Poetry Centre

Weekly Poem for 21 January 2008

  • 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, odd thing, you grin as you pass
    Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
    Less chanced than you for life,
    Helpless 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
    Hurl’d 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.

    by Isaac Rosenberg

    from Poetry Out of My Head and Heart (2007), edited by Jean Liddiard

    An astonishing discovery was made in 1995 during the British Library's removal from the British Museum. Thirty-four letters and eighteen draft poems, including  ‘Break of Day in the Trenches', ‘Dead Man's Dump' and ‘Returning, We Hear the Larks' by the major First World War poet Isaac Rosenberg, were found in a bundle of papers stored by former museum keeper Laurence Binyon, himself a poet and Rosenberg's mentor. The newly discovered papers include all Rosenberg's complete letters and draft poems to Binyon and the poet Gordon Bottomley, together with material about Rosenberg from family, friends and mentors such as his sister Annie, Whitechapel librarian Morley Dainow, schoolteacher Winifreda Seaton, and patron Frank Emanuel. All are published here, most for the first time.

    Isaac Rosenberg was born in Bristol in 1890 to Jewish immigrant parents from Lithuania. His family moved to the East End of London in 1897, and after a rudimentary education Rosenberg at 14 was apprenticed to an engraver. Wealthy patrons enabled him to study at the Slade School of Art (1911-14) and for nine months in 1914-15 he lived in South Africa. The only poems to be collected in his lifetime were self-published in a pamphlet form - Night and Day (1912), Youth (1915) and Moses (1916). Enlisting in the Army in October 1915 he served on the Western Front until his death on night patrol on 1 April 1918.

    Founded in 1967, Enitharmon Press publishes fine quality literary editions. While specialising in poetry, we also publish fiction, essays, memoirs, translations, and an extensive list of artists’ books.