Ask anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with 20th century literature about the poets and poetry of the First World War, and I can guarantee that the names ‘Rupert Brooke’, ‘Wilfred Owen’ and ‘Siegfried Sassoon’ will be mentioned at some point. All three are rightly-reknowned poets (especially Owen), but they weren’t the only ones to be creatively inspired by their war experiences. In today’s World War One post, I’ll be looking at the life and death of another Great War poet – one who came from a very different background, and whose work is still perhaps not as well-known as it should be.
Born in Bristol on 25th November 1890, Isaac Rosenberg was the eldest son of a family of Jewish immigrants who had originally come over from Eastern Europe. When young Isaac was seven years old, his family moved to the East End of London in search of work. Settling on Cable Street, in the heart of the area’s large working-class Jewish community, the Rosenbergs found it difficult to make ends meet and Isaac, although intelligent and artistically talented, was forced to leave school at 14 in order to earn some money for the family.
He was apprenticed to an engraver, a job he apparently hated, but he was already beginning to write poetry and also started attending evening classes in art at Birkbeck College. He lost his job in 1911, but a lucky chance meeting led to his artistic talent being recognised by a patron, who agreed to fund his studies at the prestigious Slade School of Art. At the Slade, he studied alongside a number of young artists who went on to be very successful (and who also later reflected the impact of the war in their work), including Stanley Spencer and Mark Gertler.
Moving in the well-connected circles associated with this creatively charged atmosphere obviously had an impact on Isaac, as he was able to get a small book of his poetry privately published in 1912. A year later, he met Edward Marsh, the editor of the influential Georgian Poetry volumes and one of the most important people on the British poetry scene at the time. This meeting seems to have been very positive as the two men corresponded right up until Rosenberg’s death.
And poetry was rapidly becoming more and more central to his creative expression, although he still hoped to be a professional artist and had had some of his paintings exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery (where there is a blue plaque to his memory today, as you can see in the photograph to the right). However, he had become quite unwell with chronic respiratory problems and it was recommended he go abroad to recuperate in a climate more conducive to his health, so he travelled to South Africa to stay with one of his sisters, who had married and moved away.
He was still in South Africa when war was declared in August 1914, writing, painting and lecturing on art, and eventually returned to England in the spring of the following year. His second volume of poetry was published soon after. He was, however, also unemployed and increasingly horrified by the thought of what might result from the war, but he eventually and reluctantly enlisted in the army in October of that year, despite his ill-health. The following summer he was posted to the Western Front in France, shortly after his final collection of poems came out.
In the trenches, Rosenberg continued to write poetry whenever and wherever he could, sending his scribbled drafts home to his family to be neatly copied up later and sent on to his friends and patrons on the London poetry scene. The resulting poems are some of his most strikingly distinctive and best known works which vividly capture his experiences as a Private, as an enlisted soldier on the front line, and his increasingly solidifying feelings against the war – although they wouldn’t be published in a single volume until the early 1920s.
Isaac Rosenberg almost made it through the war, dying at Arras in the early days of April 1918 during the ultimately doomed German Spring Offensive. He was 27. It seems he was initially buried in a mass grave on or near the battlefield, but in 1926 his remains and those of the other soldiers he was interred with were moved and now lie in Bailleul Road East Cemetery, St. Laurent-Blangy – not all that far from where he and his comrades were killed. Each of these soldiers reinterred here has an individual headstone that reads ‘Buried near this spot’.
He is also remembered on the War Poets Memorial in Westminster Abbey’s famous Poets’ Corner – indeed, he’s even been compared to that other poet and painter memorialised in Poets’ Corner, William Blake. A more lasting public memorial is his art – one of his self-portraits now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery and there is another in the Tate’s collection. Since the 1920s, much of his work has been published, often to critical and academic acclaim. There are some commentators and critics who now rate him second only to Wilfred Owen as far as the poets of the First World War are concerned (in some respects, I’d be inclined to agree), although it is sad that Rosenberg’s work is still nowhere near as well-known by the public.
I’ve actually wanted to write something about Isaac Rosenberg for a number of years now, because it’s stories like his that always make me stop and think. Here was a young man of undoubted talent, both with a paint brush and a pen. A young man who, through a combination of luck and hard work, managed to grab the attention of the art world and the poetry world – but who died before he could fully appreciate and be appreciated by it. By the time he left for France, his creative potential was limitless. Reading Rosenberg’s poetry today makes me wonder (just as Wilfred Owen’s work does) what he might have gone on to achieve as an artist and as a poet had he not been killed on the Western Front.