Break of Day in the Trenches

by Isaac Rosenberg

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The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 376

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.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 508

Much in “Break of Day in the Trenches” is characteristic of English World War I poetry. For instance, while many English poets wrote in the traditional poetic genres—in this case, the pastoral—they enriched the genres and played on the expectations of their readers by introducing wartime experience as new subject matter. Further, some poets used unconventional meter and rhythm to approximate the broken rhythms of life during war. While “Break of Day in the Trenches” draws on both conventions of war poetry, its visual imagery is its most important aspect.

As a young man, Rosenberg showed considerable natural talent for drawing. Later he studied art at Birkbeck College and the Slade School of Art in London. Although he ultimately gave up the visual arts for poetry, the pictorial quality of some of his poems is particularly notable. In “Louse Hunting” (1917), for instance, Rosenberg first presents his readers with an image of naked soldiers, “Yelling in lurid glee,” who have stripped off their clothes to kill the vermin infesting them. This initial image is strongly rendered, dominated by the “Grinning faces/ And raging limbs” that “Whirl over the floor one fire.”

Similarly, two strong visual images dominate “Break of Day in the Trenches”: the grinning rat and the poppy. In the first place, the rat imagery encompasses both the animal and the speaker who...

(This entire section contains 508 words.)

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notices it. The line “A queer sardonic rat” refers to the animal, but it also indicates the speaker’s tone and situation: He, too, is a sardonic rat. Although the rat imagery is important in establishing connections between these two unwilling victims of the war, the considerably more dense poppy imagery universalizes the situation of this individual soldier. The poppy is both image and metaphor. The plucked poppy serves as an example of the casual killing that accompanies life in the trenches. The poppy is also a well-chosen way to indicate this death, since the flower was normally planted alongside graves.

Metaphorically, the poppy indicates ways of dying. The speaker’s placement of the red flower behind his ear points to a considerable more brutal image, the “flowering” of blood from a head wound. That Rosenberg had this subtlety in mind is suggested by his repetition of the poppy imagery a few lines later, where one reads that the poppies grow from “roots [that] are in man’s veins.” Blood is both flower and fertilizer in this vivid wordplay.

In his early twenties, Rosenberg had felt forced to choose between writing and painting, remarking that art requires “blood and tears.” He chose poetry, as Jon Stallworthy points out in Lost Voices of World War I (1987). Thereafter, Rosenberg strove to write “Simple poetry,—that is where an interesting complexity of thought is kept in tone and right value to the dominating idea so that it is understandable and still ungraspable.” While Rosenberg achieved this balance in his greatest poems, it is also true that the concentration on evocative pictorial images renders “Break of Day in the Trenches” as inscrutable and immediate as visual art.