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Isaac Rosenberg

Isaac Rosenberg


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Isaac Rosenberg, the second child and second son in the family of four sons and two daughters, of Jewish immigrants, was born in Bristol on 25th November 1890. His father was a pedlar and his mother took in washing. In 1897 the family moved to London.

John Carey has pointed out: "The first London home they found for themselves and their five children was a single room behind a rag-and-bone shop in Tower Hamlets. Later they moved to a ground-floor and basement in Whitechapel. Isaac had a twin brother who died soon after birth, and he was so small a baby that, as his mother enjoyed recalling, 'you could have put him in a jug'. Like many slum children, Isaac grew up stunted and with a weak chest. He started school aged eight, unable to read or write English, but reached the required grade in the three Rs within a year, and moved to one of the board schools established under the 1870 Education Act." After being educated in East End council schools, Rosenberg left at fourteen and became an apprentice engraver, a job that he hated. In the evenings he read the works of Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats and William Blake.

Rosenberg was an accomplished watercolourist and with the help of the Jewish Education Aid Society and the private Jewish benefactors, including Lily Joseph, he spent time studying art at the Stepney Green Crafts School and Birkbeck College. In 1911 he became a student at the Slade School of Fine Art. During this period Rosenberg became friends with the David Bomberg, Mark Gertler, William Roberts, C. R. W. Nevinson, Stanley Spencer, John Rodker, Stephen Winstein, and Joseph Lefkowitz and formed what became known as the Whitechapel Group. They met at Whitechapel Reference Library and used to go for all-night walks in Epping Forest. Rosenberg wrote: "‘Art is not a plaything, it is blood and tears, it must grow up with one; and I believe I have begun too late."

As well as painting, Rosenberg also wrote poetry. Suffering from poor health, Rosenberg emigrated to the warmer climate of South Africa. In Cape Town he lectured on art, painted portraits and had some of his poems published in South African magazines. He also made friends with the writer Olive Schreiner.

Rosenberg missed London and in February 1915 returned to England. He published a collection of poems, Youth, but was deeply upset when he discovered that only ten copies of his book had been sold. In October 1915 Rosenberg joined the Bantams, a special battalion for men too short to be accepted into other regiments.

Sent to the Somme in France, Rosenberg was on the Western Front for the next two years. While in the trenches he wrote several poems including Break of Day in the Trenches, considered by Paul Fussell (The Great War and Modern Memory) as the greatest poem to come out of the First World War. The critic, Jon Stallworthy, wrote: "Rosenberg's poems from the front show him to have absorbed the great tradition of English pastoral poetry, but his tone is different: more impersonal, informal, ironic, and lacking the indignation characteristic of the work of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon." Stallworthy claims that Rosenberg succeeded in his intention of writing "Simple poetry - that is where an interesting complexity of thought is kept in tone and right value to the dominating idea so that it is understandable and still ungraspable".

Isaac Rosenberg was killed by a German raiding party on 1st April, 1918. His body was never recovered and the headstone in the Bailleul Road East military cemetery in France stands over an empty grave. Rosenberg's friends arranged for his poems, Collected Works to be published in 1922.

I snatched two poppies

From the parapet’s ledge,

Two bright red poppies

That winked on the ledge.

Behind my ear

I stuck one through,

One blood red poppy

I gave to you.

The sandbags narrowed

And screwed out our jest,

And tore the poppy

You had on your breast ...

Down - a shell - O! Christ,

I am choked ... safe ... dust blind, I

See trench floor poppies

Strewn. Smashed you lie.

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.

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.

Sombre the night is.

And though we have our lives, we know

What sinister threat lies 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 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.

I killed them, but they would not die.

Yea! all the day and all the night

For them I could not rest or sleep,

Nor guard from them nor hide in flight.

Then in my agony I turned

And made my hands red in their gore.

In vain - for faster than I slew

They rose more cruel than before.

I killed and killed with slaughter mad;

I killed till all my strength was gone.

And still they rose to torture me,

For Devils only die in fun.

I used to think the Devil hid

In women’s smiles and wine’s carouse.

I called him Satan, Balzebub.

But now I call him, dirty louse.

Which of all the British poets came from the most deprived background? Thomas Traherne? William Blake? John Clare? Robert Burns? Almost certainly the correct answer is Isaac Rosenberg, who was born into a family of Yiddish-speaking Lithuanian Jewish immigrants in 1890. His father was a pedlar; his mother took in washing and sold fancy needlework. The first London home they found for themselves and their five children was a single room behind a rag-and-bone shop in Tower Hamlets. Isaac had a twin brother who died soon after birth, and he was so small a baby that, as his mother enjoyed recalling, “you could have put him in a jug”. He started school aged eight, unable to read or write English, but reached the required grade in the three Rs within a year, and moved to one of the board schools established under the 1870 Education Act. In effect, it was a Jewish school within the state system, and he learnt some Hebrew and Old Testament history. But the education was basic at best (no foreign languages, no music) and he had to leave to earn his living at 14, getting a job in an etching workshop, which he hated.

His literary and artistic gifts became apparent early on. His sisters remember him writing poems in bed by the light of a candle, and sketching complete strangers on street corners. His studio was the kitchen table, littered with cups and plates. By the time he was 11, he had become an accomplished watercolourist, and efforts began to be made on his behalf, driven by community spirit, family solidarity and an earnest belief in education - all of them things we seem to have abandoned. The Jewish Education Aid Society took a hand, so did his teachers and private Jewish benefactors. Means were found to send him to Stepney Green Crafts School for one day a week, then to evening classes at Birkbeck College, and, in 1911, to the Slade School of Fine Art. Most of his fellow students were upper middle class, and their recollections of him focus on his “appalling cockney accent”, bad adenoids and “shocking teeth”. He tried reading them his poems, but they bombarded him with paper pellets, and when he lent some of them his studio they smashed it up in a fit of high jinks.

He made friends with the painters David Bomberg and Mark Gertler and, together with the poet and publisher John Rodker and the dancer and actress Sonia Cohen, they formed the nucleus of what became known as the Whitechapel Group. They would meet in the Whitechapel reference library, which was warmer and better lit than their homes, and go for all-night walks in Epping forest, talking of “life, death, youth and love”. Jewish, educated at board schools, and forced to work long hours at menial jobs, they were, as Jean Moorcroft Wilson points out, the polar opposite of the privileged and largely anti-semitic Bloomsbury Group....

Unlike the more famous war poets, he did not become an officer. Posted at first to a Bantam battalion, for men under 5ft 3in in height, he moved fairly rapidly from unit to unit, accompanied by complaints that he was unsoldierly and neglectful of his duties, which was another way of saying that he had the courage to resist the military machine. “I am determined,” he wrote, “that this war, with all its powers for devastation, shall not master my poeting.”

He showed his intransigence in his poetry, as in all else. Even his friends and admirers were daunted by its obscurities and contortions, which sometimes suggest an imperfect grasp of English usage. Yet he could also write with brilliant clarity, as in Break of Day in the Trenches, which Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory selected as the greatest poem to come out of that monstrous slaughter. Poised and ironic, it expresses Rosenberg's sense of detachment as he addresses a “queer sardonic rat” that has touched his hand as he plucks a poppy from the trench parapet to tuck behind his ear, and that may go on to touch German hands: “Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew/ Your cosmopolitan sympathies.”


Isaac Rosenberg - History

Isaac Rosenberg was born in 1890 into a working class Jewish family in Bristol. His parents Barnett and Anna had immigrated to England from Lithuania in 1887. At that time Lithuania was a part of Imperial Russia, and Barnett fled to England to avoid conscription into the Czar's army.

You can find out more about the mass immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe to Great Britain during the late 19th and early 20th centuries in The National Archives Pathways to the Past '1901: Living at the time of the Census' exhibition. Or, from the same exhibition, you can see a case study telling the story of another Russian Jewish man who moved his family to England. There is also information on tracing immigrant ancestors in our guide Looking for records of an immigrant.

