"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Poetry: “On Receiving News of the War” by Isaac Rosenberg

My poetry read for this year is a collection poems from poets of WWI, titled Some Desperate Glory: The First World War the Poets Knew, written and edited by Max Egremont.  It’s written by Egremont because it’s more than just a collection of poetry.  The poetry is integrated with the history and poet’s lives.  The book is organized around the year by year history and what the poets were up to in that year, and it provides a sampling of that year’s poetic output. 

For instance, Isaac Rosenberg is a poet I had not heard of before.  It is interesting that so many poets and writers served in the First World War, and unfortunately many did not make it through alive, especially the poets.  In the “Prelude,” where we learn about the biographies of the poets we’ll meet, we learn this about Rosenberg:
Self Portrait

A year later, in June 1914, a young Jewish man also arrived in South Africa.  Isaac Rosenberg, like Julian Grenfell, painted and wrote poetry.  But Rosenberg came from an atmosphere of greater intellectual freedom among immigrants in London’s Whitechapel.  When Grenfell announced that he thought of leaving the army to study art in Paris, his family mocked him; this was not what the eldest son of Lord Desborough did.  Rosenberg may have been proud that ‘Nobody ever told me what to read, or eveer put poetry in my way,’ but his father, a Jewish pedlar who had fled Lithuania to escape conscription in the Russian army, was a cultured man.  Barnett Rosenberg had trained for the rabbinate and wrote poetry.  Isaac’s parents were both pacifists.

They were also very poor.  At the age of fourteen, Isaac was apprenticed to an engraver, which he hated.  He went to evening classes at Birkbeck College, wrote verses influenced by Swinburne, Rossetti and Francis Thompson, and looked to Keats, Shelley and an earlier engraver poet, William Blake.  In 1911, rich Jewish patrons paid for him to study at the Slade School of Fine Art alongside the artists David Bomberg and Christopher Nevinson.  Yiddish had been Isaac Rosenberg’s first language; as late as 1913, wanting to enter for an art prize while at the Slade, he was unsure if he was a British subject.  Like Julian Grenfell, he felt trapped by what he called ‘the fiendish persistence of the coil of circumstance’.  Yet he thought, ‘it is the same with all people no matter what the condition’. 

In 1914, Rosenberg had not entered the war yet, and while in South Africa composed in this poem his premonitions on hearing of the war.  .  In contrast to the spirit of the age, his poem, “On Receiving News of the War” takes on an anti-war tone.

On Receiving News of the War: Cape Town
By Isaac Rosenberg

Snow is a strange white word.
No ice or frost
Has asked of bud or bird
For Winter's cost.

Yet ice and frost and snow
From earth to sky
This Summer land doth know.
No man knows why.

In all men's hearts it is.
Some spirit old
Hath turned with malign kiss
Our lives to mould.

Red fangs have torn His face.
God's blood is shed.
He mourns from His lone place
His children dead.

O! ancient crimson curse!
Corrode, consume.
Give back this universe
Its pristine bloom.

First, some basics on the construction of the poem.  It’s composed of five stanzas of quatrains in roughly iambic meter and an ABAB rhyme scheme with no interlocking rhymes between the stanzas.  What’s interesting to me about the lines is the length.  The first and third lines of each stanza are composed of three feet (which in this case equals six syllables) and the second and fourth lines of two feet (equaling four syllables).  I cannot find in either my poetry composition books nor on the internet this form.  It’s not that an unusual form.  I could swear I’ve seen it before.  I went searching through various poets who I thought might have used this form—Auden, Tennyson, Shelley, Christina Rossetti, Hopkins—I couldn’t find anything they wrote that was in this form.  So until I can locate another such poem in this form, I’m going to have assume Rosenberg is the first to use it.

It does have the feel of a Victorian poem.  Stylistically it has very strong echoes of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s epic In Memoriam A.H.H.  Here are the first three stanzas of that great work:

Strong Son of God, immortal Love,
Whom we, that have not seen thy face,
By faith, and faith alone, embrace,
Believing where we cannot prove;

Thine are these orbs of light and shade;
Thou madest Life in man and brute;
Thou madest Death; and lo, thy foot
Is on the skull which thou hast made.

