Isaac Rosenberg
Isaac Rosenberg; drawing by David Levine


Keats, Shelley, and Byron died young. They were doomed youth. They were the war poets of a time before there were any. Neither Keats nor Shelley was machine-gunned in Flanders, but their followers or epigoni were, and Byron went out to fight for Greece and fell at Missolonghi, of a fever, not far from the scene of Rupert Brooke’s death, from blood poisoning, in 1915. Their poetry helped to write the poetry of future wars, and their fate helped to spread and perpetuate that feeling for misery and loss, for the destruction of talent and beauty, for blighted promise, for the outcast, the orphan, for the massacre of innocents, by which the romantic person was distinguished. It can sometimes appear that the Great War, when war poets came into being and were required by the public, was shaped by a scenario prepared in the heyday of Romanticism a hundred years before.

Paul Fussell’s book mentions a remark that is addressed to Virginia Woolf’s Jacob in Jacob’s Room: “They’re going to make you act in their play.” This is a reference to amateur theatricals, but Fussell suggests that it can also be treated as a reference to Britain’s Great War. He says that the Great War was theater: with its proscenium stage peered at from trench perimeters, its backcloth of dawn and sunset, its lights, sound effects, and cast of thousands, drawn from the most theatrical country in the world and sharing a keen sense of performance, who climbed over the top for their “shows” and “screaming farces” and frequently failed to leave the stage when the show was over. The Great War was also literature, and his book examines the literature which it produced. Much of it may be recognized as the literature of Romanticism.

The staying power of romantic attitudes is very striking, and can be studied in terms of what is still the case in several literatures. The worship of Keats and Shelley is a feature of the tradition which has proved especially tenacious. From the first, the romantic artist could be seen as both miserable and powerful, both as a victim and as a lawgiver. The writing and role playing of the early nineteenth century brought together a strain of masochism and a strain of megalomania, and encouraged the sensitive individual to defend his interests by retreating into privacies and secrecies where he could imagine, and enact, a destiny defiant of the social forces which seemed to be mustering against him. These forces were partly a matter of the rise in population throughout Western Europe, the extension of the industrial system, the captivity of the working class, and the impact of industrial disease and infant mortality. Later generations had to live with the same forces, and with new forms of distress: the orphan of the storm became the orphan of the Somme. Suffering, singing its old sad songs, was led to the trenches.

It can’t be claimed that the unprecedented horror which awaited people there was exactly proportioned to the dooms talked of in literature. But elements of the experience were prefigured, and attitudes toward it prescribed. Robert Lowell has said: “One feels Housman foresaw the Somme.” And Paul Fussell writes: “Perhaps Housman’s greatest contribution to the war was the word lad, to which his poems had given the meaning ‘a beautiful brave doomed boy.”‘ He also writes that the Great War established “the prototype for modern insensate organized violence.” Other wars had had insensate organized violence, but now huge numbers of men—the nineteenth century’s “mob”—were thrown into it. This made a difference. We may add that if literature foresaw the type of violence that is characteristic of modern war, then it did not do so solely by knowing about battlefields.

The cult of the war poet was conditioned by a history of suffering, and of imagined or pretended suffering, which meant that the war poets of the Great War were war poets before that war was declared. The cult ran on into the Second World War: British war poets of that generation were both praised and, in retrospect, blamed for being romantics—that is to say, for being war poets. Sidney Keyes, who wrote romantic poems and repudiated the styles of the Auden confederacy of the Thirties, could look very like a poet of the trenches, and Denton Welch, a civilian story writer who died young, was a war poet too, by adoption: so, for that matter, was Dylan Thomas, who fell in New York. Other war poets of the period were not war poets, however, or particularly romantic, and the image had started to fade, though, as in the first war, the sale of poetry soared.

The cult, with its sacrificial stress, has tended to prefer the work of poets who were killed, but can seem to affirm that there is no such thing as a bad war poet, and that the poets of the Great War were great poets. It was hoped that this war would end war: perhaps such sacrifice would not need to be repeated. Presently another world war broke out, and since then, for all the thoughts there have been of a nuclear Armageddon, wars have begun to appear normal. People are heard to suggest that insensate organized violence is permitted by governments for economic and other reasons, and to refer to the road accidents of mechanized countries as if they were a continuation of modern war by other means. But there are no road poets, just as there have been very few Vietnam war poets. The cult would not last much longer if people learned to believe that the trenches foresaw what they themselves have become.


