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“What is burned in the fire of this ?” In search of the lost subject of Isaac Rosenberg’s war poetry. par Sarah Montin

29 avril 2012

Isaac Rosenberg, Self-Portrait.
In one of his rare occasional poems “A Note on War Poetry” (1942), T.S. Eliot, who was no great admirer of the genre, reopens the case against war poetry. If indeed “It seems just possible that a poem might happen | To a very young man” in time of war, this does not make him a poet, for “a poem is not poetry” just as war is not life, but only a “situation” (l.14-17)1. The fundamental distinction he establishes between occasional poems “that might happen”, born by chance from a particular situation and a more essential poetry, independent of political or moral considerations, is of course not new. Many contemporary readers and critics of First World War poetry questioned its poetic potential : what possible echo can war poetry have in readers that have not lived through the same events ? Can war poetry rise above the occasional and reach universality ? And, perhaps more essentially : is war poetry poetry ? It seems quite ironic then that Wilfred Owen was one of the first to undermine – albeit inadvertently-the poetic value of war poetry by declaring in his preface that his subject had far superior claims on him than the superficial charms of poetry (“I am not interested in poetry. My subject is war and the pity of war.”2). Even though his statement may be taken with a grain of salt, war poetry undeniably poses the question of its autonomy and self-reflexivity and, ultimately, of its own poetic status. Circumscribed in time and space, determined by exterior events rather than by personal impulse, prisoner of its own occasion/subject, which becomes both a means and an end to every poem, war poetry clearly serves the accidental instead of rising above it. As a result, the poetic subject of these occasional poems is condemned to the expression of a relative experience which conveys a temporal rather than essential vision of man’s relation to the world.

The problematic relationship of poetry and occasion finds its source in Aristotle’s classic distinction between the historian (who tells of things that have been) and the poet (who tells of things as they should be). The war poets found themselves caught between these two extremities, an uneasy position only reinforced by the fact that they were not only occasional poets (in as much as any poet laureate is one) but also circumstantial poets. Many of the war poets had dabbled in poetry among other things (prose, music, painting) but only began writing with assiduity once in the trenches– poetry which was their second language became the language of the kairos.

Originally a painter, Isaac Rosenberg became a full-time poet on the battlefield where he was forced by circumstances to abandon painting in favour of a more “practical” form of expression. The “fiendish coil of circumstances”3 which, according to his letters, smothered his life and constantly threatened his art, was only strengthened by the war. Indeed, contrary to most of his fellow poets, Rosenberg came from a poor, emigrant, working-class background and, instead of seizing the auspicious moment as they did, enlisted in the army for financial reasons. As a private, his life was more than ever fashioned by circumstance and his poems are a physical reflection of this : scribbling directly in the trenches (and not in hospital or on leave like Owen, Sassoon or Blunden), on the back of receipts, train tickets, even toilet paper, he produced poems on a war which he could not escape even in imagination, and which he saw as “some pressing sense of foreign matter, immediate and not personal which is always behind or through my writing.”4

I would like to discuss here the relationship of circumstance and subject in poetry, and more generally how reductive Eliot’s “definition” of occasional poetry appears in the light of Rosenberg’s war production. Rosenberg’s poetry does not simply “happen” ; a bolt from the blue, born from the moment which simultaneously imprisons it. Knowing full well that he, as an individual, was the object of circumstances beyond his control, his poems, on the contrary, constantly question, confront and ultimately seek to master the moment. In his quest for universality, Rosenberg breaks down and disperses both the circumstantial subject-matter (war) and the circumstantial poetic subject of his poems (the war subject). In short, while writing what he himself called “topical poems” on the war, he paradoxically wrested his struggle against the “coil of circumstance” into becoming the very core of his poetics.

