As we mark the Battle of the Somme’s centenary this year, poetry by an unsung UCL graduate is helping the university to humanise the vast tragedy for today’s schoolchildren
Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon’s names invariably come up whenever the title of Britain’s greatest war poet is discussed, yet Isaac Rosenberg, a UCL alumnus, has as good a claim as either. Outside Whitechapel Gallery — near where he grew up in east London — there is even a blue plaque bearing his name, but still he remains far less known.
Born in Bristol in 1890, he was the second child of Dovber and Hacha Rosenberg, two Lithuanian Jews who had fled economic distress, amid fear of further anti-Semitic violence in the Russian Empire.
With the arrival of three further children, the family moved to London’s East End to a life that was marked by severe impoverishment. Gaining work as an apprentice engraver, he was able to afford evening classes at Birkbeck College, where he soon demonstrated his artistic abilities by winning two prizes for his nude studies.
Then as a student at the UCL Slade School of Fine Art between 1911 and 1914, he published his first pamphlet of poems, Night and Day, and was part of a prodigious set of UCL Slade School students, including painters David Bomberg and Mark Gertler. Known as the Whitechapel Boys, they formed the core of Anglo-Jewish artists and writers during the 1910s.
Rosenberg’s biographer, Jean Liddiard, explains that “his rigorous UCL Slade School training influenced his poetry, especially on the Western Front when he stripped down and focused his language on working through the essential, intense image — just as he had with his drawing and composition at the UCL Slade School”.
The essential, intense image
Perhaps his most ambitious war poem, ‘Dead Man’s Dump’ demonstrates Rosenberg’s ability to shift poetic register to dizzying effect. In one stanza, he opens with powerful lyricism:
Maniac Earth! howling and flying, your bowel
Seared by the jagged fire, the iron love,
The impetuous storm of savage love.
Then undercuts it in the next with brutal documentary realism: “A man’s brains splattered on/A stretcher-bearer’s face” — the sort of image that can only be based on first-hand experience.
Despite their seemingly privileged positions as officers, neither Sassoon nor Owen was inured to the realities of battle. Sassoon took part in the first day of the Battle of the Somme and at 10:05am, before the main offensive even began, he wrote in his journal that he was “looking at a sunlit picture of hell”.
By the end of that day, more than 19,000 British soldiers had lost their lives. It is little wonder, then, that Sassoon was later driven to write such savage lines as those that conclude his poem, ‘Suicide in the Trenches’:
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
When Wilfred Owen wrote ‘Anthem For Doomed Youth’ in 1917, such industrial-scale slaughter was commonplace, as expressed in its opening lines: “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?/ Only the monstrous anger of the guns.”
Bitterly lamenting the inadequate consolation offered by organised religion, he perhaps offers the poem itself as an expression of grief more acquainted with the brutal realities of the war.
The perspectives offered by all three poets feed directly into the First World War Centenary Battlefields Tour Programme, which is led by the UCL Institute of Education (IOE), in conjunction with Equity Tours.
Educating the next generation
Funded by the Department for Education and the Department for Communities and Local Government, the five-year programme enables every state secondary school in England to send two pupils and one teacher to visit the battlefields of the Western Front in France and Belgium.
As part of it, the pupils also visit the cemeteries, both vast and small, and memorials built to honour those who fell. On these visits, they are given copies of war poems — including those by Rosenberg — to read as they walk around.
“I carry a number of the more well-known poems by a variety of poets,” says Tim Stoneman, one of the tour guides. “I will select an appropriate one for the occasion depending upon the site concerned, the particular aims of the school or other group and the age of those involved.”
The poems tend to provoke a wide mix of reactions. “Some of the more thoughtful students consider the words carefully and are able to understand something of what was going through the poet’s mind, and of the conditions under which he fought. Others are less engaged, but still appreciate a different viewpoint.”
“It’s key, though,” he adds, “that they have the chance to put the poem in context, particularly if read in a location of relevance — such as the site where it was written – as in the case of ‘In Flanders Fields’ at Essex Farm Cemetery in Ypres.”
For Simon Bendry, the UCL IOE’s National Education Co-ordinator for the Programme, this appreciation of the poetry is all part of a process that the programme calls ‘microhistory’. “One of the greatest challenges around these tours is the huge scale of the cemeteries — it could very quickly become a ‘numbers’ visit. By focusing on just one grave in a cemetery and learning about an individual’s story, we can unpick the broader history.”
“Poetry is just one of a wide range of first-hand accounts that students should use to gain a deeper understanding people’s experience of the First World War. It is, though, important that students learn not just about the ‘soldier poets’ such as Sassoon and Owen, but also about the many other ‘war poets’, the majority of whom were women and working on the Home Front during the war.”
Rosenberg’s poem ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ also marks its centenary in 1916 and is one of the poems that Tim Stoneman chooses to hand out, especially when there are students from Jewish schools, such as Hasmonean High School in north London and King David High School, Liverpool, taking part in the tour.