Meanwhile the old feeling for the death of poets survives in Britain, and those who fell in the Great War are reckoned more interesting than those who fell thirty years later, so far as one can judge from biographies and memorial exhibitions. The principal Modernist writers did not fall or fight in that war, but they were marked by the experience of those who did. It seems clear, moreover, that the literature of Modernism and that of the Great War were marked by some of the same earlier premonitions: by the alienation and pessimism evident in the romantic literature of the past. It is less clear that those Great War poets who drew close to Modernism should be reckoned more interesting than the others.

Jon Stallworthy’s life of Wilfred Owen makes use of the excellent books of Owen’s brother Harold, and of conversations with him, and it contains sensible but rather unforthcoming criticism of the poems. Oppressed by memories of a lost country gentility, the family struggled to keep up appearances. For Wilfred, his father, a sea-struck railway official, took second place to a pious and demanding mother, a sufferer whose ailments were dispatched to the Western Front for her son to worry over. “Never fear,” he wrote to Mrs. Owen before joining up, during a stay in Bordeaux when the French were eyeing the spruce, dark, soft-spoken youth:

thank Home, and Poetry, and the FORCE behind both. And rejoice with me that a calmer time has come for me; and that fifty blandishments cannot move me like ten notes of a violin or a line of Keats.

All women, without exception, annoy me….

On her son’s tombstone Mrs. Owen placed a quotation from his work which included the words: “all death will he annul.” But the poem has a question mark after that, and casts doubt on resurrection. Joseph Cohen, author of one of the Rosenberg biographies, published a pamphlet which defended Mrs. Owen’s Christian act.

Mr. Stallworthy records the purchase, in 1911, of a copy of Colvin’s Keats: “Wilfred Owen came to Keats as Keats to Chapman’s Homer and grew to worship him in an almost religious sense.” Words in the Colvin were underlined: “a strain of powerful sensibility making him subject to moods of unreasonable suspicion and self-tormenting melancholy.” Another biography “guided my groping hand right into the wound, and I touched, for one moment the incandescent Heart of Keats.” An aspirant Keats was led to the slaughter.

When war broke out, he wrote in a letter: “I can do no service to anybody by agitating for news or making dole over the slaughter.” He was furious, he went on, that bodies, “the product of aeons of Natural Selection,” should be “melted down to pay for political statues. I regret the mortality of the English regulars less than that of the French, Belgian, or even Russian or German armies: because the former are all Tommy Atkins, poor fellows, while the continental armies are inclusive of the finest brains and temperaments of the land.” What looks like a residue from the thoughts expressed in that not very appealing letter may be found in his wonderful poem “Futility,” written in 1918: it helps to identify the poem as the work of a changed man.

O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?

During a respite from the trenches at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh he met Siegfried Sassoon, who had publicly denounced the conduct of the war, and also Robert Graves. These were, for Owen, two “Keatses,” and he felt himself to be their peer. For Graves, Owen was “an idealistic homosexual with a religious background.” The description occurs in the American edition of a reissue of Goodbye to All That, and Harold Owen asked for it to be excised from the British edition. Graves said of Owen that “it preyed on his mind that he had been unjustly accused of cowardice by his commanding officer.” This may be one of the tall stories in Graves’s autobiography—stories which Fussell cuts down to size while taking a good deal of data from the book. According to Jon Stallworthy, Owen disliked the fact that his colonel noticed he was in poor shape after a concussion, and disliked the manner in which, on medical advice, he was withdrawn from the battalion, to be sent, presently, to Craiglockhart. Stallworthy pays little attention to Graves’s opinion of Owen, and he is as reserved as Fussell is expansive on the subject of Owen’s homosexuality.


