Religion


‘On Receiving News of the War’

Snow is a strange white word.
No ice or frost
Has 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 mould.

Red fangs have torn His face.
God’s blood is shed.
He mourns from His lone place
His children dead.

O! ancient crimson curse!
Corrode, consume.
Give back this universe
Its pristine bloom.

NOTES

This poem describes Rosenberg’s reaction to the outbreak of the First World War, conveying the poet’s sense of anxious foreboding of the horrors ahead through a series of symbols of life, death and rebirth.

Isaac Rosenberg: Born in 1890, Isaac Rosenberg was a working class Jew who grew up in East London, the son of Russian émigrés. A talented artist, Rosenberg was nonetheless forced to leave school at the age of 14 because of his parents’ poverty (such an early end to education was typical, even encouraged for working class children at this time). He was indentured to a Fleet Street engraver and attended evening classes at Birkbeck College until some wealthy patrons clubbed together to enable him to attend Slade School of Fine Art. He completed his studies there in 1914, but moved in June to Cape Town, South Africa, due to illness. He was here when the Great War began. Rosenberg moved back to London in 1915 and joined up, primarily to provide money for his family. He was in France by early 1916 as a private soldier; like David Jones and Ivor Gurney (and in contrast to many of the most famous soldier poets) Rosenberg experienced the war not as an officer but in the ranks. Posted in France with the Kings Own Lancaster Regiment, Rosenberg was eventually sent to the Somme, where he was shot by a sniper at dawn on the 1st of April, 1918.

On Receiving News of the War: At the beginning of the First World War— and until he returned to England in March 1915— Isaac Rosenberg was living in South Africa. Suffering from chronic bronchitis in early 1914, he was told by his doctor to move to warmer climes. He relocated to Cape Town, where his sister lived. It was from here that he heard of war breaking out in Europe.

STRUCTURE: A precise and very regularly constructed poem, comprising five quatrains of simple, alternating rhyme (ABAB). Iambic trimeter (the six syllable lines, A, of three feet— hence trimeter) is followed by Iambic dimeter (the four syllable lines, B, of two feet— dimeter). This pared down, simple verse recalls the kind of verse structure that William Blake favoured in his ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’: see ‘The Fly’ for an example of Iambic dimeter at work.

“Snow is a strange white word;”: As war is declared it is high summer in Europe, but it is winter in Cape Town, which is in the Southern Hemisphere. This is obviously a striking thing for a European like Rosenberg: snow remains alien to those in South Africa. The perplexing absence of the signs of winter chime with the poet’s alienation in Cape Town from events in Europe. Note in this first line we find the alliteration that is a strong feature of this poem.

“No ice or frost / Have asked of bud or bird / For Winter’s cost.”: in a European winter flowering plants die and birds migrate southwards. No such “cost” occurs in South Africa. This is a literal reading, of course: but underlying Rosenberg’s first verse is a metaphorical comparison of ‘Winter’ in Europe and Cape Town. Winter, of course, heralds death, just as war does. Winter is come in Cape Town, and metaphorically so in Europe: with inevitability death is on its way; yet in neither land is the cost of war yet felt. The assonance here— the repetition of long ‘O’ sounds, which persists throughout the poem— give this opening a soft and later, cumulatively, a mournful tone.

“Yet ice and frost and snow / From earth to sky / This Summer land doth know,”: The simple language typical of the poem is especially in evidence in this second verse. Common nouns are favoured instead of ‘poetic’ description. Rosenberg describes the arrival of the news of war as the arrival of “ice”, “frost” and “snow”. In choosing to describe the arrival of news of the war like this, Rosenberg lets mysterious things stand in for and symbolise events, rather describe the situation at length. The deliberately simple description gives the poem a feeling of being stripped down to essential images, a feature of Rosenberg’s writing. The “Summer land” is South Africa: its Winter is a summer to Rosenberg.

“No man knows why.”: the essential mystery behind the news— why has war erupted so strangely, even in this foreign land— is insisted on in this line. This seems to suggest that the meaning of the momentous news is impossible to know.

“In all men’s hearts it is.”: The poet begins to contemplate human motivation and the nature of the human soul. What is ‘it’ that is in all men’s hearts? Evil? Sin? What is it that causes the recurrent wars and murder in human history?

“Some spirit old / Hath turned with malign kiss / Our lives to mould.”: despite the fact that Rosenberg was Jewish, the suggestion that there is an ancient spirit of evil in man is to a European readership a particularly Christian (specifically Augustinian) one. The doctrine of Original Sin posits the idea that all humans after Adam are ‘fallen’ and, born sinful, require the redemption of Christ. The notion of a malign (or ‘evil’) kiss is also recognizably Christian: Judas of course betrayed Jesus to the Romans with a kiss. For Jewish people the personification of evil is not as pointed as in Christianity— it is not Satan who is responsible for evil but the errors of man: this too could be called a “spirit old”. The fungal (“mould”) nature of this spirit of malignity emphasises a sense slow decay rather than active evil, a spirit of entropy and death. Note another archaism here (earlier Rosenberg uses the old word “doth”)— an echo of Blake, perhaps.

