Soldiers reaching camp after a nighttime mission are surprised by birdsong in this classic poem by the first world war great
This week's poem, Returning, We Hear Larks, is one of Isaac Rosenberg's most popular war poems, but I often wonder if he'd have made further revisions, given time. It's among the last handful of poems he wrote, working on scraps of paper in circumstances that would have silenced a less motivated artist. Yet the piece is typically his own, while laying bare the diverse influences integral to his style.
Rosenberg's life and work are a fusion of conflicting energies. To begin with the obvious ones: he was a painter and playwright as well as a poet. His first language was Yiddish; his first literary inspiration the Old Testament. Some of his best prewar poems are in the style of Blake– and not shallow imitations, either. Symbolist, realist, modernist, Romantic: Rosenberg could be selectively anthologised to embody any of these movements.
Most critics have favoured those of his war poems that use a vernacular idiom and free-verse structure to expose the misery and grotesqueness of everyday soldiering. You might argue that, like Owen, Rosenberg was released by war from self-conscious literariness. But you'd only be partly right. His finest war poem, Dead Man's Dump, is highly literary, a fused montage of the biblical, the Blakean and the Whitmanesque. Returning, We Hear Larks comes from a similar mould.
One revision we know about comes in the first line, which originally read, "Sombre the night hangs." Changing "hangs" to "is" shows good judgment: simpler is stronger. But simplicity is only one aspect of Rosenberg's method. The line's grammatical inversion is good judgment working in a different direction. That trochaic opening bell-stroke of "Sombre" is a dramatic, mood-setting call to attention. Although the thought continues in the next two lines, a full-stop after the assertion ensures a resonant pause. Another simple verb, "have" in "we have our lives" suggests these "lives" are like solid objects, to be grasped and owned in the face of the "sinister threat" that "lurks there" (ie in the sombre night), waiting to snatch them away.
From the next tercet we learn the men are returning to camp at dawn after a nocturnal sortie. Rosenberg is probably recalling an occasion from his time in the works battalion servicing the Hindenburg Line, in February 1917. The irregular, almost ragged tercets convey the limping, shambling gait of exhausted men. Adjectival phrases such as "anguished limbs" may seem overdone, but they help retard the rhythm, and accentuate the sense of relief, the clarity and lightness of getting back to camp and "a little safe sleep".
Linguistic excess can pay off. Rosenberg loved inventing compound words, and the coined adjective "poison-blasted" seems a brilliant stroke. The poet never deluded himself about the war: he viewed it as "a demonstration in vast and tragic forms of the stupidity and ineffectiveness of our species". War's blasts and poisons are moral as well as literal, and this compound detonates an array of meanings.
Rosenberg's challenge in the poem is to lend combat-credibility to a subject bathed in Romantic luminescence. It doesn't deter him from using the biblical language of "hark" and "lo" or the repetition of "joy", however, and in lines seven and eight, his speaker might have stepped out of one of his Old Testament plays.
Shelley's To a Skylark is echoed in the metaphorical description of the birdsong as rain-showers: "Music showering our upturned list'ning faces." But Rosenberg needs a stronger objective correlative than rain to express his sense of the miraculous. He finds the solution in a magnificent phrase: "heights of night ringing with unseen larks". This has a muscular musicality unlike the finespun ethereality of Shelley. "Ringing" achieves a piercing and reverberating sound effect, and just possibly hints at the urgency of communication signalled by field telephones. It visualises the larks gathered invisibly round, like an ambush, or a protective fortress. That the birds are "unseen" contrasts tantalisingly with the loud nearness of their voices. And beneath them, the men are also perhaps enclosed by their shared experience, forming a ring of "upturned list'ning faces". As Rosenberg biographer Jean Moorcroft Wilson says, the image relates to a charcoal drawing he made in 1912, entitled Hark, Hark the Lark. She tells us there was also a painting, now lost, which Rosenberg submitted to a Slade School competition. It was called Joy, and concluding the prose description Rosenberg had written: "Joy – joy – the birds sing joy". Writing his "lark" poem in 1917, under desperate pressures, he's surely not merely recycling earlier material but asserting the continuum of his creative identity.
The last section begins abruptly, with a statement of stark truthfulness, which then turns complicated. "But song only dropped" is interestingly ambiguous. "Dropped" is a word more applicable to bombs and rain than birdsong. It makes sense to apply "only" to the noun rather than the verb, but the qualifier's positioning casts doubt. It can also be read as a faintly sardonic reference to the frailty and incompleteness of the experience: the song simply dropped away and disappeared.
This reading may be borne out by the ensuing similes. The blind man's dreams are swept away, or dropped, "By dangerous tides". The girl is an unwittingly predatory sexual figure, perhaps related to the war goddess Rosenberg imagines elsewhere – a traitor and devourer of men.
Neither impressionistic sketch nor realist narrative, though drawing on both, partly rhymed and partly free, haunted by an antithesis of innocence and experience almost too painful to translate into language, the poem seems to look into the heart of Romantic epiphany and find an abyss. Less than a year later, on 1 April 1918, Private Rosenberg was killed at dawn after a night patrol.
Returning, We Hear Larks
Sombre the night is.
And though we have our lives, we know
What sinister threat lurks there.
Dragging these anguished limbs, we only know
This poison-blasted track opens on our camp –
On a little safe sleep.
But hark! joy – joy – strange joy.
Lo! heights of night ringing with unseen larks.
Music showering our upturned list'ning faces.
Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song –
But song only dropped,
Like a blind man's dreams on the sand
By dangerous tides,
Like a girl's dark hair for she dreams no ruin lies there,
Or her kisses where a serpent hides.