The text of a lecture given as part of Birkbeck College’s From Mechanics to Millennium lecture series, October 30th 2000. All quotations from Rosenberg’s works are from The Collected Works of Isaac Rosenberg: Poetry, Prose, Letters, Paintings and Drawings, ed. Ian Parsons (London: Chatto and Windus, 1979), abbreviated to CW.
Isaac Rosenberg was born in 1890, the second child and first son of a Jewish family who had made their way from Russia after his father had evaded conscription. His father, Dovber Rosenberg, who changed his name on arrival in Britain to Barnett, was schooled deeply in the scriptures, and, perhaps because of this, rather unworldly and ill-suited to the demands of raising and maintaining a growing family in difficult circumstances. He made what living he could as a pedlar, for as long as this remained possible in the early years of the last century; but undoubtedly most of the work of keeping the family of what would by 1899 have swelled to six children fell to his vigorous and resourceful wife Hacha, with whom Barnett had a cold and hostile relationship. Isaac Rosenberg was born in Bristol, one of twins, though his brother died in birth. When he was approaching his seventh year, the need to furnish him with a Jewish education seems to have been one of the spurs to a move to London. If Rosenberg was to suffer privations and humiliations that the officer class who furnished most of the other poets of the First World War would never come near until they saw the conditions endured by the private soldiers under their command, it is also true that he had the advantages of education and aspiration traditionally accorded to the oldest son even in the poorest Jewish families. Had Rosenberg not been the first-born, or, of course, had been a daughter, then we would have been even less likely to have heard of him.
Rosenberg was educated, not in the Jewish Free School in Spitalfields, which had been his parents’ wish, but in a State school in Baker Street. Jewish religious education featured strongly in the curriculum at the school, though Rosenberg appears to have been bored and inattentive - despite his later interest in subjects from Jewish religion and history, he does not seem to have learned very much Hebrew. At the Baker Street School, which Rosenberg attended until the age of 14, his talent for sketching was encouraged, assisted by Rosenberg’s attendance at the Arts and Crafts School in Stepney Green.
On leaving school, Rosenberg embarked on an apprenticeship in Carl Hentschel's, an engraving business in Fleet Street, which would in fact supply him with his living, and supplement the family income valuably until he was 20. But the work was hugely demoralising for Rosenberg. By the time he was 16, he had conceived an ambition to study at the Slade School. Knowing that this would be impossible without further training, Rosenberg enrolled for evening classes in the Art School at Birkbeck College in Chancery Lane, for nearly two years, betwen 1907 and 1908.
There is no doubt that Birkbeck actualised possibilities and focussed aspirations for the seventeen-year old Rosenberg. The training offered at the Birkbeck Art School concentrated on the disciplines of figure drawing, and the human face and form were to remain Rosenberg’s principal interests both as painter and as poet. His ambition revealed itself in a strong competitiveness which would stay with him for the rest of his life. He was awarded prizes at the end of his first year for drawing from the antique and for drawing in light and shade. In his second year, the Birkbeck College Students' Magazine records that he was awarded another prize in a National Competition for drawing, and in that year also won the College’s Mason prize for nude studies in the life class. He exhibited in the Art School’s annual exhibitions after leaving the college and, 1910, won another prize, the Pocock Prize, for a nude study in oils.
Nevertheless, things did not look up straight away for Rosenberg. He continued to work at Hentschel’s engravers, writing glumly in 1910, in one of the earliest of his letters to have survived ‘I have tried to make some sort of self-adjustment to circumstances by saying, ‘It is all experience’; but good God! it is all experience, and nothing else...’ (CW, 180). In 1911, Rosenberg's 21st year, he fell in with a group of young intellectuals, all of them in similar situations to Rosenberg, and all with futures as writers in front of them. They would be known as the Whitechapel Boys, and included Simon Weinstein, who later changed his name to Stephen Winsten, Joseph Lefkowitz, who also changed his name to Joseph Leftwich and John Rodker, who was to be an associate of Ezra Pound, and an important publisher of modernism in England. With them, Rosenberg found and audience and a context; with them, he began to attend meetings of the Young Socialist League. Much of what we know of Rosenberg in the year 1911 is derived from a detailed diary that Leftwich kept in 1911. The picture that emerges is scarcely flattering:
The Slade was at this time in the forefront of efforts to open English art up to modernist influences and possibilities. Both D.S. MacColl and Roger Fry, influential figures in this receptive context, lectured at the Slade. Fellow students in Rosenberg’s time included David Bomberg and Mark Gertler, both of whom Rosenberg came to know, as well as Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash, Edward Wadsworth and Dora Carrington. At this point, however, Rosenberg appears not to have been as receptive to these emerging and fracturing energies in English cultural life as some others. The tension between modernism and tradition would be played out more in his poetry than in his painting.
