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Isaac Rosenberg, Poet & Painter

April 4, 2018
by the gentle author

This week marks the centenary of the death of Isaac Rosenberg, remembered as one of the finest of First World War poets alongside Rupert Brooke, Wilfired Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Edward Thomas. Rosenberg passed his formative years in the East End, as Chris Searle outlines in these extracts from his new book Whitechapel Boy which is launched with an illustrated lecture at 6.30pm this Thursday 5th April at Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives. All are welcome.

Portrait of Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918) courtesy of Imperial War Museum

Even his name is enough for many English readers to doubt his Englishness. The son of Lithuanian Jews fleeing Tsarist oppression, Isaac Rosenberg was born in Bristol in 1890. His family moved in 1897 to Cable St in the East End, where he began primary school at St Paul’s, Wellclose Sq, and continued his studies at Baker St School from 1899 to 1904.

His headteacher, Mr Usherwood, noticed his talent for Art and arranged for him to attend special afternoon classes at Stepney Green Art School. It sounds like an ordinary enough East London schooling for a talented Jewish working class boy who, on leaving school, became an apprentice for a Fleet St engraver’s and was, as he puts it in his early poem Fleet St fully exposed to the ‘shrieking vortex’ of the City of London.

His working class origins circumscribed his experience as an artist and poet. He hated his work in engraving which made his mind ‘so cramped and dulled and fevered’ and complained, ‘I am bound, chained to this fiendish mangling-machine, without hope and almost desire of deliverance, and the days of youth go by’.

His education at the Slade School of Art was due to the patronage of three wealthy Jewish women that he had accidentally met, and he depended upon the Jewish Educational Aid Society to help with his Slade expenses, trips to the south coast and the cost of his return sea passage to stay with his sister in Cape Town, where he maintained that the climate would help his quasi-consumptive lungs gain strength. Yet he rarely wrote directly of the urban East London world of Stepney and Whitechapel where he spent his most formative years.

His early poems evoked pastoral and pre-Raphaelite images of the countryside that in his real, day-to-day life he rarely imbibed, unless it was walks among the trees of Victoria Park, or Hampstead where he lived for a while or as far east as Epping Forest, where he would sometimes go to paint. ‘So shut in are our lives’, he wrote in The Poet, yet explicit images of brick, concrete and tenements were not common in his poetry, and only rarely did he write about the darkness of East London or the struggles of its people. An exception is A Ballad of Whitechapel, telling of an encounter with a young prostitute, her parents sick and ‘grim hovering in her home’ and ‘her wasting brother in a cold bleak room’.

Three years after his family arrived in East London and moved into 47 Cable St in St George-in-the-East in 1897, the ex-Indian Army officer and founder of the proto-fascist British Brothers’ League, Major William Evans-Gordon, was elected as the new Member of Parliament for Stepney. ‘There is hardly an Englishman in this room who does not live under the constant danger of being driven from his home’, he declared at a public meeting, ‘pushed out into the streets, not by the natural increase of our own population, but by the off-scum of Europe’.

As for St. George-in-the-East, William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, had written that it was the poorest and ‘most desolate’ district of the East End and it had ‘stagnated with a squalor peculiar to itself ’. In March 1901, the Eastern Post described how a Jewish family new to the area, with a cart full of furniture, arrived in nearby Cornwall St, ready to move into a vacant house. The street-dwellers charged at the van, overturned it and smashed to pieces all the furniture it was carrying. They also broke the windows of the house that the family had arranged to occupy while terrified, its members ran from the scene with their screaming never-to-be neighbours in hot pursuit, eventually managing to escape minus virtually all their possessions. Such events were not uncommon in the neighbourhood where the Rosenbergs found their first London home.

If such racism was rampant enough in the civilian streets of East London, Rosenberg found that in the midst of the British Army, that he had voluntarily joined, it was allied to a class hatred that made it even more loathsome, sometimes launched by young and hostile officers. In a letter to the novelist Sydney Schiff in December 1915 during his training at Bury St. Edmunds, he wrote: ‘we have pups for officers – at least one – who seems to dislike me – and you know his position gives him power to make me feel it without me being able to resist’.

To his longstanding friend, Winifreda Seaton, he wrote, almost desperately and futilely in Spring 1916: ‘How ridiculous, idiotic and meaningless the Army is, and its dreadful bullyisms, and what puny minds control it.’ And in his final letters of March 1918, he told how he had applied for a transfer to the Jewish Battalion of the British Army fighting in Mesopotamia. He was killed before he received an answer.

