A Short Analysis of Isaac Rosenberg’s ‘The Troop Ship’

A brief introduction to a powerful short WWI poem by Isaac Rosenberg

According to Robert Graves, Isaac Rosenberg was one of the three poets of significance who died during the First World War. Although his reputation has been overshadowed by Wilfred Owen (who died in 1918, the same year as Rosenberg), he was an important voice during WWI, as his short poem ‘The Troop Ship’ demonstrates. Here is the poem, followed by a brief analysis of its features.

The Troop Ship

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.

Focusing on one specific experience in the war – trying to get some sleep while lurching about on a boat with other Isaac Rosenbergsoldiers – this poem is a fine example of Rosenberg’s understated style. The men are ‘queerly huddled’ and likened to ‘Contortionists’, whose twisted bodies (‘queer’, by the way, comes from an old word meaning to twist – and no, the modern slang sense of ‘homosexual’ probably isn’t intended, since this sense of the word was rare until later in the century) are trying to twist their souls to sleep.

The poem doesn’t rhyme, nor does it use Wilfred Owen’s preferred device of pararhyme (killed/cold, toil/tall, and the like). But Rosenberg uses something similar: ways, doze, face all play off each other (as does the –less of careless), with the transition from ways to doze summoning the unspoken daze that the speaker, in his tired state, is experiencing. Meanwhile, the repetition of ‘sleep’ reinforces the fact that sleep remains elusive:

The sleepy soul to a sleep,
We lie all sorts of ways
And cannot sleep.

This beautifully captures the longing for sleep, the hope that one will be able to drop off to sleep, only to find that sleep remains far-off. The first mention of ‘sleep’ suggests that sleep may be a prospect, but that hope is dashed in the ‘cannot sleep’ two lines later.

‘The Troop Ship’ is one of the shortest great poems of the First World War. If you enjoyed this poem, continue your discovery of classic WWI poems with our analysis of Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Futility’, our pick of the best poems of WWI, and these facts about war poets.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

Image: Isaac Rosenberg in 1917 (author unknown), Wikimedia Commons.


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  2. First time I have read this. Thanks for the post!

    Some interesting sound effects going on here: take line endings – sleep-sleep-feet. Assonance on the long e sound. Add also ways-doze-face; I like the change of sound with doze, it alters the tone and ‘colour’ of the lines.
    These are just first-reading notes. All a matter of tuning in the poems’ world of sounds, internal connections and its take on the objective world.