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  • “Cosmopolitan Sympathies”: Poetry of the First Global War
  • Jahan Ramazani (bio)

Witnessing dawn in the trenches, Isaac Rosenberg famously apostrophizes a rat that has touched his hand:

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.1

Paul Fussell’s judgment of Rosenberg’s “Break of Day in the Trenches” (1916) as perhaps “the greatest poem of the war,” or at least one of the best, still finds broad assent in Great War scholarship.2 But in one of several departures from Fussell’s groundbreaking book, The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), recent criticism has begun to address the global dimensions of a global war—for example, recovering the experience and cultural expression of soldiers from the dominions and colonies, as of observers elsewhere far from the Western Front.3 Rosenberg’s poem reminds us that, for all the traditional emphasis on the English upbringing and values behind much well-known war poetry, even such quintessentially “English” war poems sometimes also have a transnational reach, if we take seriously their “cosmopolitan sympathies.”

Not that Rosenberg’s “Break of Day in the Trenches” is representative. Most Great War poetry is either nationalist or pan-imperial, famously exemplified by Rupert Brooke’s anglicization of earth and heaven in “The Soldier” and John McCrae’s bellicose torch toss in “In Flanders Fields.” Such works demonstrate, if [End Page 855] national anthems and imperial odes had left any doubt, that poetry isn’t inherently internationalist. But some First World War poets seized on and developed the cosmopolitan potentialities of poetry, not in the sense of airily transcendent detachment from bonds but of grounded attachments that span specific cultural and national differences, or what Bruce Robbins calls a “located and embodied” cosmopolitanism.4 Illuminating the felt or experiential basis for some of the more abstract forms of cosmopolitanism, they demonstrate that war can be, paradoxically, a catalyst for meaningful cross-cultural encounters and reflections. While the antiheroism of Great War poetry has been amply discussed, its overlapping but distinct capacity for imaginative solidarity across enemy lines, if often acknowledged, remains less fully explored. Richard Rorty, Martha Nussbaum, and other philosophers have usefully conceptualized such cosmopolitan fellow feeling, but they have tended to privilege prose fiction as an especially potent vehicle for it.5 First World War poems by Rosenberg and others demonstrate that lyric, balladic, and other forms of poetry can also function as literary spaces for enacting, and reflecting on, transnational imaginative solidarities.6 They anticipate what Paul Gilroy calls a “vital planetary humanism”: in place of the view that “we are all sealed up inside our frozen cultural habits,” they provide a “workable precedent for adopting a more generous and creative view of how human beings might communicate or act in concert across racial, ethnic, or civilizational divisions.”7 Drawing on the theoretical work of Gilroy, Rorty, Nussbaum, and Freud, but above all attending to the poetry, I explore the ways in which Rosenberg and other poets of the Great War not only state but linguistically, formally, and thematically enact their cosmopolitan sympathies. Their poems speak to our even more thoroughly globalized moment a century later and set an important example for writers such as Seamus Heaney, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Carol Ann Duffy. To give due attention to the poetic specificities, textures, and ingenuities of this body of work, to the poems as poems, I focus on a handful of examples, beginning with Rosenberg’s lyric.

Instead of touching his ears in “Break of Day in the Trenches,” as Apollo touches Milton’s shepherd’s in “Lycidas,” Rosenberg’s whiskered muse goes straight to the hand that writes the poem, this living hand that, as in Keats and Whitman, reaches to us across differences of time and culture. Long before Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1980), Rosenberg appropriates the anti-Semitic trope of Jews as vermin—threatening transgressors of geographic boundaries, as of the borders between the living and the dead—just as he revalues the dangerously subversive “cosmopolitanism” then often...


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