Isaac Rosenberg: A Great English-Yiddish Poet of War

Genius is no respecter of people, place or situation, as we know, but its choice of Isaac Rosenberg still seems extraordinary. Born on 25th November 1890 to immigrant Jewish parents in a Bristol ghetto, he spent the first seven years of his life there in the poverty that was to dominate his life. Yet he went on to write some of the greatest poetry of the First World War. As his friend and teacher, Miss Winifreda Seaton, observed after his tragic death in 1918: “Had he had Rupert Brooke’s advantages, he might have expressed himself more perfectly, but when you compare the environment of the two, Isaac Rosenberg is a wonder”.

Siegfried Sassoon praised Rosenberg’s genius; T. S. Eliot called him “the most remarkable” of the First World War poets and F. R. Leavis thought him as “remarkable” as Wilfred Owen but “even more interesting technically”. Yet even now, more than a century after his death on 1 April 1918, he has not been absorbed into the national consciousness in the way that Brooke, Sassoon and Owen have. How many people can quote, or even identify one line of Rosenberg’s verse? Yet this is the poet who wrote some of the most devastating and at the same time humane words about frontline experience ever penned: 

A man’s brains splattered on 

A stretcher-bearer’s face; 

His shook shoulders slipped their load,  

But when they bent to look again 

The drowning soul was sunk too deep 

For human tenderness. 

(“Dead Man’s Dump”) 

It is not that Rosenberg has lacked admirers, but there has often been a condescending, slightly grudging, or at least qualifying note to the praise. Edward Marsh, for example, though a generous and consistently loyal patron and an enthusiastic supporter in his Georgian Poetry anthologies, was too much of a traditionalist to find Rosenberg’s verse wholly acceptable. Like his fellow Georgians, Gordon Bottomley and Lascelles Abercrombie, he admired isolated phrases, occasionally whole passages, but looked for a more regular verse-form and more accessible imagery. Long after his death Marsh continued to refer to him as “poor little Isaac Rosenberg”.  

The best example of condescending praise, however, has to be Ezra Pound’s, who wrote to his friend, Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry magazine in Chicago: “I think you may as well give this poor devil a show… He has something in him, horribly rough but then ‘Stepney East’… We ought to have a real burglar… Ma che!!!”And yet if anyone might have been expected to understand Rosenberg by 1915, when these words were written, it was Pound, or his fellow-innovator, T. S. Eliot, with whom Rosenberg has sometimes been compared. For Rosenberg was a Modernist before his time, something of an exception among the Great War poets, and not only with regard to his technique. He differed widely in terms of class, education, upbringing and experience from almost all the other well-known names of the period. His Jewishness alone gives him a unique position among them. 

Rosenberg’s father was born Dovber/Berl Rosenberg, c.1860, into a fairly comfortably-off family of landowners, rabbis and scholars in Lithuania. He spent his student days training for the rabbinate, but was forced to leave home to escape conscription into the Russian army. He was hiding out in Devinsk when he met and married Chasa (Anna) Davidov, who was helping to run her family’s inn there. After the birth of their first child, Minna/Minnie (“Tsivia”) in 1883/4, Isaac’s father was forced to flee again with his wife and daughter to Moscow, and from there, alone, into the Russian interior. Finally, he emigrated to England in 1885, arriving in Hull (where he renamed himself Barnard – “Barnett” to his family), then settling first in Leeds, and in 1888 in the Jewish part of Bristol, where his wife and daughter joined him. Two years later, Isaac was born. The family lived there until 1897 when Barnett, Anna and their children (now five in number) moved to London. 

Rosenberg’s Jewishness is a very important aspect of his achievement as a war poet. For one thing, he was the only wholly Jewish poet to emerge among the well-known First World War poets. Sassoon, it is true, was half-Jewish, but on his father’s side, and he was brought up as a Christian. Like the majority of his fellow-war poets, Sassoon drew largely on the Christian and classical mythology he had absorbed through his traditional public school education. Rosenberg’s very different cultural heritage distinguishes his work in a number of ways, lending to it, in the words of Sassoon himself, in his preface to the 1937 edition of Rosenberg’s work, “a racial quality – biblical and prophetic. Scriptural and Sculptural.” The fact that Rosenberg had also been exposed to an English education and would eventually read the British poets widely only adds to his interest, his work displaying (as Sassoon again argued) “a fruitful fusion between English and Hebrew culture”. 