Isaac's birth certificate (see detail below) records his birth at 5 Adelaide Place in Bristol, on 25 November 1890. His father Barnett's profession is entered as 'Licensed Hawker' - this means a peddler, which was a common occupation of Jewish immigrants in the 19th century. For information on how to obtain a birth certificate, see our Births, Marriages and Deaths research guides.

The National Census first began in 1801 and was repeated once a decade thereafter. From 1841, personal information on individuals was recorded. In the 1891 census below we can see that the Rosenberg family are still living at 5 Adelaide Place in Bristol. It lists all the family members, including his parents Barnett and Anna, Isaac's older sister Minnie, and the four month old Isaac.

The census record lists Barnett Rosenberg’s place of birth as Russia. We can also see that his name is written as 'Barned', whereas on the birth certificate it was written as 'Barnard'. It is likely that Barnett spoke his name, and the spelling was left up to the registrar or enumerator. When carrying out your own family history research, remember that spellings were far more flexible in past times.


Julius and Ethel Rosenberg executed for espionage

On June 19, 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of conspiring to pass U.S. atomic secrets to the Soviets, are executed at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York. Both refused to admit any wrongdoing and proclaimed their innocence right up to the time of their deaths, by the electric chair. The Rosenbergs were the first U.S. citizens to be convicted and executed for espionage during peacetime and their case remains controversial to this day.

Julius Rosenberg was an engineer for the U.S. Army Signal Corps who was born in New York on May 12, 1918. His wife, born Ethel Greenglass, also in New York, on September 28, 1915, worked as a secretary. The couple met as members of the Young Communist League, married in 1939 and had two sons. 

Julius Rosenberg was arrested on suspicion of espionage on June 17, 1950, and accused of heading a spy ring that passed top-secret information concerning the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. Ethel was arrested two months later. The Rosenbergs were implicated by David Greenglass, Ethel’s younger brother and a former army sergeant and machinist at Los Alamos, the secret atomic bomb lab in New Mexico. Greenglass, who himself had confessed to providing nuclear secrets to the Soviets through an intermediary, testified against his sister and brother-in-law in court. He later served 10 years in prison.

The Rosenbergs vigorously protested their innocence, but after a brief trial that began on March 6, 1951, and attracted much media attention, the couple was convicted. On April 5, 1951, a judge sentenced them to death and the pair was taken to Sing Sing to await execution.

During the next two years, the couple became the subject of both national and international debate. Some people believed that the Rosenbergs were the victims of a surge of hysterical anti-communist feeling in the United States, and protested that the death sentence handed down was cruel and unusual punishment. Many Americans, however, believed that the Rosenbergs had been dealt with justly. They agreed with President Dwight D. Eisenhower when he issued a statement declining to invoke executive clemency for the pair. He stated, “I can only say that, by immeasurably increasing the chances of atomic war, the Rosenbergs may have condemned to death tens of millions of innocent people all over the world. The execution of two human beings is a grave matter. But even graver is the thought of the millions of dead whose deaths may be directly attributable to what these spies have done.”


Poem of the week: In the Trenches

"Here's a little poem a bit commonplace I'm afraid," Isaac Rosenberg
wrote to his friend, Sonia Rodker in the autumn of 1916. The poem, In the Trenches, was written by Rosenberg while serving with the British Expeditionary Force in France. A year and a half later, in April 1918, the poet was killed during a wiring patrol near Arras.

In the Trenches turned out to be one of those poems a poet in a hurry considers finished, only later to discover, it was actually draft. It's still worth reading in its own right, and for the illumination it lends to the better-known and more achieved Break of Day in the Trenches.
Born in Bristol in 1890, of Lithuanian-Jewish descent, Rosenberg had been raised in considerable poverty in London's East End. Out of work in 1915, he enlisted chiefly to provide his mother with the "separation allowance". As a mere private soldier, he would be subject to the most harsh and dismal conditions of any war poet. But he was determined nothing would stop his "poeting". In another letter (to Laurence Binyon) he declared: "I will not leave a corner of my consciousness covered up, but saturate myself with the strange and extraordinary conditions of this life, and it will all refine itself into poetry later on."

It's possible that In the Trenches was suggested by John McCrae's patriotic poem In Flanders Fields. McCrae's poem was first published in Punch in 1915, and attracted a great deal of attention. (It's said to have been the inspiration for the first Poppy Day, in 1919.)

Corn poppies grew abundantly in Flanders, and sprang up quickly from battle-devastated fields. They were not mere symbols to either poet. But of course the poppy's association with death goes back ages farther than the Great War. Opium poppies were found in Egyptian tombs. The Sumerians called it "the flower of joy" and the Greeks associated it with fertility. These other symbolic meanings inform Rosenberg's final version.

Written in the rondeau form, McCrae's is not a poem that challenges the imagination. Rosenberg's also starts with an attempt at formality, but it is altogether more twitchy and vivid. As the shell explodes, the poem erupts, structurally and emotionally. Its last two quatrains are compacted, the metre jolts, and the rhyme-word at the end is stammered out, as the speaker seems narrowly to escape decimation: "I am choked . safe . dust blind, I".

Break of Day in the Trenches is a richer, cannier poem: it doesn't explode in chaos but makes a virtue of its snatched, note-bookish quality. It opens, now, with day-break (a favourite device of courtly poetry), and a gesture at personified time (another poeticism) - but this dawn is merely a crumbling of the night, and time with his conjuring tricks is quickly sent off-stage. The verb, "crumbles", is a brilliant stroke. It immediately sets the devastated scene for us and prepares the way for the scattering of dust in the last line.

Humanity and humour are snatched like rations. The joke is shared with a rat and a (now) single wild flower, both flourishing in grim surroundings. If the rat is "droll" and "sardonic", the poet is equally so, grinning at death with the mock-carnivalesque poppy tucked behind his ear. (There are some cultures in which young men wear a flower behind the ear as a display of virility.) The doomed companion who displayed the poppy on his 'breast' in the earlier poem has disappeared.

The poem's rough edges show: "sleeping green between" sounds awkward, "strong eyes" is puzzling, and there is rather a lot of end-stopping. But the poem has verbal ingenuity and terrific presence. The notion of being "chanced" for life is wonderful, and the mayhem of the exploding shell is summoned this time with simple, almost Biblical imagery.

Rosenberg came of age when artistic wars were brewing. Poetry, like his other passion, painting, was in crisis. Though a sturdy individualist, he found variously useful mentors in both traditional and modernist camps. The traditionalist Edward Marsh was his major patron and critic Ezra Pound, initially unimpressed, finally urged Harriet Monroe to find space in her magazine, Poetry, for "the poor devil" to be "given a show". Rosenberg was still exploring the artistic no man's land when he stumbled on his own way of seeing: he stumbled on himself. All the same, there seems to be a detectable imagist influence in both these poems. The poet's thoughts are led by what he sees.

The Armistice has its 90th anniversary this November. The poppy-wearing ritual regularly attracts controversy, but how effectively it reminds us to remember. When I buy a poppy, I listen across the years to someone else's painful memories (my grandmother's) of someone who was killed 23 years before I was born (her young brother). What we remember after so many years depends increasingly on the power of words and images – which are themselves formed of memories. In a week when we also remember the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, Isaac Rosenberg's words, tougher than poppies, ask to be worn close to the heart, and closer still to the brain.
In the Trenches
I snatched two poppies
From the parapet's edge,
Two bright red poppies
That winked on the ledge.

Behind my ear
I stuck one through,
One blood red poppy
I gave to you.

The sandbags narrowed
And screwed out our jest,
And tore the poppy
You had on your breast…
Dawn – a shell – O! Christ
I am choked . safe . dust blind, I
See trench floor poppies
Strewn. Smashed, you lie.

Break of Day in the Trenches

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.
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.


Behind Susan Rosenberg and the roots of left-wing domestic extremism

Has BLM actually helped Black Americans?

Anarchists are pushing out Black leaders reaction from Lara Logan, host of 'Lara Logan Has No Agenda' on Fox Nation.

Susan Rosenberg, who made the FBI’s Most Wanted list by the time she was 29, is among the most prominent far-left revolutionary activists in the U.S.

