Isaac Rosenberg

British poet and artist (1890-1918)

Isaac Rosenberg (25 November 18901 April 1918) was an English poet and artist. His Poems from the Trenches are recognized as some of the most outstanding poetry written during the First World War.

None saw their spirits' shadow shake the grass,
Or stood aside for the half used life to pass
Out of those doomed nostrils and the doomed mouth,
When the swift iron burning bee
Drained the wild honey of their youth.

On Receiving News of the War (1914)

  • 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.

Break of Day in the Trenches (1916)

  • The darkness crumbles away.
    It is the same old druid Time as ever,
    Only a live thing leaps my hand,
    A queer sardonic rat,
    As I pull the parapet's poppy
    To stick behind my ear.
    Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
    Your cosmopolitan sympathies.
    Now you have touched this English hand
    You will do the same to a German
    Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
    To cross the sleeping green between.
    It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
    Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
    Less chanced than you for life,
    Bonds to the whims of murder,
    Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
    The torn fields of France.
    What do you see in our eyes
    At the shrieking iron and flame
    Hurled through still heavens ?
    What quaver--what heart aghast?
    Poppies whose roots are in man's veins
    Drop, and are ever dropping;
    But mine in my ear is safe--
    Just a little white with the dust.
  • In his malodorous brain what slugs and mire,
    Lanthorned in his oblique eyes, guttering burned!
    His body lodged a rat where men nursed souls
    The world flashed grape-green eyes of a foiled cat
    To him. On fragments of an old shrunk power,
    On shy and maimed, on women wrung awry
    He lay, a bullying hulk, to crush them more.
    But when one, fearless, turned and clawed like bronze,
    Cringing was easy to blunt these stern paws,
    And he would weigh the heavier on those after.
    Who rests in God's mean flattery now? Your wealth
    Is but his cunning to make death more hard.
    Your iron sinews take more pain in breaking.
    And he has made the market for your beauty
    Too poor to buy, although you die to sell.
    Only that he has never heard of sleep;
    And when the cats come out the rats are sly.
    Here we are safe till he slinks in at dawn.
    But he has gnawed a fibre from strange roots,
    And in the morning some pale wonder ceases.
    Things are not strange and strange things are forgetful.
    Ah! if the day were arid, somehow lost
    Out of us, but it is as hair of us,
    And only in the hush no wind stirs it.
    And in the light vague trouble lifts and breathes,
    And restlessness still shadows the lost ways.
    The fingers shut on voices that pass through,
    Where blind farewells are taken easily . . .
    Ah! this miasma of a rotting God!
    • (written 1916 or before)

Louse Hunting

  • Nudes -- stark and glistening,
    Yelling in lurid glee. Grinning faces
    And raging limbs
    Whirl over the floor one fire.
    For a shirt verminously busy
    Yon soldier tore from his throat, with oaths
    Godhead might shrink at, but not the lice.
    And soon the shirt was aflare
    Over the candle he'd lit while we lay.

    Then we all sprang up and stript
    To hunt the verminous brood.
    Soon like a demons' pantomine
    The place was raging.
    See the silhouettes agape,
    See the glibbering shadows
    Mixed with the battled arms on the wall.
    See gargantuan hooked fingers
    Pluck in supreme flesh
    To smutch supreme littleness.
    See the merry limbs in hot Highland fling
    Because some wizard vermin
    Charmed from the quiet this revel
    When our ears were half lulled
    By the dark music
    Blown from Sleep's trumpet.

Dead Man's Dump (1916)

  • The plunging limbers over the shattered track
    Racketed with their rusty freight,
    Stuck out like many crowns of thorns,
    And the rusty stakes like sceptres old
    To stay the flood of brutish men
    Upon our brothers dear.

    The wheels lurched over sprawled dead
    But pained them not, though their bones crunched, Their shut mouths made no moan.
    They lie there huddled, friend and foeman,
    Man born of man, and born of woman,
    And shells go crying over them
    From night till night and now.

    Earth has waited for them,
    All the time of their growth
    Fretting for their decay:
    Now she has them at last!
    In the strength of their strength
    Suspended—stopped and held.

What fierce imaginings their dark souls lit?
Earth! have they gone into you!
Somewhere they must have gone,
And flung on your hard back
Is their soul’s sack
Emptied of God-ancestralled essences.
Who hurled them out? Who hurled?

None saw their spirits’ shadow shake the grass,
Or stood aside for the half used life to pass
Out of those doomed nostrils and the doomed mouth,
When the swift iron burning bee
Drained the wild honey of their youth.

What of us who, flung on the shrieking pyre,
Walk, our usual thoughts untouched,
Our lucky limbs as on ichor fed,
Immortal seeming ever?
Perhaps when the flames beat loud on us,
A fear may choke in our veins
And the startled blood may stop.

The air is loud with death,
The dark air spurts with fire,
The explosions ceaseless are.
Timelessly now, some minutes past,
Those dead strode time with vigorous life,
Till the shrapnel called ‘An end!’
But not to all. In bleeding pangs
Some borne on stretchers dreamed of home,
Dear things, war-blotted from their hearts.

Maniac Earth! howling and flying, your bowel
Seared by the jagged fire, the iron love,
The impetuous storm of savage love.
Dark Earth! dark Heavens! swinging in chemic smoke,
What dead are born when you kiss each soundless soul
With lightning and thunder from your mined heart,
Which man’s self dug, and his blind fingers loosed?

A man’s brains splattered on
A stretcher-bearer’s face;
His shook shoulders slipped their load,
But when they bent to look again
The drowning soul was sunk too deep
For human tenderness.

They left this dead with the older dead,
Stretched at the cross roads.

Burnt black by strange decay
Their sinister faces lie,
The lid over each eye,
The grass and coloured clay
More motion have than they,
Joined to the great sunk silences.

Here is one not long dead;
His dark hearing caught our far wheels,
And the choked soul stretched weak hands
To reach the living word the far wheels said,
The blood-dazed intelligence beating for light,
Crying through the suspense of the far torturing wheels
Swift for the end to break
Or the wheels to break,
Cried as the tide of the world broke over his sight.

Will they come? Will they ever come?
Even as the mixed hoofs of the mules,
The quivering-bellied mules,
And the rushing wheels all mixed
With his tortured upturned sight.
So we crashed round the bend,
We heard his weak scream,
We heard his very last sound,
And our wheels grazed his dead face.

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