Last month saw the 100th anniversary of the death of Isaac Rosenberg, considered by many to be the greatest English poet of World War I. Robert Philpot describes the career of this child of impoverished Russian Jewish immigrants, whose formal education was interrupted when he was fourteen years old so that he could begin an apprenticeship as an engraver:
Soon after his apprenticeship ended in 1911, Rosenberg got a lucky break: a chance meeting while he was sketching at the [British] National Gallery led to his introduction to three wealthy Jewish women, who were sufficiently impressed with the young man to offer to pay his fees at the Slade School of Fine Art. Over the next three years, Rosenberg studied at the prestigious art school alongside later renowned artists Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington, David Bomberg, and Stanley Spencer. With Gertler and Bomberg, Rosenberg became part of a loosely knit group of young Jewish artists and writers who were to become known as the Whitechapel boys [after the London immigrant neighborhood of the same name]. . . . It was, however, poetry that he was increasingly drawn toward, and for which he is now primarily remembered. . . .
In October 1915, [when the war was already in its second year], Rosenberg made the fateful decision to join the army. Poverty, not patriotism, motivated his decision—in particular, the knowledge that his mother would receive a separation allowance. . . .
It was therefore the cruelest of ironies that Rosenberg—“an anti-hero in soldier’s uniform,” in the words of the Irish poet Gerald Dawe—discovered his true voice in the poems which he wrote in the trenches. . . . Rosenberg labored in extreme conditions. He wrote on any scraps of paper he could lay his hands on, composing endless drafts and sending them home for his sister to type up. At times, the frustrated army censors barred him from dispatching any more. . . .
The experience [in the war], wrote [the literary scholar Jon] Stallworthy, “made him more conscious of the Jewishness that had not been particularly important to him before,” and perhaps accounts for works such as “Moses” and “The Destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian Hordes.” Shortly before his death [while on patrol in April 1918], Rosenberg put in for a transfer to join the Jewish Battalion fighting in Mesopotamia.