Earlier this summer, she sparked controversy after it was discovered that she purportedly sat on the board as vice-chair of Thousand Currents, which has poured more than $10 million into grassroots social change initiatives, including Black Lives Matter as of late.

The nonprofit, formerly known as IDEX, quickly removed the director’s page featuring Rosenberg from its website in June. It remained unclear if and to what capacity she still serves the organization. Thousand Currents did not immediately respond to Fox News’ request for comment.

Susan Rosenberg, (Krista Kennell/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images, File)

The police officer who personally escorted Rosenberg out of the Newark courthouse in 1985 after she was sentenced to 58 years for explosives possession said her affiliation with the group showed that the same domestic terrorism ideologies from 35 years ago still are percolating now.

"I was at first shocked to learn of (Rosenberg's new role), but on the other hand, I wasn't so shocked given that members of these same groups get into academia and still follow the same teachings and inspiration," retired NYPD Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik told Fox News.

Born in 1955 and raised on New York City's Upper West Side, Rosenberg fervently joined activist causes during high school, including the Black liberation movement and others rejecting "repressive" U.S. policies globally and domestically.

Starting in the late 1970s, Rosenberg became involved in the far-left revolutionary terrorist outfit, May 19 Communist Organization ("M19CO"), which the FBI described as "openly advocating for the overthrow of the U.S. government through armed struggle and the use of violence."

According to officials at the time, the M19C0 gave support and resources to an adjunct of the Black Liberation Army (BLA), which the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC) characterized as an "underground Black nationalist militant organization that operated from 1970 to 1981." As a splinter group of the Black Panther Party, it was known to have "carried out a series of bombings, murders, robberies and prison breaks."

She also was linked to the controversial Weather Underground Organization (WUO), founded in 1969 on the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan, with a 1974 stated goal "to create a revolutionary party to overthrow American imperialism," according to the FBI, which labeled it a "domestic terrorist organization" when bombings began the following year.

"The left-wing extremist groups were predominantly Marxist in political thought," noted Kenneth Gray, a senior lecturer on criminal justice and forensic sciences at the University of New Haven. "They conducted robberies and hundreds of bombings throughout the U.S."

By the time she was 29, Rosenberg was on the FBI's Most Wanted List, suspected of being an accomplice in the 1979 prison escape of the still FBI-wanted Joanne Chesimard, aka "Assata Shakur," a BLA member who was serving a life sentence for the murder of police troopers in New Jersey. Rosenberg was also wanted in connection to a 1981 Brink's robbery that claimed the lives of two police officers and one guard.

Rosenberg, after several years as a fugitive in disguise, finally resurfaced in the late fall of 1984. She was caught after renting out a storage unit in New Jersey under a stolen identity – that of Barbara Grodin. She was found storing 12 assorted guns, nearly 200 sticks of dynamite, more than 100 sticks of the highly explosive DuPont Trovex, and hundreds of false identification documents.

On Dec. 6, 1984, a federal grand jury returned an indictment charging Rosenberg and her associate, Timothy Blunk, with conspiracy, firearms offenses and possession of false identification documents.

Prosecutors dropped the conspiracy and racketeering charges against Rosenberg, and she was never tried in connection to the Shakur escape nor the Brink's robbery. According to an archived New York Times report, it was Rudolph Giuliani, then U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, who chose not to prosecute the Brink's charges on the premise that the other charges sufficed.

As the court filings from the March 1985 hearing highlighted, from the beginning of the proceedings, "it was evident that Blunk and Rosenberg styled themselves as 'political prisoners' rather than criminal defendants."

"The defendants insisted on being absent from most of the trial proceedings and directed their retained counsel to remain inactive during the trial," filings stated. "To accommodate them, the trial judge provided Blunk and Rosenberg with closed-circuit television through which they could monitor the proceedings, and appointed a public defender to remain in the courtroom for the trial to protect the defendants' interests."

On March 17, 1985, the jury returned a verdict of guilty on all submitted counts for both Rosenberg and Blunk. New Jersey U.S. District Court Judge Frederick Bernard Lacey slapped them with the maximum sentence of 58 years each behind bars at New York's maximum-security Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC).

Sympathizers lamented that the sentence was 16 times the national average for similar offenses.

Antifa protesters at a rally. (Mark Graves/The Oregonian via AP, File)

Craig Caine, a former law enforcement officer who later went on to become a U.S. federal marshal, said he remembered the day scores of special officers, a bomb squad, and a legion of high-ranking officers arrived at the MCC, coupled with closed off roads, ceaseless sirens and cleared areas in preparation for a "high profile prisoner."

"They brought in the skinny little woman, who seemed scared and I wondered who the heck this was," Caine recalled. "Then, I found out it was someone who basically had enough dynamite to blow up half of Manhattan."

Caine said Rosenberg immediately became something of "a celebrity" inside the MCC, with a following of female fans and entrenched in her own clique of inmates, but stressed that she always was "respectful" and stayed out of the way of authorities.

Kerik had a different take.

"She despised us all I am sure she would have killed every single one of us if she could have," he conjectured. "In court, she and Blunk would go on rampages about the government and all this death to America."

Moving Rosenberg to court or anywhere outside the MCC was no easy feat – requiring roads to be shuttered, backup cars, and trained snipers in the vicinity.

In 1988, Rosenberg additionally faced accusations of "aiding and abetting" a string of bombings targeting the U.S. Capitol, the National War College and the New York Patrolmen's Benevolent Association.

Additional charges included a role in a series of New York attacks, of which bombs were planted but did not detonate, on sites such as the FBI's office in Staten Island. These charges were discarded as part of a plea deal by other revolutionary members and Rosenberg was neither tried nor convicted in connection to the 1983-1985 terrorism surge.

Rosenberg and Blunk went on to appeal their convictions and sentences unsuccessfully.

Throughout what would be just 16 years in federal lockup, Rosenberg became a noted author, poet and activist – even earning a master's degree from Antioch University and voraciously writing. In the morning of Jan. 20, 2001, then-President Bill Clinton commuted Rosenberg's sentence.

She swiftly moved from prison to her mother's Manhattan apartment.

"I have seen speculation that Rosenberg's sentence was commuted based upon the connection between her former attorney Howard Gutman and President Clinton," Gray said. "Gutman was a big donor to the Democratic Party."

The commutation ignited outrage among law enforcement and elected officials in the New York area from both parties, who viewed the move as an act of betrayal, given that their own brethren had lost their lives during crimes tied to Rosenberg.

"I wrote (Clinton) a scathing letter," Kerik said. "Rosenberg's group was responsible for a number of murders of cops."

Over the ensuing years, now a free woman and anti-prison advocate, Rosenberg entered academia, teaching at Manhattan's Jay College of Criminal Justice. After four semesters, the CUNY administration was forced to let her contract quietly expire amid the political pressure surrounding her hiring.

Rosenberg also penned a memoir in 2011 entitled "An American Radical: A Political Prisoner in My Own Country," in which she defended her 1984 actions, proclaiming that "there was no immediate, specific plan to use the explosives" with which she and Blunk were apprehended.

"We were stockpiling arms for the distant revolution that we all had convinced ourselves would come soon," Rosenberg wrote. "I also believed that our government ruled the world by force and that it was necessary to oppose it with force."

Soon after Rosenberg's name resurfaced publicly again over the summer, President Trump threatened to designate Antifa – an extreme left-wing, leaderless conglomerate – a "terrorist" organization. Critics have pushed back with the counterargument that Antifa was merely an ideology and that right-wing extremists were to blame for much of the protracted violence.

Nonetheless, it points to the notion that even with the passage of time, "domestic terrorism" may have changed little in its actions and may still be comprised of the same advisers and activities that birthed the movement decades ago.

"Many of the inspirations (and ideologies) are still the same," Kerik added. "Many like Rosenberg are still alive, have gone into academia, and are still doing the same thing years on."