In a practical sense, of course, his parents’ problems as immigrant Jews in England affected their son’s life profoundly. Isaac grew up in deprived circumstances: his father had to become a pedlar, his mother to take in lodgers, and he left school at 14 to help support the family. Like one of his earliest and most enduring models, William Blake, he was largely self-educated, a fact that helps account in both poets for their fierce originality as well as occasional clumsiness of technique. Hardly surprisingly, perhaps, Rosenberg himself saw no advantages in the situation, writing bitterly to an older, more privileged friend towards the end of his apprenticeship to an engraver, which even Blake’s example could not sweeten: 

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 and almost desire of deliverance, and the days of youth go by… I have tried to make some kind of self-adjustment to circumstances by saying, “It is all experience”; but good God! It is all experience, and nothing else.  

Rosenberg’s reasons for enlisting, unlike the visions of valour, patriotism and sacrifice which motivated poets such as Julian Grenfell, Brooke and, initially, Sassoon, were economically driven. He freely admitted to Marsh that he “never joined the army for patriotic reasons”. It was simply because he could not get work and needed to earn some money to send home to his struggling mother. She, like his father, was a pacifist and their son had understandably no desire to fight on the same side as the Russians anyway.  Many of his Jewish friends of similar origins became conscientious objectors. 

It was Leavis who first suggested that what Rosenberg saw as his disadvantages in life may have, in reality, been advantages, a claim his friend Joseph Leftwich supported, though he pointed out perceptively that he “thought Dr. Leavis had tried to make too much of Rosenberg as a conscious pioneer of modernism.” Nonetheless, “Rosenberg had been saved by his lack of systematic education and…public school and university would most likely have killed him as a poet. They would certainly, to my mind, have made him conventional”. Rosenberg’s strikingly original approach to language seems to me to spring from a related, apparently even more severe disadvantage of his upbringing and Jewishness – the fact that English was, in effect, his second language; he spent his earliest years, up to the age of seven or eight, speaking nothing but Yiddish. Its influence on his technique must surely have been significant. 

The poet Lazarus Aaronson, who came from a similar background to Rosenberg and got to know him in the Whitechapel Group, believed that it was Rosenberg’s background which enabled him to “fertilize” the English language, as well as helping to explain the apparent awkwardness of his verse at times: “A good deal of the stress and strain,” he argued, “was due to the fact that English was new to him. The whole language was fresh, even the clichés.” 

Leftwich went further, maintaining that Rosenberg remained highly aware of his Jewish beginnings, even after he began to use English regularly: 

They were always in his mind and they are everywhere in his work. His father’s and mother’s talk at home was rich with it, and I recall how often he spoke to me of his trying to recapture in his work some of their Yiddish tales and their Yiddish idiom. 

While it is impossible to prove a direct connection between Rosenberg’s Yiddish and English, there is little doubt that his late introduction to English had a distinct effect on his poetry. He himself was very apologetic about his “desperate attempts to murder and mutilate King’s English beyond all shapes of recognition”, and what he saw as his limited vocabulary. But as Leftwich wrote in The Golden Peacock, his anthology of Yiddish poetry (which includes a piece by Barnett Rosenberg on his son), “there is much to be said for bilingualism”. Rosenberg’s linguistic background may go some way to explaining his far greater originality in poetry, where his approach is less conventional than in his painting, increasingly so throughout his dual careers. 

Self Portrait, National Portrait Gallery, London

 Rosenberg was “intensely religious” as a child, according to his older sister, and his first extant poems are religious in theme, “Ode to David’s Harp” and “Zion” being the only two to survive. Rosenberg’s local Whitechapel librarian and first mentor, Morley Dainow, though Jewish himself and the son of a famous maggid, wrote to Isaac’s father after reading the poems: “I trust you will use your influence over him… to emancipate him from the bonds of tyrannical orthodoxy.” He need not have worried: Isaac was in no danger of becoming ultra-orthodox, nor was his father. The son had already started cutting Hebrew lessons at school and his father had presented him with a copy of the King James version of the Bible – which includes the New Testament as well as the Old, of course – because he thought the language so beautiful. As Isaac grew older, he distanced himself increasingly from his Jewish background. 