Yet despite, and perhaps partly provoked by this entanglement of hostility of race and class, not only were Rosenberg’s finest poems created and crafted in the most dire of conditions, but whole generations of Jewish intellectual and cultural genius in East London were conceived and developed from East London streets in profoundly unpromising circumstances. There was Joseph Leftwich, poet, diarist, scholar, translator and anthologist of Yiddish literature – David Bomberg and Mark Gertler, painters – John Rodker and Stephen Winsten, poets. With Rosenberg, poet and painter, these were the Whitechapel Boys, called so because their study and discussion venue and daily rendezvous was the oasis of Whitechapel Library, where during opening hours they could meet until the library doors closed.

After that, there was only one thing to do. ‘We walked the streets until one or two every morning,’ Leftwich told me in 1975. ‘Talking in the darkness or under the gaslight, talking all the time down to Aldgate and back again to Stepney Green.’

These writers, artists, political activists and street intellectuals marked a profound moment in their people’s history and gave birth to a Jewish renaissance in East London which was to spill into the next half-century, through 1936 and the resistance to British fascism, the successful pre-war rent strikes against slum landlords and the election in 1945 of the Jewish communist Phil Paratin as MP for Mile End. Such was the context of the blooming of East London Jewish dramatists like Bernard Kops and Arnold Wesker in the first two decades after the Second World War, and the Whitechapel Boys had been at the birth of all this ferment.


A Ballad Of Whitechapel

God’s mercy shines;
And our full hearts must make record of this,
For grief that burst from out its dark confines
Into strange sunlit bliss.

I stood where glowed
The merry glare of golden whirring lights
Above the monstrous mass that seethed and flowed
Through one of London’s nights.

I watched the gleams
Of jagged warm lights on shrunk faces pale:
I heard mad laughter as one hears in dreams
Or Hell’s harsh lurid tale.

The traffic rolled,
A gliding chaos populous of din,
A steaming wail at doom the Lord had scrawled
For perilous loads of sin.

And my soul thought:
‘What fearful land have my steps wandered to ?
God’s love is everywhere, but here is naught
Save love His anger slew.’

And as I stood
Lost in promiscuous bewilderment,
Which to my ‘mazed soul was wonder-food,
A girl in garments rent

Peered ‘neath lids shamed
And spoke to me and murmured to my blood.
My soul stopped dead, and all my horror
Named At her forgot of God.

Her hungered eyes,
Craving and yet so sadly spiritual,
Shone like the unsmirched corner of a jewel
Where else foul blemish lies.

I walked with her
Because my heart thought, ‘Here the soul is clean,
The fragrance of the frankincense and myrrh
Is lost in odours mean.’

She told me how
The shadow of black death had newly come
And touched her father, mother, even now
Grim-hovering in her home,

Where fevered lay
Her wasting brother in a cold, bleak room,
Which theirs would be no longer than a day,
And then-the streets and doom.

Lord! Lord! Dear Lord
I knew that life was bitter, but my soul
Recoiled, as anguish-smitten by sharp sword,
Grieving such body’s dole.

Then grief gave place
To a strange pulsing rapture as she spoke;
For I could catch the glimpses of God’s grace,
And a desire awoke

To take this trust
And warm and gladden it with love’s new fires,
Burning the past to ashes and to dust
Through purified desires.

We walked our way,
One way hewn for us from the birth of Time;
For we had wandered into Love’s strange clime
Through ways sin waits to slay.

Love’s euphony,
In Love’s own temple that is our glad hearts,
Makes now long music wild deliciously;
Now Grief bath used his darts.

Love infinite,
Chastened by sorrow, hallowed by pure Name-
Not all the singing world can compass it.
Love-Love-0 tremulous name!

God’s mercy shines;
And my full heart bath made record of this,
Of grief that burst from out its dark confines
Into strange sunlit bliss.

Fleet St

From north and south, from east and west,
Here in one shrieking vortex meet
These streams of life, made manifest
Along the shaking quivering street.
Its pulse and heart that throbs and glows
As if strife were its repose.

I shut my ear to such rude sounds
As reach a harsh discordant note,
Till, melting into what surrounds,
My soul doth with the current float;
And from the turmoil and the strife
Wakes all the melody of life.

