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War Poetry: 'Break of Day in the Trenches' by Isaac Rosenberg - The Impact of War. (Analysis)

Updated on October 20, 2016

Remembrance: A Field of Poppies

Image licensed under the Creative Commons. Details:
Image licensed under the Creative Commons. Details: | Source

Break of Day in the Trenches - A First World War Poem

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
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,
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
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,
Just a little white with the dust.

Isaac Rosenberg


(I think that this poem is in the public domain.)

Poppy Frieze. (All)
Poppy Frieze. (All) | Source

More about Rosenberg and his Works:

A Huge Range of Literature

Rosenberg's 'Break of Day in the Trenches', is one example of a huge range of poetry, prose and drama concerning war.

Some items, like this one, are contemporary, while others were written after the event, with knowledge of opinions that have been expressed over the years.

Much of this literature can be divided into two groups; pro-war sentimentalism and/or jingoism and anti-war realism.

War poetry seems to be particularly popular.

Just one Day - One Daybreak

Isaac Rosenberg 'Break of Day in the Trenches' Analysis

Rosenberg's poem, 'Break of Day in the Trenches', describes a day, amongst hundreds of days, in wartime France. It was written, in a trench, in early 1916.The description is not glorious or heroic.

However, because of books, documentaries and history lessons, modern readers might know that much heroism was shown by the men of World War One, and that many soldiers were sent to their deaths, because of the follies of their leaders.

Not only is the author of 'Break of Day ..' a contemporary of war, he is a soldier, taking part; fighting, witnessing and recording for posterity. Here, he is simply describing a lone soldier, possibly a sentry, talking to a rat and musing on its willingness to visit both German and British troops.

His comment that 'They would shoot you if they knew' refers to the fact that fraternising with the enemy could lead to execution.

Books - Isaac Rosenberg


The Soldiers

Rosenberg, though he mentions others, really introduces us to only one soldier ~ himself; the author. To describe the soldiers he knows, Rosenberg uses the literary / poetic device known as the 'rule of three' ~ 'strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes'. There is a certain unspoken 'nobility' in these descriptions.

He also mentions the German troops, but there is no obvious rancour. There is more a sense of equality, even though they are causing each other's deaths. To the rat he says; 'Now you have touched this English hand you will do the same to a German'. To the rat they are all the same ~ two groups of men positioned on either side of no-man’s-land ~ that 'sleeping green between', whose unusual peacefulness, in the midst of noise and bloodshed, is deliberately stressed, by Rosenberg, as he uses repeated long 'e' vowel sounds and internal rhyme.

Poetic Atmosphere

'Break of Day in the Trenches' is written in free verse. There is no regular metre and no true end-of-line rhyme, though there is some assonance and consonance, with words such as 'hand' and 'German'; 'heavens' and 'veins'.

This lack of rhyme and metre gives the impression that the poet might write what he feels, without restriction.

The first four lines of ‘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,"

There is a feeling, almost, of sleepy slow-motion. The sun is not said to rise, but rather the darkness crumbles gently away.

The long vowels in 'The same old Druid time' increase this effect. Nothing moves, except for a rat in the poet's hand. For that to have happened, the hand must have been very still.

The writer is musing and philosophising on his surroundings. The trench is his home. There is nothing exciting or alluring about the life Rosenberg describes. The tone is quiet ~ resigned to his, and his colleagues’, potential deaths.

A Blur of French Poppies


Poppies and Death

Death, destruction and decay are shown through the vocabulary used. For Rosenberg, the very night is being destroyed ~ for, as day breaks, 'the darkness crumbles away'. The poppies are 'ever dropping'. The living creature, which is the writer's companion, is a grinning, traitorous and, in view of what we know of such animals, possibly diseased, rat, which is leaping in his hand. Dead bodies are sprawled. French fields are torn. Even the young men, those 'haughty athletes', with 'strong eyes’ and ‘fine limbs', are probably destined for death, being 'Less chanced than [the rat] for life' and 'Bonds to the whims of murder'. Rosenberg describes the 'shrieking iron and flame' that the men have to endure, and which is reflected in their eyes, and he talks of hearts 'aghast'. He speaks of the roots of poppies, growing 'in man's veins.

The poppies seem to have had a multiple role within the mind of the soldier. It may have been seen as a talisman, since Rosenberg's character ~ possibly based on his own experiences ~ put the one from his parapet behind his ear, where it was 'safe'. Poppies grow well in disturbed ground, so they blossomed freely amongst the trenches, and would have grown where the dead soldiers had fallen, and where some might still be under foot. These flowers may well have taken root where dead bodies lay, or had lain, and the symbolism, comparing blood red poppies with the blood which had seeped from the blood vessels of the dead, seems logical ~ 'Poppies whose roots are in man's veins'. These poppies were 'ever dropping'; quickly dying, just like the men, and it is highly likely that Rosenberg was using this as a metaphor.

