Rosenberg, Isaac

views updated


ROSENBERG, ISAAC (1890–1918), English poet and painter, who died on active service during World War i. The son of a peddler, Rosenberg was born in Bristol and brought up in the East End of London, where he was apprenticed to an engraver. In 1911 he went to the Slade School of Fine Arts but he felt that he got, in his own words, "more depth" into writing than into painting. In 1912 he produced the first of three privately printed pamphlets of verse, Night and Day, following it with Youth (1915) and Moses (1916). Although he had weak lungs, Rosenberg enlisted in the British Army on his return from a year in South Africa in 1915, and it was while serving in France that he wrote his so-called "Trench Poems," several versions of his play The Unicorn, and many other poems and fragments.

Four years after his death, the first volume of Rosenberg's poems, with an introduction by the poet Laurence Binyon, appeared in print – his first publication apart from some scattered verse in anthologies. In 1937, his Collected Works were published with a brief, generous foreword by Siegfried *Sassoon, who wrote of Rosenberg's "fruitful fusion between English and Hebrew culture." Isaac Rosenberg was the first important poet to emerge from Anglo-Jewry and he remains a figure of major significance. Certain images and ideas, such as that of the root, recur throughout his work, giving coherence to his writing. Linguistically he is complex but the sense is controlled by his sensuous feeling. Rosenberg articulates the rootless condition of the Diaspora Jew most clearly in his poem "Chagrin." In his three "God" poems, he moves from the figure of an acceptable and benign Authority to that of a malignant God. "Dead Man's Dump," "Break of Day in the Trenches," and "Daughters of War" are among the most powerful and subtle poems of World War i. Rosenberg is, however, not merely a realist of the trenches: there is in his poetry a streak of romantic lyricism and a love of beauty more reminiscent of Blake than of any 20th-century poet.

Three books about Rosenberg appeared in the summer of 1975. They were Journey to the Trenches: The Life of Isaac Rosenberg 1890–1918 by Joseph Cohen, Isaac Rosenberg by Jean Liddiard, and Isaac Rosenberg by Jean Moorcraft Wilson. Cohen's book excels on the literary background and the nature of his Jewishness; Liddiard's on his paintings and drawings; and Wilson uses letters and memoirs extensively. The book by Cohen contains a useful bibliography. Rosenberg's self-portrait is exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery, London, and another was hung in the Tate Gallery in London in 1972. Further biographies and studies of Rosenberg continue to appear.

In January 1978 the trustees of the Imperial War Museum in London accepted 15 of his paintings and some 200 manuscripts, and in 1979 there appeared The Collected Works of Isaac Rosenberg: Prose, Letters, Paintings and Drawings (Oxford) in which he is referred to as "the best Jewish poet writing in English that our century has given us." A plaque in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey, London, commemorating the notable British writers who died in World War i, includes the name of Isaac Rosenberg, surely the only British Jew officially honored in an Anglican church, and a tribute to his stature and fame.


Bewley, in: Commentary, 7 (1949), 34–44; D.W. Harding, Experience into Words (1963), ch. 5; F. Grubb, Vision of Reality (1965), 85–94, index; Silk, in: Judaism, 14 (1965), 462–74; jc Lit. Suppl. (May 24, 1968), 3, 7. add. bibliography: odnb online; D. Maccoby, God Made Blind: Isaac Rosenberg, His Life and Poetry (1999); P. Quinn (ed.), British Poets of the Great War: Brooke, Rosenberg, Thomas: A Documentary Volume (2000).

[Jon Silkin]

About this article

Rosenberg, Isaac

Updated About content Print Article