‘Break of Day in the Trenches’, here just titled ‘In the Trenches’, is one of Isaac Rosenberg’s best known poems. Rosenberg wrote his poetry whilst in the army on whatever scraps of paper he could find and then sent them to friends and family in England for safekeeping. This poem was sent to Gordon Bottomley, a prominent literary figure and enthusiastic supporter of Rosenberg; the poet’s immense gratitude towards him is evident throughout his letters.
This poem uses nature to subvert the traditional pastoral themes of the Georgian poets and touches on the idea of the arbitrariness of nationality.
Rosenberg was Jewish and came from a working class background which differentiates him from many other well known First World War poets. He joined up in 1916 to earn money for his family and did not have any illusions about the glory of fighting. In the Army he faced anti-Semitism from his fellow soldiers and was further ostracized for his intellectual and creative pursuits. Rosenberg was killed on the 1st of April 1918 near Arras, France.
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 uncanny rat
As I pull a poppy from the parapet
To stick behind my ear,
Queer rat, they
They would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies
(and Lord knows what antipathies)
For you have touched an English hand,
And will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the poppy blooded field between,
Our hands will touch through your feet,
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 hiss, the irrevocable swiftness,
An The laconic earth buffet.
Safe. Again murder has overlooked
Only white with powder & chalk