Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship

Isaac Rosenberg: the Making of a Great War Poet

by Jean Moorcroft Wilson

Home | Sassoon Papers Sale | Annual Conference 2009 | Heytesbury House Photos - May 2008 | Cricket photos 2008 | Siegfried's Journal | SSF Shop - Support us by buying stuff! | London Walk 2006 | The Flower Show Match | About Siegfried Sassoon | Recent and forthcoming events | New books | Past Events | Photo Album | Photos of conference 2007 | Contact Us | Join the SSF! | Joint membership options with WOA | 2008 annual conference

If there is one area where Jean Moorcroft Wilson excels, it is in her ability to analyse and draw out the character traits that not only give writers their inspiration but make readers want to read their work. By extension, this is what readers expect from a biography. JMW performed the feat particularly well in her two-volume biography of Siegfried Sassoon, and now she has done the same for Isaac Rosenberg.

Rosenberg died at the age of twenty-seven, thus his life story can be condensed into a single volume, yet it was not an uneventful life, nor was Rosenberg an uninteresting man. As we quickly realise, he was very different from most of the war poets: not an officer, not a Georgian, not well-educated, not even a native speaker of English. Yet some critics consider this man a greater poet than Wilfred Owen.

Perhaps the most striking feature of the book, and one which underlines Rosenberg’s often contradictory character, is the series of colour plates reproducing portraits he painted of himself and other people. Many writers are creative in other media. Of the First World War poets, David Jones was an accomplished artist and Ivor Gurney a musician and composer, while Siegfried Sassoon dabbled in both art and music. Rosenberg’s paintings reveal a man whose image of himself was quite different from the way other people saw him. In his self-portraits, dressed stylishly, he looks at us out of the corner of his eye with an air almost of disdain. A full-face photograph, on the other hand, shows us an ugly, uncertain figure in an ill-fitting uniform. Which is the real Isaac Rosenberg?

This may seem a strange comment from the Secretary of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship, but I feel that this works better, as a book, than the author’s two-volume biography of Sassoon. There may be several reasons for that. To begin with, Jean Moorcroft Wilson has been researching Rosenberg for a very long time; she published her first critical study of the poet in 1975. Consequently she knows her subject to a depth that would be difficult to achieve for the longer-lived Sassoon with his complex network of relationships and his literary versatility (and I hasten to add that I consider her still unsurpassed as an interpreter of Sassoon’s life and work). Another reason for my earlier statement is precisely that Rosenberg’s life was short (not much longer, but - dare I say it? – a fuller life than Wilfred Owen’s). This enables JMW to keep her treatment of the subject concise and focused.

Then of course there is the related, but still relevant, fact that the material is able to be condensed into one volume. Of course it is no one’s fault (indeed it is our good fortune) that Sassoon lived to be eighty whilst Rosenberg died aged twenty-seven, and the author can hardly be criticised for dividing up her work on Sassoon into manageable chunks. Nevertheless, it can be frustrating to have to remember which volume you need when you want to check on some Sassoon-related fact, as I often find myself having to do.

At first sight, the common ground between Rosenberg and Sassoon (apart from their Jewish blood) is not easy to spot. Sassoon was from a wealthy background, and did not start his public school education until he was fourteen, the age at which Rosenberg was leaving school to earn a pittance for long hours of toil in an engraver’s workshop. There is, however, one very close link between them. Both decided, at an early age, that they wanted to become poets, and poetry remained their first love.

Isaac Rosenberg is Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s first love. If we were not sure about this, it is given away in the subtitle: "The Making of a Great War Poet". For her, Rosenberg was not merely a war poet, not merely a good war poet, but a great one. To compare this with the subtitle of her first volume on Sassoon, "The Making of a War Poet", is to recognise how differently she regards the two. She admires Sassoon, though (like me) she prefers his prose to his poetry; but she loves Rosenberg. It’s not a bad recipe for a successful biography.

Yet JMW never strays too far down the path of idolatry. In her minute analysis of Rosenberg’s character, she is quick to note his faults: his social ineptitude and difficulty in forming relationships, his self-pitying stance when trying to interest others in his situation, his inability to accept constructive criticism.

My only reservation in my praise for this biography is that at times I felt the author had forgotten that not everyone will understand Rosenberg’s Jewish East End background as well as she does herself. Why, for example, did Isaac have to change schools when his parents moved a few streets away? Was it because the distance is greater than it appears on a map, or because he would have had to walk through a disreputable area? Or was it because his parents wanted him to go to a Jewish school with a poor academic reputation rather than a Church of England school with good standards? These and other circumstances, particularly in his early life, sometimes go unremarked.

If there are areas where she appears to skate over intriguing details, there are others where she goes to great lengths to investigate every nook and cranny of Rosenberg’s psyche. First and foremost a literary biographer, her primary interest is in what gave the poet inspiration for his art (in both the literary and the visual medium), and one can hardly complain about that. Rosenberg’s modest output is painstakingly analysed, so that we come to appreciate the poet’s technique as well as the nature of his inspiration. In short, this is an accomplished work and a very attractive book. If you can’t afford to buy it yourself, make sure your local library does.


Review by Deborah Fisher