Feature Articles - Beating For Light
Author Geoff Akers on the genesis of Beating for Light - the story of Isaac Rosenberg.
When I first read Isaac Rosenberg's poetry, during my senior honours' year at Aberdeen University, I was immediately struck by the power and originality of the language.
Here was a poet, who more than any of the others I'd come across, expressed the true horrors of warfare. He wasn't writing about just any war, of course, but the first truly global conflict where destructive forces, hitherto unknown on the field of battle, were being unleashed to devastating effect. I believed then, and still believe, that Dead Man's Dump is the greatest and most profound war poem ever written.
In my honours' dissertation, I decided to compare and contrast the poetry of Rosenberg and Wilfred Owen with particular emphasis on Dead Man's Dump and Strange Meeting - the latter often lauded as Owen's most powerful anti-war poem.
While accepting both had great merit, the main thrust of my argument was that Dead Man's Dump was shorn of the sentiment which I felt, at times, detracted from Owen's work. Nowhere had I encountered imagery with such power to move me as: When the swift iron burning bee / Drained the wild honey of their youth….
A man's brains splattered on / A stretcher-bearer's face: / His shook shoulders slipped their load, / And when they bent to look again / The drowning soul was sunk too deep / For human tenderness.
In poems such as, Break of Day in the Trenches and The Immortals Rosenberg bravely attempted to articulate the underlying spiritual malaise at the heart of war. In the former, a queer sardonic rat … inwardly grins.. as it passes Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes, / less chanced than you for life, while in the latter, the lice rise up to torture the poet, For devils only die in fun. Such creatures, he believed, represented a petty evil alive in the world, prospering while the soldiers were reduced to the lowest possible state of being with, as he put it in a letter to a friend, no more free will than a tree.
Delving deeper into Rosenberg's extraordinary talent, I found that much of his poetry - even his pre-war work - had considerable merit. Unlike many of his fellow war poets, he wrote a great deal before 1914, and would, I am certain, had he lived, gone on to become an eminent and much respected writer. A number of prominent academics have rightly compared the mythic quality of his work with that of W.B. Yeats.
Although largely ignored during his lifetime, Rosenberg's poetry had come to the attention of such contemporary luminaries as T.S. Eliot, T.E. Hulme, Ezra Pound and Edward Marsh, all of whom commented on his talents as a writer.
I was further intrigued by his reputation as misfit, obsessed by a self-conceived role as victim - often railing at what he believed was a cosmic conspiracy to silence him. I discovered, however, that behind this rather superficial mask, lay a man who was, at heart, deeply courageous and utterly dedicated to his art. Despite suffering terrible health and racial abuse during his time in the army, he somehow managed to retain a strong grip on reality, continuing to record what he saw and experienced.
The fact that he suffered much greater privations on account of being an enlisted soldier was also a compelling factor in Rosenberg's difficult life. He could only dream about the privileges afforded the officer poets of the period. As a lowly private in His Majesty's Armed Forces, he had virtually no privacy or opportunity to write. Poems were often scribbled on the backs of envelopes while his mates were asleep or temporarily distracted.
Twenty years on, I read an article lamenting the fact that while the poetry of First World War officers such as Owen, Sassoon and others, had not only survived the long passage of time but grown in popularity, Private Rosenberg's work had slipped off the shelf into relative obscurity. The writer expressed the view that this was a great pity given its potentially enormous impact on the imagination of the modern reader.
I found myself agreeing with these sentiments and wondered how people could be provided with the opportunity to read some of the most inspiring war poetry ever written. After all, Rosenberg had posterity in mind when he struggled to express himself, realising well enough that his poems were unlikely to have much impact on those caught up in the conflict.
Out of these musings arose the idea of writing a novel to help bring his poetry to a wider audience - at the very least establishing his equality with the others. In Beating for Light I was determined to move beyond the biographical and get inside Rosenberg's mind. So the idea to fictionalise a part of his life was born.
At first, I only wanted to write about his war experiences but quickly realised that in order to properly convey a sense of his evolution as writer and artist, I would have to delve back, extensively researching every aspect of his life before and after 1915. In the end, everything in the book has its basis in fact - many of the fictionalised passages suggested and supported by his letters and other sources of information.
It is the reader, of course, who will have to judge whether or not I have succeeded in this ambitious project. But if the book encourages people to read Rosenberg's poetry, I will be more than satisfied.
Unfortunately, none of the mainstream publishers to whom I sent the manuscript felt able to offer me a contract. A novel written by an unknown first time writer about a somewhat obscure First World War Jewish poet, clearly did not inspire them enough to take a risk. Although often complimenting the quality of the writing, it was never quite right for their "lists".
On the way, I managed to avoid the vanity publisher honey traps, laid out to ensnare the unwary, eventually opting to self publish. While this can be an expensive way to get one's book into the public realm, the work that goes into it is fascinating and rewarding in itself.
My motivation to continue was based on the gut feeling that an audience exists who will enjoy and, who knows, perhaps gain from reading such a novel. Only time will tell.
Beating For Light: The Story of Isaac Rosenberg, published by Juniper Books, is available via Amazon.co.uk. ISBN 0-9547428-0-X.
"Bellied" was a term used to describe when a tank's underside was caught upon an obstacle such that its tracks were unable to grip the earth.
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