A less well-known poet of World War 1 — Isaac Rosenberg

The names that come to mind when English-language poets of World War 1 are mentioned include Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves…. I knew of Isaac Rosenberg, but less of him. I had read poems such as “Dead Man’s Dump” and this –very famous:

I think of him because an edition of his poems has just appeared on Project Gutenberg,

An outline of his life is here.

He loathed war and hated the idea of killing, but he was now unemployed and, hearing that his mother would be able to claim a separation allowance, in late October he enlisted. He was initially assigned to the 12th Suffolk Regiment, a Bantam Battalion formed of men less than 5’3″ in height, but in the spring of 1916 he was transferred to the 11th Battalion, the King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment (KORL). In June that year he was sent to France. Shortly before leaving he published his third and final collection of poems, Moses.

Throughout his twenty-one months in the trenches he maintained a correspondence with Edward Marsh, Gordon Bottomley, and Laurence Binyon, all of whom took an interest in his poetry. His trench poems, written on whatever scraps of paper he could find, went through many drafts which he sent home to his sister Annie to be typed and then forwarded to his friends. Despite the difficult conditions under which he worked, he produced remarkable and powerful work, including August 1914Louse HuntingReturning, we hear the larksDead Man’s Dump and Break of Day in the Trenches. These poems were not published in a single volume until 1922.

Rosenberg was killed early on the morning of 1st April 1918 during the German spring offensive. 

One that has struck me from the 1922 edition Project Gutenberg gives us is “Louse Hunting”.

1915, The Vosges, France — in well constructed German trenches in the Vosges 1915. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

LOUSE HUNTING

Nudes, stark and glistening,
Yelling in lurid glee. Grinning faces
And raging limbs
Whirl over the floor one fire;
For a shirt verminously busy
Yon soldier tore from his throat
With oaths
Godhead might shrink at, but not the lice,
And soon the shirt was aflare
Over the candle he’d lit while we lay.

Then we all sprang up and stript
To hunt the verminous brood.
Soon like a demons’ pantomime
This plunge was raging.
See the silhouettes agape,
See the gibbering shadows
Mixed with the baffled arms on the wall.
See Gargantuan hooked fingers
Pluck in supreme flesh
To smutch supreme littleness.
See the merry limbs in that Highland fling
Because some wizard vermin willed
To charm from the quiet this revel
When our ears were half lulled
By the dark music
Blown from Sleep’s trumpet.

Gordon Bottomley quotes a letter from Rosenberg:

To Gordon Bottomley (February, 1917).

“Your letters always give me a strange and large pleasure; and I shall never think I have written poetry in vain, since it has brought your friendliness in my way. Now, feeling as I am, cast away and used up, you don’t know what a letter like yours is to me. Ever since November, when we first started on our long marches, I have felt weak; but it seems to be some inscrutable mysterious quality of weakness that defies all doctors. I have been examined most thoroughly several times by our doctor, and there seems to be nothing at all wrong with my lungs. I believe I have strained my abdomen in some way, and I shall know of it later on. We have had desperate weather, but the poor fellows in the trenches where there are no dug-outs are the chaps to pity. I am sending a very slight sketch of a louse-hunt. It may be a bit vague, as I could not work it out here, but if you can keep it till I get back I can 40work on it then. I do believe I could make a fine thing of Judas. Judas as a character is more magnanimous than Moses, and I believe I could make it very intense and write a lot from material out here. Thanks very much for your joining in with me to rout the pest out, but I have tried all kinds of stuff; if you can think of any preparation you believe effective I’d be most grateful for it.”

The “louse-hunt” refers to a night scene in which Rosenberg took part, and which forcibly struck his imagination as a subject for a Goya picture or for a poem like the “Jolly Beggars”: a barn full of naked soldiers—Scottish and others—singing, swearing, and laughing, in mad antics as they pursued the chase.

He was also an artist. This 1914-15 self-portrait is the London National Portrait Gallery.