Dissolving the subject
In a letter he wrote to a friend a few years before the war, Rosenberg rather bashfully acknowledges his preference for the traditional “poetical subject” :
“I believe we are able to fix a standard (of subject) in poetry. We acknowledge the poetry in subjects not often taken as material, but I think we all (at least I do) prefer the poetical subject-“Kubla Khan”, “The Mistress of Vision”, “Dream Tryst”, Poe, Verlaine. Here feeling is separated from intellect ; our senses are not interfered with by what we know of facts : we know infinity through melody.”5

Although such aestheticism could appear inappropriate in the midst of bloody battle, Rosenberg took up his early ideal of a mysterious poetical subject and re-invested it in his war poetry. Needless to say, far from pursuing an elusive theme, most trench-poets insisted, on the contrary, on the sheer materiality of their chosen subject, by deriving their matter from “true”, gritty episodes of their trench-life. Rather than erecting a moment’s monument to war, Rosenberg’s constant attempts at dematerializing his subject-matter reveal the shadowy contours of battle.

Despite fundamental differences in their attitudes to war, Rosenberg’s first poem on the war “On Receiving News of the War” and Wilfred Owen’s first poem “1914” are surprisingly similar. Both deliver highly metaphorical accounts of the declaration of war through the use of identical seasonal imagery, and end on a morally ambiguous note of renewal. However their difference of approach is only too obvious : for while Owen constantly actualizes his subject to develop the emotional power of his poem, Rosenberg clearly seeks, on the contrary, to transcend the circumstances of his writing.

Therefore the form adopted by the two poets acquires a clear significance : Owen inscribes himself in a decidedly English formal tradition by choosing the sonnet and classic iambic pentameter. His reference to Shelley’s “Revolt of Islam’ in the first line (“the winter of the world”) anchors his treatment of the subject in a long, established line of political poems. In contrast, “On Receiving News of the War” is difficult to categorise, with its five quatrains written in alternate trimetre and dimetre. Owen further inscribes his subject in the moment by localising it within the contemporary European context : “The foul tornado centred at Berlin | Is all over the width of Europe whirled” (l.3-4). Then, in the sestet he inserts it into the classical tradition, by referring to the decadence of Greece and Rome. Rosenberg’s only point of reference is “this summer land” which, although it probably refers to the place where he wrote the poem – South Africa – remains strikingly allusive and almost entirely metaphoric (its universal value guaranteed by its anonymity and the mysterious deictic). The poems’ inscription in time mirrors their inscription in space ; for although the present is used in both poems, the tense carries opposite values . In Owen’s “1914” the present is actualized, as it is always placed in contrast with the past : “war broke : and now the winter of the world” / “But now, for us, wild winter”-the accentual stress falling twice on the “now” giving greater emphasis to the title’s “1914”). Because it offers no such actualization of the present tense, Rosenberg’s entire poem is imbued with the atemporality of the gnomic present used in the first line : “Snow is a strange white word”.

Of course this presence or absence of referents throughout the poem, stems from the poet’s overall expression (or suppression) of subjectivity. Thus, although Owen uses the plural pronoun “we” throughout the poem, he is obviously his only point of reference : he is the doomed generation (“But now, for us, wild winter” – l.13) and his “we” mainly functions as an amplifier to his own personal message. This can be surmised from his passionate and overdrawn images that linger more than necessary on the demise of art (“Rent or furled |Are all art’s ensigns. Verse wails. Now Begin | Famines of thought and feeling” – l.5-7) and his broken rhythms which reveal his personal and poetic engagement with the subject. Rosenberg adopts a more universal stance by using the generic “man” and his one use of the pronoun “we” sounds oddly impersonal. Next to “1914”, Rosenberg’s poem appears remote and atonal : the monosyllabic words, the clipped meter and the uncluttered images all point to the poet’s disengagement from his subject which belies the promise of his title.

