Isaac Rosenberg (25 November 1890 – 1 April 1918) is generally considered to be one of the finest, if not the finest, war poets to write in English.
Unlike Brooke and others, who wrote of war as patriotic sacrifice, Rosenberg was critical of the conflict from its onset. However, needing employment in order to help support his mother, Rosenberg enlisted in the army in October 1915. He was assigned to the 12th Suffolk Folk Regiment, a ‘bantam’ battalion (made up of men under 5’3″). After turning down an offer to become a lance corporal, Private Rosenberg was later transferred to the 11th Battalion, The King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment (KORL). He was sent to the Somme on the Western Front where, having just finished night patrol, he was killed at dawn on April 1, 1918 (reports conflict over whether or not he was shot by a sniper or killed in hand to hand combat).
The poem below was described by Paul Fussell in his landmark study of the literature of the First World War as “the greatest poem of the war.” It has some breathtaking imagery and a firm narrative voice and is one of my favourite poems (if that matters to any of you!)Break of Day in the Trenches
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 you inwardly 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 men’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.