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Isaac Rosenberg - Break of day in the trenches

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Thomas Lokken

on 13 September 2013

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Transcript of Isaac Rosenberg - Break of day in the trenches

Break of Day in the Trenches
by Isaac Rosenberg
The darkness crumbles away
Metaphor evoking the dirt of the trenches.
Dawn was an important part of the soldier’s day. Just before dawn ‘stand to’ took place, where soldiers would man the fire-step in preparation for an attack.
The speaker in this poem seems to be alone at dawn and in a reflective mood.
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Reference to nationalism - druids are a unique part of British culture.
"same old" and "as ever" suggests that war is something eternal.
Dawn was the druïdic time of sacrifice, which ancient sources say was often human sacrifice. Links to a pessimistic view of the one of the most costly wars in history.
Only a live thing leaps my hand
A queer sardonic rat
Rat has a peculiar, sardonic (grimly mocking or cynical) expression. Rat is contemplating humanity.
Rats are often considered filthy and disgusting. Rosenberg is commenting on how far man has fallen.
Whimsical description of rat, the narrator seems rather playful in tone. Contrast with serious subject matter.
Perhaps a reference to the carefree, patriotic soldiers' attitudes?
As I pull the parapet's poppy
To stick behind my ear.
The gesture seems quite idle and 'unsoldierly', perhaps linking to the attitudes of the soldiers. Contrast between that and the reality - "parapet's poppy"
Carries a symbol of war and death around with him.
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
Soldier directly addresses the rat, again more playful than serious.
The rat is free to roam, unlike the soldier.
Perhaps the rat is how Rosenberg thinks humanity should be, uncaring about nationality. Cosmopolitan could be seen as meaning a "world citizen"
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between

Colloquial conversational tone "soon, no doubt, if..."
Rat's pleasure - there is no meaning to its wandering, simply a whim. Embodies the soldier's desire to roam.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes
Less chances than you for life
Bonds to the whims of murder
The rat is aware of the irony that he is freer than the men who are bound by their service.
The soldiers were and are essentially slaves to the commanders who almost immediately send them to murder.
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
Connects a reference to Hell and the supernatural "the bowels of the earth," with the mundanity of "France.". Another contrast between typical countryside and evil?
Suggests the idea that France has been violently savaged by the war with the metaphor of the "bowels of the earth" and the "torn fields"
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
The poem takes on a more desperate, interrogative tone - the soldier is questioning the rat or Rosenberg is questioning everyone else.
What quaver— what heart aghast?
This line echoes Blake's style of writing in its structure and diction.
The soldier asks the rat - Does it see fear "a quaver" in the men's eyes, or "heart aghast" a terror within them?
Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
The poem returns to the poppy, the familiar symbol of war.
The reference to poppies' “roots” which are “in man’s veins” is relates to the idea that poppies flourished whilst growing on the blood of dead soldiers.
Pessimistic idea that the poppies die and are always dying, perhaps like the soldiers who died before them.
Implies that the narrator's poppy will die,
especially as he forced its dropping in picking it.
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.
The soldier declares, somewhat ignorantly, that the poppy is safe - perhaps representing the ignorance of the romantic view?
Irony as the poppy is not safe and is in fact endangered by the soldier's actions.
White is the same colour as the dead bodies that litter the fields - connecting the poppies to the soldiers.
The whitening of the poppy seems to signify the journey towards death.
Perhaps the narrator has condemned himself to death by his own actions?
The rat his dominance has been recognised
Latvian-Jewish parents
Slade School
Bantam -> 11th batallion
Somme
April 1st, 1918, Fampoux
"Greatest Poem of War"
Full transcript