Thou wilt not leave us in the dust:
Thou madest man, he knows not why,
He thinks he was not made to die;
And thou hast made him: thou art just.

You can read Tennyson’s entire poem at Literature Network, here.    The lines of In Memoriam are all four feet, and the rhyme scheme is different than Rosenberg’s, but the phrasing and compact sentences nearly echo.  Both use staccato sentences, both freely use the connector “and,” and both seem to speak in a pastoral, almost Biblical voice.  Notice too how Rosenberg alludes to Tennyson’s poem with “No man knows why” in the eighth line of his poem to Tennyson’s “he knows not why” in the tenth line of his poem,

But Rosenberg’s shortened second and fourth lines push the poem toward a ballad.  Compare the lines of “Amazing Grace.”

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.

The ballad form consists of four feet (eight syllables) in the first and third lines and three feet (six syllables) in the second and fourth lines.  Rosenberg shortens the ballad form by reducing a foot in each line.  On the other hand Tennyson pushes away from the ballad form by adding a foot to the second and fourth lines.  Though both Rosenberg and Tennyson are modifying the ballad form differently, I think both are doing it so for the same overarching reason.  They want the feel of a hymnal song while altering the form to add a different layer of complexity. 

Now let’s get to the heart of Rosenberg’s poem.  He starts the poem with the image of snow, a symbol of universal death.  The snow comes to Cape Town, where he is writing the poem, having heard of the Great War’s start.  He calls Cape Town a “Summerland,” even though it is snowing.  The war began in the month of July, which in locales below the equator would mean it is winter.  Rosenberg is playing with that sort of paradoxical situation where it snows in what Europeans would call a summer month.  The situation is not quite in the norm.

And then in the third stanza by a parallelism he compares with that unnatural snow “an old spirit” in men’s hearts that has caused man’s fallen state.  That fallen spirit has shed God’s blood, and God sadly mourns the dead.  His last stanza is a masterpiece:

O! ancient crimson curse!
Corrode, consume.
Give back this universe
Its pristine bloom.

Rosenberg identifies the spirit that has led to this Great War to original sin, and appeals in prayer like voice to return to that Edenic state.  It’s interesting that a Jewish writer would use the phrase “God’s blood is shed,” which alludes to Christ crucified.  Even the “malign kiss” in the eleventh line seems to allude to Judas betraying Christ with a kiss.  I would think he was conscious of the allusions.  Whatever the case may be, it’s a fine poem.

Skimming ahead in Some Desperate Glory I can find a number of very good Rosenberg poems.  I doubt I’ll have a chance to post another, since I want to give a variety of poets their due.  Sadly Rosenberg did not survive the war.  From his Wikipedia entry:

On March 21, 1918, the German Army started its Spring offensive on the Western Front. A week later, Rosenberg sent his last letter with a poem “Through these Pale Cold Days to England” before going to the front lines with reinforcements. Having just finished night patrol, he was killed on the night of the April 1, 1918 with another 10 KORL's soldiers; there is a dispute as to whether his death occurred at the hands of a sniper or in close combat. In either case, he died in a town called Fampoux, north-east of Arras. He was first buried in a mass grave, but in 1926, the unidentified remains of the six KORL's soldiers were individually re-interred at Bailleul Road East Cemetery, Plot V, Saint-Laurent-Blangy, Pas de Calais, France. The Rosenberg's gravestone is marked with his name and the words, "Buried near this spot", as well as — "Artist and Poet".

What a shame.  He was only 27 years old.  What a great poet he might have developed into.  


  1. I remember at school we had to learn DULCE ET DECORUM EST by Wilfred Owen. Is it in your book?

    God bless.

    1. Yes, it is. It's in the 1918 section. I was going to post a poem for each year. I can post that one for 1918 when I get to it. The Rosenberg poem posted here is for 1914.