close. Isaac Rosenberg died 100 years ago last month on the western front during the final bloody months of World War I.

Rosenberg is less well-known than the likes of Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves or Siegfried Sassoon, whose poetry also captured the horror of the trenches. Moreover, his upbringing, class and Jewish background marks Rosenberg out from many of his fellow war poets.

However, for literary scholars, he ranks among the most distinguished of them.

Bernard Bergonzi, the long-time professor of English literature at the University of Warwick, rated Rosenberg “undoubtedly one of the finest poets that the Great War produced.” Likewise, Paul Fussell, the American cultural historian, labeled his “Break of Day In The Trenches” as “the greatest poem of the war.”

Born in Bristol, in the southwest of England, in 1890, Rosenberg moved with his family to London in 1897. They settled in Stepney, the impoverished epicenter of the capital’s burgeoning Jewish community.

One of World War I’s greatest poets, Isaac Rosenberg. (Public domain)

“It was an existence on the edge of destitution and would remain so for most of Isaac’s childhood and teenage years,” writes Rosenberg’s biographer, Jean Moorcroft Wilson.

“It is against this background of severely limited horizons that we must measure his achievements. For his poverty, as much as his Jewishness, marked his life and shaped his work,” Wilson writes.

What Rosenberg lacked in wealth or connections, he made up for in talent. At the Baker Street boarding school in Stepney, his skills at drawing and writing were noticed by the headmaster, who allowed the young boy to spend most of his time on them.

“The Rosenbergs were so poor that Isaac found his first canvases to be the East End pavements where he drew in chalk,” says Nicholas Murray in his book “The Red Sweet Wine of Youth: The Brave and Brief Lives of the War Poets.”

While a local librarian encouraged Rosenberg’s interest in poetry, and he took art classes at the Stepney Green Art School, the family could not afford for him to remain in education and he left school at 14 to become an apprentice at a firm of engravers.

Rosenberg’s earliest known poem dates from 1905, a year into his apprenticeship.

He hated the work. “Chained to this fiendish mangling-machine,” he wrote to a friend, “when my days are full of vigor and my hands and soul craving for self-expression.”

Westminster Abbey in London. (CC0/Pixabay)

Rosenberg eventually enrolled in night classes in painting and drawing at Birkbeck College.

Soon after his apprenticeship ended in 1911, Rosenberg got a lucky break: A chance meeting while he was sketching at the National Gallery led to his introduction to three wealthy Jewish women, who were sufficiently impressed with the young man to offer to pay his fees at the Slade School of Fine Art.

Over the next three years, Rosenberg studied at the prestigious art school alongside later renowned artists Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington, David Bomberg and Stanley Spencer.

With Gertler and Bomberg, Rosenberg became part of a loosely knit group of young Jewish artists and writers who were to become known as the Whitechapel Boys.

We were the slum children, the problem youth

“We were the slum children, the problem youth, the beneficiaries of the Board of Guardians and the soup kitchen, and some of us… of the Jewish Educational Aid Society,” wrote one of their number, the writer Joseph Leftwich.

Rosenberg was not without artistic gifts — some of his works were exhibited in a 1914 exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, while others featured at the Imperial Institute Galleries in South Kensington — and he hoped to make his living as a painter.

‘Self-Portrait in a Trilby Hat,’ 1914, by Isaac Rosenberg. (Public domain)

It was, however, poetry that he was increasingly drawn towards, and for which he is now primarily remembered. The choice was, in part, a reflection of a lack of confidence in his own abilities as an artist.

“Art is not a plaything,” he wrote while studying at Slade. “It is blood and tears, it must grow up with one; and I believe I have begun too late.”

Later, Rosenberg would suggest that he felt “more deep and true as a poet than a painter.” Even so, he was weighed down by feelings of inadequacy. He worried about “the little education I have had” and found himself in “absolute agonies in company.”

“I have a dread of meeting people who know I write, as they expect me to talk and I am a horrible bad talker,” he confided in Henrietta Lowy, one of his Jewish benefactors.

Lawrence Binyon, the poet and curator of drawings and prints at the British Library, later recounted his first meeting with Rosenberg in 1912.

“Small in stature, dark, bright-eyed, thoroughly Jewish in type, he seemed a boy with an unusual mixture of self-reliance and modesty,” he wrote in the first collection of Rosenberg’s poems published after his death. “Indeed, no one could have had a more independent nature. Obviously sensitive, he was not touchy or aggressive.”

Around the time of this meeting, Rosenberg published his first collection of poems, “Night and Day.”

Fifty copies of the 24-page pamphlet were printed by Israel Narodiczky, whose presses were more usually used to produce Hebrew, Yiddish and anarchist tracts.

There is, believes R. Eden Martin, a poetry collector, no evidence that any copies were sold at the time. A second collection, “Youth,” appeared three years later. The work was funded by the sale of three drawings to Edward Marsh, a senior civil servant and patron of young writers and artists. Ten of the 100 copies produced were sold, others were given to friends and potential literary supporters.

Illustrative: soldiers in the trenches during World War I. (Public domain)

By now, Rosenberg had returned to London from Cape Town, where he had spent time living with his sister after being advised to move to a warmer, dryer climate due to a chronic chest infection.