The stony buildings blindly stare
Unconscious of the crime within,
While man returns his fellow’s glare
The secrets of his soul to win.
And each man passes from his place,
None heed. A shadow leaves such trace.

Self portrait by Isaac Rosenberg, 1916

You may also like to read about

Wilfred Owen at Shadwell Stair

Morris Goldstein, the Lost Whitechapel Boy

12 Responses leave one →
  1. April 4, 2018

    We were introduced to Rosenberg by an enterprising teacher to provide a broader perspective to our ‘O’ level course on Wilfred Owen’s poetry. My shallow seventeen-year-old mind regarded his work as unremittingly bleak (and this to a lad who was heavily into Teutonic electronica!). As with so many other aspects of my school days, I wish I’d paid more attention.

  2. April 4, 2018

    We walked through those doors on the right last fall hen we were in London. We had walked down from Spitalfields Market so I could see the Whitechapel Gallery. And we saw the plaque ont he wall. In 2015, there had been an exhibition of Jewish art at Somerset House, and some of Rosenberg’s art was included.

  3. April 4, 2018

    I’m glad you are remembering Isaac Rosenberg, whose life was so hard and short. His work deserves wider recognition. Valerie

  4. April 4, 2018

    Those poems are similar to William Blake’s about London. And so, sadly, are the sentiments of the ghastly Major. If they were wrong then, they are definitely wrong now.

  5. Paul Loften permalink
    April 4, 2018

    The stark contrast of artistic souls as Isaac Rosenberg and Wilfred Owen who were thrown into this cauldron of brutality never to emerge , makes it a fascinating conflict of opposites .Although great art was a result you must realise the true cost

  6. April 4, 2018

    I didn’t know his writing, but am glad I do now. People can be so cruel in a supposedly civilised land. When I read the jingoistic hate in some newspapers I truly wonder if much has changed. I just hope that there are enough good hearts in the world to keep us afloat. Great article.

  7. Hanna Singer permalink
    April 4, 2018

    In the introduction to his verse anthology, ‘Along the Years’, Joseph Leftwich relates how his poem, ‘Killed in Action’ (1918), written in tribute to Isaac Rosenberg, through a publisher’s error was wrongly attributed to Rosenberg himself when it was first published in the magazine, ‘Colour’ and subsequently appeared in a 1922 edition of Rosenberg’s poems. He goes on to say that David Bomberg, another friend, remarked that “It is obviously the work of an entirely different mind” and Israel Zangwill wrote to say that he ‘ought to feel flattered’!

    Joseph Leftwich’s daughter, Joan, was one of my closest friends until her death in 2003. I regularly attended the Saturday afternoon ‘at-homes’ that her parents held where I met and listened to the remeniscences of their East End cultural circle.

  8. Helen Webberley permalink
    April 4, 2018

    Whenever I have looked at the Whitechapel Boys in general or Isaac Rosenberg specifically, it strikes me what a tragic waste of family closeness, artistic creativity, literary skills and new migrant energy WW1 was. I am very pleased that the blue plaque marks the Whitechapel Gallery/Library where Isaac studied as a youngster. But I wonder how many people will know of Rosenberg’s poetry and art works since he died on the battle fields, before he had a career.

    My grandfather was born into a Lithuanian family and raised in the Ukraine. Born a few years after Rosenberg, my grandfather became a Russian-Ukrainian-Polish-English translator in the army and lost a kidney during WW1. But he survived the war; Rosenberg did not. I have raised the similarities in their lives because the army portrait of Isaac Rosenberg (Imperial War Museum) looks EXACTLY like my beloved zeida.

  9. Mari Nicholson permalink
    April 4, 2018

    Thank you for the Rosenberg tribute. He’s one of my favourite war poets, neglected by many (perhaps because he’s a bit more difficult?)

  10. Richard Smith permalink
    April 4, 2018

    A very moving and thought provoking post today. Thank you.

  11. John Barrett permalink
    April 5, 2018

    I must remember Isaac Rosenberg a fellow poet bless him a remarkable poet and life. I recite my war poems on Armistice day in church I know the anguish of putting the words together for this somber occasion. John a poet from Shirehampton Bristol

  12. Marcia Howard permalink
    April 8, 2018

    I feel so ashamed when I read of such prejudices, as existed 100 years ago, and are still with us today. Thank you so much for sharing this interesting man’s life, short as it was.

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