Significantly, it seems to have been the outbreak of war in August 1914 that inspired Rosenberg’s return to his Jewish roots. He was staying with his married sister in Cape Town in late 1914 when he wrote “On Receiving News of the War” and “The Female God”. His early vision of a loving and beneficent God had already hardened by 1912 into the concept of a sterner being capable of “shunning” His creatures, or acting with fickleness towards them. Later still He is viewed as simply indifferent, His blindness towards His creatures’ suffering arousing in the “tortured” poet a desire to “cheat” Him. But this power is still conceived as male and in some way linked to the Jewish God of the Old Testament. It is in South Africa that the concept of a rival female deity first emerges, the poet’s rebellion against the harsh male God he has vowed to cheat taking the form of a close, possibly sexual relationship with the “female God” he conjures up. In the beautiful but savage scenery of South Africa, in thrall to a real-life, fickle woman, the actress Marda Vanne, the Female God emerges as a true rival to the Male. Rosenberg’s first poem about her, “The Female God”, portrays her as a Medusa-like figure, the emphasis on her treacherous hair, with the poem working consistently at both the sacred and sexual level, ending with a direct address to this deity: 

You have dethroned the ancient God. 

You have usurped his Sabbaths,
his common days, 

Yea! Every moment is delivered to you. 

Our Temple! Our Eternal! Our one God! 

 

Our souls have passed into your eyes, 

Our days into your hair 

And you, our rose-deaf prison,
are very pleased with the world. 

Your world. 

Rosenberg’s Female God, like Robert Graves’s White Goddess – the triple goddess who represents the ancient power of fright and lust among other things – functions as both matriarchal deity and poetic Muse but is also identified through the erotic description of her with human sexuality. Graves’s White Goddess is the better known but Rosenberg’s Female God predates her by many years and was almost certainly an influence on Graves, adding yet another strand to Graves’s formidable list of mythological and archaeological sources. For Rosenberg had access to a culture largely unknown to Graves, that of the Hasidic Jewry of Eastern Europe. 

Self Portrait 1911, Tate by David Burton 1972

The oral tradition of Hasidic Jewry, familiar to Rosenberg through his parents, includes many examples of supernatural female power, especially in Kabbalah. The teachings of Kabbalah emphasise, as Beth Ellen Roberts points out in an article on “The Female God”, “emotion and feeling over rational and legalistic thought, symbolism and image over abstract concepts of God, and action over passive acceptance”, words which apply closely to Rosenberg’s own poetry. Kabbalah, she continues, argues “the multiple natures of God, masculine and feminine” and acknowledges “an array of demons and beasts unknown in mainstream Judaism”. Lilith, for example, who later appeared in Rosenberg’s plays “The Amulet” and “The Unicorn”, features in Jewish legend as usurper of the power of the masculine God, as the seducer of men and as a killer of children, roughly equivalent to the English vampire. There is also a second female figure, Shekina, sometimes known as the Sabbath Bride, or Queen, who represents the feminine side of God. 

Lilith’s attempts to usurp Shekinah and other aspects of her legendary powers explain many of the puzzling references in “The Female God”, but there is more to the poem than that. There is no doubt that in developing his notion of “The Female God” in autumn 1914 Rosenberg was also beginning to explore the nature of war, albeit indirectly. Most critics start their discussion of his war poetry with his more overt handling of the subject, “On Receiving News of the War: Cape Town”. 

This first explicit war poem of Rosenberg has naturally received a great deal of attention. Leone Samson links the poem’s “oppositional imagery” of blood and snow with a passage from Isaiah which would have been read out in synagogue in late July or early August:  “Be your sins like crimson, / They can turn snow-white; / Be they red as dyed wool, / They can become like fleece”. 

The fact that Rosenberg was in South Africa when he wrote “On Receiving News of the War” may help to explain the poem’s curiously detached tone. But he did not remain there long after he wrote it, since he was unable to find congenial work and quickly became homesick. He arrived back in England in March 1915 and enlisted in October 1915. He spent what little free time he had during his first eight months in the army writing a play about the great Jewish leader and hero, Moses. 

It seems likely from the final version of Moses that one powerful incentive for Rosenberg in writing it was his strong sense of antisemitism in the army. His complaints began early on when he wrote to his fellow Jew, Sydney Schiff, in late 1915, that life in his Bantam Battalion, 11th Suffolks, was “revolting” and “unbearable”, adding that “my being a Jew makes it bad among these wretches”.  

