“Break of Day in the Trenches” – Isaac Rosenberg. A Poets Case Against Statism…

“Introducing Will Shanahan as the newest contributor to the Humane Condition. This essay is entirely his work, please enjoy, like, comment, etc…!!!” – Adam

Rosenberg and the Case Against Statism: A Poet’s Rejection of Nationalism


Nationalism and World War I were mutually intertwined.  Governments of all warring countries everywhere promoted Nationalism to their citizens in order to keep public support for the war.  The war itself gave rise to the poet-soldier, the military servicemen who told of their war experiences through poetry.  Officers such as Rupert Brooke, who did not engage in combat often, perpetuated the romanticism of nationalistic collectivism in their poetry.  However privates on the front lines, such as Isaac Rosenberg, did the exact opposite.  Rosenberg’s poem “Break of Day in the Trenches” is not just a pastoral take on a day in the trenches.  Close examination, along with historical context and criticisms, reveal that this poem is about individuality and peace.  Or rather, this poem is a reaction against nationalism, patriotism, and collectivism.  Rosenberg uses the trench lyric as a means to critique and ultimately condemn the nationalistic governments.  Furthermore, “Break of Day in the Trenches” can be seen as a poem that denounces government-run states.

Rosenberg “went to war not as an officer, but as a private” (David Damrosch 2138).  Kevin Tejada’s “Overview of WWI” and Kayla Howden’s “Encyclopedia Entry” are great for providing background context on the war itself, and what Rosenberg would have been facing at the time he wrote “Break of Day in the Trenches”.  Tejada writes, “World War I—then known as the Great War—was a four-year long conflict between the Allies (the UK, France, and Russia) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy).  In it, the Germans introduced the tactic of using poison gas, which was quickly adopted by both sides of the struggle” (1).  Not only did both sides engage in chemical warfare, they also “constructed elaborate dugout and trench systems facing each other” that “was a very passive form of war” that resulted in millions of deaths” (Howden 1).  This is the experience that the narrator of “Break of Day in the Trenches” was faced with.  Soldiers, such as Rosenberg and the fictitious narrator, were the “epitome for attrition warfare: each side slowly wearing down other until they couldn’t fight anymore” (Howden 1).  The war was essentially fought and won through the slamming of groups of soldiers against each other in order to gain territory.

People might wonder why millions of soldiers from all participating countries obeyed government conscription and went to war.  After all, “the war itself resulted in the deaths of approximately 65 million human beings; only 57% were armed forces” (Shanahan 1).  As I pointed out in my own essay, “WWI Propaganda and Government Representations of the War,” “government officials in all countries had to embark on a mass media campaign” (1).  These propaganda campaigns were necessary to wage war.  As historian, economist, and philosopher Murray Rothbard pointed out, “democracies invariably engage much more widely in deceptive war propaganda, to whip up and persuade the public” (1).  Government propaganda machines followed three basic principles.  They promoted emotion over logic, collectivized and demonized the enemy, and promised a war to protect democracy (1).  The propagandistic appeal to the collective would have surrounded and influenced Rosenberg before he even set foot on enemy soil.  Experiencing the propaganda at home coupled with battle at front is a crucial reason as to why he wrote a poem that promotes individualism.

To understand why “Break of Day in the Trenches” is a poem against nationalism, nationalism must be defined as something more than an abstract concept of geographical identity.  Nationalism, in practice, is the act of collectivizing a country’s citizens into one identity in order to promote some sort of agenda.  As Lynette Perez writes in “Patriotism During WWI”, governments promoted “a strong sense of nationalism, not only to excite the men for war, but to entice them to sign up” (1).  In other words, nationalism is the ends to which the means of propaganda aims to achieve.  That is, nationalism is the self identification of a society with their government.  Therefore, as I’ve stated in “WWI Propaganda and Representations of the War”, nationalism “automatically makes individualist thoughts the thoughts of a dissident.  To question the war is to question fellow countrymen, and sympathize with the enemies of the state” (3). The opposites of nationalism and statism are individualism and cosmopolitanism.  Individualism goes against the collectivism of the nationalistic identity while cosmopolitanism contrasts with a homogeneous society.  Therefore, Rosenberg’s appeal to both individualism and cosmopolitanism can be seen as rejections of the state.

