By D.R. Gayton
Tracing back the events that led up to the Great War, one salient characteristic of the governments involved in this armed conflict is their smug and unethical use of military might in the name of Imperialism. Confident over their new weapons’ ability to settle political issues, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, backed by a newly united German Empire, declared war on the Kingdom of Serbia on July 28, 1914. The very next day Russia mobilized thousands of its troops into its common border with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Refusing Germany’s request to withdraw from the Austro-Hungarian border, Germany on August 1 declared war on Russia. That same day France, Russia’s ally, mobilized its troops to its contiguous border with Germany. Forty-eight hours later Germany and France would declare war on each other. Foreseeing Germany’s resultant march through Belgium into France, the following morning, on August 4, the United Kingdom declared war on Germany, and just like that, within the span of one week, perhaps the bloodiest one hundred years in the history of mankind began.
Personal histories abound across the globe of men who fought in this armed conflict, and who unwittingly found themselves positioned as active participants in an imperial war game of conquest by attrition and carnage. These personal histories, often anthologized as letters, memoirs, diaries, sketchbooks, personal reminiscence, and poems carry with them vivid portrayals of the horror that is war. Sometimes what one finds in some of these narratives are “cautionary tales,” in other’s one finds frightful images of dread grappling with disgust and indignation. Foremost amongst the writers who left us a record of what this war meant to the men who experienced it, lived it, fought it, and died in it, is the wonderfully conscientious Siegfried Sassoon. A caustic observer and critic of the war and those who allowed it to continue, Sassoon stands out as Paul Fussell points out, for the “brilliance with which he exploits the dichotomies forced to his attention by the wartime experience and refines them until they become the fiber of his superb memoir of the war” (98). The dichotomies that Fussell here refers to are of course the dichotomies imposed upon every military officer by his very rank and the responsibility that this confers upon him as a leader of armed soldiers. Freed from such “dichotomies,” however, on the other hand stands Isaac Rosenberg who as an enlisted service member and a Private, experienced trench warfare from the point of view of the millions of enlisted men who, by the very nature of their military rank were forced to run headlong onto incoming fire in the name of imperial might.
Describing Rosenberg’s poetry, many critics focus on his directness of language, his seemingly simplistic diction, his erratic use of punctuation, as well as his undeniably felicitous vivid depictions of the trenches and of the men who inhabited them. Killed in battle at the age of 28, Rosenberg’s complete oeuvre consists of no more than 150 poems, a one act play along and several fragments and letters. Taking into consideration Rosenberg’s short literary career, as well as his initial training as a visual artist, many critics and biographers (Fussell included), have been prompted to categorized Rosenberg as an immature and second-rate poet. Although none fail to see the exuberance of his poems as well as their historical significance, few have performed a comprehensive analysis of his poems in order to appreciate the expressive modernity of his poetry.
Raw and visceral by their very subject matter, if the poetry of Rosenberg breaks from traditional meter, diction and punctuation, it is simply because his subject matter requires him to do so. Driven to extreme emotional heights by his extraordinary circumstances, Rosenberg must break away from literary conventions because the intensity of the poems’ subject matter can only be expressed in abstract metaphors, in suspended images, in interlocking fragments that play like a looped cry.
Amongst Rosenberg’s best-known poems are of course, “Louse Hunting,” “Dead Mans Dump,” “Returning, We Hear Larks,” “Significance,” and “Break of Day in the Trenches,” which Paul Fussell considers to be the best of the war poems. Closely reading every single poem by Rosenberg, one is immediately struck by his masterly use of images to convey and express ideas. Unlike Owen, for example, Rosenberg is a master at showing, not telling. Perhaps it was his unique training as visual artist that provided him with the skill to “see” meaningfully, and to record those impressions in the form of poetry. In “Dead Mans Dump”, Rosenberg’s most image laden poem, where the grim task of collecting the wounded is brought disturbingly to light he writes,
The Wheels lurched over sprawled dead
But Pained them not, though their bones crunched,
Their shut mouths made no moan.