The two and a half years of study at the Slade from October 1911 to March 1914 continued the expansion of Rosenberg’s horizons and the heating of his ambition that his evenings at Birkbeck had begun. Oddly, it seems also to have been in these years that he began to move away from painting into poetry. In 1912, he published a small pamphlet of poems called Night and Day, with a small private printer called Israel Narodiczky. He also made contact with some important literary figures: Laurence Binyon and Edward Marsh, the latter a senior civil servant, who was later to be Winston Churchill’s private secretary as well as the publisher of an influential series of volumes called Georgian Poetry, which represented an attempt to detonate under controlled conditions the bomb primed by imagism, futurism and other foreign imports. Rosenberg came to rely heavily on Marsh’s opinion and influence. Marsh bought a number of Rosenberg’s paintings and gave him continuous encouragement in his poetry, though he also proved rather an obtuse, opinionated and unhelpful critic of it.
Nevertheless, these were times of continuing strain for Rosenberg. Suffering from bronchial inflammation, and fearing the onset of tuberculosis, he took himself to South Africa to stay with his newly-married sister in June 1914. While there, he found himself unexpectedly and gratifyingly lionised as an up and coming young artist, rather than struggling to be taken notice of. This allowed him in turn to adopt a pose of weary isolation: ‘think of me’, he wrote to Edward Marsh, with only a touch of self-mockery, ‘a creature of the most exquisite civilization, planted in this barbarous land’ (CW, 205). Apart from painting a series of increasingly effective portraits, he wrote and delivered a long and revealing lecture about the evolution of contemporary art. In this, Rosenberg shows only a cautious openness to modernism in art and indeed is positively blimpish about Marinetti’s futurist antics, declaring that ‘the only sensation I have ever got from a Futurist picture is that of a house falling (CW, 294). He saw the efforts of contemporary artists to sum up and gather together ‘the multiplexity, and elaborately interwoven texture of modern life; the whole monstrous fabric of modernity’ as only another stage in the evolution of art. Rosenberg’s tone and sentiments here may also represent the caution of a man who has too much invested in becoming inward with a tradition to be able to shrug it off as decisively as some others. Rosenberg’s charcoal sketch Hark, Hark the Lark is perhaps as far as he allowed himself to go in embracing the brutal, dynamic angularity and the geometrised sexuality which excited his friends Gertler and Bomberg, following the example of Epstein and Gaudier-Brzeska.
Perhaps the most important thing about this lecture is what it reveals about Rosenberg’s relationship to Blake. In it he declared, surely presciently, ‘the reign of Blake is yet to begin’. Rosenberg had been introduced to Blake by one of his teachers at Birkbeck, Alice Wright, with whom he remained in contact for some years. Rosenberg may have taken particular encouragement from the fact that Blake, too was a painter and engraver as well as a poet, who combined the bluntness and practicality of an artisan with an intensely visionary spirituality. In fact, there are signs that the exampe of Blake was almost too close for comfort for Rosenberg. Although he affirmed roundly in his lecture that Blake was ‘the highest artist England has ever had’, and praised his responsiveness to ‘that unimpaired divinity that shines from all things mortal when looked [at] through the eye of imagination.’ (CW, 295), he also rather high-handedly regretted his ‘bad and mannered way of drawing’. Rosenberg attributed this to Blake’s isolation from the artistic mainstream: ‘The unbroken tradition that runs right from Egypt through Da Vinci, Dürer to John , passed by him; there were none to hand it on to him.’ (CW, 295). The sighing hauteur on show here is perhaps the brittle pose of a young man who had every reason to anticipate being passed by himself by these great and fine traditions. ‘I should like very much to be one of the initiated’, he had written in a more shiveringly stripped moment in 1911 (CW, 182).
