He wrote in the trenches, and died in 1918. But Isaac Rosenberg did not see himself as a war poet

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Frances Spurrier writes about Isaac Rosenberg, a poet who was killed in the first world war. Some of his best-known poems deserve their place alongside those of Owen and Sassoon. Rosenberg died on patrol with the King’s Own Royal (Lancaster) regiment in France in the early dawn of 1 April 1918, at the age of 27.


What fierce imaginings their dark souls lit


(‘Dead Man’s Dump’)


Poets and artists who went to join in the boot-tramping, mud-drowning insanity that was the first world war faced, apart from the obvious horrors, some stark choices in relation to their artistic work;  how to imagine the unimaginable, say the unsayable in a form that would still have meaning for others.

There are certain names that we reach for readily in connection with the description “war poet”. I am referring here to the “soldier poets”,  Sassoon, Owen, Edward Thomas, Brooke. Isaac Rosenberg was very different to these. He was less concerned than, say,  Edward Thomas, in finding connections between the natural world and spirituality.  In a letter to one of his patrons Rosenberg says: 


I can’t say I have ever experienced the power  of one spirit over another except in books of course, at least in any intense way that you mean.  Unless you mean the interest one awakes in us and we long to know more, and none other.  I suppose we are all influenced by everybody we come into contact with and, in a subconscious way, if not direct and everything that happens to us is experience; but only the few know it.[1]


Rosenberg would have had little concept of there being honey still for tea in Grantchester, could not imagine Rupert Brooke’s lament for a vanishing rural England, for he had never been truly part of that culture.  Like every Jew, he was an outsider. In addition, his life must have been light years away from the experiences of the Marlborough and Cambridge educated Sassoon.

Born in Bristol in 1890, Isaac Rosenberg was the son of impoverished immigrant Lithuanian Jews.  He spent his young life in the East End of London where the family had moved after his father had been forced to flee to England in the 1880s. They were very poor.  Isaac’s sister Minnie seems to have encouraged him in his drawing and painting but he had little formal education and was expected to work as soon as possible to help support the family.  At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to a firm of engravers, work that he hated.  

He was largely self-educated, a result of voracious reading.  Although fortune did smile on him in the form of a chance meeting with a patron which produced funds to enable him to attend the Slade School of Art and thus launched his career as an artist.  He proved himself a gifted artist and before the war, exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery.

It has been said that, unlike Sassoon and the others, Rosenberg was not consciously a “war poet” in that he was less interested in detailing specific happenings in the trenches. He was more interested in biblical themes and some of his earlier work such as ‘A Ballad of Whitechapel’ lean toward melodrama, written in a high poetic style which could never survive the horrors of two world wars.



     And my soul thought:

     'What fearful land have my steps wandered to?

     God's love is everywhere, but here is naught

     Save love His anger slew.'



     And as I stood

     Lost in promiscuous bewilderment,

     Which to my 'mazed soul was wonder-food,

     A girl in garments rent


     Peered 'neath lids shamed

     And spoke to me and murmured to my blood.

     My soul stopped dead, and all my horror

     Named at her forgot of God.


Ironically perhaps, Rosenberg’s  best known and most anthologised poems, ‘August 1914’, ‘Dead Man’s Dump’ and ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’  have rendered him the war poet he did not think he was. The deity of the Whitechapel poem has also been replaced by an incipient humanism.   It doesn’t seem possible that this is the same poet who penned the Whitechapel poem above.  


     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 …


                                                                        (‘Break of Day in the Trenches’)


In his foreword to the Collected Works, Sassoon states:


In reading and re-reading these poems I have been strongly impressed by their depth and integrity. I have found a sensitive and vigorous mind energetically interested in experimenting with language, and I have recognised in Rosenberg a fruitful fusion between English and Hebrew culture.  Behind all his poetry there is a racial quality – biblical and prophetic. [2]


It may be that the prophetic quality to which Sassoon referred was not related solely to textual close reading of the poems.  There is evidence both in Isaac’s writing and in his letters that he was already thinking ahead, if he was allowed to survive the war, to what new forms poetry could take after the mayhem, anticipating the preoccupations of Eliot and the modernists. 

Rosenberg wrote in a letter to Lawrence Binyon in l916: 


I am determined that this war, with all its power for devastation, shall not master my poeting – that is if I am lucky enough to come through all right.  I will not leave a corner of my consciousness covered up, but saturate myself the strange extraordinary new conditions of this life and it will all refine itself into poetry later on. 


Tragically he did not “come through all right”. Isaac Rosenberg was killed while on patrol with the King’s Own Royal Lancasters in France in the early dawn of 1 April 1918, at the age of 27.

It look longer for Rosenberg’s work to be recognised as on a par with his perhaps more famous comrades.  That it was eventually recognised was largely due to the unfailing efforts of family members, particularly his two sisters Minnie and Annie, to collate and advance his work that he sent to them from the front.[3]   Rosenberg was among 16 war poets commemorated on a slate stone in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.  Wilfred Owen’s word are inscribed on the commemorative stone:  ‘My subject is War, and the Pity of War.  The Poetry is in the Pity.’

Critics are still somewhat divided. Because Rosenberg he died so young it is impossible to say what his work might have become in maturity.   But there is a very good short biography of him on the Poetry Foundation website from which I quote the following extract:


"Had Rosenberg lived to develop further along the lines on which he had already moved … 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."



[1] ‘Letters to Miss Seaton’. The Collected Works of Isaac Rosenberg: Poetry Prose Letters & Paintings. Edited with Introduction and Notes by Ian Parsons Chatto and Windus (London, 1979) 


[2] Foreword. The Collected Works of Isaac Rosenberg: Poetry Prose Letters & Paintings. Ed. Ian Parsons Chatto and Windus (London: 1979)


[3] ‘In Memory of my dear Brother’. Isaac Rosenberg, Poetry out of my Head and Heart, ed. Jean Liddiard. (Enitharmon, in association with the European Jewish Publications Society,  2007).




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Julian (Admin)

Tue 1st Apr 2014 15:58

I own up that I had never heard of him, but shall read him now. Thank you Frances.

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Greg Freeman

Mon 31st Mar 2014 20:51

I know from social media that there has been a great deal of interest in this article, Frances. It has made me want to read more of Rosenberg's poetry. Coincidentally, there was a BBC4 documentary the other day on another "forgotten" war poet, Ivor Gurney, who survived the war, but who sadly died in an asylum http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b03zq4cb/The_Poet_who_Loved_the_War_Ivor_Gurney/

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