Poems by Isaac Rosenberg/Introductory Memoir
Of the many young poets who gave their lives in the war, Isaac Rosenberg was not the least gifted. Adverse circumstances, imperfect education, want of opportunity, impeded and obscured his genius; but whatever criticism be made of his poetry, its faults are plainly those of excess rather than deficiency. His writing was often difficult and obscure, because he instinctively thought in images and did not sufficiently appreciate the limitations of language. Also, a continual fear of being empty or thin led him to an over-intricate complexity. But there was no incoherence in his mind. And the main object of these notes, beyond recording the facts of his life, is to illustrate the growth and workings of his mind from his own letters, which will be the best commentary on his poems.
I cannot precisely fix the date, but it must have been some time in 1912, when one morning there came to me a letter in an untidy hand from an address in Whitechapel, enclosing some pages of verse on which criticism was asked, and signed "Isaac Rosenberg." It was impossible not to be struck by something unusual in the quality of the poems. Thoughts and emotions of no common nature struggled for expression, and at times there gushed forth a pure song which haunted the memory.
I answered at once, and the next day received another letter which told me something about my unknown correspondent. In this letter, which, like nearly all his letters, is undated, he wrote:
"I must thank you very much for your encouraging reply to my poetical efforts.... As you are kind enough to ask about myself, I am sending a sort of autobiography I wrote about a year ago.... You will see from that that my circumstances have not been very favourable for artistic production; but generally I am optimistic, I suppose because I am young and do not properly realize the difficulties. I am now attending the Slade, being sent there by some wealthy Jews who are kindly interested in me, and, of course, I spend most of my time drawing. I find writing interferes with drawing a good deal, and is far more exhausting."
He went on to tell of his admirations, Rossetti coming first for him among modern artists. He had seen very little of early Italian art, but divined that theirs was the type of art which he thought the only kind worth having—"expression through passionate colour and definite design"—not "a moment frozen on to canvas," but "the spontaneity of un-selfconscious and childlike nature—infinity of suggestion—that is as much part and voice of the artist's soul as the song to the bird." As to modern poets, they were "difficult to get hold of" (their volumes being expensive), but he had an immense admiration for Francis Thompson—"that is the sort of poetry that appeals most to me." He had done nothing yet in painting which he would care to show. He aspired to do imaginative work, but at present was practising portraiture, as it was necessary to earn a living.
At my invitation Rosenberg came to see me. Small in stature, dark, bright-eyed, thoroughly Jewish in type, he seemed a boy with an unusual mixture of self-reliance and modesty. Indeed, no one could have had a more independent nature. Obviously sensitive, he was not touchy or aggressive. Possessed of vivid enthusiasms, he was shy in speech. One found in talk how strangely little of second-hand (in one of his age) there was in his opinions, how fresh a mind he brought to what he saw and read. There was an odd kind of charm in his manner which came from his earnest, transparent sincerity.
The "sort of autobiography," which I have never seen since I returned it to him, and has perhaps been destroyed, was the story of a youth, mentally ambitious, introspective, dissatisfied with his surroundings, consumed by secret desires for liberation and self-expression.
The external facts of his life are briefly told. For these I am mainly indebted to his sister, Mrs. Wynick, whose devotion to her brother and his work was at all times unwearied. She gave much of a scanty leisure-time to typing copies of his poems, and many of them would have been lost but for her care in preserving them.
Isaac Rosenberg was born at Bristol on the 25th of November, 1890. When he was seven he came to London with his parents. The family settled in the East End. The boy was sent to the Board School of St. George's in the East, and afterwards to the Stepney Board School. From childhood he showed a natural gift both for drawing and for writing. While at the Stepney school his promise appeared so remarkable that the headmaster allowed him to spend all his time in these pursuits. Out of school he would draw with chalks on the street pavement. Reading poetry was a passion with him. At the age of fourteen he was reluctantly obliged to leave school. His parents were poor; and though they took great pride in his gifts, he was one of a family of eight, and he must now earn his living. He was apprenticed, therefore, to the firm of Carl Hentschel, in Fleet Street. A trade connected with art was chosen for him as a stepping-stone to a painter's career, and as something to fall back upon in case his resources failed him. But he hated trade, and felt in bondage. In his meal-times he consoled himself by writing poems; in the evenings he went to classes at the Art School of Birkbeck College. He worked hard and won many prizes. Mr. Frank Emanuel, the painter, who befriended and encouraged him at this time, describes him as having been made "bitter and despondent by his circumstances"; and his letters reveal fits of the deepest dejection against which his will contended.
The uncongenial work came at last to an end. The sense of liberation was at first intoxicating. Yet work had to be found, and Isaac was determined to pursue art and nothing else. He met at first with disappointment, and endured many privations. But before long he found good friends. Mr. Amschewitz, an artist, and Mr. Samuels warmly interested themselves in his behalf. Through them he made the acquaintance of three ladies, Mrs. Josephs, Mrs. Herbert Cohen, and Mrs. Lowy, who undertook to provide the means for his training at the Slade School.
Through Mr. Emanuel's friendship he had become a member of "The Limners," a club of artists and art teachers, which met at Mr. Emanuel's studio. Here he had the opportunity of meeting other artists and exchanging ideas. Prizes were given, which young Rosenberg occasionally won. In spite, therefore, of his poverty and unpropitious surroundings, he had now won sympathetic friends, and received both encouragement and material help from discerning compatriots. But with his sensitive artist’s pride and jealous independence of spirit, he was not always easy to understand; and those who, with the sole desire to help him, advanced his circumstances sometimes felt that their efforts did not seem to be appreciated. The case is not unfamiliar to readers of artists’ biographies.