A fragment of fiction written a couple of years earlier, when Rosenberg was attempting to obtain financial support to enable him to enter the Slade, tells the story of a spiritual and, it must be said, excessively high-minded struggling artist, in whose garret, ‘in the dim waning light, God could see day by day the titanic wrestlings of genius against the exigencies of circumstances’. Rudolph feels like a ‘castaway’, a ‘blot’ amid respectable society. One day he is invited to a dinner with a distinguished lady artist, for which he is forced to borrow a suit from a friend. When he arrives, the butler recognises the suit as his own, from a distinctive pattern of paint splashes (produced, it appears as a result of home decoration rather than artistic endeavour). Rudolph fences away his public discomfiture with perfect Whistlerian self-possession, putting the butler down thus: ‘ "your latest additions in coffee stains, although they may be very creditable to your decorative capabilities, do not show a just sense of the relative values of time and place. It positively destroys the harmony. However, Henry, I forgive you." ’ What survives from the story is not Rosenberg’s stiff self-defence, but the prickling humiliation Rudolph feels as he flaps and flails about inside a suit which is so large it seems almost to have taken his place: ‘he was afraid to rise lest he would disappear and only an evening dress be seen walking about’ (CW, 282). Like Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s Ulysses, who spends his day elaborating an overdressed theory of art and the artist in a pair of cast-off boots, Rosenberg here betrays an incapacity wholly to refine the mundane out of existence that will, at the last, become his most distinctive gift. It would resurface in the poems he wrote in France in the last years of his life, in which the sad, clumsy comedy of the body would communicate intimately with Rosenberg’s highest spiritual sentiments.
While Rosenberg was still in Cape Town, war broke out, and he produced an ominous poem about it. Like the best of his war poems, it registers shock at a distance. Time and again in his best poems, there will be the same effort to render cataclysm in terms of muffled, minor agitations:
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 (CW, 75)
Rosenberg returned from his South African trip refreshed but still unencumbered with prospects. He set to work publishing another pamphlet, entitled Youth, the rather grandiose tripartite scheme for which he explained to Marsh. The volume was to move through the stages of ‘faith and fear’, rendering the aspirations of a youthful poet to purity, ‘The Cynic’s lamp’, in which the poet loses his aspirations and is content with external reality and finally ‘sunfire’, in which love reignites the poet’s spiritual longings. The publication of the pamphlet marked a renewal of Rosenberg’s efforts to obtain support and patronage. In 1915, he began to correspond with the poet Gordon Bottomley. The previous year, he had written to W.B. Yeats, who in turn passed his work on to Ezra Pound, who was then a contributing editor for the important Chicago poetry magazine Poetry, edited by Harriet Monroe. Initially, Pound had been brutally dismissive of Rosenberg’s work. When Monroe wrote to him for advice again in 1915, his response was still sneering, but a little more appreciative:
But Pound was anyway too late by now to think of signing up his exotic Stepney safecracker to the modernist 'men of 1914'; for after some months looking around for opportunities to earn a living – which included going back to Hentschel’s the engravers - Rosenberg signed up for army service in October 1915, disguising the fact as long as he could from his mother. He entered into what would be seven months of training, during which time he began to write the highly distinctive poems by which he would become known: ‘Marching (As Seen From the Left File)’; ‘The Troop Ship’ and ‘August 1914’.
