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!
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.
‘I am afraid my public is still in the womb,’ Rosenberg wrote to Sidney Schiff in 1916. During his lifetime, his published work consisted of three pamphlets, privately printed in small numbers by Israel Narodiczky in Whitechapel, and a handful of poems in magazines. Three posthumous volumes followed – each containing more than its predecessor – in 1922, 1937 and 1979. The first was edited by Gordon Bottomley, the poet whose epistolary friendship was the source of great sustenance to Rosenberg and to whom his sister, Annie Rosenberg, entrusted the task; the second by Bottomley and Denys Harding (of Scrutiny fame); and the last by Ian Parsons. This was reissued in paperback in 1984 but has long been out of print. In 1975 three biographies of Rosenberg were published and in 2003 two of those biographers – Jean Moorcroft Wilson and Jean Liddiard – produced selections from his work, the latter also containing a substantial selection of Rosenberg’s letters. With Rosenberg it has been feast or fast. Vivien Noakes’s variorum edition of the poems and plays is the first scholarly edition to be published. Earlier editions (the two recent selections are based on these) are sometimes unreliable – editorial interventions are not always acknowledged and the editors take ungrounded decisions about chronology – but Noakes’s meticulous edition allows us to read what Rosenberg actually wrote.
In the introductory memoir he contributed to Bottomley’s 1922 Selected Poems, Laurence Binyon wrote that Rosenberg ‘did not sufficiently appreciate the limitations of language’, but Rosenberg’s life was one of limitations resisted, and the whole impulse of his poetry is to put pressure on them to see where it might lead. In his unfinished drama, The Amulet, Lilith says: ‘I think there is more sorrow in the world/ Than man can bear.’ To which the unsentimental Nubian replies: ‘None can exceed their limit, lady./You either bear or break.’ In the extraordinary poem ‘God Made Blind’, Rosenberg presents a stratagem of ‘God-gulling’: this is a way of cheating God by pretending that we have as much misery as we can bear (so God will lay off before it really is unbearable) and then, under cover of this, amassing a secret and rebellious joy which will, as he glossed it, ‘push out to that Eternity without us which is God’s heart’ so that, eventually, ‘We have become God himself’:
And then, when Love’s power hath increased so
That we must burst or grow to give it room,
And we can no more cheat our God with gloom,
We’ll cheat him with our joy.
Long after the war, David Jones wrote that art ‘compels you to do an infantryman’s job. She insists on the tactile.’ Rosenberg’s poetry engages with the stuff of language in a way that was beyond the understanding of most of his contemporaries, just as the painter he also was (like Jones) engaged with the substance and capacities of paint. Indeed, Rosenberg went further in this direction in his poetry than in his painting. When a poet is called ‘painterly’ it usually suggests minute description, but Rosenberg used painterly skills of another kind to push poetry on: his habit of handling and recasting certain phrases and passages of poetry over a period of years suggests that language for him was not a matter of equivalence but a material that might reveal its secrets only to the most patient user. Binyon was right that Rosenberg did not accept the limitations of language: that is his strength.
The human body and face – particularly his own – was Rosenberg’s principal subject as a visual artist. The number of self-portraits he painted suggests that the constant and constantly changing figure of the self offered him a reference point for the interrogation of matter and the extent of its capacity for revelation. His self-portraits show an arresting, unsmiling face that seems to be watching itself to see what it might come up with. Rosenberg’s Moses addresses his mirrored image:
Oh! apparition of me!
Ruddy flesh soon hueless!
Fade and show to my eyes
The lasting bare body.
Soul sack fall away And show what you hold.
Just as Rosenberg repeatedly drew and painted himself, so he returned to certain phrases and passages of poetry, examining them, turning them over, squeezing them to extract their meaning. Nothing in his experience was wasted. With the economy of one brought up in poverty, each good phrase, each piece of serviceable paper, each candle-stub was used to the utmost.
Rosenberg described his work as a process of moving ‘more and more . . . into more depth and lucidity’. The habits and circumstances of his writing mean that Vivien Noakes’s edition is marvellously illuminating about the processes of poetry. With the help of this edition it is possible to see Rosenberg’s workings and to watch the way recurring phrases are modified and proved by persistent handling.
Take these lines, which surface first in The Amulet: ‘Our girls have hair/Like heights of night ringing with never-seen larks,/ Or blindness dim with dreams.’ They reappear in The Unicorn, a reworking of The Amulet, when the mysterious Tel struggles to ‘resolve’ his ‘dazed blood’ into words: ‘Yet here . . . somewhere/An instant flashes a large face of dusk/Like heights of night ringing with unseen larks/Or blindness dim with dreams.’ But it is in ‘Returning, we hear the larks’ that these words find their fulfilment:
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.
