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Isaac Rosenberg: the making of a Great War poet, by Jean Moorcroft Wilson
East End to Western Front
Friday 16 May 2008
In May 2005 the doors of the Whitechapel Library, the street-corner university of so many East End Jewish writers and artists, closed for the last time. Bernard Kops wrote a poem, remembering that "The door of the library was the door into me." Michael Kustow commemorated the library and the Whitechapel Art Gallery next door in a wonderful elegy in the Jewish Quarterly. Of all those who flourished under the care of the dedicated librarians and curators of these cherished institutions, none led a more bifurcated and poignant life than Isaac Rosenberg, who died in the trenches at Arras in 1918, aged 28.
Though this new study covers many of the same climactic periods of Rosenberg's "half-used life" detailed in Jean Liddiard's admired biography of 1975, it confirms that Rosenberg's poetry, though stylistically different to that of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and other poets of the First World War, has proved equally enduring. As a painter, Rosenberg exhibited an equal talent, as the haunting self-portrait in the National Portrait Gallery reveals. He was adept in self-portraits, for while he could not afford to pay models, his tenement home at least had a mirror. Wilson's book is particularly good on his early painting ambitions, providing a sympathetic description of Rosenberg's time at the Slade, where fellow students included David Bomberg, Mark Gertler, Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer.
Few artists or writers were able to develop their talent in those days without the support of mentors and patrons, and Rosenberg was aided by a variety of people. These included Laurence Binyon and the civil servant Edward Marsh, also a keen supporter of another poet-painter, DH Lawrence.
The critic FR Leavis later claimed that Rosenberg and Lawrence exhibited a common "radical and religious" interest in life. Rosenberg was introduced to Marsh by the painter Mark Gertler at the Café Royal, where he also met the Imagist poet, TE Hulme. Like many other members of the Whitechapel Group, Rosenberg lived in two separate worlds. While occasionally mixing with aristocratic patrons in West End salons and galleries, he was more often to be found wandering the streets of Stepney in the company of Jewish friends and comrades, making night-time forays into Epping Forest, the one true arcadia of east London. Dawn and dusk were favourite times, when the everyday world seemed transfigured.
Much of Rosenberg's poetry was considered difficult, employing a personal repertoire of religious and mythological imagery. It was a far cry from the quietist Georgian poetry of the time. Yiddish was Rosenberg's first language; he did not learn English until he went to school. This bilingualism, critics claim, accounts for his unusual syntax and vocabulary.
Wilson rightly dwells on the reasons why the small and sickly Rosenberg, a pacifist by temperament, enlisted in the Army. He suffered all his life from chronic bronchitis. The principal reason, she suggests, was to provide a regular allowance for his mother's upkeep. Life in the Army was thoroughly miserable: arriving at camp without any spare clothing or equipment, for the first few weeks he had to dry himself with a pocket handkerchief. Once in France, as a front-line soldier and occasional stretcher-bearer, he finally descended into a hell of mud, slurry and unburied corpses, which made him write in a letter to Marsh on 26 January 1918: "Christ never endured what I endure. It is breaking me completely." This sentence was crossed out by the censor.
These extreme conditions, and a lack of time for self-doubt, produced the great poems such as "Dead Man's Dump", "Louse Hunting", "Returning We Hear The Larks" and "Break of Day in the Trenches", in which his apocalyptic imagery meshed perfectly with the grim detail of the rats, the poppies, and the squelching of the limber carts as they rolled over the bodies of the dead. This last poem Paul Fussell thought the finest of any written during the First World War.
There were over 100,000 Jews living in the East End in Rosenberg's time, and the area teemed with poverty, but also with political radicalism and artistic ambition. All this is well captured in Wilson's generous life of the unhappy, but richly talented, poet and painter who, while conscious of his own abilities, was continually frustrated in life and claimed he had "no more free will than a tree".
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