A 'half-used life' blasted to extinction
We are in for many reminiscences and much rewriting of the history of World War I, which was triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28 1914.
But what of one of the war’s now famous victims, classed among the English “War Poets”, but who had crucial South African connections, hardly known?
To be a really great war poet, then and now, you had to be butchered in action for your art. Such was Rupert Brooke with his “begloried sonnets” near Gallipoli, or Wilfred Owen with his gruelling requiems in the trenches of the Western Front.
For our subject, Isaac Rosenberg, what he called his “half-used life” was over during some unrecorded skirmish near Arras. The date was April Fool’s Day 1918 when, with the rest of the 11th Battalion of the King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment, he was blown to extinction.
Years later when bits of what may have been his corpse were exhumed from a mass grave, his family back in the ghetto of the East End of London were sent a bill for three shillings and sixpence, so that he might rest under a Star of David with “Artist and Poet” on his tombstone.
The king’s shilling
So impoverished were they that their son and heir had signed up, not for the patriotic glory of their adopted country, but merely for the king’s shilling a day.
Edgy, depressed and weak-lunged, the 27-year-old Rosenberg had cadged the £12 Union Castle fare to escape from England to Cape Town, arriving in June 1914, to start a career.
Unlike many such refugees, he was diagnosed as nontubercular.
“This coming away has changed me marvellously and makes one more confident and mature,” he wrote back to his confrères at the Slade School of Art, where he had trained as a charity boy and gained his progressive ideas.
His older sister Minnie, whom he had dumped on, still communicated in Yiddish to their refugee pedlar-father and seamstress mother, escaped from the shtetls of Lithuania. Isaac’s brother-in-law, Wolf, handled the mail since he had landed work as a clerk in the post office.
Uncle Peretz was doing even better, as a rabbi up in Johannesburg, although his nephew was destined never to visit him there .
As Rosenberg had already held a one-man exhibition of his paintings in London, clearly in this newly Unionised outpost he was to be lionised. In numbers of the chic studio journal the South African Women’s Council, his lectures on European art history were to be published as celebrated pieces, with some of his output as a poet included as well.
Thanks to a patron like the unmarried sister of Sir James Molteno, the MP who had recently returned from the king’s coronation, on their Rondebosch estate for the first time in his life Rosenberg had coffee brought to him in bed, his shoes polished and a room of his own.
The skill he intended to live off here was portraiture. One fine sketch in black chalk he did for cash rests nowadays in, of all places, the Imperial War Museum. His subject was Margaretha van Hulsteijn, the daughter of the speaker of the House of Assembly.
Much fun and high jinks were obviously involved, for this lass nicknamed “Scrappy” would play the trouser parts in Stephen Black’s roaring farces, marry a future prime minister, JG Strijdom, and, after starring on the West End as Marda Vanne, found our own National Theatre during the next world war.
Other such portraits unfortunately were lost when, eight months later, Rosenberg’s folder blew off the deck of the ship on which he returned to Europe to enlist. One of his self-portraits in oils did, however, survive and is now in the Tate Gallery in London.
Dreadfully clogged up
But confidentially, in a letter postmarked July 24 1913 and written to Winston Churchill’s secretary, Edward Marsh, requesting slides to illustrate further updates on post-impressionism, cubism, etcetera, he really let rip. The society South Africans he met were “dreadfully clogged up with gold dust, diamond dust, stocks and shares, and heaven knows what other flinty muck. Well, I’ve made up my mind to clean through all this rubbish!”
He adds: “Think of me, a creature of exquisite civilization, planted in this barbarous land!” And here the local economic collapse would soon no longer offer the fees for the luxury goods he proffered.
But now robust and healthy under craggy Table Mountain, he was drastically paring down his notes: from Victorian bombast perhaps best forgotten, into Georgian sappiness about all those “entwining fleshes”, into imagism: sparse, precise, pointed. Indeed, his poem, On Receiving News of the War, about that “ancient crimson curse”, may be taken as the marker between the 19th and 20th centuries in verse. As such, I included it in The Penguin Book of Southern African Verse.
Then would come his final Break of Day in the Trenches. In his monumental summary of 1975, The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussel considered it the single greatest poem of that whole disaster.
Rats crossing back and forth; reaching for a red poppy to put behind his ear. Gazing across the line at Rosenberg Fortress, the camp for officer prisoners, Rosenberg was obliterated.
So only in incomplete collected works from Chatto & Windus, and in fascinating scrapings-together from Enitharmon Press, does Rosenberg survive.
In what records there are of his forgotten South African sojourn, it is clear that his breakthrough here invigorated him and fostered his genius.