Notes

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Isaac Rosenberg, John Ronald Tolkien, and Rowland Feilding: Two Will Be in It, One Out, and One Has the Wind Up

John Ronald Tolkien will be missing the Spring Offensive, and probably its follow-up assaults as well. He’s had another bout of fever, possibly influenza, and consequently his Medical Board of today, a century back, ruled him, once again, 20% disabled. The effect was to keep him at his current job, on home service with the Humber Garrison. He is to be re-evaluated in April. [1]

Consistently less fortunate in his war so far is Isaac Rosenberg. Although he, too, has been very ill and is surely less than 80% as fit as the men around him, he is a private, and in France. And today the 1st King’s Own Royal Lancasters marched from reserve into the firing line, near Arras.

Finally, today, an unexpected reprieve from gloomy foreboding. Rowland Feilding is a serious, decorous man, and he has been very much exhausted with his battalion’s recent middle-of-the-night marching to meet false alarms of German assaults. So I expected another terse letter, sent more for the purpose of letting his wife know that he was still alive on the date indicated than to share any real insight into his experiences. But he surprises: with a fart joke, of all things.

March 19, 1918. Villers Faucon.

We have had two comparatively restful days—by which I mean that we have been left to carry out our more or less
normal duties undisturbed. May it continue! but the wind is up—still very much up!

On the road between here and the front line, where every one that passes can see it, some wag has painted a huge clock face on a wall. Above it is written in large letters—

WATCH OUR WIND-CHART

The chart includes no objective measurements, but only a number of phrases such as “breezy,” “blowing rather,” “gusty,” and “very gusty.” The first level of the humor, of course, is the ridiculousness of implementing a clunky and inaccurate system informing men of their immediate conditions–although, to be fair, the wind would be harder to discern in trenches than in open warfare, so perhaps it would be useful. Surely the much-lampooned Staff have committed similar offenses enough.

And the second level? Well, of course, they are concerned about the wind because they worry about… wait for it… gas attacks!

…I am sure it is not necessary to explain to you the soldier’s use of the word “wind.” The thing has caused a lot of amusement.

It is pretty funny. Which miserable corporal should be detailed by the staff to come and announce that “Our Wind is Blowing Rather?” Which company card amuses the men by doing so? Morale, morale, morale…

The weather (using the word in its proper sense) has changed, which is a good thing for many reasons, and
particularly that you may be spared air-raids. Every one here is in good spirits, and I think we have nothing to
worry about.

At any rate, so convinced are those that are in a position to know that we are going to be attacked, that they have
doubtless made full preparation for our proper support. [2]

That last sentence, I fear, was not sardonic but “straight.”

References and Footnotes


[Poems, Isaac Rosenberg]

Photographs of "Poems" by Isaac Rosenberg, held by UNT Special Collections. The cover is light blue with the title printed on the top right corner. Image 2, frontispiece and title page. The frontispiece has a black and white photo of a man in a colored jacket. Image 3, "The Dying Soldier" poem on the left page and "Dead Man's Dump" on the right, the pages numbered 88 and 89.

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Photographs of "Poems" by Isaac Rosenberg, held by UNT Special Collections. The cover is light blue with the title printed on the top right corner. Image 2, frontispiece and title page. The frontispiece has a black and white photo of a man in a colored jacket. Image 3, "The Dying Soldier" poem on the left page and "Dead Man's Dump" on the right, the pages numbered 88 and 89.

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Why the Rosenbergs' Sons Eventually Admitted Their Father Was a Spy

Michael Rosenberg was listening to The Lone Ranger on the radio when his entire world crumbled. The seven-year-old was engrossed in his favorite program in the summer of 1950 when men burst into his New York apartment and took away his father. Soon, his mother was under arrest, too.

His parents were none other than Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and they were accused of being Russian spies who passed on secret information about nuclear technology as the Cold War kicked into high gear. The arrests started a chain of events that would lead to their execution. But it also changed the life of Michael and his brother Robert forever.

Their story didn’t end with their parents’ deaths. Rather, the executions put them on a path of pain. As the children of America’s most notorious Red Scare-era figures, they were associated with their parents’ supposed crimes. And as they grew, they went on a dramatic search for answers𠅊 search that opened up even more questions about their parents’ past.

Neither child had any conception that their parents might be Soviet spies. Their childhood in New York City was typical of its time, and both Michael and Robert remember parents who were energetic, affectionate and happy. That all changed in 1950 when Julius and Ethel were indicted for 11 acts of espionage. Both pleaded not guilty, but were convicted and sentenced to be executed.

Meanwhile, Robert and Michael were left without parents. Three and seven years old at the time, they were first sent to live with their grandmother. But as the case became a national phenomenon, she tried to send them to other relatives𠅊ll of whom refused to take them in.

"We were the children of Communist spies,” Robert told 60 Minutes in 2016. Being the Rosenberg’s children in 1950 was almost like being Osama bin Laden’s kids here after 9/11.”

When nobody offered to take them in, the boys were taken to the Hebrew Children’s Home in the Bronx�tively an orphanage.

“I’m sure that it won’t be long before you’ll get used to your new home,” Julius wrote Michael in November 1950 after they moved to the Hebrew Children’s Home. �rling don’t worry about a thing.”

10-year-old Michael Rosenberg pats his younger brother, Robert, 6, and tries his best to comfort him, as the youngsters ride away from Sing Sing prison after visiting their parents, convicted atom spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, just a few days before their execution. 

Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

But despite the encouraging tone of their parents’ letters, things were not all right. They would never be reunited with their parents, who were convicted and sentenced to the electric chair. The boys visited their parents in Sing Sing prison, where they looked over the electric chair and asked their parents if they were really innocent. Of course they were, they reassured them. Meanwhile, despite an international attempt to stay the execution, all of their appeals for mercy were denied.

When the Rosenbergs were executed, their sons were playing catch at the home of a family friend. They were six and ten years old. The boys were now Cold War orphans, and they were almost as infamous as their parents.

But to a group of sympathetic Americans, the Rosenbergs were seen in a different light. These supporters felt that the Rosenberg trial was an attempt to suppress progressive thinkers in an era increasingly dominated by a Communist scare. One of them was Abel Meeropol, a public school English teacher and former Communist Party member who was also the author of the lyrics to “Strange Fruit.” Meeropol and his wife, who did not have children, met the Rosenberg boys at a party at the home of W.E.B. Du Bois and took them in a week later. Eventually, they adopted them.

But though Michael and Robert—now Meeropol—went on to live successful lives as college professors, they couldn’t shake their parents’ reassurances that they were innocent. After living in what amounted to hiding for years, they embraced their true identities and began to reinvestigate their parents’ case. Together, they sued the CIA and FBI under the Freedom of Information Act. After a lengthy legal battle, they got the files and scoured through them for evidence of their parents’ innocence.

The two young sons of convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg take part in a giant demonstration in front of the White House asking presidential clemency for their parents.

Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

But as they reconstructed the evidence on their parents, they came to the agonizing conclusion that their father wasn&apost innocent after all. A growing amount of evidence points to Julius Rosenberg as a busy𠅊nd successful—recruiter of Soviet spies. The network he helped create stole information on all kinds of military technology. But his sons believe that though Julius did steal nuclear secrets, the information wasn’t of much value.

They’re even firmer on their mother’s innocence. Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, was instrumental in her conviction, telling a grand jury that she typed up Julius’ notes. But later in life, Greenglass recanted and said he had made up the charges to protect his family. The Meeropol brothers believe that their father was executed on the basis of a trumped-up charge and that their mother was entirely innocent.

Now, they want their mother to be exonerated. But though they’ve petitioned the government to exonerate her, she’s never been pardoned. Nor has the government ever admitted that Julius Rosenberg didn’t pass on the kinds of secrets for which he was convicted. And so the saga of the Rosenberg orphans continues𠅊s unsatisfying and unresolved as ever.


The Poetry of Isaac Rosenberg:“Sudden the Lightning Flashed Upon a Figure. . . .”