“Red fangs have torn His face. / God’s blood is shed.”: ‘He’ is God. The image is an incredibly powerful, even shocking one. God, here, is very far from the one of mainstream Christian theology— omnipotent (all-powerful), omnipresent (everywhere), a spiritual rather than physical entity. Here, God has been attacked: and he sheds blood. The implication here is perhaps that God’s blood is that of those who will die in the war; but the image is uncompromising, and emphasises the power of evil, and the vulnerability of God. The use of a short end-stopped statement emphasises this (end-stopping is when a line of verse ends in a full stop).

“He mourns from His lone place / His children dead.”: Again, an image of God that is far away from the speculations of mainstream Christian theology. The image of God here is of a deity distraught, alone and removed, who mourns the death of “his children”. The unorthodox Jewish Kaballah may have provided a source for this image of God in the concept of tzimtzum, in which God by an act of will in creation contracts and withdraws from the world so that it may exist. The nature of this speculation, which explains how evil can exist in a world made by a good God, is highly unsettling.

“O! Ancient crimson curse! / Corrode, consume.”: the interjection, “O!” emphasises the emotional weight of Rosenberg’s final (desperate) appeal. Is this a cry of pain, or horror? The language here— an “Ancient crimson curse”— clearly recalls William Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ (particularly ‘The Sick Rose’, which also perhaps influenced Rosenberg’s ‘A Worm Fed On the Heart of Corinth’). The “crimson curse” seems here to be that same “spirit old”; so that here Rosenberg seems to imagine the coming conflict as a kind of spiritual purging of evil that will act like water (“corrode”) or fire (“consume”) on man’s evil. Note the harsh insistence of the alliteration.

“Give back this universe / Its pristine bloom.”: The poem ends with a cosmic- spiritual perspective on human events; the coming suffering of men is placed at the very heart of the universe. The poet prays for a world renewed and returned to its original state, like to a spotless (pristine) flower. The image again recalls Blake’s ‘The Sick Rose’ (beginning, “O Rose, thou art sick!”), but also that poem’s companion in the Songs, ‘The Blossom’, which uses a flower bloom as a symbol of joy and regeneration. There is some consolation, even in the bleak vision of the world falling once again to war at the end of this poem. Rosenberg began his poem with a wintry word, “snow”: yet with this word “bloom”, he ends with a suggestion of spring— and possible renewal.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This poem can be nicely compared to many of the poems written at the beginning of the war which actively seem to have welcomed the fighting. As we have seen, Rosenberg both abhors the beginning of war, and hopes dimly for some sense of renewal that will come from it. Brooke’s enthusiastic ‘Peace’ provides a powerful contrast of tone. Stylistically, I think Edward Thomas’ simple yet profound poems ‘In Memoriam (Easter 1915)’ and ‘The Cherry Trees’ are interesting to compare with Rosenberg’s symbolic style with their ideas of loss and renewal, though Thomas is precise and realist where Rosenberg is more mythical and deliberately ambiguous.]

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Siegfried Sassoon. 'They' remains in copyright and so cannot be reproduced here.

NOTES

This poem satirically contrasts the moral improvement to British soldiers promised by a Bishop with the physical damage and moral degradation that they actually experience.

STRUCTURE: ‘They’ is comprised of two stanzas of equal length: six lines of iambic pentameter each, with rhyme scheme ABABCC. The second stanza subverts the message of the first. ‘They’ has a clever rhythmical structure, intended to create a particular tone to the poem. Sassoon subtly subverts the Bishop’s strident sermon in the first stanza by his use of colons and semi-colons as caesuras or pauses in the middle of each line. These give the first stanza a deliberately halting rhythm that, along with the rhetorical confidence of the Bishop’s sermon, gives his speech a subtle staginess that suggests an insincere performance. By contrast, the strong rhythm given to the answers of the men in the second stanza reinforces the ugly truth that they tell. The soldiers’ reply tends to pause more ‘naturally’ at the end of lines, ‘end-stopping’ each statement, giving a sense of complete meaning.

