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.
This poem reflects on the beginning of the First World War, questioning the consequences of its destruction: Rosenberg declares that a hard and cold age of fire, iron and death has been ushered in by the war.
August 1914: Though the title refers to the first month of the war, this poem was actually written in 1916, as Rosenberg trained as a private soldier for the front line.
STRUCTURE: This is, typically for Rosenberg, a poem of precise images that are also symbols that invite broader interpretation. ‘August 1914’ offers these images and symbols in fragmentary style.
“What in our lives is burnt / In the fire of this?”: The opening stanza begins with questions— anxious wonder about the consequences of the war. Rosenberg does not shy away from questioning in his poetry, and declaring a lack of knowledge, a limited insight. “This”, of course, is the war: Rosenberg wonders what is being destroyed by its “fire”. The word has hellish or sacrificial connotations, but also literally describes the firing of bullets, mortars and shells.
“The heart’s dear granary?”: the metaphor here, comparing the heart to a granary, seems to emphasise the emotional cost of war. A granary is where grain is stored for winter; if the heart has a granary, we might suppose it is where gathered affections are stored for sustenance— but have now been consumed, by the fire of war.
“The much we shall miss?”: An image of great (“much”) personal loss. Note the alliteration here and the stress placed on these two words that signify plenty and its loss.
“Three lives hath one life—”: A cryptic statement that I must admit I find difficult, This line perhaps imagines one life having three elements— those subsequently named. Note another typical Rosenberg archaism (hath for has).
“Iron, honey, gold.”: Another example of Rosenberg favouring the common noun over adjectives. Here the things named have a number of different associations that the reader may apply to them: Iron’s hard and cold nature, the sweetness and preserving power of honey, the preciousness of gold. Any number of valid interpretations can be made as to why these three substances are peculiarly inherent to a human life.
“The gold, the honey gone— / Left is the hard and cold.”: The references to gold and honey here are to me suggestive of a narrative common in human religion and myth— the story of man’s degeneration from an original paradisal state of absolute happiness, a “golden” age. Hesiod, an ancient Greek writer, described these Ages of Man as beginning with the Golden Age, moving then through the Silver, Bronze, Heroic then Iron Age. Each stage (besides the Heroic) traces a gradual fall from a higher state, until in the Iron Age man has become unjust, dishonest and tyrannical. “Gold” here might refer to that paradisal state, while “honey” seems to have more Biblical associations of plenitude, health and preciousness (Canaan is the “land of milk and honey”). August 1914, Rosenberg may be suggesting, is ushering the “hard and cold” Age of Iron, defined by callousness and cruelty.
“Iron are our lives / Molten right through our youth.”: The critic Bernard Bergonzi, writing about Rosenberg, refers to the “multiple associations of his images” which “can be construed both literally and figuratively” (p.109). Here is an example of this. Figuratively—which means a transformation of the world in language— “Iron are our lives” suggests the “hard and cold” nature of the struggle for life alluded to in the previous stanza. This metaphorical element of iron is then transformed, as we read on, into “molten” iron, or heat. This heated iron suggests the misplaced passion of the young men fighting, but also a fluid spirit of Iron within the young, in an Age of Iron. We can also read these words literally, however: because molten iron literally is flying right through the bodies of young men on the battlefield, as burning fragments of shrapnel pierce their skin.
“A burnt space through ripe fields,”: at harvest time in France in August 1914 there will have been many burnt fields, but this line can also, of course, be read figuratively. The destroyed crops allude, of course, to the loss of young men’s lives, razing their “ripe” potential; yet the ripe fields also seem to recall the “heart’s granary” of the first stanza, and the emotional devastation that war has brought with it.
“A fair mouth’s broken tooth.”: the disturbing image of violence done to beauty closes the poem. Again this line can be read figuratively (a fine civilization is being thoughtlessly destroyed) or literally (the faces of handsome young men are being smashed in). Note the fragmentary nature of the sentences in this last stanza, its difficult syntax: and the striking nature of this fragmentation.
[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: ‘August 1914’ begs to be compared to other poems that also consider the beginning of the war and its transformative effects. Within the anthology, all those poems welcoming the war at the start of the selection stand in contrast to this poem— Brooke’s sonnets, for example, or Asquith’s The Volunteer. Other poems which reflect on the change that the war brings, such as Larkin’s MCMXIV are relevant, as are poems like Hardy’s In Time of the Breaking of Nations, which purport to offer a longer view. And, of course, in its unflinching condemnation of the effects of the war, ‘August 1914’ can be compared (or contrasted) to the protest poems which Sassoon wrote.]