What in our lives is burnt
In the fire of this?
The heart’s dear granary?
The much we shall miss?
Three lives hath one life –
Iron, honey, gold.
The gold, the honey gone –
Left is the hard and cold.
Iron are our lives
Molten right through our youth.
A burnt space through ripe fields,
A fair mouth’s broken tooth.
Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918)
Of all the subjects I did at school, the one I most regret not absorbing more of is history. More than maths, which I concentrated furiously at, only to feel it bounce off me, and even more than French (ditto), the things I really want to be able to recall, now more than ever -the causes of the French Revolution, the American Civil War, the Enlightenment- I am beginning to doubt I ever learned in the first place. Not having taken O’ level history (why was that? Probably the timetable ‘did not allow it’…), I taught myself the syllabus in my lower sixth year, genning up on Henry VII’s trade policy and Plantagenet politics, and surprising myself with a B. Even these have now vanished.
Most of all, at the very top of the list (or should I say empty filing cabinet?) of regrets is the First World War. Sarajevo, yes, I know that. Lions led by donkeys, got it. The horror. The gas. I’m certain were it not for the English department, through whom we discovered Owen, Sassoon, Brooke, Thomas, and Erich Maria Remarque, I would sit here knowing even less. I was lucky, though. I got another bite at the cherry at university (I think most of that has gone, now, too…), where I came across this ‘other’ war poet, one I’d not heard of at school, someone central yet peripheral, who did not fit the archetype of the Oxbridge-educated officer class penning lines in extremis. Born to Jewish Russian immigrants in Bristol, Isaac Rosenberg left school aged 14, and lived in London’s Jewish ghetto. A talented artist, he went to the Slade and became friends with Mark Gertler. He died at the battle of Arras on April 1, 1918.
I loved Rosenberg’s odd, niggling poems, with their Old Testament allusions, their melding of symbolic-prophetic language with a nascent Modernist sensibility. But I forgot him, too. That is, until Poems on the Underground came along, and reminded me one winter what I had been missing. The poster of this poem now sits above my desk at work. I must have read it a thousand times. But as Michael Longley once said about Patrick Kavanagh, you can walk round the back of a great poem forever, and still not know how it came into being.
I can see the poem’s call and response structure: three questions, followed by three statements (I can’t think of them as answers), followed by the imagist coda of the final two lines; but still I sense a reluctance, a terseness, at the poem’s heart. Tonally it is both suggestive (‘the heart’s dear granary’; ‘the much we shall miss’) and stern (‘Iron are our lives’; ‘left is the hard and cold’). Written a hundred years ago, its closing lines (‘A burnt space through ripe fields,/ A fair mouth’s broken tooth’) presage everything we now know about life in the trenches, and of the waste and suffering they saw, without ever mentioning them. Because of Rosenberg, they are more real to me today than they ever were at school.
Image: 19240 Shrouds of the Somme