Such is the lateness in poetic development in Isaac Rosenberg’s short life that the majority of his output could be termed “early.” His earliest dated poem is from 1905, but the so-called trench poems, on which his reputation solely depends, did not begin until 1916, when he enlisted and was posted to France. Thus the earlier poems span eleven years, with the best gathered into the 1912 and 1915 collections. The total number of poems gathered by his editors, including all the unpublished ones, is 154, of which only 10 percent represent the war poems.
Even though he did have friendships with several Imagist poets—Imagism being the first flowering of modern poetry—his early poetry, unlike his painting, seems typically Georgian. This movement, spanning the first fifteen years of the twentieth century, is best typified as Romantic in a suburban, restrained way, with the emphasis on nature as recreation and pretty images, being nostalgic in tone and with harmonious versification. Some critics have seen the influence of the Pre-Raphaelite painter-poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, though the most obvious echoing is that of John Keats, another London city poet, whose poetry is full of woods, light, and shade and heightened sensory perceptions, with nature as an escape for the trapped urban spirit.
“Night and Day”
The long opening poem of the 1912 collection is titled “Night and Day” and apostrophizes the stars as he walks out of the city into the woods. The poet feels himself “set aside,” seeking symbolic meaning in nature. Keats’s “Sleep and Poetry” forms an obvious comparison. Echoes also sound of E. M. Forster’s character Leonard Bast in his novel Howards End (1910). Other poems in the volume talk of “Desire” with an interesting religious reference; others show sympathy for the common people, a sympathy Rosenberg was to demonstrate later in his war poems.
Youth, the 1915 volume, shows in some of its lyrics somewhat more focus and control, but the emotions stay at a very generalized level. “God Made Blind” is more like a poem by Thomas Hardy, England’s most senior poet at the time. “The Dead Heroes” shows an entirely conventional view of patriotism at this stage.
“On Receiving News of the War”
The uncollected “On Receiving News of the War,” written from Cape Town, South Africa, shows a much less conventional and more genuine response. He writes, “God’s blood is shed/ He mourns from His lone place/ His children dead.” There is no heroism here, only divine pity. In 1915, he sent some of these poems to Lascelles Abercrombie, one of the most popular of the Georgians, whom Rosenberg considered “our best living poet.” Abercrombie found the poems to possess a “vivid and original impulse,” though he noted that Rosenberg had not yet found his true voice.
Rosenberg was also attracted to dramatic verse. In 1916, he had published Moses, which consisted of a small number of poems added to a fragment of what was presumably intended to be a larger dramatic work on the Israelite leader Moses. He took considerable license with the biblical story, placing Moses at the moment he was still a prince of Egypt, but just beginning to find his identity as a Hebrew. The speech rhythms and dramatic ideas show much more poetic talent than anything done before, but there is still too much verbiage to be truly dramatic.
Some of the other poems in the volume are much bolder in their conceptual range than anything before. “God” makes a defiant Promethean statement. “Chagrin” uses the image of Absalom hanging by his hair, linking this to Christ hanging on the cross, quite a new sort of poem. “Marching” is the first soldier poem, with taut strong rhythms. The language is much richer and more imagistic. In the volume as a whole, there is for the first time some awareness of modernism, as there had been for some time in his painting.
The Lilith theme
While enlisted, Rosenberg also...
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