As its title suggests, Isaac Rosenberg’s “Break of Day in the Trenches” is a poem in which time juxtaposes with setting to create a new poetic perception of life and death. It is a short free-verse poem of twenty-six lines, capturing the bemusement of an ordinary infantryman confronting the harshness of existence in the trenches during World War I. It is also a reverie on life and the persistence of life in the midst of war.
Almost every line contains some reference to violent death, sometimes death on a grand scale. Yet even in the midst of mass warfare, Rosenberg notes, there is life of a sort. For instance, the poetic speaker’s casual act of plucking a poppy—an act of killing—is juxtaposed with his observations on a living creature, a rat, that approaches close enough to touch the speaker’s hand.
With sardonic humor, the speaker compares the rat’s situation with that of ordinary soldiers, observing that the “Droll” animal is able to survive in the fields of battle. He observes that the trenches and the other demarcations of war that separate the English soldiers from their “enemies” matter little to the rat, which will perhaps cross no-man’s-land to continue its feast on German corpses.
It is this free act of crossing a few miles of open space that figures in the next section of poem. The speaker marvels at the rat’s ability to survive, while “haughty athletes” with “Strong eyes, fine limbs” are so easily slaughtered. If the dominant fauna of this environment is the rats that feed on the corpses, the common flora is “Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins,” flowers of blood from wounded soldiers.
This reduction of humans to mere objects is reinforced later in the poem when the movement of the rat is contrasted with the prostration of soldiers, who are “Sprawled in the bowels of the earth.” From the description, the soldiers could be either living or dead; perhaps it does not matter much to the speaker. At least the speaker knows that he himself is still alive, although the slight dust on the poppy he has put behind his ear prefigures the dust of the grave that always stands waiting.