Rosenberg’s deliberate disengagement from his circumstances is enhanced by his predilection for “negative determination” which transforms the war into a hidden subject, an Arlésienne-type figure, hinted at but never seen. Instead of determining the noun, his demonstratives frequently have the opposite effect : they designate without designating anything. This simple device is particularly conspicuous in the poem “August 1914”. Although the title refers to a specific date (Britain’s declaration of war on Germany), the whole poem is centred round a question which will remain unanswered and, as such, remains markedly vague : “What in our lives is burned | In the fire of this ? | The heart’s dear granary ? | The much we shall miss ?” (l.1-4). The demonstratives (“this”, “the much”) allude to something which cannot or will not be said. In effect, the war (designated by the deictic “this”) never does materialize textually and remains a virtual present-absence throughout the poem. The absence of the subject is reinforced by the pronoun “it” in the enigmatic second stanza : “in all men’s heart it is”. But what does it refer to ?

The ambivalence of this presence-absence finds an echo in the “present-past”, a curious mixture of tenses deriving from Rosenberg’s particular use of “shifters” which, instead of clarifying a situation (by pointing to a specific contextual or extra-textual moment in time), only reinforces its opacity. In many poems the reference to a “before” (or a “then”) which would situate the “now” in the First World War is lacking, causing the present to take on an unspecific and universal value, devoid of relativity. The second stanza of “Dead Man’s Dump” operates this subtle shift from an unspecified past to an absolute present (“from night till night and now”, which is also the now of the reader) :
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. (l.7-13, “Dead Man’s Dump”)

Jean Cohen analyses the power of negative determination in Structure du langage poétique  : “Singulier pouvoir d’une figure faite de simple carence. Elle a le don de transformer l’existence en essence et le relatif en absolu”6. By thus transposing the occasional into the universal, Rosenberg manages to delocalize and even dematerialize his subject till he has effectively transformed it into the “poetical subject” he so admired : ungraspable and fleeting, it always seems to escape referentiality.

From subject to symbol
In a world where “nothing suggests itself”7, most trench-poets focused on the visible, sometimes obscene, aspects of their subject. When they did not explicitly choose the side of “romance”8, they firmly resisted the lure of symbols in order to report the “truth of war” and, in doing so, chose to stay on the surface of language and reality. However Rosenberg clearly did not recognize himself in the role of the poet-witness, reporting the horrors he had seen. On the contrary, the poet must always suggest the hidden, perhaps even the ineffable, whatever the subject : “I don’t think there should be any vagueness at all ; but a sense of something hidden and felt to be there”9. In the manner of the Belgian symbolist poet Verhaeren, Rosenberg conveyed this “sense of something hidden” through the use of symbols so as to “ruin all contingence” and reach for the universal : “Le symbole […], ruine toute contingence, tout fait, tout detail”10 .
It is in Rosenberg’s most transparent poems, when his diction and images are clearest, that he is, paradoxically, at his most indirect. His dominant theme, deliberately disguised as the counter-theme (or secondary theme) disappears under the deceptively clear surface of the lines.

We saw how Wilfred Owen’s “1914” begins in a very direct, dramatic manner : “War broke :” – the colon marking the sudden, violent rupture between the old era and the new one. The rest of the poem amplifies and prolongs the effect of the first apocalyptic word : “War” as the [w] ripples through the octave in such various words as “winter”, “world”, “width”, “whirled”, “wail”, “wine”. In contrast, Rosenberg’s eclipse of the subject in the first line of “On Receiving News of the War” is quite striking, especially after his unusually descriptive title. Right from the beginning, “snow” (“Snow is a strange white word”) appears to have usurped the place of war. The extended winter metaphor transforms what was supposed to be a personal account into a reflection on the poetic act and, because his trope functions on two levels (both as the snow synecdoche and the winter metaphor), the original referent is further pushed into oblivion. This is a device Rosenberg usually develops throughout whole stanzas as we see in “I did not pluck at all” (“I did not pluck at all | And I am sorry now | The garden is not barred | But the boughs are heavy with snow | The flakeblossoms thickly fall | And the hid roots sigh, "How long will our flowers be marred ?", l.1-6). Here the poet plays on the overlying theme of youth, love and loss, while speaking implicitly of war. Evoked through allusive, but slightly off-centred themes, the real subject remains hidden, as if the poet had rewritten over a war-poem, a quasi-palimpsest which allows him to render the real subject indistinct and, by extension, unspecific and universal.