Britain was at war. The conflict, though only in the first of its four years, had already dragged on long past the first Christmas that many had infamously expected to be its terminus.

In October 1915, Rosenberg made the fateful decision to join the army. Poverty, not patriotism, motivated his decision — in particular, the knowledge that his mother would receive a separation allowance. Correctly anticipating her horrified reaction, he left London without telling his family he had enlisted, taking a copy of John Donne’s poems for company.

“I never joined the army for patriotic reasons,” Rosenberg wrote to Marsh. “Nothing can justify war. I suppose we must all fight to get the trouble over.”

Little about his experience changed his view.

“This militarism is terrorism to be sure,” he complained on one occasion.

Isaac Rosenberg in 1917, in his WWI British uniform. (Public domain)

“The army is the most detestable invention on this earth and nobody but a private in the army knows what it is to be a slave,” he suggested on another.

Rosenberg hoped to enroll in the medical corps, but being barely five feet tall, he was initially assigned to the Bantam battalion, which had been instituted for those who did not meet the British Army’s height regulations.

Ill health, carelessness and his own hatred of war meant that Rosenberg did not take to military life, nor his commanders to him. Their frustration was seen in the reprimands and punishments he received for infractions such as failing to carry his gas mask. Indeed, what Binyon described as the “absent-mindedness of one whose imagination was possessed by his poetic schemes” led Rosenberg to leave his clothes and gear back in England when he set sail for France in June 1916.

It was therefore the cruelest of ironies that Rosenberg — “an anti-hero in soldier’s uniform,” in the words of the Irish poet Gerald Dawe — discovered his true voice in the poems which he wrote in the trenches.

As the American literary critic Irving Howe put it: “The early Rosenberg is always driving himself to say more than he has to say, because he thinks poets must speak to large matters. Later he learns that in a poppy in the trenches or a louse in a soldier’s shirt, there is enough matter for poetry.”

Rosenberg labored in extreme conditions. He wrote on any scraps of paper he could lay his hands on, composing endless drafts and sending them home for his sister to type up. At times, the frustrated army censors barred him from dispatching any more.

Illustrative: a British machine gun crew during World War I. (Public domain)

He continued to be his own harshest critic. Of “Dead Man’s Dump” — which, alongside “Break of Day In The Trenches,” is often cited as one of his greatest poems — Rosenberg wrote to a friend: “I think it is commonplace.”

Comparing his work to Walt Whitman’s American Civil War collection, he told another: “I have written a few war poems but when I think of “Drum Taps,” mine are absurd.”

Rosenberg termed his writing — which included “Louse Hunting,” and “Returning, We Hear The Larks” — the “actual transcripts of the battlefields.”

But academics believe Rosenberg’s writing differs from that of the other war poets.

“More impersonal, informal, ironic, and lacking the indignation characteristic of the work of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon,” believed Jon Stallworthy of the University of Oxford, and Owen’s biographer.

Illustrative: two American soldiers run towards a bunker during a World War I battle. (Public domain)

At the same time, according to Moorcroft Wilson, unlike the officer poets, he was able to write from the view of a private and without their sense of responsibility. Nor did Rosenberg’s artistic training go to waste.

“There is a strong visual element in his verse, which helps to give it a unique quality,” she argues.

The anti-Semitism he suffered in the army — “my being a Jew makes it bad amongst these wretches,” Rosenberg noted while in training — also drew out another distinctive element in his writing. His poignant response came in the form of a short poem “The Jew”:

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?

The experience, wrote Stallworthy, “made him more conscious of the Jewishness that had not been particularly important to him before,” and perhaps accounts for works such as “Moses” and “The Destruction of Jerusalem By The Babylonian Hordes.” Shortly before his death, Rosenberg also put in for a transfer to join the Jewish Battalion fighting in Mesopotamia.

Sassoon, a Catholic convert whose father was Jewish, wrote in his foreword to a 1937 collection of Rosenberg’s poems, letters and drawings that he detected in his writing “a fruitful fusion between English and Hebrew culture.”

Siegfried Sassoon in 1915, wearing his military uniform. (Public domain)

“Behind all his poetry,” he continued, “there is a racial quality — biblical and prophetic. Scriptural and sculptural are the epithets I would apply to him.”

Before his death, Rosenberg began to receive the recognition he deserved. In December 1916, Harriet Monroe published two of his poems — including “Break of Day In The Trenches” — in the now legendary Poetry magazine.

Ironically, Monroe had first been made aware of Rosenberg by Ezra Pound, a notorious anti-Semite and later fascist sympathizer.

“He has something in him, horribly rough but then ‘Stepney East,'” said Pound. “We ought to have a real burglar … ma che!!!”

Rosenberg was killed while on patrol during the Germans’ spring offensive in April 1918. Initially buried in an unmarked grave, his remains and those of the 11 other soldiers who died with him were later discovered and re-interred near the spot in Arras in northeast France where they fell.

Around the memorial stone in Westminster Abbey which contains the names of Rosenberg and 15 other war poets are the words of Wilfred Owen: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.”

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