Rosenberg went to the Slade School in October, 1911, and remained till March, 1914. He won prizes at the school and praise from his teachers. Thrown among contemporaries, all occupied with the problems of art and the discussion of them, he became tinged with the temper and the prevalent ideas of his own generation of students. His natural bent, I think, was in another direction. He showed me drawings and studies from time to time, and I saw a few of his paintings when they were exhibited one summer at the Whitechapel Gallery. He was full of ideas, was a capable draughtsman, and could conceive an interesting design. Yet, to judge from what I have seen of his work, it did not seem to be for him the inevitable means of expression. He once showed me at his studio a large, ambitious composition—an oil-painting—which I fancy was never completed. I cannot recall the nominal subject, but it was saturated with symbolism and required a good deal of explanation. I liked the mysteriousness of it, and the ideas which inspired the painting had suggested figures and groups and visionary glimpses of landscape which had passages of real beauty, though the whole work had grown impossibly complex with its convolutions of symbolic meaning. It reminded me of his poetry; and I think that represented his natural bent in art. Had he been born half a century earlier, he would have been an ardent disciple of Rossetti. But he could not escape from the mental atmosphere of his own generation, in which so "literary" a conception of painting was bound to wither in discouragement. Later, he showed me some studies of landscape and portrait which he had made in South Africa. These were in a more "modern" vein of realism, but they seemed to fail in the quality of force, to which all other qualities had been, in intention, sacrificed. They had no personal savour. Like every generous and ambitious youth, Rosenberg wished his own generation to do glorious things, and wished to belong to it as a comrade. Whether he would have emerged and found himself as a painter is a doubtful conjecture. I think it possible that he would have abandoned painting. For his true vocation was poetry, and he thought of himself as a poet rather than as a painter.
He had begun to write verse at a very early age. Mr. Morley Dainow, who was at the time librarian in the Whitechapel Public Library, was approached one day by a Jewish girl who wanted advice and help for her young brother. His aim in life, she said, was to be a poet. The next day the boy was brought to the library. Isaac then seemed to be between ten and twelve years of age. He had already determined to be a poet and a painter. He interested and impressed Mr. Dainow, and in return for his friendly encouragement sent him a poem called "David's Harp." These are the earliest verses of Rosenberg's that Mr. Bottomley or I have seen. They are not printed in this book, but they are interesting because they show how, even as a young boy, Rosenberg cherished the traditions of his race and aspired to become a representative poet of his own nation. Moses and Judas Maccabæus were intended to be themes of his maturer poetry. "David's Harp" is in fluent stanzas, and shows the passing influence of Byron.
The pamphlet called "Night and Day," printed in 1912, contains probably all that Rosenberg cared to preserve of his early verse, though no doubt it represented but a small selection from what he had written.
After leaving the Slade School, he found himself faced with a harder struggle than ever. But he never admitted defeat. He sold a few pictures and got a few poems into print, but his health was now a cause for anxiety. His lungs were thought to be affected, and he was advised to try a warmer climate. Having a married sister in Cape Town, he thought of South Africa, and in June, 1911, he sailed for the Cape. Here he made one or two friends, painted some pictures, taught a little, gave a few lectures, and published some poems and articles. But the visit was not a material success, and he returned disappointed and despondent. Soon after his return, in 1915, he printed a second pamphlet of verse, "Youth." But he was restless and unhappy, and could not work. It was now that he enlisted in the Army. From this date onward he had practically no time for painting, but he continued to write till the end. "Moses" was printed in 1916. He was first in a Bantam regiment, then in the King's Own Royal Lancasters, and after a period of training at Bury St. Edmunds and at Farnborough went out, early in 1916, to France. No one could have been less fitted for a military life. He suffered not only from physical disability, bad health, and sensitiveness, but from the absent-mindedness of one whose imagination was possessed by his poetic schemes. "My mind will not relinquish its poetical yearnings," he wrote, "and concentration on alien things and dull has strained my memory." But he endured the inhuman horror of modern war with a great heart; he would not have liked to be called a hero, but his fortitude was truly heroic. On the first of April, 1918, he was killed in action.
The poems collected in this volume speak for themselves. The obscurities, the straining and tormenting of language in the effort to find right expression, the immaturities of style and taste, are apparent on the surface. The imaginative conceptions and the frequent gleam of imaginative phrasing should be equally apparent. But what does not appear on the surface is the fine intention, the ardent toil, and the continual self-criticism which underlay his work. Rosenberg's aim was, in his own words, a kind of poetry "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." The sentence occurs in one of his letters, and from this point on I wish to let Rosenberg speak for himself. His letters give a picture both of his mind and character, far more vivid than anything one could write about him. He very rarely dated a letter, but the address and internal evidence give a clue to the date. The first extract is from a letter written, while he was still an apprentice, to Miss Winifreda Seaton, a friend to whom Mr. Amschewitz introduced him. Miss Seaton lent him books, encouraged him to write, discussed art and literature with him, and criticized his poems.
"It is horrible to think that all these hours, when my days are full of vigour and my hands and soul craving for self-expression, I am bound, chained to this fiendish mangling-machine, without hope and almost desire of deliverance, and the days of youth go by.... I have tried to make some sort of self-adjustment to circumstances by saying, 'It is all experience'; but, good God! it is all experience, and nothing else.... I really would like to take up painting seriously; I think I might do something at that; but poetry—I despair of ever writing excellent poetry. I can't look at things in the simple, large way that great poets do. My mind is so cramped and dulled and fevered, there is no consistency of purpose, no oneness of aim; the very fibres are torn apart, and application deadened by the fiendish persistence of the coil of circumstance."
