Commentary Magazine


Journey to the Trenches, by Joseph Cohen

Journey to the Trenches: The Life of Isaac Rosenberg 1890-1918.
by Joseph Cohen.
Basic Books. 224 pp. $12.50.

This biography of Isaac Rosenberg comes in the midst of a sudden revival of interest in the young English poet who died in World War I at the age of twenty-seven. To the extent that he is today remembered at all, Rosenberg is best known for a few of his trench poems, like “Break of Day in the Trenches” and “Returning, We Hear the Larks,” and as one of that group of young English poets, including Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen, who found the occasion for both their poetic careers and their early deaths in the war. Like Owen especially, Rosenberg possessed a genuine, highly idiosyncratic poetic gift, though it was also one which, judging by all but his very last poems, he never lived long enough to perfect or realize fully.

Of the English war poets, Rosenberg has always remained the most obscure and least understood, partly because of the incomplete state in which much of his best work was left at the time of his death, and partly because even his best poems seem almost to have resisted a wider audience: they are highly abstract, often tortuously expressed, and difficult to classify, belonging neither among the suburban garden plots of the Georgian poets, whom Rosenberg surpassed early in his career, nor within any of the several traditions of the English modernists, like Pound and Eliot, whose more metaphysical poetry he opposed with his own brand of titanic romanticism. During his lifetime, Rosenberg had virtually no success in gaining recognition for his poems—the two slim volumes which he published at his own expense vanished without notice—and since his death, despite the efforts of several eminent critics, his reputation has continued to languish. Now, through an inexplicable coincidence—the simultaneous publication of three books and a spate of articles about him—Rosenberg is being re-“discovered.”

Joseph Cohen’s biography, the first to be written of this poet, provides a convincing, exhaustively researched account of Rosenberg’s life, marred only partially by the author’s proclivity for uncorroborated psychological speculation and for “biographical” readings of the poems which end up, like most such attempts, by trivializing their subjects more than they illuminate them. The most appealing feature of the book is its “deep and abiding feeling” for Rosenberg: although Cohen never really succeeds in demonstrating convincingly his belief that Rosenberg was “a signal voice of the 20th century,” his modest, quiet dedication to his subject serves as a fitting tribute to a poet who wrested his achievement, however imperfect, from circumstances of almost impossible adversity.

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Rosenberg was born in 1890, the child of impoverished, unhappily married Russian-Jewish immigrants, and grew up in the worst slums of London’s Whitechapel. For the most part, his life was poor, dreary, and grimly ordinary; hardly a single event stands out as memorable. Although young Isaac showed precocious literary and artistic talent, he was forced to leave school at the age of fourteen in order to work as an apprentice in a dingy art-engraving firm; later, through the generosity of three wealthy Jewish women, he was able to study painting at the Slade School, where he learned mainly that his real genius did not lie in art, though both the training and exposure to the reigning literary and aesthetic ideologies which he received there influenced his early poems, especially their use of colorful imagery. Still, Rosenberg’s years at the Slade were hardly happy ones. When he was not being oppressed by overwhelming poverty—“the fiendish mangling machine,” as he once called it—there were bouts of poor health and depression, and a surfeit of self-pity. Even within the circle of his friends and patrons—many of whom were or would later become established figures in the English literary and artistic world, though they are today even more completely forgotten than Rosenberg himself—he always remained alone, socially awkward, and, as he once described himself in an autobiographical story, “super-self-conscious.” He had in addition, according to Dr. Cohen’s researches, about as little sexual experience as ever a young poet engaged in writing so much erotic verse could possibly have possessed.

