Returning, we hear the 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.
Such a vivid yet precarious poem – a breathaking evocation of a beauty so precious, so fragile that no sooner has it being acknowledged than it must be tempered with warnings. Again and again Rosenberg reminds us of the tentativeness of the soldiers’ situation (“Death could drop from the dark / As easily as song”) and yet it is this constant awareness of danger that gives the scene, and the poem that describes it, its lyrical intensity. The reader, like the soldier, steps out into the clearing of the poem with a sense of hazard, looking up with trembling eyes to see what will come from the sky and when what comes is song he experiences a wave of relief that Rosenberg is careful not to let turn into hope. This is not an escape. This is merely a small island of grace in a land of “poison-blasted” ways.
P.S. Rosenberg’s cautiousness was not unjustified. On April 1, 1918 Isaac Rosenberg was killed while fighting in France. He remains one of the finest chroniclers of the the First World War in poetry, and one of the more underrated.