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The Break of Day - Isaac Rosenberg

BreakofDayScene post-WWI battle courtesy http://www.williamshawblackwatch.co.uk/tag/neuve-chapelle/

This post follows up on Mike Schuster's The Great War Project report about Easter 2018 featured on the WWI Centennial News Podcast for April 6, 2018.  In the context of the stalling German offensive in the spring of 2018, Schuster discussed the WWI British poet, Isaac Rosenberg, who died on Easter Sunday.

"Break of Day in the Trenches"

Isaac Rosenberg's "Break of Day in the Trenches" provides one of the most disturbing examples of the dark, macabre humor found in the later WWI poetry that sought to demystify the virtues of honor, glory, and patriotism associated with combat. The speaker in the poem –presumably a WWI soldier in the trenches– begins by conversing with a rat as he looks out to no man's land from the trenches with the rising dawn:

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.

IsaacR2Isaac Rosenberg 1917 Photograph: Graham Turner. Courtesy of https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2008/nov/10/in-the-trenches-isaac-rosenberg

The rat, the only living thing the speaker finds amidst the backdrop of a battle-torn landscape of cadavers and mud, is like an old, admired human confidant:

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.

 

trench rats 4Photo from a German newsmagazine with a not too-subtle remark on sanitary conditions: "The result of 15 minute's rat-hunting in a British trench." Image courtesy of https://terriermandotcom.blogspot.fr/2007/07/world-war-i-trench-hunters-httpwww.html

 

The rat, unlike the soldier, can mingle with enemy and ally alike without the fatal consequences of crossing no man's land:

 

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.

 

trenchrats2Italian Soldiers holding up a pole full of stringed up rats. Image courtesy of https://inamandaaronww1project.weebly.com/life-in-the-trenches.html

 

It's possible to imagine the rat sardonically smiling as it scampers among the strong bodies of the soldiers, dead and alive. Soldiers, who have trained for combat and struggle under fire are almost no match for the limber rodent as it can avoid death with greater ease. The rat, not the human soldiers, seems to be the natural inhabitants of the torn fields of France. The speaker asks the rat if the animals are aware of the human's tortuous presence:

 

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;

 

The poppy, symbol both of bloodshed and life renewal, is not like the rat; the ethereal flower, which closes at night is supposed to open and blossom with the sunlight, is still in the dropping position at dawn. The light of day has not stopped the dying on the battlefield; the poppies cannot open, but the rat can exist. The rat can survive. The last lines of the poem introduce an intriguing question about the speaker:

 

But mine in my ear is safe—

Just a little white with the dust.

 

poppiesinthespringPoppies open and closed. Courtesy of https://allevents.in/anderson/closed-poppies-in-the-spring/1984499355205416

 

 Like the rat, the speaker is safe and so is the poppy that he picked from the parapet lining the trench. But what is the white dust? Is it dust from the nighttime shelling and combat that he apparently survived? Or is Rosenberg making a biblical reference to "dust to dust" derived from the book of Genesis, which would imply that the speaker considers himself dead? Has he died, rejoining the earth, a space from which he can, like the rat, remain sheltered from human violence?

 

"Break of Day" Instead of "Daybreak" 

How to remain concise with words while at the same time exploding the richness of an image? Such is the mark of a talented and hardworking poet: to express the infinity of an idea, a word, or an image in few words. This is why it has always been puzzling that Rosenberg chose "break of day" as the title for this poem instead of "daybreak." We're taught that the best writers avoid prepositional phrases whenever they can. The rest of the poem is succinct and short. It is perhaps interesting to consider the emphasis Rosenberg put on the notion of breaking. Unlike a nightmare, daybreak for the speaker does not spell the end of the battle, the dying, or the war. Rather, it seems to be a painful, unfiltered bright light affirming the nightmare was real. The break is thus one with disbelief. Or,  at daybreak, it could be said he is no longer part of the living, as seen through his surreal conversation with the rat and the almost-unblemished poppy. The speaker has not broken with the dark but with life.

For more on Isaac Rosenberg and his haunting poetry, please go to Connie Ruzich's Behind Their Lines: Poetry of the Great War. She writes in depth on another important Rosenberg poem about the horrors of dawn in WWI,  "Returning, we hear the larks." “Dawn has never recovered from what the Great War did to it,” writes Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory. Ruzich explains that, through Rosenberg, we learn that "dawn, an archetype of hope and renewal, was for the men in the trenches one of the most anxious and exhausting times of day."

 

RosenbergRosenberg, Self Portrait, 1915. Courtesy of http://www.english.emory.edu/LostPoets/Rosenberg.html

 

Isaac Rosenberg Bio from the Poetry Foundation

The following full text, "Isaac Rosenberg 1890-1918" comes from the Poetry Foundation:

Isaac Rosenberg may be remembered as a Jewish-English poet, or a poet of war, but his poetry stretches beyond those narrow categories. Since Rosenberg was only twenty-eight 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. Rosenberg's status as an English poet is thus still 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.

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 there 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 fourteen, 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 tend to ring with "poetical" sounding words, lending the verse a self-conscious, antique air. As Thomas Staley remarked 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 Youthfollows 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 R[osenberg]'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 particularly 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. In many ways, Rosenberg's vision of the human relationship with God depends on his Jewish heritage—it depends on the metaphors of the Old Testament, at least. Rosenberg's Judaism is perhaps most apparent 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."

Ultimately, 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 Jewish English 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."

 

 

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