In The three decades since he was killed in action in France at the age of twenty-eight, Isaac Rosenberg, one of the British &ldquowar poets&rdquo of World War I, has been increasingly recognized as one of the most authentic talents in the literary generation foreshadowing the development of modem poetry. MARIUS BEWLEY here offers perhaps the fullest analysis to date of Rosenberg&rsquos work against the background of his time. Two poems by Isaac Rosenberg have been published in COMMENTARY during the past year: &ldquoSpring 1916&rdquo in the January 1948 issue, and &ldquoBreak of Day in the Trenches&rdquo in the May issue.

When Isaac Rosenberg was buried in an unmarked grave in France in 1918, he left behind only a slender sheaf of poetry that can be regarded as really important. Despite his several inconspicuous appearances in print, he must have seemed as nearly anonymous as most of the hundreds of thousands who were killed that year. And in spite of his talent, and Gordon Bottomley&rsquos edition of his poems, brought out in 1922, the years that followed his death have done little to rectify that churlish neglect which had been their chief gift to him while alive. 1

There is, certainly, a confusing unevenness in the collected volume 2 as a whole, an occasional fragmentary quality that is superficially disengaging&mdashat least to the easily discouraged. His best efforts are contained in a handful of Trench Poems which must be set off against a considerably larger number of poems written at different stages in his creative immaturity. This period of artistic uncertainty and more or less conventional poetics was more than usually pro-tracted in Rosenberg&rsquos case and that for a number of reasons, most of which can be traced to the discouragements of poverty.

In view of all this, it is sad, but not surprising, that Rosenberg has been left to languish among the Georgians. He is, of course, entitled to that classification by virtue of his inclusion, by a single poem, in Edward Marsh&rsquos 1916-17 Georgian anthology. His most influential friends had been Georgians his small correspondence includes letters to Gordon Bottomley, Edward Marsh, Lascelles Abercrombie, and R. C. Trevelyan&mdashall of them names that made Georgian literary history, and have been long out of fashion. But Rosenberg developed into something else, and left the suburbanized garden plots of Georgian poetry far behind him.

Before the war Rosenberg had served a hard apprenticeship in poverty his life was short and sad, and looking back over it, an early sentence of his acquires a tragic significance: &ldquoWhat purpose was there in such wasted striving&mdashand supposing success did come would it be sufficient recompense for the wasted life and youth, the starved years . . .?&rdquo

Isaac Rosenberg was born in Bristol, England, on November 25, 1890. His father, Barnett Rosenberg, had come from Lithuania his mother, Chasa Davidoff, had been born in Latvia. He had seven brothers and sisters, and although his luck was generally bad, he was fortunate in preserving warm and sympathetic relationships with all his family until his death. His parents spoke Yiddish, and Rosenberg was sent to Hebrew school in his early childhood. The atmosphere of his home influenced him so strongly that by the time he was ten he was writing poetry on Jewish religious history.

His eldest sister, who was the first to recognize his talent, sought advice about her little brother from the local librarian, but the latter was only able to recommend that the child read &ldquoThe Charge of the Light Brigade&rdquo often. Mr. Beth Zion Lask, in an article on Rosenberg which appeared in Reflex some years ago, maintains that the Rosenberg family was &ldquopoor in a Jewish way,&rdquo which is something &ldquototally different from non-Jewish poverty.&rdquo Praise of poverty in any form is always unconvincing and there is nothing in the tone of Rosenberg&rsquos early letters, where he refers to his own poverty as a &ldquofiendish mangling machine,&rdquo that leads one to suppose he reacted to it any differently from any other sensitive, highly talented young man struggling for an education.

His family had moved to London when he was seven years old, settling near Whitechapel. He attended an elementary school, where he began to show a particular interest in drawing but when he was fourteen it became necessary for him to leave school and go to work. He worked for a firm of art engravers in Fleet Street as an apprentice, and although he hated the work he managed to go to night classes at the art school of Birbeck College. In view of the little time he had at his own disposal, he read a great deal, and always with enthusiasm but he never quite lost a sense of educational deficiency. &ldquoYou mustn&rsquot forget,&rdquo he wrote years later, &ldquothe circumstances I have been brought up in, the little education I have had. Nobody ever told me what to read, or ever put poetry in my way.&rdquo

In 1911 he rashly gave up his job, but after a few exhilarating weeks of freedom lapsed into nervous melancholy. Things seemed to brighten a little when three Jewish ladies gave him money to attend the Slade School of Art from October 1911 until March 1914. At the Slade he had a successful student&rsquos career, won prizes, competed for the Prix de Rome, and exhibited some paintings at the Whitechapel Gallery. From available descriptions of Rosenberg&rsquos paintings one surmises they were strongly romantic, even pre-Raphaelite. But turning to the several reproductions of portraits and drawings in The Complete Works, one is surprised by their freshness and vigor, and one begins to have a faith in his capacity for painting, a faith that is strengthened by reading a rather sketchy, formless lecture called simply &ldquoArt,&rdquo which he delivered while in Cape Town, and which was later published in a periodical gruesomely named South African Women in Council. The lecture contains many felicities of phrase and insight which were far ahead of English art criticism of the day.

But actually these years of study at the Slade were not happy ones. Occasionally one glimpses humiliations imposed on him by at least one of his patronesses. &ldquoI am very sorry I have disappointed you,&rdquo Rosenberg writes to her. &ldquoIf you tell me what was expected of me I shall at least have the satisfaction of knowing by how much I have erred. You were disappointed by my picture for its unfinished state&mdashI have no wish to defend myself&mdashor I might ask you what you mean by finish. . . . I cannot conceive who gave you the idea that I had such big notions of myself, are you sure the people you enquired of know me, and meant me. . . . I am not very inquisitive naturally, but I think it concerns me to know what you mean by poses and mannerisms&mdashand whose advice do I not take who are in a position to give&mdashand what more healthy style of work do you wish me to adopt?&rdquo

It is grim to learn from another letter that Rosenberg was dependent on this patroness at the time even for money to have his shoes repaired.

After three years of this kind of benevolence his health gave way. It was thought that he had tuberculosis, and that he would be benefited by a trip to Cape Town, where one of his married sisters was living. One hears of difficulty in scraping together the twelve pounds passage money and then his letters give a few pictures of him after his arrival: meeting Olive Schreiner, who liked him and admired some drawings of Kaffirs he made visiting a wealthy family, and writing home with the enthusiasm of a really poor young man, about &ldquowonderful breakfasts&mdashthe unimaginable lunches&mdashdelicious teas, and colossal dinners.&rdquo But South Africa seemed worse than tuberculosis, and he eagerly returned to England the following year, apparently improved in health. At home, he published at his own expense a pamphlet of sixteen short poems called Youth. These form a marked advance over the somewhat Keatsian pamphlet, Night and Day, which he had published in the same manner in 1912. But if Rosenberg&rsquos real genius is faintly heralded in Youth&mdashperhaps at one or two points more than faintly&mdashthe moment of his poetic self-discovery was by no means at hand.

Meanwhile the 1914 war came along. Whether sick or well, Rosenberg measured up to the army&rsquos physical requirements and so, greatly discouraged, he anticipated the inevitable and enlisted, although he hated the whole war machine. &ldquoBelieve me,&rdquo he wrote, &ldquothe army is the most detestable invention on earth, and nobody but a private knows what it is to be a slave.&rdquo His army letters are characteristically restrained, but they reveal the real horror of army life&mdashthe over-sized shoes and ulcerated feet, the insolent stupidity of officers, the damp beds and the head-colds, the filthy clothes, the endless obscenity&mdashbetter than any war letters that spring to mind immediately and yet they are the briefest scrawls, mere snippets of his experience. It is astonishing to consider that it was under these conditions that he began and carried on his most significant period of productivity.

In 1916, after a term of training in England, he was sent to France in the King&rsquos Own Royal Lancasters. Before going, he managed to have his one-act play Moses printed privately, together with seven short poems, including the savage poem &ldquoGod.&rdquo This last poem is best understood in the light of Rosenberg&rsquos whole development, but inasmuch as some critics have complained about its theological improprieties, it had better be said at this point that the God of the poem is a very special, if not very rare one, evoked by the middle classes out of their &ldquoimaginative indolence&rdquo and preached by the recruiting clergy of Rosenberg&rsquos day. It is a sociological, not a theological god.