The appeal to the nationalistic is necessary to every government run state.  This is because governments are nothing more than monopolies of force over given regions of land.  Or as Rothbard writes, “Each state has an assumed monopoly of force over a given territorial area, the areas varying in size in accordance with different historical conditions” (25).  Seeing how only individuals can act, government officials must justify the decisions they make in regards with their use of the monopoly of force.  This is why governments, or rather individuals in control of governments, must promote nationalism to maintain the support of the public.  Nationalism is promoted in a number of ways.  Some do not appear to be malicious, such as giving citizens the ability to vote and “participate” in governmental affairs.  Others, such as propaganda campaigns, seem far more insidious.  Ultimately however, these functions all serve the same goal, the complicity and self identification of the citizenry.  Therefore, nationalism and statism can be thought of as inseparable.  Once these citizens see themselves as extensions of the state, the only threats to government monopoly of force are other states.  Mandatory conscription and battles over sea, among other things, can break the patriotic hold over individuals.  Rosenberg’s service in the trenches shattered any nationalistic sympathies that he held.

The first two lines of “Break of Day in the Trenches” perpetuate the idea of a stateless society.  The lines, which read “the darkness crumbles away–/It is the same old druid Time as ever”, invoke the mortality of governments compared to time (1-2).  The use of the word “druid” draws the reader back to the pre-Christian era of history.  It also calls the reader to realize that the darkness had “crumble[d] away” many times in that very location where the narrator is currently entrenched.  The connecting of the battlefield location with the druid era causes the reader to realize that governments and their respective states have changed, evolved, and ended over that course of time. It causes readers to think about the actual fluidity of states over time, which automatically calls nationalism into question.  Nationalism is called into question because nationalistic person is a person who self-identifies with the state.  The nationalistic person is someone who would say “we are the government”.  The tracing back in memory of other governments that have occupied that same territory brings this line of reasoning under question.  After all, how can nationalistic readers identify themselves with the druid period if the government that they self-identify with did not exist?  Therefore, these two lines can be seen as an attempted break from the patriotic lens that readers might originally view the poem through.

Now that Rosenberg has broken the nationalistic lens, he can translate his experience of the state induced horrors of the war.  He uses two particular symbols to make his case against the state.  The symbols are the rat and the poppy.  Rosenberg invokes these symbols in the poem when he writes “only a live thing leaps my hand–/ A queer sardonic rat–/ As I pull the parapet’s poppy/ to stick behind my ear” (3-6).  Author’s Nils Clausson and Robert Hemmings wrote about these symbols in their respective essays, “Perpetuating the Language: Romantic Tradition, the Genre function, and the Origins of the Trench Lyric” and “Of Trauma and Flora: Memory and Commemoration in Four Poems of the World Wars”.  Clausson sees these symbols as an evolution of the Romantic lyric, writing “The distance between Rosenberg’s experience and that portrayed in the Romantic lyric is signaled most emphatically by the rat, which replaces the daffodils, nightingales, skylarks, and darkling thrushes of earlier lyrics” (123).  She also notes that these, specifically the rat, are symbols of death in the trenches, stating “Since they fed on the corpses, which provided a never-ending supply of food, rats were a constant reminder of death” (124).  Hemmings makes the same argument about the poppies, stating “here Rosenberg not only links the poppies with the blood of dying soldiers… he does so botanically by noting that the flowers’ roots are literally nourished by the fertilizing nutrients of soldiers’ blood” and “this emphasis on the botanical invokes… mortality, since flowers, fertilized by dead soldiers, also drop or are plucked, as by Rosenberg’s speaker, and so die” (745-6).  In other words, both authors argue that Rosenberg used these symbols to represent death in the trenches.  They believe that since both the rats and the poppies feed off of dead soldiers to sustain themselves that these symbols have an inverse relationship with the soldiers.

