Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Birdsong in the Trenches: Isaac Rosenberg and Humbert Wolfe

There are plans afoot in London to erect a statue to Isaac Rosenberg, one of England's great World War I poets. He grew up in the East End and studied in Bloomsbury, and the statue is planned for Torrington Square. Rosenberg studied at nearby Birkbeck College and the Slade School of Fine Art (he was also an artist).

I'm quite fond of what I've read of Rosenberg's work. It is rather modern in outlook, and poignant but not too innocent. Tonight I wanted to post a poem by Rosenberg, and another by Humbert Wolfe. They are both about the brief glimmer of hope and beauty brought to men in the trenches by the sound of birdsong. Rosenberg fought and died in the trenches, and I think Wolfe's participation in the war was at a greater distance, but these poems seem to spring from a similar source.

This photograph is French, and the soldier is sleeping, not dead. How difficult it must have been to sleep under such circumstances I can hardly imagine. Whenever I have seen trench warfare depicted in films and so on, I always think of how extremely far it must have been from the reality. I probably haven't seen any films sufficiently violent and explicit enough to depict anything really close to the reality; and even then, how close could they come?

Here are the poems: 'Returning, We Hear the Larks' by Isaac Rosenberg, and 'A Thrush in the Trenches' by Humbert Wolfe. (The Wolfe poem made me think of Thomas Hardy's 'The Darkling Thrush', too.)


Sombre the night is.
And though we have our lives, we know
What sinister threat lurks there.

Dragging these anguished limbs, we only know
This poison-blasted track opens on our camp -
On a little safe sleep.

But hark! joy - joy - strange joy.
Lo! heights of night ringing with unseen larks.
Music showering on our upturned list'ning faces.

Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song -
But song only dropped,
Like a blind man's dreams on the sand
By dangerous tides,
Like a girl's dark hair for she dreams no ruin lies there,
Or her kisses where a serpent hides.


Suddenly he sang across the trenches,
vivid in the fleeting hush
as a star-shell through the smashed black branches,
a more than English thrush.

Suddenly he sang, and those who listened
nor moved nor wondered, but
heard, all bewitched, the sweet unhastened
crystal Magnificat.

One crouched, a muddied rifle clasping,
and one filled a grenade,
but little cared they, while he went lisping
the one clear tune he had.

Paused horror, hate and Hell a moment,
(you could almost hear the sigh)
and still he sang to them, and so went
(suddenly) singing by.


  1. I've recently read a novel by Michael Morpurgo called "Private Peaceful" which my 19 year old son recommended. Set during ww1 and some vivid descriptions of what life in the trenches was like. Things you can't see in film, the smell, the lice and rats, constant wet etc

    I can imagine how birdsong would drop like a pear l into the hell of the trenches

    1. I know the book - at least, I have recently looked at an excerpt from it to possibly use in an anthology! - but I haven't read it; it sounds interesting, though. War Horse is also by Michael Morpurgo, though there again I've not (yet) read the book, but have seen the film and the play. The play was absolutely incredible.

      It is moving and fascinating to get first-hand accounts, or close to first-hand, of what would have brought hope or comfort to men in the horror of the trenches.