Trench Poems were composed between the publication of Moses and Rosenberg&rsquos death on April 1, 1918, when his twenty-eighth birthday was still half a year away.

Rosenberg belongs to that small group of poets who had sensed how essentially different the war that began in 1914 was from all others. Their greater awareness was not merely rational but intuitive, and their poetry is an attempt to explore and analyze the monstrous experience. In their hands war poetry came to mean something different from what it had commonly meant before. For them war no longer comprised a fragment of experience, but its totality. They no longer tried to evaluate it in the perspective of peacetime assumptions, to accept the apology of official slogans, or absorb the war&rsquos effect on the individual by dreaming of an imminent return to the status quo. They understood that, for them at any rate, the tyranny was absolute.

The rift between the experiences of war and the experiences of civilization had widened so much by the 20th century that it was nearly impassable, with the experiences of war becoming dominant for a large and ever increasing portion of the world&rsquos population. If war poetry were to have any claims as valid artistic expression, it could no longer exist as a specialized department of verse. It could no longer be merely a rousing hunting song, nor was the ode of pure patriotism any longer very pure.

Most of the poets who won recognition during World War I developed a protective subjectivity like Alan Seeger, or, like that truly typical Georgian, Rupert Brooke, continued to experience the war in the cracked molds of old attitudes, and under the colors of a faded glamor. When mentioning the few names that one can positively bring forward, names like Edward Thomas, Wilfred Owen, and Isaac Rosenberg, one must remember that their profound perception of the nature of the crisis represented, necessarily, only a fragmentary understanding, and that these fragments, which each brilliantly discovered for himself, were more personal than social. And so it is difficult to generalize, even about a group of three. But they did begin and end with this in common (and this they shared with a few others, such as Siegfried Sassoon): equally, they hated the sham and hypocrisy of the war, and they saw through it with a surprisingly radical vision.

Charles Sorley, another young poet who was killed early in the war, spoke for them all when he wrote: &ldquoEngland&mdashI am sick of the sound of the word. In training to fight for England, I am training to fight for that deliberate hypocrisy, that terrible middle-class sloth of outlook and appalling &lsquoimaginative indolence&rsquo that has marked us from generation to generation.&rdquo

And yet these young men voluntarily went to war, and almost all were killed. This apparent contradiction (&ldquoNothing can justify war,&rdquo Rosenberg wrote at the time he appeared to submit most to its claims) sprang from no wavering resolution, but from a perception that naturally embraced expiatory suffering as the only way out. This perception may often have been greater than their poetry&mdashthe practical difficulties of writing at all were only short of insuperable&mdashbut ultimately it was the life of it. In time the poetry of Rosenberg (Edward Thomas is a different case altogether: in his own way he is second to no one) would almost certainly have assumed proportions commensurate with the full reality it was trying to express. But I do not wish to make the mistake of dwelling on Rosenberg&rsquos &ldquopromise&rdquo his achievement is evident enough.

For every person who has read a poem of Rosenberg&rsquos, a few hundred must have read something of Wilfred Owen&rsquos. And yet Rosenberg is the greater poet. Both men were rather like unguilty angels who had fallen with the rout into pandemonium, and their verse is an attempt to survey creatively their new midnight universe. Owen may have carried a little more of the old heaven with him, but Rosenberg understood better the brutual anonymity of the war, and the true dimension of the tragedy. Owen never quite became more than a good Georgian, and while it would be rash to speculate about the course of his literary career had he lived, his work has none of that rampant, impatient eagerness to reach beyond itself which is so frequently startling in the other poet&rsquos work. There was something Wordsworthian about the Georgians, but it was a Wordsworth stripped of stature and it is stature that one never quite discovers in Owen&rsquos own poems. His hatred of war is too exclusively a hatred of its physical effects on the lives of the young Englishmen under his command.

One cannot help feeling that Owen is caught and held back by the sight of all the suffering&mdashwhich, after all, is only one anguished corner of the whole intolerable picture. Owen seems little concerned with any reality that is not to be penetrated by pity alone. He seems to converge his perspective lines towards the hospital cot rather than to unfold them from that terminus of pity. The vision he offers is poignant but incomplete, and too regretful to be great. It is a picture made up of many moving accidents&mdashso many that the form of the tragedy is sometimes obscured.

Rosenberg&rsquos poetry does not stop short of the pity and tenderness in Owen&rsquos, but passes beyond it into something new. He is aware that the suffering of war is too great to be comforted, and he cannot mistake pity for succor in his poetry, suffering achieves something like classical composure. Details are lost in grandeur of form, and his victims have a heroic moral strength, a stoicism which invites the mind not to the frustrating pity of helplessness, but to something like the re-creative pity of the ancient stage.

As a sample of this attitude one may look at a short passage from &ldquoDead Man&rsquos Dump,&rdquo one of the greatest poems of World War I. It is directly, even starkly concerned with suffering, and yet its terrible picture of agony never hinders the poise, the freedom of inquiry that is maintained throughout. In this poem, so impersonal and detached in comparison with much of Owen&rsquos poetry, there is a hard, almost shocking concreteness and immediacy of imagery that makes Owen seem vague and general by contrast:

A man&rsquos brains splattered on
A stretcher-bearer&rsquos face
His shook shoulders slipped their load,
But when they bent to look again
The drowning soul was sunk too
deep for human tenderness.
They left the dead with the older dead,
Stretched at the cross roads.

Burnt black with strange decay
Their sinister faces lie,
The lid over each eye,
The grass and coloured clay
More motion have than they
Joined to the great sunk silences.

One is not so much aware of the single, the private death here, as one is aware of the representative and universal quality in the death which is described. All &ldquothe older dead&rdquo and all who will die seem to participate symbolically in this one soldier&rsquos death. The ineffectual resentment we might otherwise feel is guarded against by very carefully handled suggestions of inevitability, and, even as we watch, the action reaches and seems to continue beyond that point where human tenderness can follow, down into an antique, stoic underworld of &ldquogreat sunk silences.&rdquo This soldier is less a private person than a point at which the fate of men in war becomes for a moment visible.

And it is significant that no facile, gratuitous commentary on that fate is offered in the whole eighty-six lines of &ldquoDead Man&rsquos Dump.&rdquo The poem&rsquos strength lies in the composure it maintains when faced by human pain, in its refusal to indulge an easy grief or extend a gala invitation to tears. It shows a sure control of words moving through dangerous emotions at disciplined speeds and leading the reader, by their very restraint and poise, into a fuller understanding of human dignity.

But Rosenberg did not pass from writing romantic poetry in civilian life to verse of this stature in a single day. One may arrive at a better understanding of the peculiar impersonality of Trench Poems if one looks first at the play Moses. Its strength is not the strength of the later poems, but it is a necessary step towards them and in some respects nothing Rosenberg wrote later exceeds it in interest.

Rosenberg wanted to find some intelligible correlation between the private agony and the tremendous destructive energy released in modem war, some way of imparting full weight to the unknown lives being snuffed out in pain and hence some way of guaranteeing his own identity against destruction. He sought, therefore, to create in Moses the idea of a human consciousness and will great and energetic enough to oppose war successfully. This conception of energy and power became, in one way and another, an integral part of Rosenberg&rsquos imagination. It not only provided him with occasional themes and symbols: more important, it helped to strengthen the texture of his writing.

But such conceptions, if they mean anything in art, can be neither arbitrarily devised nor assumed. Rosenberg&rsquos concept of power has obvious affiliations with his Jewish background, and its genesis goes back far into his own life&mdashback into those dreary years of poverty and sickness. One can trace its development in several disguises in his earlier work and letters. But it is important to insist that Rosenberg never attempted to exploit the compensatory comforts of art, and he never developed his notion of power, such as it was, as an anodyne for the pains of experience.