Rosenberg’s privations as a soldier, considerably more intense than those suffered by the officer-poets of the First World War, began during his training; indeed, one of the most remarkable things about his correspondence is that it reveals no very obvious break between his experiences in barracks in Aldershot and elsewhere and his experiences in Northern France. For a young working class Jew - a young working class anyone, in fact - the drab horror of military service began some considerable way short of Flanders. Food was terrible, hygiene atrocious, training and punishment arduous and Rosenberg was regularly ill or injured. He suffered in particular from the ignominious and unforgettable pain caused by ill-conditioned boots (you were supposed to soak them with codliver oil), which rubbed all the skin off his feet and made marching agony (CW, 223-5). This particular injury seemed to sum up his new condition of passivity and deprivation. It was as if he had been reduced to a skinless condition of absolute exposure, or conversely perhaps had become some sort of slack, cast-off skin itself. He wrote in December 1915, ‘since I have joined [I] have hardly given poetry or painting a thought. I feel as if I were casting my coat, I mean, like a snake or butterfly. Here’s another one of myself, not much like a poet - I’m afraid’ (CW, 227). In a letter of August 4th, 1916, which was accompanied by the poem ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’, Rosenberg wrote to Edward Marsh
Rosenberg was also the victim of racial insult, which seems to have had the effect of intensifying the previously suppressed or disavowed sense of his Jewishness. During this period he began a new poem, more elaborate, more allusive and more obviously Jewish than anything else he had written. The dramatic fragment ‘Moses’ draws together his frustration and irritation into a specifically political anger at the oppressive institution of the army. He had made it clear that patriotic principles had little or nothing to do with his volunteering for military service, which anyway offended his moral principles. He signed on largely in the understanding that half of his wages would be sent straight to his mother (to his rage he discovered that the army had failed to do this). By March 1916, he was writing to Lascelles Abercrombie ‘Believe me the army is the most detestable invention on this earth and nobody but a private in the army knows what it is to be a slave’ (CW, 230). ‘Moses’ combines Judaic mythology with Blakeian revolutionary fervour, representing the ordinary infantrymen of the war as not only the slaves of the brutally self-aggrandising Pharoah, but also the victims of ‘the miasma of a rotting god’ (CW, 142). The play begins with Moses reading a letter from Pharoah demanding from him another big push to put up the sixteenth pyramid, and offering him ‘idiots for tools, tree stumps for swords, skin sacks for souls’ (CW, 138). If Rosenberg identifies himself with the visionary Moses, who looks in the mirror for spiritual purification (‘Soul sack fall away/And show what you hold’ CW, 140) in order to be able to reignite life and idealism in his people, this identification is not altogether comfortable; in the play, Moses arouses the suspicion of some of the Hebrews because of his intimacy with Pharoah and the fact that he has slept with the daughter of one of the Egyptian overseers. Perhaps something of this discomfort is to be discerned in the fact that the Private I. Rosenberg who exchanged letters from the front with Winston Churchill’s private secretary refused a promotion to the rank of Lance Corporal.
Rosenberg was resolved to subject the experiences of the War to a kind of symbolic transfiguration. He wrote in the Autumn of 1916, ‘I am determined that this war, with all its powers 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 with the strange and extraordinary new conditions of this life, and it will all refine itself into poetry later on.’ For most of the poets who fought in and wrote of the First World War, experience at the front served to tear apart the inherited forms and conventions of Romantic poetry, giving them access to a new harshness and documentary directness, though only rarely impelling them into wholly new poetic languages. Rosenberg too was forced into a new kind of poetry, perhaps even in a sense forced altogether out of the conception of poetry with which he had entered the War. Rosenberg was determined that his life’s work was to be in the following through of epic conceptions and he spent the years before the War bricking himself up in an impossible, unachievable poetic posture. In fact the poetry that he discovered, or was discovered in his situation, was to be a poetry of snatchings and spasms and fragments, of pouncings and fallings short rather than followings through, which it took the savage tedium and distractedness of war to force out. Before the war, and for much of it, he had aspired to ‘genuine poetry, where the words lose their interest as words and only a living and beautiful idea remains’ (CW, 198) The poems he sent home from barracks and trenches and infirmaries, poems centring on faces, hands, feet, ears, skin and teeth, testify more and more to the clownish innocence of the body, and the equally fragile body of the language that clings about it. When Rosenberg describes an army detail suddenly looking upward in rapture to hear the song of an unseen lark, the abstract rapture of Shelley’s ‘Ode to the Skylark’ is suddenly made actual and concrete, in the almost physical sense given of the song raining beneficently on to the exposed skin of the upturned faces:
Sombre the night is.
And though we have our lives, we know
What sinister threat lies there.
Dragging these anguished limbs, we only know
This poison-blasted track opens on our camp -
On a little safe sleep.
But hark! joy - joy - strange joy.
Lo! heights of night ringing with unseen larks.
Music showering our upturned list’ning faces.
Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song -
But song only dropped,
Like a blind man’s dreams on the sand
By dangerous tides,
Like a girl’s dark hair for she dreams no ruin lies there,
Or her kisses where a serpent hides. (CW, 109)
When there is hammered diction and high sentence in Rosenberg's war poems, it is often deployed self-deflatingly, as in the two poems Rosenberg wrote about lice-infestation. The daubed exorbitance of the language in ‘Louse Hunting’ -‘See gargantuan hooked fingers/Pluck in supreme flesh/To smutch supreme littleness’ (CW, 108) - seems designed to act out and send up the ironic disparity of scale in what is being described. The companion piece to this louse-poem, ‘The Immortals’, seems to begin with sonorous echoes of the Francis Thompson whom Rosenberg admired in his youth, or earlier youth: ‘I fled him, down the nights and down the days/I fled him down the pathways of the years’ (‘The Hound of Heaven’), but ends with an offkey, ikey shrug, assisted by the deliberate slight misfire of the rhymes ‘carouse’ and ‘louse’:
I killed them, but they would not die.
Yea! all the day and all the night
For them I could not rest or sleep,
Nor guard from them nor hide in flight.
Then in my agony I turned
And made my hands red in their gore.
In vain - for faster than I slew
They rose more cruel than before.
I killed and killed with slaughter mad;
I killed till all my strength was gone.
And still they rose to torture me,
For Devils only die in fun.
I used to think the Devil hid
In women’s smiles and wine’s carouse.
I called him Satan, Balzebub.
But now I call him, dirty louse. (CW, 107-8)
The second version of the poem sprouts as unpredictably out of the first as the poppy growing in the trench. ‘Break of Day In The Trenches’ relies, not on the plink-plonk metre and rather adolescent theatricals of the explosion in the first, but instead on a wry diversion of the sense:In The Trenches
I snatched two poppies
From the parapet’s ledge,
Two bright red poppies
That winked on the ledge.
Behind my ear
I stuck one through,
One blood red poppy
I gave to you.
The sandbags narrowed
And screwed out our jest,
And tore the poppy
You had on your breast ...
Down - a shell - O! Christ,
I am choked ... safe ... dust blind, I
See trench floor poppies
Strewn. Smashed you lie. (CW, 102-3)
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. (CW, 103-4)
That dust communicates strongly and strangely with a poem of 1912, in which Rosenberg actually gives a voice to a flurry of dust, addressing a poet: ‘A little dust whispered - a little grey dust’. At first the dust asks to be lifted up into the poet’s condition, so as ‘To see through his eyes to the vast of his mind’. In the second stanza, it is asking how long it will be before the poet’s dust mingles with it and ‘with me kiss the cloud and the clod’ (CW. 42). The dust lasts into the last poem Rosenberg wrote, which was sent in a letter to Edward Marsh. ‘Through These Pale Cold Days’ evokes a strange, still afterlife glimpsed within the soldiers continuing moment of struggle, and their unabated, immemorial yearning for ease and release. In the letter which accompanies this poem, Rosenberg is fretting about not having heard anythings in response to his request to be transferred to the Jewish Battalion fighting in North Africa. In the poem, the longing for Zion is generalised to all soldiers, making us know them all as homeless Jews. The poem ends with the soldiers leaving themselves behind as dust in their own footsteps, and seeing that they are all, as they have always been, already dead.
Through these pale cold days
What dark faces burn
Out of three thousand years,
And their wild eyes yearn,
While underneath their brows
Like waifs their spirits grope
For the pools of Hebron again -
For Lebanon’s summer slope.
They leave these blond still days
In dust behind their tread
They see with living eyes
How long they have been dead. (CW, 117)
We perhaps anyway owe this last letter and poem only to the ‘inch of
candle’ Rosenberg says he has been able to scrounge to write it: ‘I must
measure my letter by the light’, he wrote (CW, 272). Perhaps Birkbeck
College made up a part of Rosenberg's inch of light, as it has done for
so many other men and women of his condition, other men and women for whom
there would never be enough time. The last words of the letter and of the
life shrunk to its compass were an apology, the last of many that Rosenberg
wrote to Marsh and others: ‘I’ve seen no poetry for ages now so you mustn’t
be too critical - My vocabulary small enough before is impoverished and
bare’ (CW, 272). But, measuring his lines by the light, and finding
decision amid his very destitution, Isaac Rosenberg surely made, as much
as any can, his time his own.