Grotesque and queerly huddled Contortionists to twist The sleepy soul to a sleep, We lie all sorts of ways And cannot sleep. The wet wind is so cold, And the lurching men so careless, That, should you drop to a doze, Winds’ fumble or men’s feet Are on your face.
On November 25, 1890, Isaac Rosenberg was born in Bristol, England. His father and mother, Dovber and Hacha Davidov Rosenberg, had recently arrived from Russia and settled in London's Jewish ghetto. Dovber (who changed his name to Barnett Rosenberg) opened a butcher shop, but the authorities soon seized it and he spent the remainder of his life as an itinerant peddler. Isaac grew up in extreme poverty and worked in the afternoons as an apprentice engraver. In the evening, however, he pursued art and by 1907 he had enrolled in night classes at Birkbeck College. His talent as a painter garnered him a number of student awards and allowed him in 1911 to receive a sponsorship for the Slade School, an important center for English painting.
While at the Slade School, Rosenberg's interests gravitated increasingly towards poetry. He began to send his poems to editors and journals, and in 1912 at his own expense he published Night and Day. This twenty-four-page pamphlet showed a strong Romantic influence, particularly from the poems of Keats and Shelley. It was at this time that Rosenberg became acquainted with Edward Marsh, a leading figure in the art world of London. Marsh encouraged Rosenberg's writing and purchased some of his paintings; he also introduced him to many of the important writers and painters of the day such as Ezra Pound and T. E. Hulme. Through this connection Rosenberg came into contact with Imagism and although he did not become an Imagist himself, he did learn from its techniques.
In 1913, Rosenberg's health began to fail and he spent the following year in Cape Town, South Africa. He returned to England in 1915 and again self-published a pamphlet of the poems he had written in the preceding two years. This pamphlet, entitled Youth, demonstrates the influence of the Imagists and also shows Rosenberg developing a more distinctive and mature style. Lacking any job prospects and with the war in Germany heating up, Rosenberg decided to enlist in the Bantam Battalion of 12 Suffolk Regiment. He was sent to the Western Front in 1916, and would never rise above the rank of Private.
Rosenberg's poems from this time rival those of England's most famous "trench poets," including Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, and Rupert Brooke. Rosenberg's poems, such as "Dead Man's Dump" or the often-anthologized "Break of Day in the Trenches," are characterized by a profound combination of compassion, clarity, stoicism, and irony. On April 1, 1918, while on night patrol south of Arras, Rosenberg was killed in battle. His body was never found. His poems were posthumously collected and published in London in 1922. In 1979 all of his work was gathered and published in The Collected Works of Isaac Rosenberg: Poetry, Prose, Letters, Painting, and Drawings (Oxford University Press).