A corner of a foreign field
The poem has particular poignancy when the children visit Bailleul Road East Cemetery, outside the village of Saint-Laurent-Blangy in northern France, as this is Rosenberg’s final resting place.
Taking part in a night patrol near the village of Fampoux, he was killed on 1 April, 1918: his remains found among those of his comrades. As a result, his gravestone is inscribed with the words, ‘Buried near this spot’, then beneath it, a Star of David and the epitaph, ‘Artist and Poet’.
Stoneman believes that what makes Rosenberg particularly compelling is that he provides a contrasting point of view to those of Owen and Sassoon. “While I’m not a literature expert, I feel that Rosenberg’s works give the reader (or listener) a perspective of one of the rank and file. Many of the well-known ‘War Poets’ were officers, and thus their writings tend to be from a slightly different viewpoint. Further, his personal background differed in many ways to the majority of poets, so his approach to various issues varies from theirs.”
Rosenberg’s voice was undoubtedly inflected with his painterly sensibility. Although his poetry soon overtook painting, his self-portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery to this day. Charles Koe Child, a UCL Slade School assistant at the time, wrote, “He was enthusiastic with his work here. He was skillful with the brush.”
However, due to increasing ill health, he left the UCL Slade School in March 1914 and, finding himself in a state of poverty, applied for a grant to visit his sister in South Africa to convalesce and earn money from painting. It was in Cape Town that he learned of the outbreak of war and wrote the poem On Receiving News of the War, which Jean Liddiard suggests is “his most lasting artistic achievement”.
The final verse, which exemplifies Rosenberg’s gifts, sees the poet hoping the war will purge the universe and restore it to innocence and beauty:
O! ancient crimson curse!
Give back this universe
Its pristine bloom.
The simple verse structure and visionary language show the influence of another poet and painter, William Blake, especially a poem such as ‘The Sick Rose’.
Ultimately, financial circumstances led Rosenberg to volunteer to go to war so that he could earn money and pass it on to his mother. However, his letters frankly record someone who wrestles with the whole concept of war.
For example, on hearing of the outbreak of war, he wrote, “Now is the time to go on an expedition of the North Pole, to come back and find settled order again.”
The reluctant soldier
Leaving South Africa in 1915, he returned to England and, after publishing his second pamphlet of poems, Youth, he joined a Bantam Regiment and was sent to the Western Front in June 1916.
After his recruitment, he wrote, “I never joined the army for patriotic reasons. Nothing can justify war. I suppose we must all fight to get the trouble over.”
After completing an MA in Museum Studies at UCL, Roz Currie became a curator at the Jewish Military Museum in January 2012. In 2014, she curated the exhibition, ‘For King and Country? The Jewish experience of the First World War’ at the Jewish Museum.
She says that once he reached the front, Rosenberg struggled to fit in. “While the other soldiers would chat and gamble, he would read King Lear.” As a result, “He was bullied extremely badly.”
A lot of the bullying was anti-Semitic in nature and, as his parents were originally from Lithuania, she wonders “if it was also because he was the son of an immigrant family”.
In spite of this mistreatment from the other men and the war raging around him, Rosenberg remained single-minded in his literary ambitions. Jean Liddiard adds: “It was astonishing that a private soldier managed to write anything at all, yet he sent home his poems on scraps of paper and they are among the greatest of the war.”
In a letter to his friend Laurence Binyon in autumn 1916, he wrote: “I am determined that this war, with all its powers for devastation, shall not master my poeting; that is, if I am lucky enough to come through all right, 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.”
Sadly, he wasn’t one of the lucky ones. So while his contemporaries at the Slade — including Stanley Spencer and Paul Nash — also served in the war, Rosenberg was the sole victim.
During his lifetime, says Liddiard, “His poverty, education and background made him an outsider. He never took the easy way out. Harassed private soldier that he was, he set himself to experience and endure.” It is perhaps his death and social status that has subsequently, and wrongly, marginalised his work over time.
As Michael Berkowitz (Professor of Modern Jewish History, UCL Hebrew & Jewish Studies) points out, “Well-respected figures don’t understand his impact. He’s not recognised here in Britain, yet he was an unusually talented person. He’s definitely a serious figure.”
There are, however, efforts to raise Rosenberg’s profile. With the centenary of the Great War upon us, the Jewish East End Society (JEECS) has a campaign to raise money for a statue of the poet that will be unveiled in Torrington Square on the 100th anniversary of his death, 1 April 2018.
Clive Bettington, founder of JEECS, explains: “The statue will be only the fifth in London of a poet and only the second in Britain of a Jewish literary figure (the other being Benjamin Disraeli). It will be a fitting honour to a poet who is now recognised as one of the best British poets of the Great War.
“Indeed, the distinguished American literary critic, Paul Fussell, in his book, The Great War and Modern Memory, named Rosenberg’s poem ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ as the greatest poem of the war.”
Fittingly, the final lines of this poem will be written at the base of his statue:
Poppies, whose roots are in men’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping
But mine in my ear is safe
Just a little white with the dust.