Skip to main content

Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918)

Published onMar 07, 2024
Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918)

Isaac Rosenberg



Used by permission of the Poetry Foundation

Isaac Rosenberg may be remembered as an Anglo-Jewish war poet, but his poetry stretches beyond those narrow categories. Since Rosenberg was only 28 when he died, most critics have tended to treat his corpus as a promising but flawed start, and they wonder if he would have become a great poet had he lived. His poetic legacy is thus still being debated: he was a Jewish poet, he was an English poet; he was a war poet, he was a painter-poet; he was a young poet; he was a great poet and a minor poet. In his brief career, Rosenberg created a small selection of poems and a great many questions. His career was cut tragically short when he was killed while fighting in World War I.

Rosenberg was born on November 25, 1890 in Bristol. His parents, Dovber “Barnett” Rosenberg and Hacha “Hannah” Davidov Rosenberg, were Jewish immigrants from Russia. During Rosenberg's childhood, they moved into the squalid streets of London's Jewish ghetto and set up a butcher's shop. The shop was soon confiscated, however, and Rosenberg's parents were forced to work as itinerants during the rest of his life. Rosenberg himself was only able to attend school briefly; at age 14, he began to work as an engraver's apprentice, spending his spare time practicing painting. He eventually showed so much promise in the visual arts that he was granted funds to attend the Slade Art School, a significant center of aesthetic theory. The school—which trained artists of various stripes, including Rosenberg's friend Mark Gertler—prized originality above all, and rewarded students with vision above those with labored skill.

Rosenberg ultimately developed “infinity of suggestion,” particularly in his poetry. But his early works seem too deeply influenced by the romantics to reveal much of Rosenberg's own voice. In Night and Day (1912), for example, Rosenberg's poems ring with “poetical” sounding words, lending the verse a self-conscious, antique air. As Thomas Staley wrote in Dictionary of Literary Biography: “The poems in this thin volume are much like his early paintings in that they lacked originality, a distinctive voice. The influence of Shelley and Keats, especially Keats's 'Endymion,' is clear, and even the imagery is suffused with Keatsian diction. But the subject matter seems to probe beyond this influence to go backward in search of a more comprehensive vision of the world.” Rosenberg produced one more volume of poetry, Youth (1915), before enlisting in a battalion to fight in World War I. Francine Ringold, writing for the Encyclopedia of World Literature, noted that Youth follows the general pattern of Night and Day: “all of these self-published works [Rosenberg's first volumes of poetry] demonstrate the moral earnestness and predilection for sonorous language that give [Rosenberg]'s work its richness yet, when in excess, detract from its effectiveness.” Irving Howe comments, similarly: “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 fought in World War I between 1915 and 1918, dying in the Battle of Arras on April 1. During this period, his work reached a kind of early maturity; in this period he found a truly distinctive voice, one indebted to the Old Testament and his sidelined Jewish identity. Many critics see Rosenberg strictly through his war poems. Others, however, insist that the war was only a subject for Rosenberg, or perhaps a challenge for which he was eminently suited. Rosenberg's vision of the human relationship with God was rooted in his Jewish heritage and depends on the metaphors of the Old Testament. Rosenberg's Judaism is explored perhaps most fully in his dramatic fragments, Moses and The Unicorn. “Had Rosenberg lived to develop further along the lines on which he had already moved,” wrote David Daiches in Commentary, “he might have changed the course of modern English poetry, producing side by side with the poetry of Eliot and his school a richer and more monumental kind of verse, opposing a new romantic poetry to the new metaphysical brand.”

Critics tend to dismiss Rosenberg based on his brief career and his thin contribution to English letters. But in his final poems, Rosenberg offers something more than war poetry or Anglo-Jewish poetry. “The tragedy of war gave [his] affinities full expression in his later poems,” Staley concluded, “and as war became the universe of his poetry, the power of his Jewish roots and the classical themes became the sources of his moral vision as well as his poetic achievement.” 