Siegfried Sassoon: Siegfried Sassoon is the greatest of the British poets to have survived the war. Born into a wealthy family, Sassoon had a lonely childhood. He took the expected route of his privileged class from public school (Marlborough) and thence up to university (Cambridge), though he quit Cambridge without a degree. At Cambridge, Sassoon fell in love with David Thomas, who later died serving with Sassoon and their friend Robert Graves in the Royal Welch Fusiliers at Fricourt (Graves would write the poem ‘Goliath and David’ in tribute to Thomas; Sassoon ‘The Last Meeting’ and ‘A Letter Home’). Sassoon took Thomas’ death badly and would go out into no-man’s land nightly, “looking for Germans to kill”. Sassoon, in fact, had a reputation for bravery amongst his men (he was known as ‘Mad Jack’) and won the Military Cross for his actions during the Battle of the Somme. Sassoon was shot in 1917 and invalided home, there meeting a number of notable pacifists. Sassoon became convinced that he had to make a statement about the conduct of the war, which he described in a letter (later read to parliament) as “now become a war of aggression and conquest”. His friend Graves, fearing that Sassoon would be harshly punished, testified before the army medical board that Sassoon had shell-shock and Sassoon was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital, Edinburgh. It was here that Sassoon met Wilfred Owen and fostered his writing ambitions. Sassoon eventually returned to fight on the Western front in 1918, but was again shot in June of that year. He did however survive the war, and published his brilliant autobiographical trilogy, The Memoirs of George Sherston over the next twenty years. He died in 1967.

They: ‘They’ are the idealised British soldiers of whom the bishop speaks. ‘They’ are quite unlike the real soldiers who go to war.

“The Bishop tells us:”: The figure of religious authority in the poem— a Bishop of the Church of England— speaks with confidence about a situation of which he has no knowledge. He represents a brand of religious cant and hypocrisy that was deeply unpopular amongst many men at the front.

“When the boys come back / They will not be the same;”: The meaning of the poem turns on this observation— that the war changes the men who fought in it. Note the easy familiarity, even patronizing tone of the reference to ‘the boys’, and the use of alliteration in this first line, as throughout the poem.

“for they’ll have fought / In a just cause;”: alliteration (‘f’) is again used to give a rhythmic force to the Bishop’s leading statements. The mention of a “just cause” reinforces the sense that the Bishop is dealing in popular platitudes about the justification for war— that it is “just”, or ‘right’.

“their comrades blood has bought…”: the soldiers are explicitly compared to Christ, who ‘bought’ man eternal life by dying for their sins. Sassoon’s earlier poem ‘The Redeemer’ explicitly made this contrast: interestingly, Sassoon now seems to refute this sentimental analogy.

“New right to breed an honourable race,”: what follows from this Christ-like redemption is more unpleasant however. The Bishop uses pseudo-scientific language, popular around the turn of the century. In Social Darwinist terms, the ‘right to breed’ is claimed through the sacrifice of soldiers. This ‘survival of the fittest’ (here, the fittest are the most “honourable”) is an idea that underlay much elitist thinking about society and often had, as here, a racist dimension. Compare and contrast this line with those found in Rupert Brooke’s ‘Peace’ and ‘The Dead’.

“they have challenged Death and dared him face to face”: the Bishop’s heroic and clichéd rhetoric unwittingly recalls the line in Corinthians 13:12, that declares “now we see through a glass, darkly; but then, face to face”. This Biblical line declares that before death we have necessarily imperfect knowledge, only attaining real enlightenment when we meet God. In many ways, the Bishop embodies this cosmic ignorance.

“‘We’re none of us the same!’ the boys reply”: The anguished agreement echoes— along with the use of the phrase “the boys” – the first line, only to subvert the Bishop’s prediction.

“For George lost both his legs…”: A grim litany of injuries follows, spelling out the true consequences of war for “the boys”. Note that the soldiers are named, rather than idealized and anonymous in the Bishop’s sermon. The description is explicit and pitiful: “Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die”.

“‘And Bert’s gone syphilitic:”: Bert has contracted syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease. Soldiers on leave would commonly visit prostitutes in the local towns and villages; brothels were even graded in some areas for use by officers (signed by blue lamps) and privates (red lamps). Venereal infection was endemic, as prostitutes could sleep with over a hundred men a day. Note the deeply ironic contrast, then, between this and the Bishop’s claim that “their comrades blood has bought / New right to breed an honourable race”.

“…that hasn’t found some change.”: the irony of this statement illustrates Sassoon’s satirical point, that a massive change has indeed come to the men, but quite different to that which the Bishop predicts.

“And the Bishop said; ‘the ways of God are strange!”: The Bishop resorts to idiotic cliché to explain the real change witnessed, essentially pronouncing that ‘God works in mysterious ways’.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This poem is in some ways representative of the selections that Stallworthy makes from Sassoon’s poetry in the OBOWP. Stallworthy describes Sassoon’s later war poems as “launched at the reader like a hand grenade” (p.68), and this, written in 1916, fits the same billing. It is a cutting attack on the hypocrisy of authority and the kind of rhetoric used to encourage others to go abroad and fight. As such it stands special comparison with Sassoon’s own attack on the military leadership, ‘The General’ (p.177), but also G.K. Chesterton’s acerbic attack on the political class, ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’ (p.212).]