Resignation and Hope

There is no sentimentality or lust for glorious death, there is only resignation combined with hope.

Rosenberg simply describes things as they are, but keeps his poppy in his ear, 'safe ~ Just a little white with the dust'.

For Rosenberg, poetry was his most enjoyable pastime before the war, and his war poetry reflects and describes his real-life experiences. Trench life was horrific.

Noise, death, decay and destruction were all around and Rosenberg simply focused on his own day-to-day experience, which happened to include the horrors of life in the trenches.

Isaac Rosenberg

Isaac Rosenberg

Isaac Rosenberg's poetry is considered to be amongst the best of the First World War. Unlike some of the other famous war poets of the time, Rosenberg did not come from a privileged background. The son of Russian Jews, he was born in Bristol (25th November 1890) and brought up in London. In spite of a history of ill health, he signed up for war in 1915 and was killed in action in 1918.

His great poem, 'Break of Day in the Trenches', was posted, inside a letter, to Eddie Marsh.

He wrote: "You might object to the second line as vague, but that was the best way I could express the sense of dawn."

This is the second line: 'It is the same old druid Time as ever.'


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    • Trish_M profile imageAUTHOR

      Tricia Mason 

      5 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hello Titia and Hello Chef-de -jour.

      War poetry is very powerful, isn't it!

      Thank you both for your very kind comments. I am so glad that you enjoyed reading my piece - your words are much appreciated. :) :)

    • chef-de-jour profile image

      Andrew Spacey 

      5 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Thank you. A powerful poem from a very talented writer. I enjoyed your analysis and was pleased to see special mention for the second line, one of the ground breaking lines of war poetry.

      Votes and a share.

    • Titia profile image

      Titia Geertman 

      5 years ago from Waterlandkerkje - The Netherlands

      Oh I 'm so glad I found your hub. I'm designing my hubs in the same way with the small separation banner, like you did here with the red poppy banner. I'm a former Squidoo Lensmaster and I'm waiting till my articles are transferred into hubs. I wrote an article about the Trenches of Death in Diksmuide Belgium, where the red poppies grow on Flanders Fields. I live close to that area, it's only 1,5 hour drive by car.

      I just love your article about Isaac Rosenberg and it may sound a bit crazy, but I do love war poetry too, written by those in whom's place we wish we'll never have to stand.

      Thank you, you 've brightened my day.

    • Trish_M profile imageAUTHOR

      Tricia Mason 

      9 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hello Arwa :)

      Pleased to help ~ and best of luck with your exams!

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      thanks for your fabulous criticism and analysis , it really helped , i'm from egypt , studying in the english department and this has been really helpful since i have an exam in few days , wish me luck and keep'em coming , you got my momma's prayings trish :D

    • Trish_M profile imageAUTHOR

      Tricia Mason 

      9 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hi Abs and Samantha.:) :)

      Thank you for commenting.

      Good luck if you are studying .

      Hi Barry ~ sorry, I don't know what you mean about talking to your sister or having 'worked things out', but thanks for the positive comment :)

    • Trish_M profile imageAUTHOR

      Tricia Mason 

      9 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hi 'imagonnafail'

      I feel sure that you are not 'gonnafail'.

      Thank you for your comments and good luck :)

    • profile image

      Samantha Findlay 

      9 years ago

      Hi I've nerver sent anyone anything because I weird. Hey by the way you're awsome! Please Keep up your awsome work dode

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      well, I see you've talked to my sister & worked things out welldone on your work seems to me like most people like the things you've done. Good Job

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      well done hope it continues. you have inspired me


    • profile image


      9 years ago

      got an English mock GCSE exam tomorrow - this really helped me get some useful notes

    • Trish_M profile imageAUTHOR

      Tricia Mason 

      9 years ago from The English Midlands

      Good luck with that, Will :)

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      thanks, this has been useful for my gcse english.

    • Trish_M profile imageAUTHOR

      Tricia Mason 

      10 years ago from The English Midlands

      Thank you Peter.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      dis is a very good info

    • Trish_M profile imageAUTHOR

      Tricia Mason 

      10 years ago from The English Midlands

      Glad you enjoyed it :)

    • Moulik Mistry profile image

      Moulik Mistry 

      10 years ago from Burdwan, West Bengal, India

      Very interesting and informative too - thank you for sharing this...

    • Trish_M profile imageAUTHOR

      Tricia Mason 

      10 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hi Ama. I recently took English Literature A' Level ~ just for fun. I took French & German literature A' levels while I was at school, so I thought I'd see what English was like all these years later ~ and I really enjoyed it. I can see why you would have enjoyed studying it at degree level. :)

    • ama83 profile image


      10 years ago from San Jose, CA

      Your hub is very interesting; it takes me back to my literary criticism days. I was a literature major, so I also find it fun to pick apart great works.


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