The dead poet riding on the Tube

By Dana Gloger, September 19, 2008
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An anti-war poem war by the late Isaac Rosenberg is to be displayed on the Underground.


When poet Isaac Rosenberg wrote On Receiving News of the War, he certainly would not have expected, that 90 years later, three-and-a-half million Tube passengers a day would be reading his work. But from Monday, the poem will be one of six displayed in 3,000 carriages across London's Underground network, as part of this year's autumn season of the Poems on the Underground scheme, which displays poetry on Tube trains for more than six months every year.

Rosenberg, a well-respected British Jewish painter as well as a poet, wrote the poem in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War. Unlike most other writers' patriotic responses to the war expected to end all wars, he was critical of Britain's conflict with Germany from the start.

The brainchild behind the Poems on the Underground scheme is Jewish novelist Judith Chernaik, 73, from Gospel Oak in North-West London.

She says she chose the Rosenberg poem because it is "extremely moving" and because it anticipated "what was going to happen in the war, in the way poets often do".

But, she adds, it was also selected to help commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Armistice treaty between the Allies and Germany, famously signed in a train carriage, at the end of the war on November 11, 1918.

She says: "We always try to include a wartime poet in our autumn set to tie in with Remembrance Day, and as this year was the 90th anniversary, it seemed particularly appropriate to use one of Isaac Rosenberg's poems.

"I chose this particular work as it conveys not only the anguish of that time, but also his strong sense that the war was futile and that the ordeal of the soldiers was not worthwhile. At the same time, he also shows a great longing for things to be better and a very strong love of life."

In 1915, Rosenberg enlisted in the army. He was first assigned to the "bantam" unit - for men shorter then 5ft 3in. He was eventually sent to the Somme in France, where he was killed, in April 1918, just seven months before the end of the conflict. He was 28. "He was one of the victims of the war," Chernaik says. "He suffered not just from life in the trenches but also from the fact that he was in the infantry - his soul was full of literature but he was surrounded by people who were not interested in that."

The version of the poem which will appear on the Tube will have a four-line stanza cut from it, which reads: "Red fangs have torn His face/God's blood is shed./He mourns from His lone place/His children dead."

"That stanza is terribly savage and very distressing," says Chernaik. "It might be too strong for the average reader on the Tube. We are not aiming to shock people, but to move them." She admits that she does sometimes have to censor poems to accommodate the "sensitivities of the three million daily passengers".

Although the poems on the trains are now an established feature of the network, that has not been always the case.

Chernaik, from New York, who came to Britain in 1972 explains: "There used to be a lot of empty space on the Tube, so I suggested to London Underground that they put some poems up."

They were "very receptive" and agreed so long as she could pay for them to be designed and printed. "Two friends and I secured funding from the Arts Council and the first poems were exhibited on Tubes in January 1986."

The public response was huge and several other cities across the world, including New York and Paris, followed and launched similar schemes. Over the past 12 years, Poems on the Underground has exhibited an enormous range of poems, including those by Holocaust survivor Primo Levi. It has also continued to receive regular funding from the Arts Council.

"It is something that people have always been very positive about and seem to really enjoy," she says.

On Receiving News Of The War

Snow is a strange white word.
No ice or frost
Has asked of bud or bird
For Winter's cost.

Yet ice and frost and snow
From earth to sky
This Summer land doth know.
No man knows why.

In all men's hearts it is.
Some spirits old
Hath turned with malign kiss
Our lives to mould...

O! ancient crimson curse!
Corrode, consume.
Give back this universe
Its pristine bloom.

Cape Town, 1914

    Last updated: 5:01pm, November 9 2010