Corporal Harry Stansfield, with whom he served in France, described him as “an untidy, polite but painfully reserved man”, remembered one morning “sitting on a step in the support trench trying to talk to him”: 

He was always a shy sort of fella, very quiet and seemed to keep to himself. He was writing and paid little attention to me. I wanted to show friendship because I think he thought he was often shunned because he was Jewish. Believe me, we didn’t think much about a person’s background one way or another. When you were in the trenches, all we wanted to know was if you were a reliable comrade or if you weren’t. Religion or race had nothing to do with it. 

After hinting at possible paranoia (“I think he thought he was shunned because he was Jewish”), Stansfield added that another Jewish soldier in their Company, Lt. Sternberg, was “well liked” by all the men because he was “a very good and heroic officer”. Captain Frank Waley, himself Jewish, thought it “highly unlikely that there would have been discrimination against Rosenberg on entirely racial grounds”. There probably was ill feeling towards him, he suggested, “mostly on account of his careless way of dressing or unsoldierliness”. (Looking at a photograph of Rosenberg later, he thought “he must have polished up by [his sister] Annie. I never saw him looking so smart”.) It seemed to Waley that Rosenberg might well have been called “a dirty Jew”, since he was “dirty” in the military sense. 

Rosenberg’s grievances, imaginary or not, seemed very real to him. Living as he did mainly in his imagination, where his Jewish hero, Moses, had more substance for him than his fellow soldiers, he began to identify even more closely with him as someone of unbounded potential caught up in a slavery he is determined to resist. All Rosenberg’s pride and a little of his inclination towards self-pity emerge in a poem written between 1915 and 1916, called simply “The Jew”: 

Moses, from whose loins I spring, 

Lit by a lamp in his blood 

Ten immutable rules, a moon 

For mutable men. 

 

The blonde, the bronze, the ruddy, 

With the same heaving blood, 

Keep tide to the moon of Moses, 

Then why do they sneer at me? 

It is not clear when Rosenberg’s transfer to Waley’s Trench Mortar Battery took place but it was certainly after he had gone to France in June 1916. Waley could not remember the precise date, but he did recall that it was Rosenberg’s Commissioning Officer, Colonel Ritchie, who initiated it, probably believing that Rosenberg might be happier serving under a fellow Jew. Ritchie certainly felt that he would stand a better chance in a small unit, where uniformity was not so essential. Ritchie knew Waley’s family, having served as a subaltern under Waley’s uncle in the Boer War. Waley clearly remembered the Colonel ringing him up and asking if he could look after a “completely hopeless” soldier called Rosenberg. He promised to try to find a place for him, though with eight guns to man he did not want any “duds”, and finally took him on as assistant battery cook until something “more suitable” could be found. Rosenberg seemed “quite happy” in this position, peeling potatoes most of the time and getting “comfortably dirty” over the cookhouse fire. His uniform was almost black, Waley recalled, and he found him a “miserable-looking fellow, normal above the waist but short in the legs”. He regarded Rosenberg as a “bit of a harmless freak”, whilst sympathising with his inability to conform. Rosenberg responded to his sympathy by showing him his poems, which were usually scribbled on scraps of paper or the backs of envelopes. Waley, who expected poetry to have a regular metre and rhyme, found the verses extraordinary – “they meant nothing to me” – and he “chucked them away”. One only he remembered – “something to do with a rat”, he said – probably because it was so dissimilar to conventional war poetry, being experimental in technique and not specifically patriotic in content. 

The poem Waley remembered – “Break of Day in the Trenches” – is one of the greatest poems to emerge from the First World War: 

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. 

After a short (and only) leave in England in September 1917 and a longer spell in hospital with his weak chest, Rosenberg was transferred again at the beginning of 1918, to the 1st King’s Own Royal Lancasters (KORL), and finally sent back to the front line. It was one of the most punishing periods of the war and one of the worst sectors. Even the so-called “rest” periods behind the lines were arduous. He was quite desperate when he made his first attempt to get a transfer to the recently formed Jewish Battalion. Destined for the hot, dry lands of the Middle East and manned mainly by Russian Jews, the Judeans, as they were known, seemed a natural choice for someone who not only believed that he was discriminated against as a Jew in the army, but also feared the wet, cold winter of Northern France. Inspired partly by the Zion Mule Corps of the 1915 Gallipoli Campaign, and commanded by the Russian Jewish Zionist, Vladimir Jabotinsky, the Jewish Battalion had encountered stiff resistance at first. Many English and assimilated Jews wanted integration not separation. But by November 1917, after Russia’s withdrawal from the war had removed the last obstacle to enlisting for many Jews, it was in active formation. (Officially designated the 38th, 39th and 40th Battalions of the Royal Fusiliers, it was unofficially known as the “999th Kosher Kitchen-ers” or “Sheenies”.) By the end of February 1918, when Rosenberg was planning his second application to them, the Jewish Battalion was on its way to Palestine, (with the half-Jewish Sassoon, who encountered it in a transit camp at Taranto). For many members of the Jewish Battalion it was an affirmation of their Jewishness, possibly their Zionism. Whether this was true of Rosenberg it is impossible to say; he may simply have wanted to escape the trenches of the Western Front. But he followed the Judeans’ movements with interest and planned to write “a battle song for them”. If by doing so he hoped to ingratiate himself with them, however, he was disappointed; his application (if it ever reached them) apparently ignored. 

