From Pandemonium

Elizabeth Cook

  • The Poems and Plays of Isaac Rosenberg edited by Vivien Noakes
    Oxford, 427 pp, £90.00, August 2004, ISBN 0 19 818715 7

In June 1914, the 24-year-old Isaac Rosenberg left his home in Stepney, East London, to stay with his married sister Minnie Horvitch in Cape Town in the hope that the climate might improve his health. He was in Cape Town when he heard that war had been declared. He responded in ‘On Receiving News of the War: Cape Town’:

Snow is a strange white word.
No ice or frost
Have asked of bud or bird
For Winter’s cost.

Yet ice and frost and snow
From earth to sky
This Summer land doth know.
No man knows why.

In all men’s hearts it is.
Some spirit old
Hath turned with malign kiss
Our lives to mould.

Red fangs have torn His face.
God’s blood is shed.
He mourns from His lone place
His children dead.
O! ancient crimson curse!
Corrode, consume.
Give back this universe Its pristine bloom.

There is an absolute command of pace in this poem, a pace as inexorable as the spreading stain of the ‘strange white word’. The slight hesitation, almost syncopation, in ‘Corrode, consume’ allows the demand of the two final lines to unroll with ambiguous splendour. The diction rises to the mythic scale of the horror. In October 1915, Rosenberg, back in London, enlisted, against his pacifist convictions, not out of patriotic fervour but because he wanted his mother (whose heart he feared would break at the news) to have the separation allowance that would be her due and half his pay.

The experience of trench warfare did not shock Rosenberg into poetry or make him see more clearly. The war may have accelerated his poetic development as much as it cramped its production, but it did not fundamentally change its course. Like that of his longer lived contemporary David Jones (born five years after Rosenberg, in 1895), Rosenberg’s writing displays a sense of the continuity between a past passionately experienced through poetry and spiritual tradition, and a nearly intolerable present.

Rosenberg’s parents were Russian Jews who had emigrated from Lithuania to England (originally to Leeds, then to Bristol, where Isaac was born, and finally to East London). In his poetry the longing for rootedness that often accompanies deracination leads to a profound sense of the roots that he could claim, and a readiness to reach further (to biblical ancestry and poetic affinity) to claim them than those who feel themselves more easily at home. When, as a student at the Slade, he applied for the first British Rome Prize in 1912, he wasn’t sure whether he was a British citizen and so eligible. He was, but it was not something he had taken for granted. His friend Joseph Leftwich, at the time working in a furrier’s sweatshop in Stepney, wrote of Rosenberg in his diary: ‘It is only in poetry that he feels himself somebody . . . in poetry he feels himself at home.’

In November 1915, Rosenberg wrote to Sidney Schiff from the military hospital (he had tripped and cut his hands) in Bury St Edmunds: ‘One might succumb, be destroyed – but one might also . . . be renewed, made larger, healthier.’ This may sound suspiciously like Rupert Brooke’s sense of himself and his fellows going into the war like ‘swimmers into cleanness leaping’; but unlike Brooke (who smacked too much of ‘flag days’ for Rosenberg’s taste), Rosenberg had no illusions about the nature of the element he was entering. He saw clearly the war’s capacity for destruction, but saw too the opportunity it offered for growth. He used the same notion of health when he wrote, before the war, of Milton’s sonnet ‘On His Blindness’: ‘how dignified he is! how grand, how healthy! What begins in a mere physical moan, concludes in a grand triumphant spiritual expression . . . of more than resignation, of conquest.’

Struggle – to earn enough to live, to get books and drawing materials, to find time to read, draw, think and write – was intrinsic to Rosenberg’s experience. Before 1911, when he was working in Fleet Street as an apprentice engraver, he wrote to his schoolteacher friend Winifreda Seaton (in language which achieves the simple large vision it complains of lacking):

It is horrible to think that all these hours, when my days are full of vigour and my hands and soul craving for self-expression, I am bound, chained to this fiendish mangling-machine, without . . . hope of deliverance . . . I despair of ever writing excellent poetry. I can’t look at things in the simple, large way that great poets do. My mind is so cramped and dulled and fevered . . . the very fibres are torn apart, and application deadened by the fiendish persistence of the coil of circumstance.

In January 1918, Rosenberg wrote from the trenches to Edward Marsh, the compiler of Georgian Poetry, and one of the several friends that Rosenberg would make through his poetry: ‘We spend most of our time pulling each other out of the mud.’ In some sense, his subject is the struggle to wrest poetry from the stifling pressures of existence, from mud, poverty, the constraints of obligation.

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