At last the apprenticeship is over and Rosenberg writes exulting:
"Congratulate me! I've cleared out of the shop, I hope for good and all. I’m free—free to do anything, hang myself or anything except work.... I'm very optimistic, now that I don't know what to do, and everything seems topsy-turvy."
A little later comes the reaction:
"I am out of work. I doubt if I feel the better for it, much as the work was distasteful, though I expect it's the hankering thought of the consequences, pecuniary, etc., that bothers me.... All one's thoughts seem to revolve round to one point—death. It is horrible, especially at night, 'in the silence of the midnight'; it seems to clutch at your thought—you can't breathe. Oh, I think, work, work, any work, only to stop one thinking."
But such moods are resisted. At another time he is writing:
"One conceives one's lot (I suppose it's the same with all people, no matter what their condition) to be terribly tragic. You are the victim of a horrible conspiracy; everything is unfair. The gods have either forgotten you or made you a sort of scapegoat to bear all the punishment. I believe, however hard one's lot is, one ought to try and accommodate oneself to the conditions; and except in a case of purely physical pain, I think it can be done. Why not make the very utmost of our lives?... I’m a practical economist in this respect. I endeavour to waste nothing.... Waste words! Not to talk is to waste words....
"To most people life is a musical instrument on which they are unable to play: but in the musician's hands it becomes a living thing.... The artist can see beauty everywhere, anywhere...."
In what is perhaps an earlier letter he excuses his neglect of serious reading by his lack of leisure and the worries that make him crave for amusing books as an antidote:
"You mustn't forget the 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. I don't think I knew what real poetry was till I read Keats a couple of years ago. True, I galloped through Byron when I was about fourteen, but I fancy I read him more for the story than for the poetry. I used to try to imitate him. Anyway, if I didn't quite take to Donne at first, you understand why. Poetical appreciation is only newly bursting on me. I always enjoyed Shelley and Keats. The 'Hyperion' lavished me....
"Whenever I read anything in a great man's life that pulls him down to me, my heart always pleads for him, and my mind pictures extenuating circumstances.
"Have you ever picked up a book that looks like a Bible on the outside, but is full of poetry or comic within? My Hood is like that, and, I am afraid, so am I. Whenever I feel inclined to laugh, my visage assumes the longitude and gravity of a church spire.
"I can't say I have ever experienced the power of one spirit over another, except in books, of course, at least in any intense way that you mean. Unless you mean the interest one awakes in us, and we long to know more, and none other. I suppose we are all influenced by everybody we come in contact with, in a subconscious way, if not direct, and everything that happens to us is experience; but only the few know it. Most people can only see and hear the noisy sunsets, mountains and waterfalls; but the delicate greys and hues, the star in the puddle, the quiet sailing cloud, is nothing to them. Of course, I only mean this metaphorically, as distinguishing between obvious experiences and the almost imperceptible. I still have no work to do. I think, if nothing turns up here, I will go to Africa. I could not endure to live upon my people; and up till now I have been giving them from what I had managed to save up when I was at work. It is nearly run out now, and if I am to do nothing, I would rather do it somewhere else. Besides, I feel so cramped up here, I can do no drawing, reading, or anything....
"Create our own experience! We can, but we don't. Very often it's only the trouble of a word, and who knows what we miss through not having spoken? It's the man with impudence who has more experience than anybody. He not only varies his own, but makes other people's his own.
"Do I like music, and what music I like best? I know nothing whatever about music. Once I heard Schubert's 'Unfinished Symphony' at the band; and—well, I was in heaven. It was a blur of sounds—sweet, fading and blending. It seemed to draw the sky down, the whole spirit out of me; it was articulate feeling. The inexpressible in poetry, in painting, was there expressed. But I have not heard much, and the sensation that gave me I never had again. I should like very much to be one of the initiated.
"Some more confidences. I've discovered I'm a very bad talker: I find it difficult to make myself intelligible at times; I can't remember the exact word I want, and I think I leave the impression of being a rambling idiot."
In 1910 he went to see the wonderful collection of Japanese paintings lent by Japan to the Exhibition at Shepherd's Bush.
"The thoroughness is astounding. No slipshod, tricky slickness, trusting to chance effects, but a subtle suggestiveness, and accident that is the consequence of intention."
Here are a few sentences from some "Notes on Art":
"Life stales and dulls; the mind demands noble excitement, half-apprehended surmises, the eternal desire, the beautiful. It is a vain belief that Art and Life go hand-in-hand; Art is, as it were, another planet.
"Mere representation is unreal, is fragmentary. The bone taken from Adam remains a bone. To create is to apply pulsating rhythmic principles to the part; a unity, another nature, is created."
To Miss Seaton.
"Thanks so much for the Donne. I had just been reading Ben Jonson again, and from his poem to Donne he must have thought him a giant. I have read some of the Donne; I have certainly never come across anything so choke-full of profound meaningful ideas. It would have been very difficult for him to express something commonplace, if he had to."
To Miss Seaton.
"I forgot to ask you to return my poetry, as I mean to work on some [of the poems]. I agree the emotions are not worth expressing, but I thought the things had some force, and an idea or so I rather liked. Of course, I know poetry is a far finer thing than that, but I don't think the failure was due to the subject—I had nothing to say about it, that's all. Crashaw, I think, is sometimes very sexual in his religious poems, but it is always new and beautiful. I believe we are apt to fix a standard (of subject) in poetry. We acknowledge the poetry in subjects not generally taken as material, but I think we all (at least I do) prefer the poetical subject—"Kubla Khan," "The Mistress of Vision," "Dream - Tryst"; Poe, Verlaine. Here feeling is separated from intellect; our senses are not interfered with by what we know of facts: we know infinity through melody."