Owen could write a verse which makes one think of what Hopkins might have written if he’d had to mourn the death of the bugler whose first communion he once delighted in, and in a number of poems a Keatsian sensuousness is joined by qualities traceable to an awareness of Swinburne and the fin de siècle. A swooning, formerly religious orphan runs his lips over St. Sebastian’s weals. I have heard people say that Owen was queer for wounds, and tell how he used to carry snaps of war casualties in his wallet, as if this made light of the pity and anger which entered his poetry. The war did not create “morbidities” of this sort: they preceded it, and can be observed throughout the development of Romantic literature, and they would appear to embody, and to be consistent with, a wide variety of feelings, all equally attesting to the fascination of the victim. His morbidities were no guarantee of successful poems, but they should not be tactfully separated from the process by which Owen, who had previously spoken sarcastically of “making dole” and who could speak of the other ranks as “expressionless lumps,” came to write well, and selflessly, about the sufferings of those lumps, of the regular or conscripted Tommy Atkins, with whom, in certain respects, he was sometimes out of sympathy.

Owen wanted his elegies to warn, rather than console. But his famous “Anthem for Doomed Youth” (“doomed,” instead of “dead,” was supplied by Sassoon) has consolation, and condolence, in its memorable close. And his name was to become a rhyme for “mourn” or “forlorn,” the dying fall of some submissive music. This is unfair to almost all of his successful poems. These poems are late, and rarely comforting, and their power is only very faintly decipherable in the rest of what he wrote, which is mostly unrewarding. “Sweeter than nocturnes,” the smile of the murdered lad. There is one poem which reads like a Noel Coward parody of some late-Victorian connoisseur of nude bathers:

It was a navy boy, so prim, so trim,
That boarded my compartment of the train.

This navy boy had saved up every penny of his money for his mother.

I see from diaries I kept when I was a boy that in 1947, at the age of sixteen, the age when Owen discovered Keats, I considered the “Anthem” “the finest short 20th-century lyric,” and that I worshiped Keats and Shelley. It seems that the heritage which was present to him when he began writing was still intact thirty-five years later, for all the water, and war, that had flowed under the bridge. Various odd coincidences, at any rate, indicate that the patterns of instruction and emulation had changed much less than is generally supposed. An Imitation of Keats was still possible for schoolboys in the age of Attlee and austerity.

Owen used to reverse an armchair and preach sermons over the back, and he wrote verse about Roman ruins based on a reading of The Last Days of Pompeii: these diaries report the same actions. While he was at Craiglockhart, Owen took a walk to a spot in the Pentland Hills where Whigs of the Edinburgh Review fraternity went for picnics in the 1830s, and the sensitive individual sat apart in order to feel what it was like to be a romantic person, with fits of melancholy. The hills were regarded by the Whigs, and by me, as a romantic world, where there could be epiphanies. Silent upon a peak in Darien, Owen surveyed Keats: silent upon a Pentlands peak, he might have surveyed the long history of romantic feelings.

The same heritage pressed hard on Isaac Rosenberg. He belonged to a poor Jewish family that moved from Lithuania to escape the czarist draft and settled in the East End of London. He grew up to be a poet and a painter, and to think of himself as God’s castaway. Of his early reading he said: “I always enjoyed Shelley and Keats. The ‘Hyperion’ ravished me.” This was around 1912, when Owen, too, was being ravished. Sensibility ruled, and Eliot’s notion of a dissociation of sensibility was effortlessly anticipated: “poetical subjects” were those in which “feeling is separated from intellect; our senses are not interfered with by what we know of facts: we know infinity through melody.”

“I have always been alone,” he wrote: but it is also true that he regularly received and solicited help from patrons, and that he was one of a lively circle of friends, several of whom made names for themselves. Joseph Leftwich’s diary describes an evening stroll round Stepney. Rosenberg “shuffled along very taciturn at our side talking about Rossetti’s letters, and Keats and Shelley. He mumbles his words, very self-absorbed. His people are very unsympathetic, he complains, they insist on treating him as a little out of his mind. They treat him like an invalid, a little affected mentally, but he goes on in his way, running to the libraries whenever he can, to read poetry and the lives of the poets, their letters, their essays on how to write poetry, their theories of what poetry should be and do.” The painters Bomberg and Gertler knew these friends, and Joseph Cohen rosily explains of Gertler: “Lawrence liked him enormously and would use him as a model for the sculptor Loerke in Women in Love.” But Loerke is shown there as swimming rat-like in corruption—a state that is linked with Jewishness: it is not surprising that Rosenberg could sometimes behave as if the trenches were no different from the England he was fighting for.