They lie there huddled, friend and foeman,
Man born of man, and born of woman,
And shells go crying over them
From night till night and now.
The image that Rosenberg is here depicting is one of a landscape completely studded with corpses. There are so many corpses strewn across the field in fact that that the wheels of the wheelbarrow can not help but to drive over them, and as it does the speaker can hear their bones break with a crunching sound as though the wheelbarrow had driven over a old tree branch.
As the countless dead sink into the bog and mire of the scourged terrain, the speaker then adds,
None saw their spirit’s shadow shake the grass,
Or stood aside for the half-used life to pass
When the swift iron burning bee
Drained the wild honey of their youth.
Deeply sincere in its spiritual implications, the dead lie like potato sacks devoid of their content. The real shock , however, is how entirely unspiritual the face of death is under the the severe circumstances being described. One by one, these thousands of men fell, and amidst so much death there was not a single sign of respect neither for their lives nor their deaths. Contemplating the arbitrariness of so much death, the speaker of the poem contemplates his own. Interrupted by active enemy fire, however, the poem continues,
The air is loud with death
The dark air spurts with fire,
The explosions ceaseless are.
Timelessly now, some minutes past,
These dead strode time with vigorous life,
Till the shrapnel called “An end!”
But not to all. In bleeding pangs
Some born on stretchers dreamed of home,
Dear things, war blotted from their hearts.
* * *
A man’s brains splattered on
A stretcher-bearer’s face;
His shook shoulder 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 crossroads.
Whether it’s the same man on the stretcher who is dreaming of home, or another unfortunate under the same circumstances is irrelevant, the image of the man on the stretcher is the image of every soldier who has experience the nightmare of war and who no doubt found much irony in the joy a wound could elicit because it meant being sent home. Unfortunately for this solider on the stretcher, as the fighting picks up again he is mortally wounded by an anonymous round. Crass from over exposure to death, the medical evacuation carriers simply leave the soldier where he died.
Here is one not long dead;
His dark hearing caught our far wheels,
And the choked soul stretched weak hands
To reach the living word the far wheels said,
The blood-dazed intelligence beating for light,
Crying through the suspense of the far torturing wheels
Swift for the end to break,
Or the wheels to break,
Cried as the tide of the world broke over his sight
With excruciating vividness the speaker of the poem looks upon the dead body of this soldier, and remembers his vain attempts to cling on to life. When the speaker says “And the choked soul stretched weak hands,” and “the blood-dazed intelligence beating for light,” one sees not just a soldier dying in war, one sees a rational man, a boy, who is aware and terrified of the incoming darkness of death, and is desperately fighting to cling to the light of life.
Disturbingly painful to read, yet hauntingly beautiful, the war turned Isaac Rosenberg’s poetry into that “terrible beauty” that Yeats spoke of. Driven into unimaginable heights of psychological tension, the fragmented imagery he often makes use of serves to highlight the macabre spectacle of war. Familiar as a painter with the aesthetic techniques of the Fauvist and post-impressionists, Rosenberg seems to instill them into his breaks with form, his erratic breaks in diction and punctuation. Viewed in this light, these techniques point to a man who was not only aware of his craft, but who superseded it. Every irregularity of his war poetry should therefore be seen not as a literary failing, but rather as the strange sounds of an expanding poetic voice. To say that it is a pity that world never got the chance to see what this poetic voice could develop into is a sever understatement.
Looking back on the war today, and adding Rosenberg’s name to the list of millions of lives of the war claimed, one should take heed to remember that we still live in a largely savage age, that the threat of another Great War still clings.
Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. Oxford. Oxford UP. 1975
Rosenberg, Isaac. Isaac Rosenberg: 21st Century Oxford Authors. Oxford. Oxford UP. 2008
Department of Culture. Prime Minister urges public to plant poppies for First World War Commemoration. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/prime-minister-urges-public-to-plant-poppies-for-first-world-war-commemorations. online 27, May, 2014