Isaac Rosenberg’s poem describes a day in wartime France. He wrote it in a trench, and posted it inside a letter to Eddie Marsh. His description hasn’t anything glorious or heroic. There’s no sentimentality or lust for glorious deaths, but only resignation and hope. He describes things simply as they are, reflecting his real-life experience through them.
This poem is in free verse; there isn’t any regular metre or constant rhymes. This lack of metre and rhyme actually shows this real impression we have of the poet writing what he feels and without any restriction. In fact, there is a feeling in the first four lines of drowsy slow motion; he says “the darkness crumbles away” instead of saying the sun is rising. Moreover, this effect is increased by the long vowels of the second line. So while the poem begins, the night ends. We feel like nothing moves, except for a rat, which at first surprises the soldier –when it “leaps in hand”– but then makes him amused by its mocking and strange look (“queer sardonic rat”). The tone is for now calm and quiet, while he’s resigned to his and his colleagues’ potential deaths. The next two lines are constructed in a paradox: the soldier “pulls the parapet’s poppy” and then “sticks behind ear.” Indeed, the first action reflects what a soldier does daily during war –he takes lives away–, and the second one is a romantic, lover action –a completely unsoldierly gesture. Additionally, the ‘p’ alliteration of line 5 reminds the sounds of gunfire, and the poppy image is a strong symbol of war by its red colour representing blood.Order now
The voice becomes thereafter directed towards the rat. Indeed, when the soldier tells him that “they would shoot if they knew/ cosmopolitan sympathies”, he means that if the soldier gave himself as much freedom as the rat has (especially fraternising with the enemy), he would be shot. In his poem, Rosenberg also mentions the German troops, but with a sense of equality; he says to the rat “Now you have touched this English hand/ You will do the same to a German”, showing they’re all the same to the rat, i.e. two groups of men positioned on each side of a no-man’s land. He later on precises the rat’s reaction “as passes”; the “ grin” he makes shows that the rat is aware of the irony of him wandering freely amongst the dead bodies. Furthermore, describing the “shrieking iron and flame” the men have to endure, Rosenberg lets us know the young soldiers –the “haughty athletes” with “strong eyes” and “fine limbs”– are probably all destined for death, for they’re being “Less chanced than for life” and “Bonds to the whims of murder” (and this as well shows how the dead men were tied to commands of murder).
In the last four lines, Rosenberg uses a metaphor: the poppies dropping and “ever dropping” have a strong link with the soldiers, as they are dying, and ever dying. He then adds another ironic line: saying “But mine in my ear is safe” is wrong because having plucked it from earth makes it die. Finally, the very last line opens the poem to the death in a certain way, because the whitening of the dust symbolises the beginning of his journey towards death.
To conclude, Isaac Rosenberg pictures us through his poem the horror of life in the trenches during war; noise, death, decay and destruction were all around him, and he doesn’t fail to express the feeling of it.