Indeed, one sees how deliberately he exposed himself to the full horror of the war experience from a letter he wrote to Edward Marsh in 1916: &ldquoI am determined that this war, with all its powers for devastation, shall not master my poeting. . . . I will not leave a comer of my consciousness covered, but saturate myself with the strange and extraordinary new conditions of this life, and it will all refine itself into poetry later on.&rdquo There were to be no shadowy places in his brain for retreat, no secret corners for weeping. Thus it was that the first impact of the war on Rosenberg conferred a universal significance on what had been merely private struggle before, and gave new scope and depth to his writing.

Moses was the first fruit of this enlarged frame of mind. Yet as things stand, the conception with which Rosenberg struggles in the play remains a little inchoate. Moses emerges as a figure of great force, but lacks a proportionate moral definition. Had Rosenberg lived longer, his conception of power would undoubtedly have gained in form as he successively invested it in other, and possibly more tractable, characters of Jewish history. Rosenberg wished to write a play about Judas Maccabaeus. He felt that in Maccabaeus he might be able to subdue the aggressiveness with which he had endowed his first hero, and add the note of magnanimity to power. But the chance never came.

For all its violence of language, the action of Moses is static. This is not necessarily a defect, for it is undeniably a play to be read. It is inconceivable on the stage. The play is in two scenes, and occurs at that point in Moses&rsquo career when he has not yet disclaimed Pharaoh but is about to do so. Moses is seen throughout as more god than man&mdasha source of energy to all who come in contact with him. A young Hebrew describes him in hyperbolic terms:

He spoke! Since yesterday
Am I not larger grown?
I&rsquove seen men hugely shapen in soul
Of such unhuman shaggy male turbulence
They tower in foam miles from our neck-
strained sight.
And to their shop only heroes come.
But all were cripples to this speed
Constrained to the stables of flesh.
I say there is a famine in ripe harvest
When hungry giants come as guests.
Come knead the hills and ocean into food.
There is none for him
.

In the beginning Moses is not aware of his own potential power. He is still a victim of Egyptian sensuality and indolence. The consciousness of what he can be awakens slowly in him, but when it comes it is a tremendous spiritual revelation:

I am rough now, and new, and will have
no tailor.
Startlingly,
As a mountain-side
Wakes aware of its other side
When from a cave a leopard comes,
On its heels the same red sand,
Springing with acquainted air,
Sprang an intelligence
Coloured as a whim of mine,
Showed to my dull outer eyes
The living eyes underneath.
Did I not shrivel up and take the place of
air,
Secret as those eyes were,
And those strong eyes call up a giant frame?
And I am that now
.

Perhaps the most humanly arresting action in the play occurs in Moses&rsquo rejection of his Egyptian mistress, Koelue. She is the daughter of Abinoah, a brutal overseer of the Hebrew slaves, whom Moses kills as the curtain falls on the last scene. It may be worth noting that this family relation-ship between Moses&rsquo erotic past and the Egyptian dynastic tyranny as represented in the overseer suggests the kind of self-purgation Rosenberg brought to his own spiritual conquest of the tyranny of middleclass England. Yet as Moses describes his intention it does not sound as much like a purgative measure as a brutal exchange, swapping &ldquored lips of flesh&rdquo for &ldquothe huge kiss of power.&rdquo &ldquoI will ride the dizzy beast of the world,&rdquo Moses cries, &ldquoMy road&mdashmy way&rdquo.

But Rosenberg&rsquos conception of power begins to reach towards its real complexity only in the long final speech of Moses, in which Moses reveals that he will exert his power on the Hebrews to

. . . grandly fashion these rude elements
Into some newer nature, a consciousness
Like naked light seizing the all-eyed soul,
Oppressing with its gorgeous tyranny
Until they take it thus&mdashor die
.

Moses is Rosenberg&rsquos largest attempt to educe creatively the idea of a new kind of consciousness which would characteristically express itself in (the words are his) &ldquovirility&rdquo and &ldquooriginal action.&rdquo This conception is available to the reader through a prose paraphrase of the play. But ideas as such are only tolerated intruders in a really good poem. It is far more important that the effects of this idea are felt in many passages as the strength of the verse itself.

However much the action flags, Rosenberg&rsquos verse has a dramatic quality locally that calls for special elucidation. Here is a short speech from the first scene:

Moses: Fine! Fine!
See in my brain
What madmen have rushed through,
And like a tornado
Torn up the tight roots
Of some dead universe.
The old clay is broken
For a power to soak in and knit
It all into tougher tissues
To hold life,
Pricking my nerves till the brain might
crack
It boils to my finger tips,
Till my hands ache to grip
The hammer&mdashthe lone hammer
That breaks lives into a road
Through which my genius drives
.

This passage contains the whole idea of the play in germ: an awakening sense of power, and the determination to see it through. It is characteristic of this play that each speech has a tendency to become a microcosm reflecting the central conception in its full breadth and vigor. In this passage one remarks the unusual strength of the verbs, which are not only violent but operate with kinesthetic effect: tight roots are torn up by a tornado, the hands ache to grip the hammer, nerves are pricked, the brain threatens to crack, and so on&mdashfigures full of tensions and resistances. Now as Moses symbolizes the desire for (in Rosenberg&rsquos own phrase) &ldquooriginal action,&rdquo it is impressive that this desire should so tangibly incarnate itself here in a series of kinesthetic verb operations. These power images actually seem to release an energy within the verse which stands in apposition to the formally articulate desire. Furthermore, one notes that while the response one brings to the imagistic series is cumulative in effect, there is a rising curve of intensity, as towards a dramatic catastrophe. The first two images&mdashthe madmen and the tornado&mdashclear the stage (carefully localized to the arena of the brain) for the influx of the new vision of power. The image of the broken clay is transitional&mdasha kind of fertility image which leaves an interval out for growth&mdashand leads into the fully developed power image, the hammer which breaks lives into a road, and serves as climax to this particular sequence. Then, the ultimate image of regality closes the sequence&mdashgenius out&mdashPharaohing Pharaoh in a procession down a royal highway.

It Is part of Rosenberg&rsquos high status as a poet that the power concept which he developed in Moses did not constitute a settlement that fostered the delusion of permanence, an investment whose dividends might be drawn on at leisure. He believed in energy as a bowstring might: taut, he was a singing resistant thing but relaxed, he was abject and useless. Nevertheless, there was always the temptation to accept an easier solution, a reconciliation with the past, with what Charles Sorley had called &ldquoimaginative indolence,&rdquo rather than to preserve the perpetual tension demanded by the exacting kind of consciousness Rosenberg sought. Shortly before he died he described the temptation explicitly in a fragment of a play called The Amulet:

In all our textures are loosed
Pulses straining against strictness
Because an easy issue lies therefrom
.

His poem, &ldquoReturning We Hear the Larks,&rdquo represents his tireless resistance against what appear to him to be temptations to capitulate. It is his best known poem, and Mr. Beth Zion Lask correctly says, &ldquoHad he written nothing else, this one poem could have stood to serve his fame.&rdquo Since it is quite short it may be quoted in full:

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&mdash
On a little safe sleep.

But hark joy&mdashjoy&mdashstrange joy.
Lo! heights of night ringing with unseen
larks.
Music showering on our upturned list&rsquoning
faces.

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

The very first word of the poem is like a gong whose portentous reverberations carry through to the seventh line, at which point, with the interjection, the gloom is suddenly shattered. The opening situation is a stark statement of human insecurity, and though it is described in terms of a particular situation, the &ldquopoison-blasted track&rdquo that &ldquoopens on a little safe sleep&rdquo somehow makes one think of Dante&rsquos dark wood where the straight way was lost. The sudden burst of song which, after an initial moment of terror, the soldiers endure with joy, is, within the compass of the poem, something in the nature of a mystical experience. The line which carries the main burden of that experience, &ldquoJoy&mdashjoy&mdashstrange joy,&rdquo curiously resembles one of the ejaculatory lines in a secret memorandum of Pascal&rsquos commemorating an intense spiritual experience: under the heading FIRE he had written &ldquoJoy, joy, joy, tears of joy.&rdquo In attempting to needle a word into what was, for Pascal, ultimately incommunicable, and what to Rosenberg momentarily seemed so, both men reduced its cross-section of associational layers to an absolute minimum, and sharpened its denotative point. The two following lines in Rosenberg&rsquos poem confirm the mystical nature of the experience. There is the religion intonation of the interjection, &ldquoLo!,&rdquo the ecstatic, evocative shrillness of &ldquoheights of night,&rdquo the solemn mystery of the &ldquounseen larks.&rdquo Finally, in the following line, there are the beneficent suggestions of music, rain, and prayer.

