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Vivien Noakes, ed. The Poems and Plays of Isaac Rosenberg

Jennifer KILGORE
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Vivien NOAKES, ed. The Poems and Plays of Isaac Rosenberg. Oxford University Press, 2004, 600 pp., €226.54, ISBN 0-19-818715-7.

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1The War Poet Isaac Rosenberg was a multi-practitioner of art. Generous benefactors helped the artistically gifted young man who was born in Bristol, but grew up in poverty in Stepney, to pursue studies in painting at the Slade School of Art. Before his death at the front in 1918 (aged 27), Rosenberg had already managed to have a number of his poetic texts published. First came Night and Day (1912), followed by Youth (1915), and Moses (1916), all published at his own expense noted Geoffrey Hill in The Concice Encyclopedia of English and American Poets and Poetry (1963). Unlike Ivor Gurney, the musician whose poetic endeavours began only after he arrived at the front, Rosenberg was writing poetry well before the trenches. His earliest surviving poem, “Ode to David's Harp” oddly presaged the war poetry that was to come. Its emphasis on the martial nature of David's poems and their descriptions of the glories of conquest, includes thwarted nostalgia in stanza one, where it is already apparent that war brings death:

Where are the hands that strung thy chords

With tender touch and true,

Whose silvery tone impassioned all?

Those hands are silenced too. (3)

2Introduced to the work of William Blake in 1907 by Alice Wright, Rosenberg's art as well as his early poetry came under his influence, as the plate “In the Heart of the Forest,” (14) demonstrates.

3Although he might never have brushed shoulders with D. H. Lawrence at the Café Royal, both men negotiated that particular literary crowd. Rosenberg's important contacts there, according to Vivien Noakes, were Mark Gertler who introduced him to T. E. Hulme and Edward Marsh, Winston Churchill's private secretary and editor of five anthologies of Georgian poetry , in which Rosenberg's “Ah Kolue” speech from Moses figured in 1916-17. Marsh was to “buy his paintings and correspond with him for the rest of his life” (xli). But Marsh's favorite was Rupert Brooke, and Geoffrey Hill, in his Bateson Memorial Lecture “Gurney's ‘Hobby'” remarked: “Rosenberg, Gurney, and Sorley were all privately sceptical of Brooke's publicly acclaimed qualities” (Essays in Criticism 34:2, 1984, 106). Social forces were too great a deciding factor in both publication and reception. Lawrence would satirize the same Café Royal crowd in Women in Love (Gertler was witness to a scene where Katherine Mansfield, overhearing Heseltine's friends making fun of Lawrence's poems in Amores , walked off with their copy on September 1, 1916. The incident was fictionally embodied by Gudrun in the novel).

4In this volume, Vivian Noakes provides a careful compilation of the essential biographical information of Rosenberg's career. Following a prolonged period of poor health in London during the winter of 1913-14, Rosenberg decided to go to South Africa for a season. Meanwhile, Pound in 1914 or 1915 had sent a sampling of Rosenberg's poetry to Harriet Monroe in Chicago for publication in Poetry , if she so fancied (xliii). Upon his return to Britain, Rosenberg was unable to find employment. Discouraged, he joined the British forces at the end of October 1915. By June 1916 he was serving in the front lines and the same month wrote “Break of Day in the Trenches” (xlv). In July 1916 he began corresponding with Gordon Bottomley, his first posthumous editor whom he was never to meet. The circumstances of Rosenberg's death at the front on April 1, 1918, are unclear. What is presumed to be his remains are buried at Bailleul Road East British Cemetery, St Laurent Blagny, near Arras (xlviii).