Rosenberg, Isaac; Isaac Rosenberg; National Portrait Gallery, London

See also Chloe Nahum, ‘Death does not conquer me’: the poetry and painting of Isaac Rosenberg.

The preface to the 1922 first edition (Gutenberg) is by Laurence Binyon, nowadays known almost only for one poem, though there is much more to his career:

Writing to Edward Marsh in 1915 Rosenberg said

I never joined the army for patriotic reasons. Nothing can justify war … I thought if I join there would be the separation allowance for my mother.’

In June 1915 he had written to another friend that ‘Most people find my poems difficult’ but later on wrote to Marsh that he thought his poems were ‘as simple as ordinary talk.’

Discover War Poets

Blogging the 2010s — 78 — August 2014

August 2014 draws to an end

The month for this blog began with a trip to Sydney to lunch at The Shakespeare Hotel with M, recently returned from his Canada/Alaska trip.

Rounded off the month yesterday with Chris T at the Red Dragon at Steelers – Mao Family Pork of course!

August has been rather wet

Expedition to Surry Hills – 6 – Devonshire Street

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Just beyond the couple walking towards me is the Shakespeare Hotel, and about where they are is this door:

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In 2008 it was thus:

A door special enough to be marked on this map:

Why? See my posts Australian poem: 2008 series: #2 — Kenneth Slessor (1901-1971) “Snowdrops” and Thanks, Tilly and Kate!.

August 1914 – far away and long ago

But of the most profound significance nonetheless. Today I take a VERY local look.

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A train heading for Wollongong via the original Helensburgh tunnel in 1914. The current deviation and new station are under construction on the left. That train could have been 1954 however, when I was living overlooking the line in Sutherland, though the “dogbox” carriages had become rarer by then. That engine though: I probably saw it! Photo from Lost Wollongong.

In Wollongong the Illawarra Mercury came out just twice a week.

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Anzac Day 2019

What better than to repost from last year?

I have posted often on this, as Anzac Day reposts: 1 shows. In 2015 I posted:

In my Neil’s Decades series you will find much that is relevant.

See

And going back to the South African War I should add:

….pictures of the people – all relatives – mentioned in those posts…

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John Hampton Christison in South Africa; David Christison, his son, a sapper on the Western Front in WW1; Keith Christison, my uncle, WW2

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Neil Christison, my uncle, RAAF WW2; Jeff Whitfield, my father, RAAF WW2

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Norman Harold Whitfield MC and bar, German New Guinea, Gallipoli, Western Front – from Wollongong; Kenneth Ross Whitfield, my uncle, from Shellharbour

One hopes that 2019 Anzac Day will pass without incident, given recent events in New Zealand, Turkey, and Sri Lanka.

 

When the Great War ended — 100 years on

My mother was 7 at the time, my father was 6, almost 7 (November 25). She was in Braefield NSW, he in Shellharbour NSW. See 27: 1925 – Christisons 1 and 24 – Whitfields – 1917-1919. Extracts:

This man was for sure my favourite Whitfield uncle – well, the only one I ever met in fact. [There was Uncle George of course, but he was “by marriage”.] But he was a really good man, as I recall, with snowy white hair and a crack shot with a rifle – he had competed in that sport. See my April 2014 post Shellharbour.

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Kenneth Ross WHITFIELD (b.1897  d. 1967) m 1920 Esma H. EAST (b. 1895 d. 24 Mar. 1971)

There was a family legend that he lied about his age to get into the army in World War I, but that doesn’t seem to be true; he was 20 when he enlisted. Maybe he had tried before and failed. He did also serve in World War II.

The story I heard too was that he was a machine gunner. That may be true. However, his service with the 3rd Battalion was cut short somewhat by illness. He returned to Australia invalided quite late in 1919.