It is the reality of the experience that makes the phrase work here.
Before he enlisted as a soldier, Rosenberg is said to have arrived excitedly at a friend’s house, saying he had a new poem to recite. He fumbled in his pockets for the paper and then exclaimed: ‘Great snakes – I’ve forgotten to write it!’ During his service his absent-mindedness and lack of savvy (he didn’t know he should soften his boots, for example) repeatedly got him into trouble. But he wasn’t careless about his work: ‘My great fear is that I may lose what I’ve written, which can happen here so easily. I send home any bit I write, for safety,’ he wrote to Gordon Bottomley in July 1917. A little later to Sidney Schiff: ‘things are so tumultuous and disturbing that unless one has everything handy, like an addressed envelope a pencil and a moment to spare one cannot write letters. One’s envelopes get stuck and useless with the damp and you cannot replace them.’
These circumstances of composition did not make Vivien Noakes’s task easy: many of the texts were written with soft pencil on poor quality paper ‘which was then folded and carried around in a damp khaki pocket’. She tells in her introduction of the ‘dustings of mud which fell from some of the creases as the papers were unfolded before being put into their transparent slip cases’. The paper also tells a story, and Rosenberg used any kind he could find: backs of envelopes, pages from diaries, ledgers, receipt books, lavatory paper. An early poem, ‘Now the spirit’s song has withered’, is written on paper watermarked ‘Oceana EXTRA STRONG’. There was nothing like that in the trenches.
Noakes has had to extend her palaeographic skills to near forensic standards, considering and comparing pencil and paper types in an attempt to establish a chronology of composition. The result has been a radical reordering. Where there is no evidence for dating Noakes is scrupulous to acknowledge this and doesn’t guess. Subject-matter does not necessarily help. ‘On Receiving News of the War’ was composed in 1914, while ‘August 1914’ is referred to as ‘red from the anvil’ in a letter written in the summer of 1916:
What in our lives is burnt
In the fire of this?
The heart’s dear granary?
The much we shall miss?
Three lives hath one life –
Iron, honey, gold.
The gold, the honey gone –
Left is the hard and cold.
Iron are our lives
Molten right through our youth.
A burnt space through ripe fields,
A fair mouth’s broken tooth.
This poem presents, with shocking clarity, a reverse alchemy. The echo of Keats in ‘the heart’s dear granary’ suggests that the store which must be eaten by fire includes literature. Rosenberg had no time for the inessential, but this poem is concerned with absolute loss, beyond paring down.
Like Sterne, whose work he evidently enjoyed and quotes in his letters (‘this cadaverous ball of goods consigned to Pluto’), Rosenberg had a strong sense of the interaction between the word and the perishable materials of ink and paper that communicate it: ‘I’m writing from pandemonium and with a rotten pen.’ In a pencil draft of his play Moses a Hebrew slave says: ‘We were scrawled in foul handwriting/And all who read us curse.’ There may here be a recollection of the rebuke he received from Mrs Cohen, one of three wealthy women who paid for him to go to the Slade, when he sent her a letter with an ink-blot. The last letter Rosenberg is known to have written before he was killed on 1 April 1918 was to Marsh. In it he enclosed a copy of ‘Through these pale cold days’: ‘Here’s but a slight thing. I’ve seen no poetry for ages now so you mustn’t be too critical – My vocabulary small enough before is impoverished and bare.’ To an unusual degree the physical condition of Rosenberg’s work seem to tell us about his own; as does its survival against the odds.
The most problematic text for any editor of Rosenberg is ‘Louse Hunting’. The only complete manuscript version of it is written in soft pencil on poor paper, folded in four. A photograph of the manuscript appears on the page opposite Noakes’s text, a text which she says cannot be considered final and which differs from previous versions in both diction and lineation:
Nudes – stark aglisten
Yelling in lurid glee. Grinning faces of fiends
And raging limbs
Whirl over the floor one fire,
For a shirt verminously busy
Yon soldier tore from his throat
Godhead might shrink at, but not the lice.
And soon the shirt was aflare
Over the candle he’d lit while we lay.
Then we all sprung up and stript
To hunt the vermin brood.
Soon like a demons’ pantomime
The place was raging.
See the silhouettes agape,
See the gibbering shadows
Mixed with the battled arms on the wall.
See gargantuan hooked fingers
Dug in supreme flesh
To smutch the supreme littleness.
