Genius is no respecter of people, place or situation, as we know, but its choice of Isaac Rosenberg still seems extraordinary. Born on 25th November 1890 to immigrant Jewish parents in a Bristol ghetto, he spent the first seven years of his life there in the poverty that was to dominate his life. Yet he went on to write some of the greatest poetry of the First World War. As his friend and teacher, Miss Winifreda Seaton, observed after his tragic death in 1918: “Had he had Rupert Brooke’s advantages, he might have expressed himself more perfectly, but when you compare the environment of the two, Isaac Rosenberg is a wonder”.
Siegfried Sassoon praised Rosenberg’s genius; T. S. Eliot called him “the most remarkable” of the First World War poets and F. R. Leavis thought him as “remarkable” as Wilfred Owen but “even more interesting technically”. Yet even now, more than a century after his death on 1 April 1918, he has not been absorbed into the national consciousness in the way that Brooke, Sassoon and Owen have. How many people can quote, or even identify one line of Rosenberg’s verse? Yet this is the poet who wrote some of the most devastating and at the same time humane words about frontline experience ever penned: