'Break of Day in the Trenches'

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Picture of Rosenberg

Isaac Rosenberg, 1890-1918


'Break of Day in the Trenches' was first published in December 1916 in the Chicago journal Poetry. It was written by the British First World War poet, Isaac Rosenberg, whilst he was serving on the Western Front during the Great War (1914-1918). It is possibly referred to in a letter by Rosenberg written to Sir Edward Marsh on the 6th August (approx. a month after being in the trenches): 'I am enclosing a poem I wrote in the trenches, which is surely as simple as ordinary talk. You might object to the second line as vague, but that was the best way I could express the sense of dawn'. The poem is often regarded as Rosenberg's finest piece, praised by Siegfried Sassoon as 'Sensuous frontline experience is there, hateful and repellent, unforgettable and inescapable'. Apart from the other poems by Rosenberg contained in this program, three pieces in particular should be read in conjunction with 'Break of Day in the Trenches', namely 'In The Trenches', 'Marching', and 'The Troop Ship'.

Contextual Information

From here you can see the manuscript variants, or explore the three main areas, ROSENBERG'S LIFE, ANALOGUES, and WORLD WAR I. A MAP facility is also provided to ease navigation. EXIT will take you to the final page of this site.

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Break of Day in the Trenches

The darkness crumbles away
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet's poppy (5)
To stick behind my ear
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies,
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life, (15)
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame (20)
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver -what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in men's veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe, (25)
Just a little white with the dust.

- Isaac Rosenberg

Manuscript Variants

  1. Pre-June 1916 Version
  2. Bottomley Variant

In the Trenches

'In the Trenches' was written in June/July of 1916 and is often seen as a first attempt at 'Break of Day in the Trenches' because of its similar setting and strong use of the image of the poppy.

In the Trenches
I snatched two poppies
From the parapet's ledge,
Two bright red poppies
That winked on the ledge.

Behind my ear
I stuck one through,
One blood red poppy
I gave to you.

The sandbags narrowed
And screwed out our jest,
And tore the poppy
You had on your breast...
Down - a shell - O! Christ,
I am choked...safe...dust blind, I
See trench floor poppies
Strewn. Smashed you lie.

- Isaac Rosenberg (1916)

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'Marching' was written at the end of 1915/early 1916 but was not published until December 1916 when it appeared, along with 'Break of Day in the Trenches' in the US magazine Poetry.

Marching (As Seen From the Left File)
My eyes catch ruddy necks
Sturdily pressed back -
All a red brick moving glint.
Like flaming pendulums, hands
Swing across the khaki -
Mustard-coloured khaki -
To the automatic feet.
We husband the ancient glory
In these bared necks and hands.
Not broke is the forge of Mars;
But a subtler brain beats iron
To shoe the hoofs of death,
(Who paws dynamic air now).
Blind fingers loose an iron cloud
To rain immortal darkness
On strong eyes.

- Isaac Rosenberg (1915-16)

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The Troop Ship

In May 1916 Isaac Rosenberg embarked for France, travelling in the standard troop ship across the English Channel. The poem gives a stark account of conditions on- board for the lower ranks. It was sent to Harriet Monroe in October 1916 along with 'Break of Day in the Trenches'. The poem survives in facsimile form in a letter (no date) to Robert Trevelyan.

The Troop Ship
Grotesque and queerly huddled
Contortionists to twist
The sleepy soul to a sleep,
We lie all sorts of ways
And cannot sleep.
The wet wind is so cold,
And the lurching men so careless,
That, should you drop to a doze,
Winds' fumble or men's feet
Are on your face.

- Isaac Rosenberg (1916)

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Poetry was a Chicago-based journal founded and edited by the American poet/critic Harriet Monroe. In its early days it published works by Pound, Eliot, and Frost as well as Rosenberg's 'Break of Day in the Trenches'.

Rosenberg sent the poem 'Break of Day in the Trenches' to Harriet Monroe in October 1916 with the following note:

Could you let me know whether a poem of mine 'Marching' has been printed by you, as I understood from J. Rodker, it was accepted. I have no means of knowing, or seeing your magazine out here, I have lost touch with Rodker...I am enclosing a poem or two written in the trenches...

The poems enclosed were 'Break of Day in the Trenches' and The Troop Ship'.

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'A queer sardonic rat'

P. Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford, 1975, 243-54), states of the rat:

''as the speaker reaches up for the poppy, a rat touches his hand and scutters away. If in Frye's terms the sheep is a symbol belonging to the model-that is, pastoral or apocalyptic-world, the rat is the creature most appropriate to the demonic. But this rat surprises us by being less noisome than charming and well-travelled and sophisticated, perfectly aware of the irony in the transposition of human and animal roles that the trench scene has brought about. Normally men live longer than animals and wonder at their timorousness: why do rabbits tremble? why do mice hide? Here the roles are reversed, with the rat imagined to be wondering at the unnatural terror of men:
What do you see in our eyes . . .
What quaver-what heart aghast?'
(Fussell, 1975)

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'As I pull the parapet's poppy, To stick behind my ear'