After leaving the Slade School, at a loss for work and anxious about his health, Rosenberg thought for a time of going to Russia. But it was difficult for a Jew to get a passport, and he reverted to the African journey which he had contemplated already some years before.
To Miss Seaton.
"So I've decided on Africa, the climate being very good, and I believe plenty to do.... I won't be quite lost in Africa.... I dislike London for the selfishness it instils into one, which is a reason of the peculiar feeling of isolation I believe most people have in London. I hardly know anybody whom I would regret leaving (except, of course, the natural ties of sentiment with one's own people); but whether it is that my nature distrusts people, or is intolerant, or whether my pride or my backwardness cools people, I have always been alone. Forgive this little excursion into the forbidden lands of egotism."
The next letter was written to Mr. Edward Marsh, in the midst of packing for the voyage to the Cape. Mr. Marsh was interested in Rosenberg both as an artist and as a poet; he printed one of his poems in "Georgian Poetry, 1916-1917," and befriended him in many ways. The letter throws light on Rosenberg's use of language in poetry. As the piece referred to—"Midsummer Frost"—is not in the present selection, it may be given here:
A July ghost, aghast at the strange winter,
Wonders, at burning noon, all summer-seeming,
How, like a sad thought buried in light [woven] words,
Winter, an alien presence, is ambushed here.
See from the fire-fountained noon there creep
Lazy yellow ardours towards pale evening,
Dragging the sun across the shell of thought;
A web threaded with fading fire;
Futile and fragile lure, a July ghost
Standing with feet of fire on banks of ice,
My frozen heart, the summer cannot reach—
Hidden as a root from air, or star from day,
A frozen pool whereon mirth dances,
Where the shining boys would fish.
To Edward Marsh (1914).
"I believe that all poets who are personal see things genuinely—have their place. One needn't be a Shakespeare and yet be quite as interesting. I have moods when Rossetti satisfies me more than Shakespeare, and I am sure I have enjoyed some things of Francis Thompson more than the best of Shakespeare. Yet I never meant to go as high as these. I know I've come across things by people of far inferior vision that were as important in their results to me. I am not going to refute your criticisms; in literature I have no judgment, at least for style. If in reading a thought has expressed itself to me in beautiful words, my ignorance of grammar, etc., makes me accept that. I should think you are right mostly, and I may yet work away your chief objections. You are quite right in the way you read my poems, but I thought I could use the 'July Ghost' to mean the summer, and also an ambassador of the summer, without interfering with the sense. The 'shell of thought' is man; you realize a shell has an opening, the 'ardours'; the sense of heat forms a web; this signifies a sense of summer; the web again becomes another metaphor, a July Ghost. But, of course, I mean it for summer right through. I think your suggestion of taking out 'woven' is very good."
The next letter is from Cape Town.
To Edward Marsh (1914).
"I should like you to do me a favour if it's not putting you to too much bother. I am in an infernal city by the sea. This city has men in it—and these men have souls in them—or at least have the passages to souls. Though they are millions of years behind time, they have yet reached the stage of evolution that knows ears and eyes. But these passages are dreadfully clogged up: gold dust, diamond dust, stocks and shares, and Heaven knows what other flinty muck. Well, I've made up my mind to clear through all this rubbish, but I want your help. Now, I'm going to give a series of lectures on modern art (I'm sending you the first, which I gave in great style. I was asked whether the Futurists exhibited at the Royal Academy). But I want to make the lectures interesting and intelligible by reproductions or slides. Now, I wonder whether you have reproductions which you could lend me till I returned or was finished with them. I want to talk about John, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Innes, the early Picasso (not the cubistic one), Spencer, Gertler, Lamb, Puvis de Chavannes, Degas. A book of reproductions of the P.-Impressionists would do, and I could get them transferred on slides. I hope this would not put you to any great trouble, but if you could manage to do it you don't know how you would help me. Stanley gave me a little job to paint two babies, which helped me to pay my way for a bit. I expect to get pupils and kick up a row with my lectures. But nobody seems to have money here, and not an ounce of interest in Art. The climate's fine, but the Sun is a very changeable creature and I can't come to any sort of understanding with this golden beast. He pretends to keep quiet for half an hour, and just as I think, 'Now I've got it,’ the damned thing has frisked about. There's a lot of splendid stuff to paint. We are walled in by the sharp upright mountain and the bay. Across the bay the piled-up mountains of Africa look lovely and dangerous. It makes one think of savagery and earthquakes—the elemental lawlessness."
The next extract is from a letter written in 1915, just after hearing the news of Rupert Brooke's death.
To Miss Seaton.
"Do you know Emerson's poems? I think they are wonderful. 'Each and All' I think is deep and beautiful. There is always a kind of beaminess, like a dancing of light in light, in his poems. I do think, though, that he depends too much on inspiration; and though they always have a solid texture of thought, they sometimes seem thin in colour or sensuousness."
To Miss Seaton.
"I saw Olive Schreiner last night. She's an extraordinary woman—full of life. I had a little picture for her from a dear friend of hers in Africa I stayed with while I was there. She was so pleased with my pictures of Kaffirs. Who is your best living English poet? I've found somebody miles and miles above everybody—a young man, Lascelles Abercrombie—a mighty poet and brother to Browning."
Other references in letters show how deep at this time Mr. Abercrombie's influence was. Rosenberg calls his "Hymn of Love" the finest poem of our time.
He has now joined the Army, and writes from Bury St. Edmunds.
To Edward Marsh (1915).
"I have just joined the Bantams, and am down here amongst a horrible rabble. Falstaff's scarecrows were nothing to these. Three out of every four have been scavengers, the fourth is a ticket-of-leave. But that is nothing; though while I'm waiting for my kit I'm roughing it a bit, having come down without even a towel. I dry myself with my pocket-handkerchief. I don't know whether I will be shifted as soon as I get my rig-out."
The next was written in hospital at Bury.
To Edward Marsh.
"First, not to alarm you by this heading, I must tell you that while running before the Colonel I started rather excitedly and tripped myself, coming down pretty heavily in the wet grit, and am in hospital with both my hands cut. I've been here since last Saturday, and expect to be out by about the beginning of the week. It is a dull kind of life in the hospital, and I'm very anxious to get out and be doing some rough kind of work. Mr. Shiff sent me some water-colours, and I amuse myself with drawing the other invalids. Of course, I must give them what I do, but I can see heaps of material for pictures here. The landscape, too, seems decent, though I haven't seen anything but from the barracks, as this accident happened pretty near at the start. I hope you were not annoyed at that fib of mine, but I never dreamt they would trouble to find out at home. I have managed to persuade my mother that I am for home service only, though, of course, I have signed on for general service. I left without saying anything because I was afraid it would kill my mother or I would be too weak and not go. She seems to have got over it, though, and as soon as I can get leave I'll see her, and I hope it will be well. It is very hard to write here, so you must not expect interesting letters; there is always behind or through my object some pressing sense of foreign matter, immediate and not personal, which hinders and disjoints what would otherwise have coherence and perhaps weight. I have left all my poems, including a short drama, with a friend, and I will write to him for them, when I shall send them either direct to Abercrombie or to you first. I believe in myself more as a poet than a painter; I think I get more depth into my writing. I have only taken Donne with me, and don't feel for poetry much in this wretched place. There is not a book or paper here; we are not allowed to stir from the gate, have little to eat, and are not allowed to buy any if we have money, and are utterly wretched. (I mean the hospital.) If you could send me some novel or chocolates, you would make me very happy."
To Edward Marsh (from Bury St. Edmunds).
"I received a letter to-day (sent over a week ago) from Abercrombie, and I feel very flushed about it. He says no one who tries to write poetry would help envying some of my writing. Since I wrote you I have had more mishaps. My feet now are the trouble. Do you know what privates' military boots are? You are given a whole armourer's shop to wear; but, by God! in a few hours my heels were all blistered, and I've been marching and drilling in most horrible pain. I drew three weeks' pay and had some money sent me from home, and bought a pair of boots three or four sizes too large for me, my feet had swelled so. Besides this trouble I have a little impudent schoolboy pup for an officer, and he has me marked; he has taken a dislike to me: I don't know why."
To Miss Seaton (from Bury St. Edmunds).
"Thanks for your letter and your books which they sent me from home. It is impossible to read as we are, and I don't expect to get proper leisure for reading till this rotten affair is over. My feet are pretty nigh better, and my hands, and I am put down for a Lance-Corporal. The advantage is, though you have a more responsible position, you are less likely to be interfered with by the men, and you become an authority. I expect to be home for four days shortly. I don't know whether I told you Lascelles Abercrombie sent me a fine letter about my work, which made me very bucked. There is nobody living whose praise could have pleased me so much. I have some pictures at the N.E.A.C., one of which is likely to be sold."
To Edward Marsh (from Bury St. Edmunds).
"I suppose my troubles are really laughable, but they do irritate at the moment. Doing coal fatigues and cookhouse work with a torn hand, and marching ten miles with a clean hole about an inch round in your heel, and bullies swearing at you, is not very natural. I think when my hands and feet get better I'll enjoy it. Nobody thinks of helping you—I mean those who could. Not till I had been made a thorough cripple an officer said it was absurd to think of wearing those boots, and told me to soak them thoroughly in oil to soften them. Thank you for your note; we get little enough, you know, and I allow half of that to my mother (I rather fancy she is going to be swindled in this rat-trap affair), so it will do to get to London with. You must now be the busiest man in England, and I am sure would hardly have time to read my things ; besides, you won't like the form- lessness of the play. If you like you can send them to Abercrombie, and read them when you have more time. I don't think I told you what he said: 'A good many of your poems strike me as experimental and not quite certain of themselves. But, on the other hand, I always find a vivid and original impulse; and what I like most in your songs is your ability to make the concealed poetic power in words come Hashing out. Some of your phrases are remarkable; no one who tries to write poetry would help envying some of them.' I have asked him to sit for me—a poet to paint a poet. All this must seem to you like a blur on the window, or hearing sounds without listening while you are thinking."
To Miss Section (from Blackdown Camp, Farnborough).
"Thanks very much for the bread and biscuits, which I enjoyed very much. I am in another regiment now, as the old one was smashed up on account of most of the men being unfit. We that were left have been transferred here. The food is much better, but conditions are most unsettling. Every other person is a thief, and in the end you become one yourself, when you see all your most essential belongings go, which you must replace somehow. I also got into trouble here the first day. It's not worth while detailing what happened and exposing how ridiculous, idiotic, and meaningless the Army is, and its dreadful bullyisms, and what puny minds control it. I am trying to get our Passover off, which falls Easter. If I do I'll let you know. The bother is that we will be on our ball-firing then, and also this before-mentioned affair may mess it up. This ball-firing implies we will be ready for the front. I have been working on 'Moses'—in my mind, I mean—and it was through my absent-mindedness while full of that that I forgot certain orders, and am now undergoing a rotten and unjust punishment. I'm working a curious plot into it, and of course, as I can't work here, I jot little scraps down and will piece it together the first chance I get."