The rat and the poppies do in fact, symbolize death.  However, they take on much more meaning and depth when seen as the death of nationalism and self-identification with the state rather than the soldiers themselves.  If the health of the rat is inversely connected with the health of nationalistic thought than its relationship with the narrator takes on a powerful meaning.  For example, the narrator would have been propagandized just as much as any other soldier.  However, when the narrator recites “only a live thing leaps my hand–/ A queer sardonic rat” he experiences a moment of enlightenment.  The rat takes on the same role of inspiration as the Romantic and Victorian birds.  It represents the narrator’s freedom from the nationalistic self-identification.  Rosenberg writes that “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” (7-10).  The rat necessarily has to represent an opposition to state nationalism.  Its ability to transcend the national boundaries and touch different soldiers implies that it cannot be symbolic of patriotism.  And if the German soldier has the same reaction as the narrator, a reaction of dissolution of state nationalism, than the rat must be a symbol of individualism for all soldiers who embrace it.  Furthermore, it creates a second war between individualism and collectivism.  However, this war is fought in the minds of soldiers rather than the trenches of France.

This war between the nationalistic and the individualistic is further developed in the next few lines where Rosenberg writes

“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,

Bonds to the whims of murder” (11-16).


The narrator, speaking to the rat, notes that it has the power to go where it pleases.  This rat, when looked at as the essence of individuality, ultimately wins against the collective mentality in this passage.  For instance, the “strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes” that the rat passes by represent nationalism.  After all, these soldiers are bound “to the whims of murder” that the state has obligated them to.  These soldiers, representative of the collective, have “less chanced than [the rat] for life”.  In other words, Rosenberg seems to be suggesting that the idea of individual thought will outlive the nationalistic experiment.  Furthermore, these soldiers represent the outright rejection of individualism which is implied by the rat passing by them.  Whereas these soldiers are doomed to the collective, the narrator has been liberated.  Although he still faces mandatory service, the rat paid him a visit when it crawled on his hand.  In other words, the rat inspired the narrator to reject patriotic loyalty.

The poppies carry the same anti-state implications of the rat.  The narrator states that “poppies whose roots are in man’s veins/ drop, and ever dropping; but mine in my ear is safe, just a little white with the dust” (Rosenberg 23-6).  The juxtaposition of the poppies brings out powerful depth in this poem.  After all, the imagery of these flowers growing out of corpses lines up with Hemmings view of the inverse relationship between poppies and soldiers.  The very plants are nourishing themselves on the fallen warriors.  However, the poppy behind the narrator’s ear represents a much different death.  This is the death of his self-identification with the state.  Or rather, this poppy is symbolic of his turn away from collectivism and rejecting nationalism.  This also gives a double meaning to the “poppies whose roots are in man’s veins” (Rosenberg 23).  They’re not only representing those soldiers who died in the name of collective thought.  These poppies also symbolize the death of the national identity that soldiers experienced when they were de-propagandized by the hardships of wars.

The nationalistic collectivism versus individualism can be further developed when “Break of Day in the Trenches” is coupled with “Dead Man’s Dump”, another war poem by Rosenberg.  Specifically, the second stanza from this poem shows why nationalism will always fail against the individual and the cosmopolitan.  This stanza reads

“The Wheels lurched over sprawled dead

but pained them not, though their bones crunched,

Their shut mouths made no moan.

They lie there huddled, friend and foeman,

Man born of man, and born of woman,

And shells go crying over themselves

From night till night and now” (Rosenberg 7-13).


The true nature of national and collective wars is outlined in this passage.  The battlefield is covered in dead soldiers, “friend and foeman” alike.  These soldiers died in the name of nationalism yet are now more cosmopolitan than ever before.  The irony of the nationalistic experiment is that even battles fought in the name of nationalism lead to cosmopolitan results.  The dead soldiers on both sides of the war are now occupying the same territory in harmony.  The poppies that will grow out of these soldiers will live up to the meanings of both the symbol of dead soldiers and the symbol of the death of nationalism.  After all, the resulting poppy field will have found roots in soldiers of either side ultimately making that field one without national identity.  This is also important because it echoes back to the druid time of “Break of Day in Trenches”.  Government monopolies of control over geographic regions do no last.

Isaac Rosenberg’s war poetry was not just a reflection on the dangers of life in the trenches.  His poems tell his story of rediscovering individualism and rejecting the English nationalism he had been subject to.  Rosenberg draws heavily on the use of the rat and the poppies to signify the death of his own self-identity with England.  He realized that statism never wins; soldiers either reject the government collective for individual mentality or they rot in “cosmopolitan” graves.  His poems serve as a reminder that people are in fact, not the government.  Rosenberg ultimately condemns nationalism, a tool necessary for the survival of a state.


-          Will Shanahan, Contributor, the Humane Condition

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