An astonishing discovery was made in 1995 during the British Library's removal from the British Museum. Thirty-four letters and eighteen draft poems, including "Break of Day in the Trenches", "Dead Man's Dump", and "Returning, We Hear the Larks" by the poet and artist Isaac Rosenberg were found in a bundle of papers stored by former museum keeper Laurence Binyon, himself a poet and Rosenberg's mentor. After his death as a private soldier on the Western Front on 1 April 1918, Isaac Rosenberg, now regarded as a major poet of the First World War, was largely forgotten, and only the devotion of his family and the support of his fellow poets rescued his work for posterity. Binyon and another older poet, Gordon Bottomley, encouraged and corresponded with Rosenberg until his death, and then edited his poems and extracts from his letters for publication. The newly discovered papers include all Rosenberg's complete letters and draft poems to Binyon and Bottomley, together with material about Rosenberg from family, friends and mentors such as his sister Annie, Whitechapel librarian Morley Dainow, schoolteacher Winifreda Seaton, and patron Frank Emmanuel.
All are published here, most for the first time. At first overshadowed by the more acceptably English war poets, Rosenberg's poetry did not fit the poetic ideals of the time, just as he, an East End Jew born of immigrant parents, did not present the accepted public image of the heroic soldier poet. The originality and strength of his poetry were rooted in the struggle with the opposing elements of his life, which did not follow the conventions of any role he played: East End Jew, poet, painter or soldier. In one unpublished letter from the trenches he reveals his difficulties, 'I don't suppose my poems will ever be poetry right and proper until I shall be able to settle down and whip myself into more expression. As it is, my not being able to get poetry out of my head & heart causes me sufficient trouble out here.' (Letter to Bottomley, postmarked 11 July 1917)
Isaac Rosenberg has long been regarded as one of the most important poets of the First World War. His poems, such as Dead Man's Dump and Break of Day in the Trenches, have been included in every significant war anthology and have earned him a place in Poets' Corner. . Living with his Jewish immigrant family in the East End of London he was obliged to leave school at fourteen, and earn his living as an apprentice engraver. He snatched what time he could for drawing and writing, meeting his friends like the painters Mark Gertler, David Bomberg, and the poet John Rodker, at the Whitechapel Library and Art Gallery in the evenings. Thanks to some wealthy Jewish ladies he studied at the Slade School of Art at the same time as his friends Bomberg and Gertler, and others such as Stanley Spencer, CW Nevinson and Dora Carrington. He showed promise as a painter but struggled to make a living, and in 1914 he visited his sister in South Africa to improve his health and earn some money through painting. War was declared while he was there. In spite of family pressure to stay he come home in 1915 and, unable to find work, he enlisted as a private soldier, ending up in the Kings Own Royal Lancasters His poverty, education and background made him an outsider, yet it was just that experience which equipped him to cope with the unforseen horror of war in the trenches : 'I am determined that this war, with all its powers for devastation, shall not master my poeting.' He served on the Western Front until his death on night patrol on 1 April 1918. JEAN LIDDIARD has worked at the Imperial War Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery. She wrote the biography The Half Used Life: Isaac Rosenberg Poet and Painter 1890- 1918( Gollancz 1975); organised two exhibitions on Rosenberg for the National Book League 1975 (with catalogue) and Rosenberg's centenary at the Imperial War Museum 1990. Recently she has compiled readings on The War Poets for Westminster Abbey and on Rosenberg for the National Portrait Gallery, Jewish Cultural Festival, the Ledbury Festival , the Southwell Festival, and Hebden Bridge Arts Festival, all featuring Sam Dastor.