Break of Day in the Trenches by Isaac Rosenberg

November 11, 2014 at 8:49 am (imperialism, Jim D, literature, poetry, tragedy, war)

The most famous World War One poets – Sassoon, Brook, Owen, Blunden and Binyon – were officers from the British middle and upper classes. Isaac Rosenberg (above) was different: he was from a working class background and, as his name suggests, was Jewish. He served in the ranks and turned down the opportunity to become a lance corporal.

Also unlike most of the better-known 1914-18 poets, he was critical of the war from the start, but enlisted in 1915 because he needed employment to support his mother.

He was killed on the Somme on 1 April 1918.

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 you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the 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
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver -what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in men’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.


  1. Ted Edwards said,

    Thanks for posting. Its something today’s children should be able to read to attain an alternative view on the horrors of war.
    Isaac and his poetry deserves to be remembered.

  2. februarycallendar said,

    Very fine.

    People should have much more consciousness of the *mass* experience of the trenches: fine as much of the Romantic-influenced WW1 poetry was, there’s a definite ruling-class bias to the promotion of it over all else, almost an implication that there was no industrial squalor before that war, no poverty, no working class at all.

    That said, I’m currently reading (yeah, yeah, sue me, ban me if you want, yes I know where he went afterwards, yes I know that the first two books in that sequence were precisely of the ilk I’ve described above) Henry Williamson’s ‘The Pathway’, and cursing those who caused and exposed us to that war. The progressive social goods unleashed by the second war – short-lived in the long run as they were – could easily have happened anyway, and I don’t think popular music would have been parlour song forever (just as Suez gave a push to rock’n’roll in Britain, but the need and desire would still have been there anyway). It was a tragedy almost beyond description or rival, separating us from those with whom we have everything in common, and dooming us to impotence, rage and fear.

    I see that Farridge has declared that the armistice was the worst mistake of the last century. Four years out there, mate. But then he would, wouldn’t he? His whole agenda, and the sheer number of people who fall for it, is based around the lies and myths and unnecessary divisions which were institutionalised by that bloody, pointless war in the first place.

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