“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 man’s veins

Drop, and are ever dropping;

But mine in my ear is safe—

Just a little white with the dust.

“Dead Man’s Dump”

The plunging limbers over the shattered track

Racketed with their rusty freight,

Stuck out like many crowns of thorns,

And the rusty stakes like sceptres old

To stay the flood of brutish men

Upon our brothers dear.

The wheels lurched over sprawled dead

But pained them not, though their bones crunched,

Their shut mouths made no moan.

They lie there huddled, friend and foeman,

Man born of man, and born of woman,

And shells go crying over them

From night till night and now.

Earth has waited for them,

All the time of their growth

Fretting for their decay:

Now she has them at last!

In the strength of their strength

Suspended—stopped and held.

What fierce imaginings their dark souls lit?

Earth! have they gone into you!

Somewhere they must have gone,

And flung on your hard back

Is their soul’s sack

Emptied of God-ancestralled essences.

Who hurled them out? Who hurled?

None saw their spirits’ shadow shake the grass,

Or stood aside for the half used life to pass

Out of those doomed nostrils and the doomed mouth,

When the swift iron burning bee

Drained the wild honey of their youth.

What of us who, flung on the shrieking pyre,

Walk, our usual thoughts untouched,

Our lucky limbs as on ichor fed,

Immortal seeming ever?

Perhaps when the flames beat loud on us,

A fear may choke in our veins

And the startled blood may stop.

The air is loud with death,

The dark air spurts with fire,

The explosions ceaseless are.

Timelessly now, some minutes past,

Those dead strode time with vigorous life,

Till the shrapnel called ‘An end!’

But not to all. In bleeding pangs

Some borne on stretchers dreamed of home,

Dear things, war-blotted from their hearts.

Maniac Earth! howling and flying, your bowel

Seared by the jagged fire, the iron love,

The impetuous storm of savage love.

Dark Earth! dark Heavens! swinging in chemic smoke,

What dead are born when you kiss each soundless soul

With lightning and thunder from your mined heart,

Which man’s self dug, and his blind fingers loosed?

A man’s brains splattered on

A stretcher-bearer’s face;

His shook shoulders slipped their load,

But when they bent to look again

The drowning soul was sunk too deep

For human tenderness.

They left this dead with the older dead,

Stretched at the cross roads.

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.

Here is one not long dead;

His dark hearing caught our far wheels,

And the choked soul stretched weak hands

To reach the living word the far wheels said,

The blood-dazed intelligence beating for light,

Crying through the suspense of the far torturing wheels

Swift for the end to break

Or the wheels to break,

Cried as the tide of the world broke over his sight.

Will they come? Will they ever come?

Even as the mixed hoofs of the mules,

The quivering-bellied mules,

And the rushing wheels all mixed

With his tortured upturned sight.

So we crashed round the bend,

We heard his weak scream,

We heard his very last sound,

And our wheels grazed his dead face.


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!

“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?


My eyes catch ruddy necks

Sturdily pressed back.

All a red-brick moving glint.

Like flaming pendulums, hands

Swing across the khaki—

Mustard coloured khaki—

To the automatic feet. 


    We husband the ancient glory

In these bared necks and hands.

Not broke is the forge of Mars;

But a subtler brain beats iron

To shoe the hoofs of death.

Who pays dynamic air now?—

Blind fingers loose an iron cloud

To rain immortal darkness

On strong eyes.


“Soldier: Twentieth Century”

I love you, great new Titan! 

Am I not you? 

Napoleon and Caesar 

Out of you grew. 


Out of unthinkable torture, 

Eyes kissed by death, 

Won back to the world again, 

Lost and won in a breath, 


Cruel men are made immortal. 

Out of your pain born, 

They have stolen the sun's power 

With their feet on your shoulders worn. 


Let them shrink from your girth, 

That has outgrown the pallid days 

When you slept like Circe's swine 

Or a word in the brain's ways.

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?