West End actor Alexander Knox, standing in front of an image of the proposed statue of Rosenberg, read poems and sketches about the poet. PHOTO: Sapphire Ryan-Campbell
Published: 1 December, 2016
CECIL Woolf, publisher and writer, could not forget the promise he made more than 50 years ago to the sister of a famous poet killed in battle.
“Please keep his memory alive,” Annie Rosenberg had pleaded with him before she died.
The poet – and painter – was Isaac Rosenberg, a poor East End working-class boy who left school at 14 to work for an engraver, and became one of the greatest poets of the First World War only to be killed in the trenches on April Fool’s Day in 1918.
His only gravestone in France simply describes him as “Artist and Poet”.
And on Sunday evening, Cecil Woolf – nephew of Virginia Woolf – and his wife, Jean Moorcroft Wilson, staged a performance of words and music at London University led by Miriam Margolyes – the Harry Potter star – to help raise funds for a statue of the poet.
Ironically, the statue, if erected as planned, outside Birkbeck College, Bloomsbury, where Rosenberg studied at “night school”, would be the first monument in London of any of the great poets of the First World War.
I gather the statue appeal is on the way to success, and that nearly £20,000 has been raised towards a target of £60,000.
Family memories may have played a part in persuading Miriam Margolyes to help the appeal because her grandmother taught at the Jews School in the East End where Rosenberg was a pupil.
Miriam Margolyes, left; poet and novelist Elaine Feinstein. PHOTOS: Sapphire Ryan-Campbell
The son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, Rosenberg spent his first seven years in Bristol speaking only Yiddish. He started from scratch at a primary school in the East End and would have struggled with his education though he showed rich promise as a poet and even more so as an artist.
His talents were spotted, and patrons helped to pay for his fees at the Slade School of Fine Art.
He was probably undernourished as a child and only grew to 5ft 2ins.
He went to stay with a sister in Cape Town, war broke out and he enlisted in the army.
Three years later, a private, he was killed at the age of 28.
Perhaps one of the most moving moments of the evening was a poem by the novelist and poet Elaine Feinstein entitled April Fools’ Day beginning: “Does anybody know what it was all for? / Not Private Rosenberg, short as John Keats.”
Her first stanza ends with: “His fellow soldiers always found him odd/ Outsiders do not easily make friends/ if they are awkward – with a foreign God.”
Though there have been at least three biographies of Rosenberg, somehow he is considered a lesser poet than Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke or Siegfried Sassoon.
“He has always been a bit unfashionable,” Cecil Woolf (pictured below) told me at his Mornington Crescent home. “He was an outsider, he was Jewish, he spoke with a cockney accent, he just wasn’t middle-class like the other poets.”
Cecil Woolf and Jean Moorcroft Wilson. PHOTO: Sapphire Ryan-Campbell
• Donations towards the statue can be sent to: Rosenberg Appeal, Jewish East End Celebration Society, PO Box No 57317, E1 3WG.