Isaac Rosenberg’s “Break of Day in the Trenches”

One of the undeservedly under-read poets of World War I is Isaac Rosenberg. Like Wilfred Owen, Rosenberg died in 1918, and so the promise of his poetry was cut short along with his life. The many contradictions in his work are perhaps best summarized in a paragraph from The Poetry Foundation’s brief biography:

Isaac Rosenberg may be remembered as a Jewish-English poet, or a poet of war, but his poetry stretches beyond those narrow categories. Since Rosenberg was only twenty-eight when he died, most critics have tended to treat his corpus as a promising but flawed start, and they wonder if he would have become a great poet had he lived. Rosenberg’s status as an English poet is thus still debated: he was a Jewish poet, he was an English poet; he was a war poet, he was a painter-poet; he was a young poet; he was a great poet and a minor poet. In his brief career, Rosenberg created a small selection of poems and a great many questions.

Self-portrait in a Pink Tie, 1914 Isaac Rosenberg Source: Imperial War Museum, via Wikimedia Commons

Self-portrait in a Pink Tie, 1914
Isaac Rosenberg
Source: Imperial War Museum, via Wikimedia Commons

“Break of Day in the Trenches” is, I think, a masterful poem, and the poem of Rosenberg’s featured today; his other poems aren’t to be missed, though. For example, his bleak humor breaks loose in “Louse Hunting,” and “Dead Man’s Dump” is sheer visceral horror in a poem.

Rosenberg’s speaker/soldier in “Break of Day in the Trenches” is a man who’s in the thick of war, watching the darkness “crumble” into dawn — a dangerous time favored for “going over the top” to attack enemy trenches. The only sign of life in the trenches, besides our speaker, is the “queer sardonic rat” who grazes his hand as he reaches for a poppy on the parapet. In the nightmare world of war, it’s only the rat who can afford “cosmopolitan sympathies” — moving freely (and feeding well) on both sides of no man’s land. The speaker addresses the rat bitterly:

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.

He wonders what the rat sees in the soldiers’ eyes as the mortars and shells fall from the sky, these soldiers who resemble the carefree youths of prewar poetry, or the boys marching in propaganda posters. As if turning from an answer he doesn’t want to hear, the speaker readjusts his focus in the poem’s final lines:

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.

Poppies, associated with sleep and death, are the symbol of this war in particular; people in the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand still wear the poppy on Armistice Day, or Remembrance Day as it’s known there, or Veterans Day, as it’s known here (the stars of Harry Potter attended at least one premiere with the red-orange flowers pinned to their clothes), and sometimes for the days in November leading up to the 11th.  You’ll notice here in the United States that around patriotic holidays the VFW hands out “Buddy” poppies in thanks for contributions to its veterans’ assistance programs.

In Europe during the Great War, the red poppy was a weed that grew over battlefields, no man’s land, and near the trenches. In Rosenberg’s poem, these poppies grow out the blood of killed men, perhaps men the speaker has watched die. Like the men, the poppies “Drop, and are ever dropping” — except for the one the speaker has tucked behind his ear, in small act of defiance toward the death that surrounds him. It’s not an uncomplicated gesture; the poppy, plucked, will die, and the dust suggests the inevitable end of humankind: “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

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10 thoughts on “Isaac Rosenberg’s “Break of Day in the Trenches”

  1. I’m so happy to be getting to know these young men that I have never heard of before, but should have. This poem was beautiful and haunting. Thank you.

  2. This is a fantastic review. I hadn’t heard of Isaac Rosenberg either but this review does him justice and Break of Day in the Trenches is a poignant poem. Incidentally I love poppies and have some salmon pink ones on my kitchen table this week. I did not know they were associated in this way with WWI.

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  4. In his “The Great War and Modern Memory” — the 1975 book that first gave the World War I poets the attention they deserved — Paul Fussell called this the greatest single poem the war produced. You can definitely see how Rosenberg’s background as a painter influenced his descriptive style. You mention “Dead Man’s Dump” (which incidentally exists in a couple of versions); at the end of that poem, Rosenberg switches perspective rapidly between the speaker on the wagon and the dying soldier whose face is grazed by its wheel and who sees “The quivering-bellied mules” above him. Also, if you like “Louse Hunting,” check out “The Immortals,” in which Rosenberg frames dealing with lice in heroic language, which has the effect of making the idea of the heroic in the context of World War I absurd.

    In my view, “Returning, We Hear the Larks” is one of his best poems. The sensory description is powerfully evocative. It ends with a couple of wonderful similes. It shows how war perverts the Romantic ideal of communing with nature. And not least, it’s a rebuttal to John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” — the most popular poem of the war, which most of the real trench-soldiers loathed — with its “bravely singing” larks.

    • Hi there, Professor Nanian.

      I’m aware of Fussell’s book (I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the literature of World War I) and the Rosenberg poems you mention; this one, too, with its poppy white with the dust is a rejoinder to McCrae’s poem and its poppies.

      In an earlier post I juxtaposed Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” with Brooks’s “The Solider” (not an original pairing, I know), and perhaps I should have done the same with McCrae’s poem here.

      Your point about the Romantic ideal is excellent,and were I to teach the war poets again, I’d love to place some earlier poems in conversation with them. Which pairings would you recommend?

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