In 1915, Rosenberg enlisted in the British army. Since he was a confirmed pacifist, and considered enlistment “the most criminal thing a man can do,” the precise reasons for his decision to enlist remain unclear: the prospect of the small but steady military pay undoubtedly attracted him as did, perhaps, the chance for a physical and spiritual rejuvenation. Once in the army, however, Rosenberg found only a more extreme, grimmer version of his life before he had joined up. Placed in a special unit called the “Bantams”—composed of recruits who were either physically, psychologically, or morally substandard—Rosenberg suffered all the daily horrors of army regimen and, also, for the first time in his life, the petty humiliations of anti-Semitism. Rosenberg’s consistent “bad luck” did not end even with his death on the Western Front in 1918: owing to the haste of its retreat before the German offensive, the British army was unable to notify Rosenberg’s family of the exact circumstances of his death. Not until eight years after the war ended was the location of his grave determined, and even today his body probably does not rest under the tombstone which bears his name.

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For all the war poets, World War I opened up a new order of human reality. These poets, Rosenberg among them, were among the first to perceive the essential difference of World War I from all the human disasters that had preceded it—the absoluteness of its sham, waste, and tyranny. Yet Rosenberg was not a war poet in the same way as the others. The privation and duress which he encountered in the trenches were not, after all, experiences entirely unknown to him, as they were for his more genteel fellow poets, and to a great extent the themes and imagery of Rosenberg’s trench poems are simply further explorations and more accomplished expressions of themes and images which he had discovered long before his enlistment. Where the other war poets literally found their poems in the slaughter, it would be more accurate to say of Rosenberg that he rescued his from it.

Yet if the war did not really alter the shape of Rosenberg’s imagination, it nevertheless disciplined the excesses of his earlier work, made his language leaner and tougher, and enabled him finally to write a few truly remarkable poems. The essential effort of these poems is to resist the violence and mass destructiveness of the war, to derive some universality out of the carnage. Rosenberg never quite possessed the distance or the ease with language to master the war’s brutality through irony; “Break of Day in the Trenches,” with its ironic apostrophe to the “cosmopolitan” rat crossing the no-man’s-land between the German and English lines, though perhaps his best known poem, is also actually his least typical one. What he was best at was staring down the violence in images of concrete, immediate detail, yet without yielding to sentimentality or pity, as in these lines from “Dead Man’s Dump”:

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.

They left this dead with the
   older dead
Stretched at the cross-roads.

Through the movement from the single, private death to the “older dead,” who are all made to participate symbolically in the fate of the individual, Rosenberg manages to impart a meaning and weight to the countless anonymous deaths which he witnessed from the trenches—and ultimately, to the equally anonymous death which he anticipated for himself.

The fullest expression of his attempt to discover a force of authority great enough to oppose the physical and spiritual devastation of the war came, however, not in a war poem but in a number of poems which derive their subjects from Jewish sources—in the verse-play “Moses,” in which the biblical figure is utilized to achieve a moral definition of self-consciousness, and in his very last poems, including the highly accomplished and moving “Through These Pale Cold Days,” which show just how completely Rosenberg was beginning to find a moral center for himself in his Jewish heritage. As some critics have noted, Rosenberg was one of the few English Jewish poets to draw seriously on the stories and language of the biblical tradition, at the same time investing them with a mood and imagery so decidedly unbiblical that the result is quite unlike anything to be found either in Hebrew or in English literature.

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Rosenberg was in the process of applying for a transfer to Vladimir Jabotinsky’s Jewish Battalion, which was then campaigning in Palestine and Egypt, when he was killed, leaving the question both of his transfer and of the future development of his poetry unresolved. And yet, nothing about Rosenberg is resolved: the first impression which his poetry gives is one of startling unevenness—he was equally capable of writing the most inspired verses and the most bathetic ones and would often botch a good poem with an unexpected banality or period commonplace; virtually all of his poems are lethally marred in one way or another. But it is also difficult to be purely objective about Rosenberg: his obvious talent, the unfortunate circumstances of his life and death, all the schlemiel-like qualities which seem to have pursued him from birth like some malevolent fate also make him an utterly sympathetic figure, and one peculiarly able to provoke a sentimentality in his admirers—his present biographer included—which he himself studiously avoided. Through his few poems, Rosenberg survives, but just barely—a victim of the adversity he himself resisted, overshadowed finally by other men who were not necessarily better poets than he, just luckier ones.

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