Rosenberg’s indirect style is complemented by his fascination for symbols, as revealed by his many references to the “occult soul” of man and secret symbolism of the universe, its illegibility which he compares to hieroglyphs (“Past days are hieroglyphs | Upon the thundered tree” l. 1-4, “The Past Days Are Hieroglyphs”). The war, as one of the greater manifestations of the universe, is, despite its terrible materiality, intrinsically mysterious – and accordingly symbolized by a unicorn in his eponymous verse play (“The Unicorn”). The enigmatic agent of war is “the shadowless” (“A worm fed on the heart of Corinth”) or “some spirit old” (“On Receiving News”), shapeless yet universal symbols of power which allow the poet to evade man and his contingency.
The importance Rosenberg attached to symbols in his struggle against his circumstances is already visible in his early war poems. Written in 1916, “August 1914” seeks to express the feeling of universal loss generated by the war. The poetic voice is audibly affected : the spare monosyllables, the ellipsis of verbs and articles, all culminate in the poem’s absence of tone which imitates the poet’s loss of voice. But it is the symbols that carry the whole weight of this loss : the vanished gold, the broken tooth, the burnt space ; all materialize an absence.

The poem visibly follows a pattern from the very general to the very singular, from the uncountable to the countable and from the archetypal symbols of iron and gold to the exquisitely specific broken tooth. None of these symbols have a univocal, clear referent. But although we may see in “Gold” and “Iron” a calculated reference to Hesiod’s categorisation of the five ages of man in Works and Days (in which he symbolized the ages of man by metals of decreasing value) and “Honey” to the biblical “land of milk and honey” (Exodus 33:3), none of these references is ultimately important. What is important however, is how these three symbols allow the poet to draw out the quintessence of war (in an inversion of the alchemist’s formula, we see here gold becoming iron) at its purest, most essential, divested of any relativity of time or sentiment : “Gold, Honey gone/ Left is the hard and cold”.
In the same way, the image-symbols of the last stanza are extremely purified, all the more strikingly so because they are, originally, more subjective than the previous mythical symbols :

“Iron are our lives Molten right through our youths. A burnt space through ripe fields A fair mouth’s broken tooth.” (“August 1914”, l.9-12)
The images (“A burnt space”, “a fair mouth”) are paradoxically extremely specific while rendered indeterminate by the article “a” – this synecdochal quality allows them to convey extreme singularity while referring to a greater, universal whole which remains mysterious.

Rosenberg manages here to purify his subject into a symbol and to detach it from particular circumstances, consequently proving wrong
T.S. Eliot, who did not believe that war poetry could “ In the path of an action merely typical | Create the universal, originate a symbol | Out of the impact” (“A Note on War Poetry” – l. 5-7).

