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...

(The entire section is 550 words.)