P. Fussell, in his chapter 'On the War Poets in Literature' in The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford, 1975, 243-54) provides an overall view of the poem and its relation to the pastoral elements:

''The morning which has begun in something close to the normal pastoral mode is now enclosing images of terror- the opposite of pastoral emotions. It is the job of the end of the poem to get us back into the pastoral world, but with a difference wrought by the understanding that the sympathetic identification with the rat's viewpoint has achieved. All the speaker's imagining has been proceeding while he has worn-preposterously, ludicrously, with a loving levity and a trace of eroticism - the poppy behind his ear. It is in roughly the place where the bullet would enter if he should stick his head up above the parapet, where the rat has scampered safely. He is aware that the poppies grow because nourished on the blood of the dead: their blood colour tells him this. The poppies will finally fall just like the 'athletes'- whose haughtiness, strength, and fineness are of no avail. But the poppy he wears is safe for the moment - so long as he keeps his head below the parapet, hiding in a hole the way a rat is supposed to. The poppy is

Just a little white with the dust,

The literal dust of the hot summer of 1916 . It is also just a little bit purified and distinguished by having been chosen as the vehicle that has prompted the whole meditative action. But in being chosen it has been 'pulled', and its death is already in train. Its apparent 'safety' is as delusive as that currently enjoyed by the speaker. (Rosenberg was killed on 1 April 1918.) If it is now just a little bit white it is already destined to be very white as its blood runs out of it. If it is now lightly whitened by the dust, it is already fated to turn wholly to 'dust'. The speaker has killed it by pulling it from the parapet. The most ironic word in the poem is the 'safe' of the penultimate line. As I have tried to suggest, the poem resonates as it does because its details point to the traditions of pastoral and of general elegy. As in all elegies written out of sympathy for the deaths of others, the act of speaking makes the speaker highly conscious of his own frail mortality and the brevity of his time. Even if we do not hear as clearly as Jon Silkin the words 'Just a little while' behind 'Just a little white', we perceive that the whole poem is saying 'Just a little while'. We will certainly want to agree with Silkin's conclusions about the poem's relation to tradition. The poem pivots on what Silkin calls 'the common fantasy' about poppies, that they are red because they are fed by the blood of the soldiers buried beneath them. 'It is one thing to invent', says Silkin; 'it is quite another to submit one's imagination to another's, or to the collective imagination, and extend it, adding something new and harmonious.'' [Silkin reference from J. Silkin, Out of Battle: The Poetry of the Great War, (OUP, 1972), p. 280].
(Fussell, 1975)

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'Now that you have touched this English hand, you will do the same to a German'

The mutual contact between the 'queer sardonic rat' and the English and German hands highlights two points. First, the irony is that such a worthless creature as the rat can cross such physical boundaries as no-man's land, and at the same time linking two enemies, the English and German soldiers. Second, it calls to mind the imagery used by John Donne with his poem 'The Flea' which plays on a similar idea, this time for the purposes of courtship. Rosenberg, as with many of the First World War poets, was heavily influenced by the Metaphysical poets.

The Flea

Marke but this flea, and marke in this,
How little that which thou deny'st me is;
Mee it suck'd first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea, our two bloods mingled bee;
Confesse it, this cannot be said
A sinne, or shame, or losse of maidenhead,
Yet this enjoyes before it wooe,
And pamper'd swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than wee would doe.

Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where wee almost, nay more than maryed are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our mariage bed, and mariage temple is;
Though parents grudge, and you, w'are met,
And cloysterd in these living walls of Jet.
Though use make thee apt to kill mee,
Let not to this, selfe murder added bee,
And sacrilege, three sinnes in killing three.

Cruell and sodaine, hast thou since
Purpled thy naile, in blood of innocence?
In what could this flea guilty bee,
Except in that drop which it suckt from thee?
Yet thou triumph'st, and saist thou
Finds't not thy selfe, nor mee the weaker now;
'Tis true, then learne how false, feares bee;
Just so much honor, when thou yeeld'st to mee,
Will wast, as this flea's death tooke life from thee.

- John Donne

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'To cross the sleeping green between'

The ability of the rat to cross land prohibited to the soldiers, i.e. no-man's land (the space between the two opposing trenches) furthers the irony of the situation and calls to mind an earlier poem by Blake, 'The Ecchoing Green':

The Ecchoing Green

The Sun does arise,
And make happy the skies;
The merry bells ring
To welcome Spring;
The sky-lark and thrush,
The birds of the bush,
Sing louder around
To the bells' chearful sound,
While our sports shall be seen
On the Ecchoing Green.

Old John with white hair,
Does laugh away care,
Sitting under the oak
Among the old folk.
They laugh at our play,
And soon they all say:
`Such, such were the joys
When we all, girls & boys,
In our youth-time were seen
On the Ecchoing Green.'

Till the little ones, weary,
No more can be merry;
The sun does descend,
And our sports have an end.
Round the laps of their mothers
Many sisters and brothers,
Loke birds in their nest,
Are ready for rest,
And sport no more seen,
On the darkening Green.

William Blake

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