Week 186: August, 1914, by Isaac Rosenberg

These lines by the First World War poet Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918) seem to me a good example of a poem that is flawed yet still memorable, of inspiration triumphing over imperfection. For the most part the compact imagery works well: the symbol of war as a consuming fire, destroying affection and memory, ‘the heart’s dear granary’, is underpinned at the literal level by the fact that war can indeed lead to the burning of actual crops in ‘ripe fields’; the symbol of war as hard cold iron, ousting all that is rich and sweet in life, is similarly underpinned by the actual dominance of iron as a battlefield material. The problem I have is with the last line. Yes, this too may work well enough at the symbolic level: war as disfigurer, maiming the mouth, the very source of utterance, in the way it perverts human speech for the purposes of hate and propaganda. But at the literal level a broken tooth, on the scale of what war can do to the human body, strikes a rather bathetic note, and one can’t help wondering if Rosenberg got into difficulties having to find a rhyme for ‘youth’ and didn’t quite manage to extricate himself.

Still, worth it for that middle quatrain alone.

August 1914

What in our lives is burnt
In the fire of this?
The heart’s dear granary?
The much we shall miss?

Three lives hath one life –
Iron, honey, gold.
The gold, the honey gone –
Left is the hard and cold.

Iron are our lives
Molten right through our youth.
A burnt space through ripe fields,
A fair mouth’s broken tooth.

Isaac Rosenberg

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