5After Rosenberg's death, most of the surviving manuscripts were in the possession of his sister Annie (xvii). What was left of those manuscripts were donated to the Imperial War Museum in the summer of 1979 (xviii). Noakes explains how the task of editing the poems was complicated by Rosenberg's habit of always having his pockets full of bits of paper and by the compositions of the last two years of his life, which took place at the front (with only one ten-day leave during twenty-one months of service). Whenever he had written something (even drafts) it was sent home for safe-keeping (xix). “More than with most poets, the paper on which a poem is written and the state in which it has survived tells us much about the conditions under which Rosenberg worked, particularly when he was in France.” (xviii)

6Clearly, the organization of such material by any editor is a tricky endeavour. The work behind this handsome volume reflects Noakes's lifetime of applied scholarship. She explains, “The aim of this edition is to print all of Isaac Rosenberg's surviving poetry and plays; to throw light on the genesis of work by presenting full textual variants from manuscript and published sources, and by extensive cross-referencing…” (xv) The reader is clearly informed of the editing decisions: “Fragments to which a date, or a probable date, can be given have been placed chronologically. These are followed by those which cannot be dated; this does not mean that the undated fragments were written later.” (xxiii) All fragments have been included.

7But the downside of such clarity is that the introduction will seem impenetrable in spots to the uninitiated, and this reviewer recommends that a first-time reader of Rosenberg slip directly past the 35 pages of introduction to the 12 page chronological summary of Rosenberg's life before enjoying the 148 pages of poems (which are followed by an additional 32 pages of poetic fragments), and the 88 pages of drama, including Moses, The Amulet, and The Unicorn. The explanatory editorial matter can be ingested after a first reading, in the course of a full-fledged study of Rosenberg. And this book is the necessary tool for that, with its 116 pages of commentary for the poems, 2 appendices, and an index of titles and first lines, making it the most complete tool available for Rosenberg's texts. It may also stimulate new readings of well known poems, since one of the key decisions made by Noakes is to give punctuation as found in the manuscripts, apart from several exceptions. So 2004 now figures in the history of the reception of Isaac Rosenberg, following upon the other posthumous editions: 1922 (edited by Gordon Bottomley), 1937 (edited by Denys Harding with Bottomley), 1949 (a reissue of 1937), and 1979 (edited by Ian Parsons, using the same texts as 1937, with 4 new poems and a large selection of paintings). Another key date for the reception of Rosenberg's poetry and paintings must be the 1959 exhibit of his work, organized by Jon Silkin. It was reviewed by Geoffrey Hill whose 1952 poem “For Isaac Rosenberg” suggests the poetic proximity he has long felt for Rosenberg.

8Today Rosenberg is known as a war poet, whereas much of his writing concerns other issues. Memory was an early theme, from the very first poem “Ode to David's Harp”. Another early poem, “Zion,” revealed the preoccupation with memory included in Rosenberg's biblical education:

She lost her virtue and she fell;
And only left her story. (5)

9“[Past Days Are Hieroglyphs]” (115) cleverly presents the problem of preserving memories. The first stanza indicates that the past is “Scarred deep with iron blows / Upon the thundered tree / Of memory.” But the poem's progress is towards a tree so “Scratched and scrawled” that meaning is no longer clear.

10Ian Parsons noted Rosenberg's “cockney sense of comedy” in poems like “The Flea”. His earliest poems contain a series of anticipatory love poems such as “Love To Be” (25), “In November” (31), “Bacchanal” (34), and “You and I” which ends with the line: “Was it in the sleep-spun realm of dreamland?” (37), concerning a youth's longing for a soul-mate. But maturity gives a more abject twist to “[Summer's Lips Are Aglow, Afresh]” with its ending, “I have put my dreams away” (98). By 1916, as Geoffrey Hill has noted, amazement and anger were compacted in Rosenberg's work.

11The transition between poems about war written before his personal involvement and war poems of personal experience is almost seamless. His anti-war position is constant. Rosenberg's first poem about the Great War is “On Receiving News of the War: Cape Town” (composed in South Africa, 1914 states the notes, 333), in which his rejection of war seems apparent:

O! ancient crimson curse!
Corrode, consume. (83)

12Several other poems from 1914 concern the war: “To Wilhelm II” (84), “The Dead Heroes” (86), and perhaps in a metaphorical way “[A Flea Whose Body Shone Like Bead]” (95). The notes indicate the poem may be based on a personal conflict, but it also shows the way violence may ignite and destroy. “Lusitania” (120) was composed after the sinking of the passenger liner on May 7, 1915. In its eight lines, the word “chaos” is used five times, and the final line states that it is the gift that Germany is giving the world.

