Friday, 25 September 2009

Isaac Rosenberg: 'Through these pale cold days'

As a new feature for the blog, I am going to publish a war poem each week. Copyright rules out much of the twentieth century, so my focus will tend to be the Great War and earlier. This week, Isaac Rosenberg's 'Through these pale cold days', followed by some brief notes. Do please post below any comments about the poem or my interpretation.

Through these pale cold days

Through these pale cold days
What dark faces burn
Out of three thousand years,
And their wild eyes yearn,

While underneath their brows
Like waifs their spirits grope
For the pools of Hebron again---
For Lebanon's summer slope.

They leave these blond still days
In dust behind their tread
They see with living eyes
How long they have been dead.

This was the last poem Rosenberg wrote. He sent it to Edward Marsh in a letter dated 28 March 1918, calling it 'a slight thing' and commenting that 'My vocabulary small enough before is impoverished and bare'. By the time the letter arrived in England, Rosenberg was dead. He had been killed while on night patrol on 1 April.

'Through these pale cold days' has always seemed to me to be among the greatest and most mysterious of Rosenberg's poems, notwithstanding his own reservations. It is rarely anthologised, perhaps because editors remain unpersuaded that it should even be classified as war poetry. Yet its long view of Jewish history pressing into the present, and the departure of these strange revenants in the final stanza, are powerful if idiosyncratic responses to current circumstances. 'Revenants' only in one sense, because these long-dead ancestors find their descendants among inhospitable terrain --- not the familiar pools of Hebron nor Lebanon's summer slope, but the 'blond still days' which are so hostile to Jewishness: in 'The Jew', written the previous summer, Rosenberg had complained that 'the blonde', 'the bronze' and 'the ruddy' all 'sneer at me'.

Geoffrey Hill in Speech! Speech! has written of Rosenberg that 'His last efforts / to survive---like THROUGH THESE PALE COLD DAYS--- / appear belated and timely acts / of atonement'. There is a typically Hillian paradox in 'belated and timely', and Hill's preoccupation with ideas of atonement risks turning Rosenberg into Hill avant la lettre. All the same, the similarities between Rosenberg and Hill provide reminders of a debt which Hill is always prepared to acknowledge. Rosenberg, in those pale cold days, is briefly at one with his ghosts; he sees with living eyes for them; they are dead and, through him, alive. However, their visit is necessarily short; with new understanding of the future, they turn away to resume their search for the lost Edenic home. The poet is left behind, abandoned even by his own people.


  1. Fine idea for a weekly feature. A few thoughts... I assume you want to correct the misspelling in "behind." There must be some anachronistic irony now in these (your word) revenants yearning for "Lebanon's summer slope." But given that pleasant image, are you completely sure that "blond still days" are only equivalent to "pale cold" ones? Mayn't there be some summer warmth (rather than hostility to Jewishness) lurking there too? I don't see your "new understanding of the future"; instead, I'd suggest maybe the ghosts have no place in the present either, and there is no real kinship with the poet at all. Any road (as some Brits say), the poem is certainly mysterious in its "meaning," and I prefer that insubstantiality...

  2. Thanks, Ed. That's very helpful.

    Typo duly corrected. By 'new understanding of the future', I meant (although I didn't express it well) the future from the point of view of the revenants: that is, Rosenberg's present. And yes, I agree that the question of kinship is at the heart of the poem. That's a very good point. What do these Jews have in common with modern Jews, other than their Judaism? The answer, the poem bleakly concludes, is nothing.

    I'll think some more about 'blond still days' and 'pale cold days', although my sense is that the cold present is being contrasted throughout with the warmth of the ancient past: the summer slope, the burning faces.

  3. Something like humanity itself looking back on it's history from the point of the view of the early 20th century trenches,and screaming, "I could've been a contender..."