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So it appears that my Uncle Ken was at 1st Australian Dermatological Hospital (Bulford) at the time of the Armistice. Note what that hospital is famous for, but the only illness I can read there is synovitis. While at the hospital it seems he was made a stretcher bearer (Australian Army Medical Corps — AAMC)

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Now to Braefield:

There is such a trove on Trove! By way of background, see More tales from my mother 3 — Braefield NSW 1916-1923Jean Christison to her grandmother — an undated letter from BraefieldMore tales from my mother 4 — Dunolly NSW — and conclusions.

I am not sure but think this is probably Braefield, and the occasion probably the Armistice.

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13 September 1920

And here is Harry Hamilton.

So many anniversaries!

The true biggie has been the 500 years since upstart priest Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to a church door, an event that truly changed Europe and the world. See the rather irreverent post Seven reasons Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation still matter today.

On a lesser scale, but very significant in Australia and the Pacific, we have coming up in a few days the 75th anniversary of the Kokoda Track campaign.

But the one that has grabbed attention lately has been the centenary of the Battle of Beersheba. Quite a story, that. I have among my eBooks this — and am about to read it.
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It was first published in 1921, with an introduction by Sir Harry Chauvel.

It gives me great pleasure to write a few words of introduction to Lieut.-Col. Preston’s History of the Desert Mounted Corps, which I had the honour to command. In writing this History Lieut.-Col. Preston has done a service to his country which I am sure will be fully appreciated, particularly, perhaps, by those who served in the Corps, and who feel that the part they played in the Great War is but little known to the general public….

Lieut.-Col. Preston is well qualified to undertake the work. First of all in command of one of my finest Horse Batteries, and subsequently as C.R.A. of the Australian Mounted Division, he was often in touch with my Staff, being constantly employed on reconnaissance duties, in which he was peculiarly expert. He served throughout the whole of the operations of which he writes….

The Desert Mounted Corps was composed of Australians, New Zealanders, British Yeomanry, and Territorial Horse Artillery and Indian Cavalry, with French Cavalry added for the last operations; and it says much for the loyalty of all, and the mutual confidence in each other, that the whole worked so harmoniously and efficiently to one end….

In yesterday’s commemoration in Israel our PM gave a rather peculiar speech, I thought,  rather all over the place when compared with the speech of the New Zealand Governor-General. Israel’s PM Netanyahu spoke forcefully — have to award him a tick for oratory — but also delivered propaganda by the bucket load. In the course of his speech he mentioned that 4,000 years ago Abraham had been at that very spot — Beersheba. What he didn’t mention is that this hardly counts as an actual historical event, but oh the rather troubling weight that Jews, Christians and Muslims load onto this legendary figure!

Ironic too. I suggest you go to my post Before Abraham was, we are…

And the semi-mythical Abraham? Well, “according to Jewish tradition, Abraham was born under the name Abram in the city of Ur in Babylonia in the year 1948 from Creation (circa 1800 BCE).”

Way more impressive than that Australian Museum Timeline, impressive as it is, has been the ABC’s First Footprints series, which ended last Sunday night. It took three episodes before we got even close to the recent history – when Abraham, Moses and all that lot were swanning around one patch of the planet far away from here. That fourth episode punctured quite a few of our cherished beliefs about agriculture, hunter-gatherers, and civilisation.  It also included Papua New Guinea in the Greater Australia which once existed before sea levels rose around 7,000 years before Abraham. There was much reference to Bill Gammage’s seminal The Biggest Estate on Earth (2011).

The irony, if you like, is that among those brave Light Horsemen in 1917 were several descended from those people whose roots go back tens of thousands of years prior to the incursion of whatever individuals or groups might correspond to the story of Abraham in Beersheba. See ‘Not even classed as citizens’: Remembering the Indigenous soldiers at Beersheba.

Rather puts into some perspective the whole Abrahamic saga, very significant as it of course is given the good and ill it has contributed to this present world.

Finally, another picture relating to my last two posts. This is from Sydney High in 2014, a Remembrance Day ceremony with the school assembled in Moore Park. Quite an impressive photograph.Screenshot (125)