By the beginning of March 1918 the threat of a great German offensive had become a reality. Rosenberg wrote to Gordon Bottomley, “I believe our interlude is nearly over, and we may go up the line any moment now. If only this war were over our eyes would not be on death so much, it seems to underlie even our underthoughts.” 

The poem Rosenberg included in this letter, “The Burning of the Temple” – the only work apart from a little sketching that he had managed to produce during his “rest” – indicates that his thoughts were constantly on death. His consciousness of his Jewish heritage emerges in his description of the carnage he is witnessing in France in terms of the vanished glory of the Jewish nation in its days of greatness un er King Solomon, whose magnificent temple had been burned down four hundred years later by the marauding Babylonians. The flames of the burning temple become the ferocious artillery fire of France, as the poet appeals to Solomon, the wisest of men, to explain to him the destruction he is seeing. In the poem’s closing lines, however, it is the prescience of his own imminent demise which dominates, though still expressed through the story of King Solomon’s “end” as his great legacy is destroyed: 

. . . Again the great king dies, 

 

His dreams go out in smoke, 

His days he let not pass 

And sculptured here are broke 

Are charred as the burnt grass 

Gone as his mouth’s last sighs. 

Rosenberg’s division had been aware of the Germans’ plan for a great spring offensive for several weeks. They had been in reserve since the end of February, though ready to be called back to the front at a moment’s notice. Waley, who claimed that he could have helped Rosenberg to transfer to the Jewish Battalion if he had asked him earlier – he had been approached to serve in it himself – implied that Rosenberg’s unsuccessful application was due to this crisis: “Obviously no one would have been allowed to leave France just before the Boche attack”. 

When the battle began on 21 March 1918 just south of Arras, Rosenberg’s battalion was moved into the line in the Greenland sector near the city and by the 23rd March found itself on the frontline. Rosenberg’s four days in reserve from 24th to 28th March were well-earned but hardly restful, since the Germans had broken through on 26th to capture ground they had not held since 1914. They were driven back the same afternoon but Rosenberg and his fellow-soldiers in the 1st KORL were ordered to “Stand-To” – in full equipment, prepared for battle – at 4.30 every morning. It was during these four hectic days that Rosenberg completed  “Through These Pale Cold Days”, which he sent to Edward Marsh on 28th March: 

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. 

We know that Rosenberg had intended to write “a battle song for the Judeans” and this poem appears to be partly an attempt at it. The first two stanzas could be read as a rallying cry for the Jewish Battalion returning to its soldiers’ homeland, the “dark” foreign faces of the Jews contrasting with the “blond” native English (as in his earlier poem, “The Jew”). The references to Hebron, Lebanon, and 3,000 years of history since the great days of Solomon all point to a Zionist interpretation, where the “waifs”, or exiled Jews, yearn to return to their homeland. It could also be read more literally, of course, as Rosenberg’s longing to exchange the extreme danger he was facing in the cold, wet trenches of France for the warmer, drier, less threatening Middle East, where the Jewish Battalion was now stationed. The third stanza certainly suggests that his thoughts were directed towards his own danger and sufferings in the trenches, though he uses the Jews’ long history of surviving persecution as a way into it. The fate of the Jews becomes a metaphor for all those under threat of extinction. 

Maquette for bronze of Isaac Rosenberg by Hannah Northam, 2018

There is little doubt that “Through These Pale Cold Days” is, among other things, a premonition of Rosenberg’s own death. Four days after it was written out in a letter to Edward Marsh, before Marsh had even received the letter, Isaac Rosenberg was dead, killed by German raiding-party at dawn on 1st April 1918. His body was never recovered.     

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