Issac Rosenberg, “August 1914”

With thanks to Benjamin Roman

August 1914 (from Poetry)
Issac Rosenberg

What in our lives is burnt
In the fire of this?
The heart’s dear granary?
The much we shall miss?

Three lives hath one life—
Iron, honey, gold.
The gold, the honey gone—
Left is the hard and cold.

Iron are our lives
Molten right through our youth.
A burnt space through ripe fields,
A fair mouth’s broken tooth.

Comment:

Kay Ryan had this to say in a charming little meditation entitled “Sweet Talk:”

Too little is made of the agreeability of patently, triumphantly, idle conversation. Much presses us toward substance — wars, prizes going to the wrong people. We feel obliged to refer to these topical evils, but it is only aggravating, usually; no real depth and no real lightness.

I haven’t really had time to think about “the agreeability of patently, triumphantly, idle conversation,” because I’ve been focused on another sort of idleness. In the Oeconomicus, much is made of a sailor who talks about how everything on his ship is clearly and distinctly arranged. The utility of the arrangement of things is always present, but most helpful in an emergency (VIII: 11-18). Having a supremely well-ordered life, being ready for anything, sounds amazing until you realize you’re at war all the damn time. In a store, for example, you’re competing against other stores. Against your fellow employees. In a way, against your customers and your managers, because you don’t just need their praise, you need them to concede to you in some way. Stores are a great example of the sailor’s logic – everything ordered to the end of selling, most attractive items in front and plentiful, the back stocked and ready for more sales if need be – as no one would regard living in a store the way human beings ought to live.

It’s a thought conceived in idleness that human life is only the conquest of necessity. We deal with what is necessary. To let such things define us is to lose something unique to us. But then comes the problem Ryan poses. Don’t the larger issues, like freedom, dignity, and justice, demand to be spoken about? How can we be natural or authentic, not forcing ourselves to see the bigger problems when we’re not really concerned with them?

At first I tried imagining what idle conversation that is a joy to have sounds like. Being a pretentious gasbag, I ended up reading about ISIS and trying to imagine what sound American policy in Iraq would be like, playing the role of “expert” by reading a few news stories. That serious things frequently are treated trivially by us, without us even knowing what we’re doing – I get that. But it doesn’t even begin to help us conceive what truly pleasant, idle chatter is like.

Maybe Rosenberg’s poem offers a solution. Written during the Great War, it pulls no punches. It reminds me of Blake, who with the deftest, darkest touch could make evil come to life and force us to realize just how awful the idols we create are:

What in our lives is burnt
In the fire of this?
The heart’s dear granary?
The much we shall miss?

“What in our lives is burnt / In the fire of this?”war is a forge, destroying, purifying, molding. It is desire, it is life, it is death. Yeah, this means my little thought above concerning the inhumanity of trying to prepare for an emergency all the time needs to be qualified, for now. Rosenberg’s question is very specific: something in our lives is burnt in a fire. The answer is lot less clear. “What” is burnt could be the same as “the fire of this.” “The heart’s dear granary” implies that much, as a granary is meant to be consumed. “The much we shall miss” is not just our experiences or loves, but our capacities and potential.

Something essential to us wants war.  Rosenberg has to grapple with what seems most fluid, any consideration of essence. He does this by embracing the fluidity, letting human nature depict itself:

Three lives hath one life—
Iron, honey, gold.
The gold, the honey gone—
Left is the hard and cold.

The golden color of honey disappears as the honey becomes iron-like. Iron is fundamental; gold was beautiful and most temporal. The ordering of the second line in this second stanza is nothing short of brilliant. Rosenberg has given us a false end in “gold,” letting the misery of the images we chase sting. Yet the central element, “honey,” stands out. There are sweet things, and iron preserves a memory of them, weirdly enough.

He works in the third stanza to undermine any sweetness tempting us. Iron is molten, flowing like honey, breeding the ravages of war:

Iron are our lives
Molten right through our youth.
A burnt space through ripe fields,
A fair mouth’s broken tooth.

Iron does not just cut down youth on the battlefield. It’s their desire, what they were born into. The everyday necessities that could involve a fire on farmland, the decay that is aging, and the violence we do to each other are all one. There’s no real logic to this; it’s the way it is, and it confronts us. There was more logic in the second stanza, which suggested that something sweeter could be had.

Maybe that’s the answer I’m looking for. We use our reason to chase images, and that’s not always the worst thing. If one can chatter away about small things and find it involving and pleasant, that’s not delusional or a waste of time. It is, in a strange way, authentically pious. You’re using what might be a higher power to appreciate something small. It’s easy to see how such a life would be blessed or divine without any New Age notions of self-actualization. There’s a kind of governance involved which some thinkers, once upon a time, thought could translate into leadership. The truly great comes from the small. Only a few know what is worth sacrificing for.