Cohen’s book gives a convincing picture of a somber, earnest, touchy man, intent on making poems, awkward and accident-prone, a complainer: Malamud might have made him a schlemiel, and Rosenberg portrayed his own “super-self-consciousness” in a robust and witty story, “Rudolph.” God’s castaway used to visit the Café Royal, and once he talked on and on about his poetry to a group of art students who gradually drifted away to the lavatory and the telephone until he was left with a soliloquy and, not noticing, with the bill. When the war began, he was in South Africa, and, embarking to return, he let his paintings and drawings tumble overboard. Sensibility proved insensitive when he went on bothering his most considerate patron, Edward Marsh, with his pictures when Marsh was suffering the shock of Rupert Brooke’s death, and was busy, besides, at the Admiralty, waging war.

In South Africa, Rosenberg felt for a while that he’d sit out the war, writing to a friend that by the time he got the letter “Europe will have just stepped into its bath of blood. I will be waiting with beautiful drying towels of painted canvas, and precious ointments to smear and heal the soul and lovely music and poems.” He joined up in desperation: his family had been helping to keep him and here was a steady job. Keats was orphan-size, under five feet, and Rosenberg was sent to a unit of “Bantams”—men physically substandard whom the authorities were kind enough to admit to the carnage.

Paul Fussell says that the war was rich in irony: this is true of all wars, but no one will fail to recognize what he means. I remember a man so tender of his sons’ health that they went for walks equipped with spare pairs of socks—and then what happened to these sons? There is irony in the thought that, with the war, romantic melancholy came true: self-torment became torment. And in the thought that the life Rosenberg left was in some respects continuous with the life he led in his bath of blood. Tuberculosis, and the poverty of five and six in a room, was a fate that could compete with, and announce, the trenches.


Rosenberg’s reputation as a poet has languished for long spells, but from the Thirties onward, gifted critics—D. W. Harding in particular—have worked to secure a respectful interest in him. W. W. Robson has gone so far as to remark: “Just as Owen is one of the few poets worthy to be compared with Keats, Rosenberg is one of the few worthy to be compared with Shakespeare.” In earlier times, however, Pound could advise, “Don’t bother about Rosenberg,” and Yeats said he was “all windy rhetoric” (just as Owen was “all blood, dirt, and sucked sugar stick”). Edmund Gosse wrote bitchily to Marsh: “I feel sure he is a Dane, his verses are so like those which come to me in Danish from young bards in Copenhagen.”

“Break of Day in the Trenches” is a very good poem, and there are others: all written after he had enlisted. But most of his poems are very bad: Marsh’s despised Georgian doubts often made sense. At the Slade and elsewhere, Rosenberg was bombarded—Bomberged, Pounded—with Modernist precept, but, even after he had freed himself from some of his reliance on the orphan dialects of the past, he was more responsive to the leading Georgian poets than to any Modernist. All the same, it may be right to think of him as having become a Modern writer—by virtue, for example, of a commitment to metaphor which led him to write in “clotted gushes and spasms”: these are the words of another Georgian, Binyon, who intended a reproof, but they are an accurate account of the way he composed. His gushes and spasms contributed to the “obscurity” with which he was taxed: but it is as well to bear in mind that this may also have been connected with the very real difficulty he had in expressing himself in words, and that his reputation for obscurity may have been influenced by the fact that, for one reason or another, quite a high proportion of his poems exist in the form of drafts and jottings.

His “Sacred, Voluptuous Hollows Deep” was written before he enlisted:

While molten sweetest pains en- mesh
The life sucked by entwining flesh.

Mr. Cohen is not dissatisfied with this poem, parts of which might seem a little Danish, and he calls it “the work of a sexually experienced person.” His book, which benefited from a collaborative relationship of many years’ duration with Rosenberg’s sister Annie, relates that Rosenberg’s liking or love for the orphaned Sonia Cohen was overtaken, though perhaps not displaced, by a friendship with a woman by the name of Annetta Raphael, and that his strong-minded mother was bitterly estranged from her husband. Some of this seems conjectural, and not much of it is visible in the other two biographies, which are comparatively slight. The praise given to Rosenberg can include complaints that he has been neglected in favor of the officers and gentlemen among the war poets, Owen being especially resented. Jean Liddiard emphasizes that Rosenberg’s being a working-class Jew has meant that he has become “relevant”: the working class was to prove “the focus of the future.”