Now from the viewpoint of their poetic integrity these lines present the experience as a valid one, certainly nothing to mistrust or regret. Nevertheless, a moment after the larks cease singing, a moment after the experience has passed, Rosenberg does question its validity in the last seven lines, which he marshals against the first part of the poem. Rosenberg seems almost to have preferred death, which might have dropped from the heavens, to the song that did, and he accuses it, in two closing similes, of concealed treacheries.

He had once written before the war: &ldquoIt is all experience but good God! It is all experience, and nothing else.&rdquo During the war he had finally achieved a kind of organization of that experience, and gained a measure of control over it by informing his consciousness with a new energy and confidence. Once the immediate exultation of the larks&rsquo song had passed, everything the music meant to Rosenberg&mdashand perhaps it had better be left vague&mdashrepresented a temptation from the past to slacken his hold, to subside into &ldquothat terrible middleclass sloth of outlook and appalling &lsquoimaginative indolence.&rsquo&rdquo At the beginning of the war, confronted with its first sights of injustice, he had asked in his poem, &ldquoGod,&rdquo &ldquoWho rests in God&rsquos mean flattery now?&rdquo Certainly he did not wish to be guilty of doing so himself.

And yet one cannot help noting that the final seven lines of the poem do not carry the conviction poetically that the first part does. They lack the spontaneous immediacy of the opening. There is a profound poignancy about &ldquoThe Larks&rdquo which arises from an ambiguity of which Rosenberg himself was not yet wholly aware. Do the siren larks sing from a past which Rosenberg is courageous enough to resist, inviting him to a spiritual surrender? Or are they ministers of a grace which still seems beyond the reach of his powers, which so far he has neither the courage nor the means of attaining? Probably both answers are partly true. At any rate, Rosenberg&rsquos poised indecision in this poem constitutes a brilliant examination of the bases of the spiritual security he was endeavoring to construct for himself.

Although one can occasionally trace an ironic inflection in Moses, irony was not a favorite instrument of Rosenberg&rsquos genius. His mind lacked the cynicism necessary for a mocking mode of expression. But one of his Trench Poems, &ldquoBreak of Day in the Trenches,&rdquo owes its success to the presence of something at its center approximating irony. Even here, however, the irony is without sarcasm, and almost without bitterness. There is a pervading stillness in the poem, an accomplished nervelessness, deliberately poised between spiritual discouragement and resignation. In some ways this is the saddest and most human of all his poems. It contains two points of consciousness: the poet who speaks, and who no longer seems to have any intense reaction to what he undergoes, and a rat who is credited with a personal and critical outlook:

Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies.
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German&mdash

The positions of men and rats have been quietly exchanged, and with devastating effect. It is the rat who has become civilized (and for that reason only is &ldquodroll&rdquo). And it is the rat who has become the judge of men who appeal to him for knowledge of themselves:

What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?

Some particular mention should also be made of the poem &ldquoLouse Hunting.&rdquo In twenty-five short lines it describes a delirious episode in a barracks at night. Naked soldiers, driven to frenzy by the biting of the lice, leap into a wild vermin-hunting dance by candlelight. Rosenberg invests the scene with Gothic depth, evoking the terror and fascination of a Walpurgisnacht. The first sentence is like a sculptured narration of lost souls from a church porch:

There is the startling sensuality of:

See gargantuan hooked fingers
Pluck in supreme flesh
To smutch supreme littleness
.

The weird orgy comes to an end abruptly with five lines whose sweetness reminds one of morning bells tolling the darkness underground:

. . . some wizard vermin
Charmed from the quiet this revel
When our ears were half lulled
By the dark music
Blown from Sleep&rsquos trumpet
.

After the metaphorical richness of Moses, the hard spareness of the images in Trench Poems may come as a surprise. Continued contact with the war inevitably led Rosenberg&rsquos poetry from the somewhat ideal experience of Moses into the harder realm of actual endurance. Some of the color and music fades to be replaced by steel, but there is a close relationship, nonetheless, between the earlier play and the later poems. And several of the Trench Poems reproduce with some directness the argument of Moses.

In &ldquoSoldier: Twentieth Century,&rdquo Rosenberg returns to his conception of a &ldquogreat new Titan&rdquo strong enough to subdue the forces which an evil world has raised against him:

Cruel men are made immortal,
Out of your pain born.
They have stolen the sun&rsquos power
With their feet on your shoulders worn.

Let them shrink from your girth,
That has outgrown the pallid days,
When you slept like Circe&rsquos swine,
Or a word in the brain&rsquos ways.

When Rosenberg&rsquos concept of power is stated as directly as here and in Moses, there is a certain ambivalence in its meaning. If, indeed, the saving power of the individual which he would oppose to the destructive force of war is primarily an affair of the consciousness, a kind of inviolable spiritual integrity, why is it expressed so predominantly in physical terms?

Part of the answer is involved in Rosenberg&rsquos sense of race, and his strong attraction towards those men in Jewish history who were deliverers from both spiritual and physical tyranny. Redemption from the apathy of life and the horror of war was hardly imaginable to him as redemption under one aspect only. He had experienced poverty too deeply for that. And it was natural that a sensibility deeply impressed by Moses and Maccabaeus should find, when confronted with crisis, a militant, even a fierce symbolism and imagery congenial. But no rifles flowered in Rosenberg&rsquos poetry, and the conquest he envisaged always remained essentially a spiritual one.

Rosenberg&rsquos very last poems show how deeply he was coming to rely on the traditions of the Jews when he died. One of these poems deals with the burning of the Temple, another with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, and the last poem included in the volume deals with the Jewish persistent sense of exile. It is clear that in dealing with Old Testament themes he discovered a norm of reference and a moral security he could find nowhere else. He reveals in his last poem his growing insistence on Jewish positives:

Through these pale cold days
What dark faces burn
Out of three thousand years,
And their wild eyes yearn,

While underneath their brows
Like waifs their spirits grope
For the pools of Hebron again&mdash
For Lebanon&rsquos summer slope.

They leave these blond still days
In dust behind their tread
They see with living eyes
How long they have been dead.

The Semitic faces in the first quatrain look out across the following lines towards the sources of Hebraic tradition and life, only to discover that their long separation from them has brought spiritual death. It was in a return to these sources, what in Moses he had called &ldquothe roots&rsquo hid secrecy,&rdquo that Rosenberg looked for the authority to reject the sterility of modem life, of which war was only the most hideous expression.

The probable course of Rosenberg&rsquos literary career, and what its influence on the literature of the twenties would have been had he lived (he would be only fifty-eight today) may be an amusing form of speculation to anyone who admires his poetry, but that sort of parlor game cannot substantially help a reputation that must, after all, rest on work done. And in The Complete Works we do have an emphatic assertion of really great talent. One cannot help applying to him some lines of his own from &ldquoThe Unicorn:&rdquo

Sudden the lightning flashed upon a figure
Moving as a man moves in the slipping mud
But singing not as a man sings, through the
storm
Which could not drown his sounds
.

1 D. W. Harding&rsquos essay, &ldquoThe Poetry of Isaac Rosenberg,&rdquo Scrutiny, March 1935, is a distinguished exception to this melancholy generalization, as is T. S. Eliot&rsquos mention of Isaac Rosenberg, in a Poetry Bookshop Chapbook, as a poet whose neglect was owing to the bad state of contemporary criticism.

2 The Complete Works of Isaac Rosenberg, edited by Gordon Bottomley and D. W. Harding, London Chatto and Windus, 1937.


Watch the video: Break of Day in the Trenches by Isaac Rosenberg read by Tom OBedlam (May 2022).