This Sunday, I had my first gig as the Jewish Museum’s Poet in Residence, talking with the wonderful artist and scholar Irene Wise about poet, painter and WWI soldier, Isaac Rosenberg. The museum’s current exhibition, For King and Country?, explores Jewish involvement in the First World War and includes some of Rosenberg’s sketches, as well as a draft of ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’, the iconic poem that inspired T. S. Eliot to praise him as the “most remarkable” of the British First World War poets.
Surprisingly, on a hot and sunny July afternoon, the auditorium was full. Rosenberg’s writing clearly touched many people and our audience ranged from those whose interest had been sparked but who didn’t know much about his life and work, to several academics including his biographer, the WWI expert Jean Moorcroft Wilson. We were slightly intimidated at first, but everyone was lovely and the conversation became a collaborative one, with several members of the audience chipping in. The most touching moment was when one gentleman, Bernard, revealed he was Rosenberg’s nephew, the son of his sister Annie, who had painstakingly typed up Isaac’s poems when he had sent drafts to her enclosed with his letters from the Front.
We began by exploring Rosenberg’s home life and background and tracing how this Jewish boy from an impoverished background, who spoke Yiddish and didn’t learn English until he was eight, ended up studying at the Slade, befriending several of the major artists of the modernist period and acquiring as his patron, Edward Marsh, Churchill’s Private Secretary. What drove him to enlist and how did Private Rosenberg cope in the war when he was so small he was assigned to a “Bantam” regiment? Irene gave a fascinating analysis of his art, finding multiple references in his early work to classic paintings he’d viewed in the National Gallery, as well as unpicking the influence of his contemporaries at the Slade on his many sketches and self-portraits. I compared his development as an artist to his development as a poet, looking at his poetics as well as asking how much his Jewish roots affected his writing and what made him so original. Our audience was full of thoughts and ideas, and we finished with a sense of overwhelming sadness for such a talent to have been lost so young.
Having made many notes while looking around the exhibition and preparing for the talk, I’m now hoping to draft a poem of my own, inspired by Rosenberg’s life and work. Keep your eyes open for updates as I spend time writing in the galleries during August. And if you see me at the museum, I hope you’ll come over and say hello.
Editor’s note: Aviva will be in the museum galleries on Tuesday 5 August, Thursday 14 August, Tuesday 19 August, Thursday 28 August, from 12 noon to 4pm