The British poets of World War I have held my interest since I read Paul Fussell's magisterial The Great War And Modern Memory. Fussell thought "Break Day In The Trenches", Isaac Rosenberg's unsentimental account of a war-scarred soldier finding a moment of serenity in a poppy bud, the best poem of the war.
In just 26 lines, Rosenberg develops the rat and the poppy as competing symbols of fragile life and sudden, violent death. The rat starts as a sardonic reminder that death is unpatriotic and doesn't care which side one fights on to becoming a grim agent of death itself. Once Rosenberg establishes the indifference of the rat, the poem applies to soldiers on either side of No Man's and.
Meanwhile, the poppy -- which held great symbolic importance to the poets of the Great War -- makes its appearance as a reminder of civilized decency contrasted to life in the trenches. But, like the rat, the import of the poppy changes: By the end of the poem it has become one with the fallen and a symbol of the fragility of all that is good about life, be it hope, sanity, or existence itself. Rosenberg drives home the point with the epiphanic final image: A soldier tucks a poppy behind his ear and awaits the rat of death and the dust to which we all return. But for one instant, break day, perhaps one soldier can shield one poppy against "the whims of murder," "the shrieking iron and flame" and speak up for life.
The darkness crumbles away.
It is the same old Druid time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet's poppy 5
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies.
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German 10
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life, 15
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame 20
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver -- what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in man's veins
Drop, and are ever dropping:
But mine in my ear is safe -- 25
Just a little white with the dust.
Isaac Rosenberg was killed in action at the Somme on the morning of April 1, 1918, returning from night patrol...
Note: An illustrated edition of The Great War And Modern Memory is scheduled for November...
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