The remaining letters are all from France.
To Miss Seaton (1916).
"We made straight for the trenches, but we've had vile weather, and I've been wet through for four days and nights. I lost all my socks and things before I left England, and hadn't the chance to make it up again, so I've been in trouble, particularly with bad heels; you can't have the slightest conception of what such an apparently trivial thing means. We've had shells bursting two yards off, bullets whizzing all over the show, but all you are aware of is the agony of your heels.... I had a letter from R. C. Trevelyan, the poet.... He writes: 'It is a long time since I have read anything that has impressed me so much as your "Moses" and some of your short poems....' He confesses parts are difficult, and he is not sure whether it's my fault or his."
The next letter is the first of a series to Mr. Bottomley, whom he was only to know by correspondence. He was now for a time working with the Salvage Corps.
To Gordon Bottomley (Postmark, June 12, 1916).
"If you really mean what you say in your letter, there is no need to tell you how proud I am. I had to read your letter many times before I could convince myself you were not 'pulling my leg.' People are always telling me my work is promising—incomprehensible, but promising, and all that sort of thing, and my meekness subsides before the patronizing knowingness. The first thing I saw of yours was last year in the Georgian Book, 'The End of the World.' I must have worried all London about it—certainly everybody I know. I had never seen anything like it. After that I got hold of 'Chambers of Imagery.' Mr. Marsh told me of your plays, but I joined the Army and have never been able to get at them. It is a great thing to me to be able to tell you now in this way what marvellous pleasure your work has given me, and what pride that my work pleases you. I had ideas for a play called 'Adam and Lilith' before I came to France, but I must wait now."
To Gordon Bottomley (Postmark, July 23, 1916).
"Your letter came to-day with Mr. Trevelyan's, like two friends to take me for a picnic. Or rather like friends come to release the convict from his chains with his innocence in their hands, as one sees in the twopenny picture palace. You might say, friends come to take you to church, or the priest to the prisoner. 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. I know it is beyond my reach just now, except, perhaps, in bits. I am always afraid of being empty. When I get more leisure in more settled times I will work on a larger scale and give myself room; then I may be less frustrated in my efforts to be clear, and satisfy myself too. I think what you say about getting beauty by phrasing of passages rather than the placing of individual words very fine and very true."
To Miss Seaton (written in Hospital, 1916).
"I was very glad to have your letter and know there is no longer a mix-up about letters and such-like. Always the best thing to do is to answer at once, that is the likeliest way of catching one, for we shift about so quickly; how long I will stay here I cannot say: it may be a while or just a bit. I have some Shakespeare: the Comedies and also 'Macbeth.' Now I see your argument and cannot deny my treatment of your criticisms, but have you ever asked yourself why I always am rude to your criticisms? Now, I intended to show you ———'s letters and why I value his criticisms. I think anybody can pick holes and find unsound parts in any work of art ; anyone can say Christ's creed is a slave's creed, the Mosaic is a vindictive, savage creed, and so on. It is the unique and superior, the illuminating qualities one wants to find—discover the direction of the impulse. Whatever anybody thinks of a poet he will always know himself: he knows that the most marvellously expressed idea is still nothing; and it is stupid to think that praise can do him harm. I know sometimes one cannot exactly define one's feelings nor explain reasons for liking and disliking; but there is then the right of a suspicion that the thing has not been properly understood or one is prejudiced. It is much my fault if I am not understood, I know; but I also feel a kind of injustice if my idea is not grasped and is ignored, and only petty cavilling at form, which I had known all along was so, is continually knocked into me. I feel quite sure that form is only a question of time. I am afraid I am more rude than ever, but I have exaggerated here the difference between your criticisms and ———'s. Ideas of poetry can be very different too. Tennyson thought Burns' love-songs important, but the 'Cottar's S. N.' poor. Wordsworth thought the opposite."
To Miss Seaton (November 15, 1916; written in Hospital).
"London may not be the place for poetry to keep healthy in, but Shakespeare did most of his work there, and Donne, Keats, Milton, Blake—I think nearly all our big poets. But, after all, that is a matter of personal likings or otherwise. Most of the French country I have seen has been devastated by war, torn up—even the woods look ghastly with their shell-shattered trees; our only recollections of warm and comfortable feelings are the rare times amongst human villages, which happened about twice in a year; but who can tell what one will like or do after the war? If the twentieth century is so awful, tell me what period you believe most enviable. Even Pater points out the Renaissance was not an outburst—it was no simultaneous marked impulse of minds living in a certain period of time—but scattered and isolated."
To Edward Marsh (Postmark, January 30, 1917).
"I think with you that poetry should be definite thought and clear expressions, however subtle; I don't think there should be any vagueness at all, but a sense of something hidden and felt to be there. Now, when my things fail to be clear, I am sure it is because of the luckless choice of a word or the failure to introduce a word that would flash my idea plain, as it is to my own mind. I believe my Amazon poem to be my best poem. If there is any difficulty, it must be in words here and there, the changing or elimination of which may make the poem clear. It has taken me about a year to write; for I have changed and rechanged it and thought hard over that poem, and striven to get that sense of inexorableness the human (or unhuman) side of this war has. It even penetrates behind human life; for the 'Amazon' who speaks in the second half of the poem is imagined to be without her lover yet, while all her sisters have theirs, the released spirits of the slain earth-men; her lover yet remains to be released."
