Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Isaac Rosenberg's 'Break of Day in the Trenches' - War Poetry and War Horse


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
(And God knows what antipathies).
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.

I'm no expert on World War II poets but I am probably a tiny bit closer to it than with the World War I poets, being anywhere from interested in to obsessed with The Big Three of Keith Douglas, Sidney Keyes and Alun Lewis. The World War I poets are, by and large, more famous: Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon and others. They have individual poems that touch me but but their vision doesn't speak to me to the same extent as those of Douglas and Keyes.

I'm not sure if I had heard of Isaac Rosenberg before I read Keith Douglas's remarkable 'Desert Flowers'. I think it's likely that I had come across his name, but I don't remember. In 'Desert Flowers', Douglas wryly says: "Rosenberg I only repeat what you were saying". It is a touching moment in the poem where the poet's everyday voice seems to break through. Rosenberg was a Londoner of Lithuanian Jewish parentage, who died in France in 1918. He was opposed to killing and to the war, but enlisted primarily to provide financial support for his mother. He was also an artist and painted the self-portrait above.

I don't know what Douglas meant when he spoke to Rosenberg - whether he referred to something specific in one of Rosenberg's poems, or if it was homage to his overall vision. I haven't read that much by Rosenberg yet. 'Break of Day in the Trenches' is his most famous poem - some feel that it is the single greatest poem of the war - and its opening lines are totally enthralling: "The darkness crumbles away - /It is the same old druid Time as ever." If only it were not about something as terrible as the war. It is a beautiful and skilful poem, with its subtle references to the rat who doesn't care about the national divisions that led to the war, and the heartbreaking bravado of the dust-whitened poppy tucked behind the young soldier's ear. It makes me want to read more of Rosenberg.

I thought of this poem partly because I'd been reading Douglas - and 'Desert Flowers' is forever burned on my mind - but also because I went to see the new film War Horse on the weekend. I loved the horse actors, who were superb, and so were some of the humans; it was impressively filmed, and Benedict Cumberbatch was in it, which never hurts. It could have been better, though. It was perhaps a bit too sentimental and glossy, though I realise that it was a film at least partly aimed at a younger audience and it wasn't going to be a full-on war movie. It did convey something of how terrible World War I was. Scenes from the trenches, and a cavalry charge (swords and all - tragic and ridiculous) cut down by machine guns... But it was sanitized, and as much as some of the scenes shocked by their power of suggestion, I couldn't help thinking that the reality was a million times worse than anything depicted. I do unreservedly recommend the play, which is still running in London's West End and I think now in America - the giant horse puppets had a magic I've never seen elsewhere on stage.

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