Isaac Rosenberg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
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.
Having left school at the age of 14 to become an apprentice engraver, Rosenberg later became one of the Georgian poets, and was taken up by Laurence Binyon and Edward Marsh.
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
The darkness crumbles away
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.
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Charles Hamilton Sorely (19 May 1895 – 13 October 1915) is named by Robert Graves in his autobiographical novel ‘Goodbye To All That’ as one of the three (British) poets of importance to be killed in the war, [the other two being Isaac Rosenberg (the subject of the next post in this series) and, of course, Wilfred Owen].
The son of the professor of moral philosophy at Aberdeen University, Sorley was extremely intelligent and won a scholarship to Marlborough College, the same school as Siegfried Sassoon.
Sorely was in Germany when war was declared, having accepted a place at Cambridge for the following year, but he immediately returned to England and enlisted in the British Army. He joined the Suffolk Regiment as a First Lieutenant, and was sent to the front in May 1915.Sorely was shot in the head at the Battle of Loos on 13th October, 1915, soon after his promotion to Captain. 37 complete poems were found in his kit when returned to his family. His style is often contrasted with Brooke’s sentimental depiction of war, and in many ways he might be seen as a forerunner to Sassoon and Owen.
The poem below, which Sorely wrote just before his death, entirely does away with the idea that war might have something to do with pride, honour and duty, handed down from the age of Antiquity, and paints a stark and matter of fact picture instead.
When you see millions of the mouthless dead
When you see millions of the mouthless dead,
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, “They are dead.” Then add thereto,
“Yet many a better one has died before.”
Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.