To Miss Seaton (1916).
"Many thanks for book and chocolate. Both are being devoured with equal pleasure. I can't get quite the delight in Whitman as from one poem of his I know—'Captain, my Captain.' I admire the vigour and independence of his mind, but his diction is so diffused. Emerson and not Whitman is America's poet. You will persist in refusing to see my side of our little debate on criticism. Everybody has agreed with you about the faults, and the reason is obvious; the faults are so glaring that nobody can fail to see them. But how many have seen the beauties? And it is here more than the other that the true critic shows himself. And I absolutely disagree that it is blindness or carelessness; it is the brain succumbing to the herculean attempt to enrich the world of ideas."
To Laurence Binyon (1916).
"It is far, very far, to the British Museum from here (situated as I am, Siberia is no further and certainly no colder), but not too far for that tiny mite of myself, my letter, to reach there. Winter has found its way into the trenches at last, but I will assure you, and leave to your imagination, the transport of delight with which we welcomed its coining. Winter is not the least of the horrors of war. I am determined that this war, with all its powers for devastation, shall not master my poeting; that is, if I am lucky enough to come through all right. I will not leave a corner of my consciousness covered up, but saturate myself with the strange and extraordinary new conditions of this life, and it will all refine itself into poetry later on. I have thoughts of a play round our Jewish hero, Judas Maccabeus. I have much real material here, and also there is some parallel in the savagery of the invaders then to this war. I am not decided whether truth of period is a good quality or a negative one. Flaubert's 'Salambo' proves, perhaps, that it is good. It decides the tone of the work, though it makes it hard to give the human side and make it more living. However, it is impossible now to work and difficult even to think of poetry, one is so cramped intellectually."
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 work 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.
To Gordon Bottomley (Postmark, April 8, 1917).
"All through this winter I have felt most crotchety, all kinds of small things interfering with my fitness. My hands would get chilblains or bad boots would make my feet sore; and this aggravating a general run-down-ness, I have not felt too happy. I have gone less warmly clad during the winter than through the summer, because of the increased liveliness on my clothes. I've been stung to what we call 'dumping' a great part of my clothing, as I thought it wisest to go cold than lousy. It may have been this that caused all the crotchetiness. However, we've been in no danger—that is, from shell-fire—for a good long while, though so very close to most terrible fighting. But as far as houses or sign of ordinary human living is concerned, we might as well be in the Sahara Desert. I think I could give some blood-curdling touches if I wished to tell all I see, of dead buried men blown out of their graves, and more, but I will spare you all this."
To Edward Marsh (Postmark, May, 1917).
"Regular rhythms I do not like much, but, of course, it depends on where the stress and accent are laid. I think there is nothing finer than the vigorous opening to 'Lycidas' for music; yet it is regular.... It is only when we get a bit of a rest and the others might be gambling or squabbling I do a line or two and continue this way. The weather is gorgeous now, and we are bivouacked in the fields."
To Edward Marsh (1917).
"I hope you have not yet got my poem, 'The Amulet,' I've asked my sister to send you. If you get it, please don't read it, because it's the merest sketch and the best is yet to come. If I am able to carry on with it, I'll send you it in a more presentable fashion. I believe I have a good idea at bottom. It's a kind of 'Rape of the Sabine Women' idea: some strange race of wanderers have settled in some wild place and are perishing out for lack of women. The prince of these explores some country near where the women are most fair. But the natives will not hear of foreign marriages; and he plots another Rape of the Sabines, but is trapped in the act."
To Edward Marsh (1917).
"I am now fearfully rushed, but find energy enough to scribble this in the minute I plunder from my work. I believe I can see the obscurities in the 'Daughters,' but hardly hope to clear them up in France. The first part, the picture of the Daughters dancing and calling to the spirits of the slain before their last ones have ceased among the boughs of the tree of life, I must still work on. In that part obscure the description of the voice of the Daughter I have not made clear, I see; I have tried to suggest the wonderful sound of her voice, spiritual and voluptuous at the same time. The end is an attempt to imagine the severance of all human relationship and the fading away of human love. Later on I will try and work on it, because I think it a pity if the ideas are to be lost for want of work. My 'Unicorn' play is stopped because of my increased toil, and I forget how much or little I told you of it. I want to do it in one Act, although I think I have a subject here that could make a gigantic play. I have not the time to write out the sketch of it as far as it's gone, though I'd like to know your criticism of it very much. The most difficult part I shrink from; I think even Shakespeare might:—the first time Tel, the chief of the decaying race, sees a woman (who is Lilith, Saul's wife), and he is called upon to talk. Saul and Lilith are ordinary folk into whose ordinary lives the Unicorn bursts. It is to be a play of terror—terror of hidden things and the fear of the supernatural. But I see no hope of doing the play while out here. I have a way, when I write, to try and put myself in the situation, and I make gestures and grimaces."
To Gordon Bottomley (Postmark, July 20, 1917).