13“Marching—As Seen from the Left File” (123) from December 1915 is the first known poem written by Rosenberg after he enlisted at the end of October. The long note for this poem on page 354 should not be missed. It explains Rosenberg's admiration for Lascelles Abercrombie and his reading of The End of the World , Abercrombie's verse-play published in New Numbers (1: 2, April 1914). It also relates Harriet Monroe's apparent notes for the printer on her manuscript of “Marching—As Seen from the Left File.” They were: “Print soon.” The poem was published with “Break of Day in the Trenches” in Poetry 9:3, in December 1916. Such well known-poems are given special treatment. For “Break of Day in the Trenches” (written in France, June 1916) the text is presented facing a plate of the complete typescript (the version Harriet Monroe used — a copy of which is now kept in the Imperial War Museum). “Louse Hunting” (1916-17) is presented with a plate of a pencil draft, the only surviving copy of the poem and two pages of notes. “Dead Man's Dump” (1917) has two and a half pages of notes relating to variants and correspondence about the text. The poem opens with a description of the dead that no longer cry out, though wheels drive over them, crushing their bones. It is gruesome, but not without theological musing:

What fierce imaginings their dark souls lit
Earth! Have they gone into you?
Somewhere they must have gone,
And flung on your hard back
Is their soul's sack,
Emptied of God-ancestralled essences.
Who hurled them out? Who hurled? (140)

14This is quite the contrast with the creative optimism of “Night and Day”, a piece about poetic inspiration (his first publication, 1912), as this stanza demonstrates:

I lay upon the sparkling grass,
And God's own mouth was kissing me,
And there was nothing that did pass
But blazed with divinity. (52)

15As Siegfried Sassoon noted in his forward to The Collected Works of Isaac Rosenberg (edited by Ian Parsons, 1979), “Scriptural and sculptural are the epithets I would apply to him” (ix). The war poems are “sculptural” in that they capture the essence of the experience in its visual, oral, mental, and even metaphysical aspects. There is no insistence on beauty or attempt at regularity of line and rhythm to portray horror. Regarding the scriptural aspect, Michael Schmidt, who in Lives of the Poets (1998) dubs Rosenberg as “the first major Jewish voice in English poetry” suggests that Rosenberg's original rhythms come from the influence of the Hebrew language of the Old Testament (543).

16According to Noakes, “It was in the plays that Rosenberg wished eventually to express his thoughts on war, but none is in its final form” (xxvii). In The Amulet , Lilith says to the Nubian: “I think there is more sorrow in the world / than man can bear.” And he answers: “None can exceed their limit, lady. You either bear or break.” (237) In The Unicorn , Lilith sings:

Beauty is music's secret soul
Creeping about man's senses.
He cannot hold it or know it ever,
But yearns and yearns to hold it once.
Ah! When he yearns not, shall he not wither?
For music then will have no place
In the world's ear, but mix in windless darkness. (253)

17War, as Rosenberg experienced it, destroys beauty and the human soul. The loss is expressed also in the poem “Chagrin”, composed during the same period as the play Moses in 1914-1915 (344n). The poem presents the death of Absalom in battle through a visual and metaphorical description.

From the imagined weight
Of spaces in a sky
Of mute chagrin, my thoughts
Hang like branch-clung hair
To trunks of silence swung,
With the choked soul weighing down
Into thick emptiness. (104)

18But the artist strives to preserve something from the emptiness, whether or not he still feels “God's own mouth” on his own. Rosenberg, who faced the worst, managed to find authentic poetic expression for what he witnessed. His artistic vision and vigour can still be felt in his work, much as he himself imagined the ideal reward for the artist in “[My Days Are But the Tombs of Buried Hours]”:

They only live who have not lived in vain,
For in their works their life returns again. (15)

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Jennifer KILGORE, « Vivien Noakes, ed. The Poems and Plays of Isaac Rosenberg », E-rea [En ligne], 3.2 | 2005, document 2, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2005, consulté le 20 juillet 2018. URL :

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