See the merry limbs in hot Highland fling
Because some wizard vermin
Charmed from the quiet this revel
When our ears were half lulled
By the dark music Blown from Sleep’s trumpet.
The textual variants at the bottom of the page and the facing photograph of the manuscript make it clear that the given text for lines 22-23 was: ‘Because some wizard vermin/To charmed from the quiet this revel’. Rosenberg first wrote, ‘Because some wizard vermin willed/To enchant from the quiet this revel’, but cancelled ‘willed’, and replaced it with ‘cloaked’, which he also cancelled. He then cancelled ‘enchant’, replacing it with ‘charmed’. The copy text doesn’t make sense and, while the half rhyme between ‘willed’ and ‘lulled’ might serve to evoke ‘the dark music’, it does not have the economy and directness of the version Noakes publishes. She of course gives us the information that allows us to disagree with her should we choose.
‘Louse Hunting’ has the phantasmagoric quality of a Goya Capricho or a Daumier. It tracks visual reality (the repeated use of ‘see’) and also conveys the temporal effects of movement and sequence which painting cannot. Rosenberg called some of what he managed to write in the trenches ‘transcripts of the battlefield’. He described ‘The Troop Ship’ as a ‘sketch’:
Grotesque and queerly huddled
Contortionists to twist
The sleepy soul to a sleep,
We lie all sorts of ways
And cannot sleep.
The wet wind is so cold,
And the lurching men so careless,
That, should you drop to a doze,
Wind’s fumble or men’s feet Are in your face.
Siegfried Sassoon wrote about the ‘sculptural’ quality of Rosenberg’s poetry. The pieces of paper on which the poems are written are full of doodled drawings of human figures. It is the bulk of these featureless figures that is striking, the way they occupy space. His sense of spatial placement creates a precise topography of feeling, and attention to this often resolves what at first may seem obscure in his work. It is obscure because what is being presented is pushing against the boundaries of existing reality. As in this astonishing speech by Moses:
I am rough now, and new, and will have no tailor.
As a mountain side
Wakes aware of its other side,
When from a cave a leopard comes,
On its heels the same red sand,
Springing with acquainted air,
Sprang an intelligence
Coloured as a whim of mine,
Showed to my dull outer eyes
The living eyes underneath,
Did I not shrivel up and take the place of air,
Secret as those eyes were,
And those strong eyes call up a giant frame; And I am that now.
‘I have a way, when I write, to try and put myself in the situation, and I make gestures and grimaces,’ he wrote to Marsh when he was working on The Unicorn. These gestures were not only bodily: ‘I have to feel a set of unusual emotions which I simply can’t feel yet. However if I keep on thinking about it it may come.’ Like Moses, who wills his ‘unsoldered spirit’ ‘to run into a mould/ Some new idea unwalled to human by-ways’, Rosenberg tried to describe what had been uncharted. Given the impulse of his imagination towards realising itself in gesture, it is not surprising that he began to write plays, though with stage directions such as ‘his hair stands up. A naked black giant stands there,’ they were not stageable in Georgian London. (He did not think they were.)
Moses might have been conceived before Rosenberg left Cape Town in February 1915; a play about Adam and Lilith was planned before he went to France. The incomplete dramas The Amulet and The Unicorn are both developments of this idea. All these plays bear the marks of Rosenberg’s time in the trenches – the experience of the slaves in Egypt (‘nobody but a private in the army knows what it is to be a slave’), the anti-semitism of the Egyptian Abinoah, the mud that clogs the axels of the cart in The Unicorn. But although these plays were informed by the experience of war they are not primarily about it.
‘I am determined that this war, with all its powers for devastation, shall not master my poeting,’ Rosenberg wrote to Binyon in the autumn of 1916. ‘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.’ There was not to be much ‘later on’: he was killed in the early hours of 1 April 1918 while on a wiring patrol. In July 1917 he had written to Gordon Bottomley that ‘I live in an immense trust that things will turn out well’ and for his work at least this is becoming true. What is needed now is for someone to do for Rosenberg’s prose work – and particularly his letters – what Noakes has done for his verse. Noakes’s notes cite marvellous passages from the letters and Jean Liddiard’s Selected Poems and Letters contains a good sample, but all the letters should be made available. When one reads through them one senses the heroism of his effort and achievement. In a letter to Marsh two months before his death he wrote, in a passage cancelled by the censor and not included by Parsons, that ‘what is happening to me now is more tragic than the “passion play”. Christ never endured what I endure. It is breaking me completely.’