"My sister wrote me of your note, and it made me very glad to feel you thought in that way about my poem, because I liked it myself above anything I have yet done. I know my letters are not what they should be; but I must take any chance I get of writing for fear another chance does not come, so I write hastily and leave out most I should write about. I wished to say last time a lot about your poem, but I could think of nothing that would properly express my great pleasure in it; and I can think of nothing now. If anything, I think it is too brief—although it is so rare and compressed and full of hinted matter. I wish I could get back and read your plays; and if my luck still continues, I shall. Leaves have commenced with us, but it may be a good while before I get mine. We are more busy now than when I last wrote, but I generally manage to knock something up if my brain means to, and I am sketching out a little play. My great fear is that I may lose what I've written, which can happen here so easily. I send home any bit I write, for safety, but that can easily get lost in transmission. However, I live in an immense trust that things will turn out well."
To Gordon Bottomley (1917).
"The other poems I have not yet read, but I will follow on with letters and shall send the bits of—or rather the bit of—a play I've written. Just now it is interfered with by a punishment I am undergoing for the offence of being endowed with a poor memory, which continually causes me trouble and often punishment. I forgot to wear my gas-helmet one day; in fact, I've often forgotten it, but I was noticed one day, and seven days' pack drill is the consequence, which I do between the hours of going up the line and sleep. My memory, always weak, has become worse since I've been out here."
To Gordon Bottomley (Postmark, August 3, 1917).
"I don't think I'll get my play complete for it in time, though it will hardly take much space, it's so slight. If I could get home on leave I'd work at it and get it done, no doubt, but leaves are so chancy. It's called 'The Unicorn.' Now, it's about a decaying race who have never seen a woman; animals take the place of women, but they yearn for continuity. The chief's Unicorn breaks away and he goes in chase. The Unicorn is found by boys outside a city and brought in, and breaks away again. Saul, who has seen the Unicorn on his way to the city for the week's victuals, gives chase in his cart. A storm comes on, the mules break down, and by the lightning be sees the Unicorn race by; a naked black like an apparition rises up and easily lifts the wheels from the rut, and together they ride to Saul's hut. There Lilith is in great consternation, having seen the Unicorn and knowing the legend of this race of men. The emotion of the black (the Chief) are the really difficult part of my story. Afterwards a host of blacks on horses, like centaurs and buffaloes, come rushing up, the Unicorn in front. On every horse is clasped a woman. Lilith faints, Saul stabs himself, the Chief places Lilith on the Unicorn, and they all race away."
In the late summer of this year (1917) Rosenberg came to England on leave.
To Gordon Bottomley (dated September 21, 1917).
"The greatest thing of my leave after seeing my mother was your letter which has just arrived.... I wish I could have seen you, but now I must go on and hope that things will turn out well, and some happy day will give me the chance of meeting you.... I am afraid I can do no writing or reading; I feel so restless here and unanchored. We have lived in such an elemental way so long, things here don't look quite right to me somehow; or it may be the consciousness of my so limited time here for freedom—so little time to do so many things bewilders me. 'The Unicorn,' as will be obvious, is just a basis; its final form will be very different, I hope."
On returning to France he was taken ill and sent down the line. The time in hospital was a relief, especially as his restlessness in England had prevented writing or reading.
To Miss Seaton (dated February 14, 1918).
"We had a rough time in the trenches with the mud, but now we're out for a bit of a rest, and I will try and write longer letters. You must know by now what a rest behind the line means. I can call the evenings—that is, from tea to lights out—my own; but there is no chance whatever for seclusion or any hope of writing poetry now. Sometimes I give way and am appalled at the devastation this life seems to have made in my nature. It seems to have blunted me. I seem to be powerless to compel my will to any direction, and all I do is without energy and interest."
To Gordon Bottomley (Postmark, February 26, 1918).
"I wanted to send some bits I wrote for the 'Unicorn' while I was in hospital, and if I find them I'll enclose them. I tried to work on your suggestion and divided it into four acts, but since I left the hospital all the poetry has gone quite out of me. I seem even to forget words, and I believe if I met anybody with ideas I'd be dumb. No drug could be more stupefying than our work (to me anyway), and this goes on like that old torture of water trickling, drop by drop unendingly, on one's helplessness."
To Gordon Bottomley (Dated, March 7, 1918).
"I believe our interlude is nearly over, and we may go up the line any moment now, so I answer your letter straightaway. If only this war were over our eyes would not be on death so much: it seems to underlie even our underthoughts. Yet when I have been so near to it as anybody could be, the idea has never crossed my mind, certainly not so much as when some lying doctor told me I had consumption. I like to think of myself as a poet; so what you say, though I know it to be extravagant, gives me immense pleasure."
To Miss Seaton (March 8, 1918).
"I do not feel that I have much to say, but I do know that unless I write now it will be a long time before you hear from me again, without something exceptional happens. It is not very cold now, but I dread the wet weather, which is keeping off while we are out, and, I fear, saving itself up for us. We will become like mummies—look warm and lifelike, but a touch and we crumble to pieces. Did I send you a little poem, 'The Burning of the Temple'? I thought it was poor, or rather, difficult in expression, but G. Bottomley thinks it fine. Was it clear to you? If I am lucky, and come off undamaged, I mean to put all my innermost experiences into the 'Unicorn.' I want it to symbolize the war and all the devastating forces let loose by an ambitious and unscrupulous will. Last summer I wrote pieces for it and had the whole of it planned out, but since then I've had no chance of working on it and it may have gone quite out of my mind."
To Edward Marsh (dated March 28, 1918).
"I think I wrote you I was about to go up the line again after our little rest. We are now in the trenches again, and though I feel very sleepy, I just have a chance to answer your letter, so I will while I may. It's really my being lucky enough to bag an inch of candle that incites me to this pitch of punctual epistolary. I must measure my letter by the light...."
The date of the postmark on this letter is April 2, when the writer was already dead.
- This and the following extracts are from letters to the same correspondent.