Monday, December 1, 2014

Returning, we hear the larks

Paul Nash, Menin Road

“Dawn has never recovered from what the Great War did to it,” writes Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory.  Dawn, an archetype of hope and renewal, was for the men in the trenches one of the most anxious and exhausting times of day.  Sunrise was the time when attacks were launched and men were ordered to “go over the top.”  Additionally, the dangerous work in No Man’s Land of cutting barbed wire, gathering information on enemy positions, and rescuing the wounded was done during the night and finished at daybreak. 

Isaac Rosenberg’s poem “Returning, we hear the larks,” captures dawn and its moods in an almost painterly fashion, not surprising perhaps, as Rosenberg was both an artist and a poet (he studied at the Slade School of Art). 

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.

The first five lines use terse, ordinary language to describe the dark terror and insidious dangers (“poison-blasted”) of the night that has gone before, as the men numb with exhaustion make their way back to their trenches and the simple hope of “a little safe sleep.” 

But everything shifts in line seven:  the language becomes Biblical (“but hark,” “Lo!”) as it tries to describe the miracle of  simple, natural bird song, almost stuttering over the word “joy” as it is repeated three times.  It is impossible to forget that “Death could drop from the dark,” but for that one dawn moment, everything is caught up in the strange beauty of “music showering” that washes and cleanses the men from the mud and horror of the night.  They share in the communion of song, looking heavenward towards the “heights of night ringing with unseen larks.”  Their numbness has been replaced by an exaltation of larks. 

And then another shift:  the “But” that begins line 12 signals the change, a return to hopelessness and fear. It isn’t that “only song” dropped – but that the song “only dropped,” fading away as quickly as it had come.  The last three lines go further, warning against such moments of joy, for  the larks’ music is like the song of the sirens, compared to images of impermanent beauty that conceal danger and threat. 

The beauty and the joy are real, but the poem’s warning is also clear:  in times of war, those who let themselves feel, those who are mindful of their surroundings and who look for small miracles of grace, open themselves up to distractions that can kill and to a vulnerability that can lead to madness. 

In August of 1916, writing home to a friend, Rosenberg said, “I am determined that this war, with all its powers for devastation, shall not master my poeting; that is, if I am lucky enough to come through all right.  I will not leave a corner of my consciousness covered up, but saturate myself with the strange and extraordinary new conditions of this life, and it will all refine itself into poetry later on.” 

“Returning, we hear the larks” was written in 1917.  By early 1918, Rosenberg was struggling to stay alive, in every sense, writing, “Sometimes, I give way and am appalled at the devastation this life seems to have made in my nature.  It seems to have blunted me.  I seem to be powerless to compel my will to any direction, and all I do is without energy and interest.” 

He died two months later.  Some report that Rosenberg was killed at dawn on April 1st, 1918, when returning from a night patrol like that described in his poem.  The truth may be more complex:  for days, his battalion had been under heavy attack in what became a front-line trench in a shifting battle.  It was common each night for men to be sent out into No Man’s Land.  When his unit was relieved and ordered further back, Rosenberg wasn’t there.  Unidentified, his body was initially placed in a mass grave, until 1926 when it was identified and reburied at Bailleul Road East Cemetery.
Rosenberg's grave


  1. Thank you for sharing this on your twitter feed. I missed it when it was first posted. The poem itself is sad enough. The fact that no sign of Isaac Rosenberg was ever found again is just tragic.

    1. Death could drop from the dark
      As easily as song –
      But song only dropped...

      Thanks for reading and commenting, CG.

  2. Rosenberg is one of my favourite WW1 poets, and I have visited his 'grave' many times, on my annual visits to the Western Front. Buried initially in a single grave with others who fell with him, his body was exhumed after the war and moved to its final resting place. At least... all those who were exhumed together are buried close to each other at Bailleul Road East Cemetery - and each has a named gravestone, although it is not 100% certain which body was which, for obvious reasons. The CWCG website page for Rosenberg shows the detail, if anyone is interested - all documents are there, including the exhumation report purporting t refer to his body.,-isaac/ - However, as he was a slight man by all accounts, and short enough to serve in bantam battalions, the exhumation certificate cannot be his as it refers to a well built man of 5'9 or 10. All rather intriguing. I did email them a while back, to no avail. Still, his poetry has been shared with other travellers, in all weathers, standing as close to his resting place as one can.

    1. Thanks for sharing this poignant story -- intriguing and an important reminder of the work of the CWCG and the many men whose bodies were never found/identified.

  3. During a literary battlefield tour I once heard a Jewish participant explain the inscription inside the David's star. It is customary to start the inscription with the Hebrew acronym פ"נ, meaning “Here is buried / פה נקבר, פה נטמן”, ending it with another acronym תנצבה, which means “May his (her) soul be bound in the bundle of life / תהיה נפשו/נפשה צרורה בצרור החיים”.

    The phrase is based on the verse in the Book of Samuel I 25:29 “May my master’s soul be bound in the bundle of life with the Lord your God."

    Rosenberg is "buried near this spot" (ie, his headstone) at St Laurent Blangy military cemetery (North of France). Looking away from there, the visitor's eye will be caught by a German cemetery.
    Opposing sides reunited in death, much as in Wilfred Owen's verse "I am the enemy you killed, my friend" (Strange meeting).

  4. Thanks very much for this, Chris -- wonderful insights and fascinating connections.