9 December 2008

Isaac Rosenberg

(these are notes made for a talk I gave, and are therefore written only in note form, and don't always flow smoothly)
Isaac Rosenberg only published two poetry collections (Night and Day and Youth) and a play (Moses). For such a celebrated war poet this seems like a slim body of work. To put this into perspective though, he also produced a wealth of paintings, drawings and letters in this time, and only lived until the age of 28, when only his remains were found. This tragically short life helps to make his collections more profound.

Rosenberg was born into a very poor family in 1890. They lived in Bristol, the family moved from Leeds in the late 1880’s. When Isaac was 7 years old, the family moved to Stepney in East London.

The poet Laurence Binyon said of Rosenberg ‘His true vocation was poetry and he thought himself as a poet rather than as a painter’. He is, perhaps, now better known for his poetry than as a painter, but it is important not to look at the two channels of work as separate things, but rather as a complete collection of one man’s all-too-short life.

His potential as an artist was identified at a young age. At the age of 11, he produced Caxton and Edward IV, in pen and ink and watercolour, his very supportive headmaster Mr Usherwood entered it into a competition of children’s art. It is astounding to think that a piece of such maturity and detail was produced by such a young boy.

At the age of 15, Rosenberg became an engraver’s apprentice. At this age, he was writing poetry, such as:

The harp that faster caused to beat
The heart that throbbed for war,
The harp that melancholy calmed,
Lies mute on Judah’s shore.

(from Ode to David’s Harp 1905)

See Self Portrait 1906, pencil on card. A tender study.

1910-1911 Family Group at a meal Copies of the work of Carreggio, emulating the style, whilst developing his own. Contrast between these and the portraits he was producing at the time. Pencil and chalk sketches, detailed, full of shape and emotions. Warm handling of mother, contrasted with the stern and harsh painting of father, which reflects his later portraits of himself.

1911 Head of a Male Figure Graphite on paper. Containing lines from The Search.

Dawn like a flushed rose petal fleck’d with gold
Quickened youth’s glow. Upon my barb I leap’d
While the blank desert’s stretchèd leaguers slept,
And loosed his bridle of flame from idling cold.

Portraiture- 1911-1912 crisp and youthful images. There seems to be a shift in the tone of his
portraits. This could be to do with the change of the medium, but I think it’s more than that. See how the portraits that occur during 1914 and 1915 become so similar, he is not smiling, and uniformed officiously often with a trilby and the same red or pink tie. The quality of the painting becomes more cold and muddy, full of greys and shadows, his eyes are often shaded by the brim
of his hat, the brushstrokes are deliberate, harsh and aggressive. Most notably he paints himself with a five o’clock shadow. This shows a huge transition between the boyish innocence of before and a weathered and tired looking man.

What could have caused this shift in his work? During 1914, he was unable to find work and in ill health and, of course, Great Britain declared war on Germany. For someone, who from a young age was concerned with mortality, this must have been an alarming time.

For even the honey on life’s lips is curst.
And the worm cankers in the ripest bloom

(Death 1910)

For time and fate are striding to meet
One unseen with soundless feet.

(‘The World Rumbles By Me’1911)

Also notable is a shift in his poetry as well, for example, look at the aggressive tone used in the poem entitled God:

In his malodorous brain what slugs and mire
Lanthorned in his oblique eyes, guttering burned!
His body lodged a rat where men nursed souls.

(God 1916 or earlier)

Compare this to his earlier, more romanticised version of God and faith:

God looked at me through her eyes,
And when her flesh and sweet lips spake,
Through dawn-flushed gates of paradise
Such silvern birds did wing and shake

(‘God looked at me through her eyes’ 1912)
* * *
Rosenberg thought very highly of women, he links their beauty with divinity.

A woman’s beauty is a strong tree’s roots.
The tree is space, its branches hidden lutes […]
And all men’s souls are drawn beneath and lie
Mixed into her as words mix with the sky […]
…No poison makes such change
As her swift subtle alchemy.

(‘A woman’s beauty’ 1914)

Here he describes women as siren-like and as alchemists.

The Portrait of Sonia with her downcast eyes is reminiscent of the virginal figures in his copies of Carreggio. This oddly enough, was considered to be an ‘unfinished’ work. Which is unusual, as in comparison to the other paintings of women on display is seems maybe too finished. Perhaps unfinished here best captures the fact that something is missing, as it certainly seems to be missing the immediacy and spontaneity captured in the other works.
* * *

War portraits- the anger, surprisingly seems to have gone. These pictures are much more jovial and comical than earlier portraits. Rosenberg becomes almost a caricature of himself, with the large stereotypical Jewish nose and the awkward hat that stunts the shape of his head. However, when compared to his poetry of the time, these seemingly comical portraits become quite sinister.

The wheels lurched over sprawled dead
But pained them not, though their bones crunched,
Their shut mouths made no moan[…]
None saw their spirits’ shadow shake the grass,
Or stood aside for the half used life to pass
Out of those doomed nostrils and the doomed mouth,
When the swift iron burning bee
Drained the wild honey of their youth […]
A man’s brain splattered on
A stretcher-bearer’s face;
His shook shoulders slipped their load,
But when they bent to look again
The drowning soul was sunk too deep
For human tenderness […]
Burnt black by strange decay,
Their sinister faces lie
The lid over each eye […]
We heard his weak scream,
We heard his very last sound,
And our wheels grazed his dead face.
(Dead man’s dump 1917)

* * *

In a letter written in 1915, Rosenberg writes ‘as poems are not quite so bulky and weighty, at least outwardly, as pictures, I am sending some.’ It is clear that his poetry and his paintings are equally as “bulky and weighty” and should not be considered as separate bodies of work.

No comments: