A summary of a classic war poem
‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ is by one of the First World War’s leading war poets, Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918). The poem might be analysed as war poetry’s answer to John Donne’s ‘The Flea’ – because the rat which is so friendly towards the English poet will also cross No Man’s Land and make friends with the German enemy. The rat, that ubiquitous feature of WWI imagery, here acts as a reminder of the English and Germans’ common humanity, even in times of war.
Break of Day in the Trenches
The darkness crumbles away.
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies.
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver—what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe—
Just a little white with the dust.
It’s all here in ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’: the rats, the trenches, the symbolic poppy (already firmly associated with WWI thanks to John McCrae’s poem ‘In Flanders Fields’, but an association that was actually first made during the Napoleonic Wars). ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ is a quintessential war poem. Yet the style is understated, even offhand: here there is none of the strong moralising or quietly righteous (never self-righteous) indignation found in much of Wilfred Owen’s poetry. Instead, Rosenberg describes and lets his description (largely) do the work. The poem is written in something approaching free verse, rather than using the rhyme schemes and regular metre found in much of Owen’s work.
And the description of the soldier’s encounter with the rat is masterly. In summary, as the poem’s title makes clear, it is dawn in the trenches during the First World War. It’s just an ordinary morning (Time is personified as a druid, suggesting there is something age-old and ancient about the dawn) except that when the soldier on sentry duty plucks a poppy from the top of the trench, a rat suddenly ‘leaps my hand’. Note the missing preposition: the rat doesn’t leap into or onto the speaker’s hand. It is more direct than this, the turning of the intransitive into a transitive verb mirroring the suddenness, and unexpectedness, of the action.
The soldier sees the rat as ‘cosmopolitan’ for fraternising with an English soldier in No Man’s Land. Blithely, the rat will ‘cross the sleeping green between’ – the drawn-out assonance of the ‘e’ sounds suggesting the blissful indifference of the rat, which does not realise it is running around a warzone. The rat darts between strong, fit, healthy young men, yet – despite the associations between rats and disease and extermination – this rat’s life expectancy is probably better than most of these young soldiers, who may be dead next week, or tomorrow, or later that day. Indeed, many of their fallen comrades already lie ‘Sprawled in the bowels of the earth, / The torn fields of France.’
Rosenberg then wonders what knowledge the rat has of the fear and terror in the soldiers’ eyes. Does it sense their misgivings, their anxieties? Or is it blithely and blissfully unaware of the conflict raging around it? The speaker of the poem then turns to consider the poppy he picked from the trench, and alludes to the idea that red poppies sprang from the blood of dead soldiers. These poppies are dropping and dying here in No Man’s Land – just like the soldiers themselves – while the rat thrives. The final line is a fine example of Rosenberg’s understated style: the red poppy is ‘just a little white with the dust’, but the whiteness resonates with ambiguous symbolism, suggesting death (the pale faces of the dead soldiers?), purity, and ghostliness. But Rosenberg doesn’t force any particular meaning on us as readers: he could simply be making a literal comment about the dust on the poppy, a matter-of-fact statement that should be taken at face value.
This is what makes Isaac Rosenberg different from Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon: he is a poet of statement, even understatement. Like Owen, he may have felt that the poetry was in the pity, but he was interested in teasing it out rather than spelling it out. And it is what makes Rosenberg – especially ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ – worth subjecting to careful textual analysis.
Image: Isaac Rosenberg in 1917 (author unknown), Wikimedia Commons.