Isaac Rosenberg

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 618

Isaac Rosenberg was the son of Barnett Rosenberg and Hacha Davidov. His father was a Lithuanian Jew whose impoverished family had emigrated from Russia to Bristol, England, shortly before Rosenberg’s birth. Soon after, they moved to the East End of London, which was then the center of the Jewish immigrant community, a community that existed as a tightly knit group until the 1960’s and from which emerged such Jewish writers as the dramatists Bernard Kops and Arnold Wesker.

His father opened his own butcher shop; when that failed, he became an itinerant peddler. The family lived in constant poverty, but it was cohesive, and Isaac Rosenberg grew up in a religious atmosphere. After an elementary school education, Rosenberg showed some artistic promise, and in 1907, he began attending evening classes at Birkbeck College, an affiliated college of the University of London, set up especially to help poor students. In 1908, he won the Mason Prize for his nude studies as well as several other awards. To earn a living, he became apprenticed to an engraver.

A few people noticed Rosenberg’s talent and sponsored him at the Slade, London’s most prestigious art school, which he entered in 1911. There he was influenced by such British artists as the Pre-Raphaelites, particularly Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and also by William Blake and the modernist Roger Fry. While continuing to study at the Slade, he struck out as an artist, setting up a studio in 1912 in Hampstead Road. He had also been writing poetry and sent some of it to Laurence Binyon, an established Georgian poet who worked at the British Museum, and some to the English Review. He received encouragement from both the poet and the journal, and he decided to publish these poems at his own expense in a twenty-four-page pamphlet.

The next year, he met Edward Marsh, editor of Georgian Poetry and an influential literary figure in London. Marsh purchased some of his paintings and encouraged him to go on writing, introducing him to other poets such as the modernists T. E. Hulme and Ezra Pound. Rosenberg was still undecided as to whether he was better as a painter or as a poet.

At this point, Rosenberg’s health deteriorated, and he sailed to South Africa to stay with one of his sisters. He remained there during 1914, returning to England in March, 1915. Marsh bought three more of his paintings, and Rosenberg published another volume of verse, again at his own expense. However, with the war on, the literary and artistic scene in London had broken up, and there were no immediate prospects or contacts for him. In the light of this, he decided, reluctantly, to enlist, though feeling no particular patriotism.

He was not in good health, rather underweight and undersized. Nevertheless, he was accepted by the army, joining the “Bantams” of the 12th Suffolk Regiment, later transferring to the King’s Own Royal Lancasters. After initial training, he was dispatched to the Somme battle area of northern France in June, 1916. During this time, he wrote a play, Moses, and then several other dramatic pieces based loosely on Jewish mythology.

He continued to write poetry, now influenced by his experience of war. By 1916, there were few illusions left about the nature of modern warfare. Rosenberg was able to embrace what he saw and sought some positive response to it. Apart from ten days of leave in September, 1917, and a few short spells in the hospital, he served continuously on or just behind the front lines until his death. He was killed shortly before the end of the war while riding dispatches at night. His body was never recovered. His war poems were first collected and published in 1922 by Gordon Bottomley.

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