An escape from the Subject

Rosenberg’s masterpiece “Daughters of War” is perhaps the poem that best expresses the terrible dehumanization wrought by war. To a friend puzzling over the meaning of his poem, he explained that he had “striven to get that sense of inexorableness the human (or inhuman) side this war has”11, a human inhumanity which in turn could serve to describe Rosenberg’s entire poetic production. The “daughters” are a terrifying yet enticing incarnations of war who carry off their human lovers from the battlefield in a sort of inverted rape of the Sabines. They “force their males/ From the doomed earth, from the doomed glee/ And hankering of hearts” (l.49-51) and force them out of their former bodies, out of their former selves :
Driving the darkness into the flame of clay […]
Over our corroding faces
That must be broken—broken for evermore,
So the soul can leap out
Into their huge embraces,
Though there are human faces […]
Even these must leap to the love-heat of these maidens
From the flame of terrene days, Leaving grey ashes to the wind—to the wind. (“Daughters of War”, l.27-39)
Superimposed on the image of decaying bodies present in “corroding faces” are rusting metals and consuming fire which symbolize the erosion of identity, eaten away by war. In a traditional phoenix-like movement, the self is exposed12 to fire (“the flame of clay”) so as to be reborn into something larger and more impersonal. It is through the ordeal of fire that the poet must sacrifice his subjectivity if he is to reach a purified and impersonal poetic truth. Ultimately, the poet’s “escape from personality”13 (or escape into inhumanity) is indeed human as it is both with wild fear and sensual delight that the poet experiences his submission to the daughters and simultaneous liberation from the self.

In his Aesthetics, Hegel studies the function of occasional poetry and its problematic literary status, oscillating between history and poetry, fact and art. Despite its hybrid nature, it is possible for occasional poetry to preserve its artistic independence when there is a conflict between subject matter and literary quality :
“Simply […] by assimilating the essence of that actual fact and forming and shaping it by the freedom and right of the imagination. In that event poetry is not the occasion and its accompaniment but that essence is the external occasion ; it is the stimulus which makes the poet abandon himself to his deeper penetration of the event and his clearer way of formulating it.”14

Hegel concludes that the poetic rendition of a historical event can only be brought about by a necessary loss of self : the poet “abandon[s] himself to his deeper penetration of the event” in order to go beyond the accidental and reach the essence. A transposition of this dialectic can be found in Rosenberg’s own conception of the poet, who transforms “some floating instant in time” into “a durable essence,a separate entity, a portion of eternity”. This transformation is achieved by compression of the multiple into the unique, of the subjective into the objective, where personal emotions and feelings are “essenced to language” in the poem, refined into words. “Concentrated in one distinguished emotion”, the poem becomes the quintessence of the “million things people feel”15 .
A survey of his poetic evolution from 1911 to 1918 reveals the war’s radical influence on his refining process. After reading the early war poets (in particular Rupert Brooke) and criticizing them for their “second-hand phrases and million feelings”, he declared that the only way to approach the war was in a “colder way, more abstract”16 which necessarily entailed a loss of self on the part of the poet. The crisis and dispersal of the poetic subject of his war poetry is a direct consequence of this loss of self. Conversely, most of his pre-war poems are concerned with an attempt at constructing a coherent, linear, poetic subject centred round the figure of the Poet. The subject is built up gradually till he becomes the divine centre of Rosenberg’s poetic universe : “All things, that brooding are still | Speak to me, twist and untwine | Speak to the all-eyed soul” […] Into the secret god behind the mask of man” (“The Poet”, l.16-22). The subject’s omnipresence and omnipotence (“Life’s inarticulate mass […] | Beg[s] my mastery – mine ! | Ah ! I will ride the dizzy beast of the world !” – “Ah Koelue”, l.18-22) are however forcefully challenged in his war poems. Instead of constantly asserting his omniscience, the new impersonal subject anxiously questions the world and its unknown agency : “What quaver, what heart aghast ?”, “Who hurled, who hurled ?” “What dark faces burn ?”. The overwhelming “I” is swiftly replaced by a universal “we” which embraces all living things. A “you” is sometimes introduced, but it is often empty or indicates an ironic distance with the self as in “Soldier Twentieth Century” : “I love you great new Titan | Am I not you ?” (l.1-2). Multiple and indeterminate personae (from lover to wandering Jew) and constant changes of perspectives, prevent the formation of a coherent poetic subject specific to war poetry (the war-subject). The poetic subject’s dispersal must not however be understood as a consequence of war. Instead of striving to maintain the integrity of his subject (as Sassoon or Owen did), Rosenberg appears to have willed its disintegration. This allowed him to escape his individual and necessarily circumstantial experience, so as to deliver a more impersonal, “essenced” rendition of war. Thus the poet’s struggle against his own poetic subject is the final step in the poet’s desire to deny and escape the occasional and reach a higher level of poetry.


