Break of Day in the Trenches Themes
by Isaac Rosenberg

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The themes of “Break of Day in the Trenches” emerge from Rosenberg’s inversion of the traditions of the pastoral poem. Generally, pastorals take place in stylized, idyllic rural settings, often early in the morning; their central figures are usually innocent shepherds, whose comments on life are intended also as pointed criticisms of larger social issues. Although the speaker of the poem does not share the rural background of shepherds, he—presumably, like Rosenberg, an urban poet from the East End of London—unselfconsciously emphasizes three main themes: the horrors of war, the artificiality of political barriers, and the necessity of maintaining human values, especially humor, to endure trench warfare.

In “Break of Day in the Trenches,” the speaker clearly thinks of the war as mass slaughter, hardly a situation where one man’s life—or one man’s effort—amounts to much. The inversion of pastoral conventions indicates this. In the second line, daybreak is called the “old druid Time,” a time of human sacrifice—that is, something to be endured, not welcomed. To the soldiers, day is a time to be dreaded; the horrible reality of war is once again visible when darkness starts “crumbling.” This pastoral is not concerned with idyllic moments but with “shrieking iron and flame/ Hurled through still heavens.” Finally, the rat’s closeness to the speaker is another buried hint of the conditions that prevail, implying that the living speaker has been mistaken for a corpse, the animal’s food supply. This would suggest that the central animal of the pastoral—the sheep—has been replaced in this poem by a rat. This setting is stylized but hardly idyllic.

Further, while it is a part of the horrors surrounding the war, the literary rat also marks a second theme: the artificiality of human barriers. The speaker describes the rat as “cosmopolitan,” implying that it is free of the political barriers that, like trench lines, scar the human landscape. While the English and Germans are physically separated as enemies, they are joined by their subjection to the rat and by their victimization in the war.

Finally, Rosenberg explores a third...

(The entire section is 550 words.)