Last year there appeared a vivid life of the poet Keith Douglas, who fought in the Second World War and was killed in the Normandy landings: before that, in the Western Desert, he had disobeyed orders and run away to serve briefly as a tank commander in the battle of Alamein. He was a semi-orphan, who suffered when his father departed from the family. At seventeen, he wrote a story about a boy named Peter: a self-portrait, which, like Rosenberg’s “Rudolph,” communicates an adolescent sense of romantic stereotype. Peter is moved to “an inexorable feeling of melancholy and longing, which both compelled and denied analysis.” Douglas said that he almost “hated and feared many Jews,” but wandering through Jerusalem:

   among these Jews I am the Jew
the outcast…

He was the kind of outcast who eagerly joined in, and up, and who quarreled with people when he did; who could play the role of the rude, games-playing Byronic aristo, with a beast on his back. The outcast in him, and the snob, described his “ancestry,” in print, as “Scottish and pre-revolution French.” He was left by the two women who most mattered to him. Fred Astaire and the Mills brothers helped to make him a tap dancer and a close-harmony singer (but Graves could sit on a table and tap like the Fox sisters with his pelvis).

Douglas had a most marvelous poetic gift, which was already in evidence when he was fourteen. Like Owen’s “Strange Meeting,” “Vergissmeinnicht” is about an encounter with a dead enemy soldier. It is a less ambitious poem than the Owen. It hasn’t got the decline of the West in it, or, as a penetrating poem of Rosenberg’s has, the end of the British Empire. But it has the merits one might hope for from someone who declared that his object was “to write true things, significant things in words each of which works for its place in a line.” There is not much room in such a verse for feelings of melancholy which deny analysis, and his lyricism seems never to have needed any of the languages which stand in the line of descent from Keats and Shelley. His outcast condition, which preceded the war and which did not stop him from enjoying the war, is treated with irony in the poems in which it figures, and I believe that Paul Fussell would say that the irony we see there owes its origin to the trenches.

Fussell’s book is judicious, concise, and efficient, and he is at his best in his enthusiasm for the work of Edmund Blunden, Douglas’s tutor at Oxford. He argues that the war caused extensive alterations in consciousness. “What we can call gross dichotomising is a persisting imaginative habit of modern times,” and it is due to “the actualities of the Great War. ‘We’ are all here on this side; ‘the enemy’ is over there.” And again: “The Field Service Post Card has the honour of being the first widespread exemplar of that kind of document which uniquely characterizes the modern world: the ‘Form.’ ” I feel that, on occasion, he asks the reader to think of the Great War as greater—altogether richer in precedents—than it was. At the same time, he argues that the war, as an imaginative experience, was conditioned by experiences which preceded it. It may be that the two sets of claims do not sufficiently qualify each other: that if the war was both old and new, it was neither as old nor as new as he makes out.

Fussell discusses the black comedies of Heller and Pynchon, and we are brought to feel that trench humor has been succeeded by sick humor. Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which is about the Second World War, is also about the First. Brigadier Pudding’s “greatest triumph on the battlefield,” Pynchon writes, “came in 1917, in the gassy, Armageddonite filth of the Ypres salient, where he conquered a bight of no man’s land some 40 yards at its deepest, with a wastage of only 70% of his unit.” Now he pursues a midnight ritual of coprophagy, thus revisiting the necro-fecal stinks and stickiness of the Passchendaele mud. Fussell points out that he is tasting his memories of the Great War: “Pynchon is not the only contemporary novelist to conceive a close relation between perverse sexual desire, memories of war, and human excrement.” Veterans of the Great War will decide that this has more to do with the candor exercised in later fiction, and with the compulsions determining such candor, than with the memories and morbidities, the licking of wounds, discussed elsewhere in the book.

One of the consequences of the war was John Littlewood’s stage production of recent years, Oh What a Lovely War, which played for a long time—and not to audiences composed of shrieking necrophiles and coprophages. This was a heart-rending experience—an experience of indignation and, still more, of submission. Audiences were entirely taken over by the bleating of the soldiers’ songs, the music of God’s castaways, or lambs, or lads, very far from home. Nostalgia was sent dizzy by nostalgia. Fussell’s book does not do much with material of this kind—the anonymous contribution to the literature of the Great War. He writes chiefly about the response of a middle class possessed by a written literature, in which their war was a foregone conclusion.

This Issue

October 16, 1975