Returning, We hear the Larks – Isaac Rosenberg

A Slade-trained Poet

By Contributor Christopher Martin

Isaac Rosenberg was born in Bristol in 1890. His parents came from what was then Lithuania. The family moved to Stepney when Isaac was seven. From early on, Isaac showed remarkable talent both in drawing and writing. Following an unhappy apprenticeship as an engraver, he determined to become an artist, and joined David Bomberg, Mark Gertler and Jacob Kramer, fellow Jewish students, at the Slade School of Art. Stanley Spencer, C.R.W. Nevinson, Paul Nash and William Roberts were among other artists there at the same time. Poet and art critic T.E. Hulme, introduced him to Bomberg, and they became, these two ‘Whitechapel Boys’ from London’s East End, very close friends. As well as progressing well with his art, Isaac was reading widely, writing poetry and reading some of it to his fellow students. Bomberg thought he was a better poet than a writer. Isaac tried to make a living from painting, producing some fine self-portraits and portraits, particularly of Sonia Rodker and ‘Whitechapel Girl’ artist Clara Winsten. As he felt he was not making enough money to justify his efforts at painting, or that he was no more than competent, he forsook art in favour of poetry.

Isaac Rosenberg 1917

In October 1915, Isaac, who was short in stature enlisted with a ‘Bantam’ regiment, the 12th Suffolk, 40th Division, and the following June was on his way to the trenches in France. He abhorred war and soldiering, but joined to ensure his mother would have his ‘separation’ payments, as his family were very poor. His poetry displays a self-certainty and a lack of influence from others. He attracted advice and encouragement from Edward Marsh, promoter of the ‘Georgian Poets’, and the poet and verse-dramatist Gordon Bottomley, but he went his own way. For all his travails, he remained an optimist, which gives his poems a luminosity. He has a gift for compression and is more than a ‘war poet’. He is known, of course, for some dozen war poems. Perhaps the earliest suggests what underlies his most expansive poems of war:

On Receiving News of the War

Snow is a strange white word;
No ice or frost
Have asked of bud or bird
For Winter’s cost.

Yet ice and frost and snow
From earth to sky
This Summer land doth know;
No man knows why.

In all men’s hearts it is:
Some spirit old
Hath turned with malign kiss
Our lives to mold…..

As well as the squalor and waste of life, Isaac imbued his work with a hymn-like sense of livingness and hope. He was killed at dawn on 1st April 1918, while on night patrol. In his imagination birds, most likely, would be singing.

Returning, we hear the larks

Sombre the night is:
And, though we have our lives, we know
What sinister threat lurks there.

Dragging these anguished limbs, we only know
This poison-blasted track opens on our camp –
On a little safe sleep.

But hark! joy – joy – strange joy.
Lo! heights of night ringing with unseen larks:
Music showering our upturned list’ning faces.

Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song –
But song only dropped,
Like a blind man’s dreams on the sand
By dangerous tides;
Like a girl’s dark hair, for she dreams no ruin lies there,
Or her kisses where a serpent hides.

Christopher Martin

Christopher Martin is currently compiling a catalogue raisonné of the works of the artist C.R.W. Nevinson. His essay ‘Nevinson and Fiction: a Survey’ appeared in the Nevinson anthology A Dilemma of English Modernism (University of Delaware Press, 2007). He has given talks on Nevinson, and on British artists and pacifism during World War I, and also has an abiding interest in the artist-writer Wyndham Lewis and the poet Edward Thomas.

Christopher is a regular contributor to the England Remembered Blog.  Read his earlier post on Edward Thomas ‘A Poet in the Artists’ Rifles’ and the story behind one of Edward’s last poems dedicated to his great friend poet and dramatist Gordon Bottomley ‘The Sheiling’.

He is also one of the England Remembered Contemporary Poets.  His poem ‘Against Darkness’ is paired with Isaac Rosenberg’s ‘Returning, we hear the larks’ and will feature in a future post.

Header image Duotone © Jacky Dillon (Waggoners Wells, Nr Grayshott, NT)


(1) Rosenberg, Isaac, On Receiving the First News of the War (Cape Town 1914), Poems by Isaac Rosenberg, William Heinemann Ltd, London (1922)

(2) Rosenberg, Isaac, Returning, we hear the larks, The Collected Poems of Isaac Rosenberg, Chatto & Windus Ltd., London (1922)

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