Although he knew himself to be an occasional poet, Rosenberg’s only rampart against the “fiendish coil of circumstance” was his poetry which he fought to rid of the clutter of circumstances and ultimately the clutter of self – the ultimate obstacle towards a pure, universal poetry. This is how the occasion itself, far from compromising his poetic powers, paradoxically became the very moment of his birth as a poet.
Geoffrey Hill believed that Rosenberg’s greatest desire as a writer was the “desire to free his voice”17 , to escape the subjection of his class and condition , and his many references to bounds, chains, slaves throughout his poetry attest to his obsession with personal freedom. I believe that this political aspiration was only a step in his larger rebellion against circumstance itself, which finds its highest expression within the lines of his poems, in the liberation of words – the liberation from a univocal, circumstantial meaning, as he shows, magnificently, in “Expression” :
Can this be caught and caged ?
Wings can be clipt
Of eagles, the sun’s gaudy measure gauged,
But no sense dipt
In the mystery of sense : The troubled throng Of words break out like smothered fire through dense And smouldering wrong. (“Expression”, l. 17-24)
1 T.S. Eliot, Collected Poems, 1909-1962. London : Faber and Faber, 1963. 2 Wilfred Owen, The Poems of Wilfred Owen, ed. Edmund Blunden. London : Chatto & Windus, 1963.p.40. 3 Isaac Rosenberg, Selected Poems and Letters, ed. Jean Liddiard. London : The European Jewish Publication Society, 2003. p.121. 4 Ibid, p.144. 5 Ibid, p.125. 6 Jean Cohen, Structure du langage poétique. Paris : Flammarion, 1966, p. 152. 7 T.E. Hulme, « Trenches : St Eloi », The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry , ed. Jon Silkin. London : Penguin, 1979. p. 159. 8 To use Eliot’s reductive analysis of war poetry, which, according to him, fell into two categories “romance” and “reporting”. Only Herbert Read’s poetry seemed to escape this categorisation. (T.S. Eliot quoted in Dominic Hibberd, Poetry of the First World War. London : Macmillan, 1981, p. 52). 9 Isaac Rosenberg, Selected Poems and Letters, ed. Jean Liddiard. London : The European Jewish Publication Society, 2003. p.168. 10 Emile Verhaeren, « Le Symbolisme », De Baudelaire à Mallarmé. Lausanne : Editions de l’âge d’ homme, 2008. p.
76. 11 Ibidem. 12 Rosenberg over-exposure to the war is deliberate, as his programmatic letter to Binyon reveals : « I will not leave a corner of my consciousness covered up, but saturate myself with the strange and extraordinary new conditions of this life”( To Laurence Binyon, Autumn 1916, Isaac Rosenberg : Selected Poems and Letters, ed. Jean Liddiard. London : The European Jewish Publication Society, 2003, p. 161). 13 T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, The Sacred Wood. London : Faber and Faber, 1960. p.58. 14 G.W.F, Hegel, Aesthetics (Trans. T.M. Knox). Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1975. p.996. 15 Isaac Rosenberg, Selected Poems and Letters, ed. Jean Liddiard. London : The European Jewish Publication Society, 2003. p.154.
16 Ibidem. 17 “Asked to find the most succinct description of Isaac Rosenberg’s desire, I would say : the desire to free his voice from the conditions of being regarded, or disregarded, as an expendable young “Hebrew”, a slave in the vast pool of London labour, subsequently, by simple extension, as an unidentifiable waste item in Field Marshal Haig’s ever increasing expenditure of blood and treasure.” (Geoffrey Hill, Collected Critical Writings, edited by Kenneth Haynes. Oxford : OUP, 2008. p.457).

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