Of Lice and Dead Men

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Of Lice and Dead Men: Humor and Despair in Rosenburg’s Poetry

Isaac Rosenburg, considered a War Poet and a Jewish-English Poet of the early twentieth century, wrote a myriad of poetry describing the horrors of World War I - particularly regarding life in the trenches and the ubiquitous deaths amongst soldiers. His poems “Louse Hunting” and “Dead Man’s Dump” both illustrate in violent detail the plagues met with: irritating insects and death on a grand scale, respectively. However, while both poems use stark imagery, metaphor and employ a soldier as the speaker, “Louse Hunting” depicts a comedic microcosm of the war, while “Dead Man’s Dump” is a tragic, reflective description of its casualties on the battlefield.

The first image presented to the reader in “Louse Hunting” is that of nudes: nude male soldiers attempting to escape and then to fight off the onset of lice. Otherwise, there was always the risk of contamination from the insect bites possibly resulting in the trench fever:

Trench fever is a clinical syndrome caused by infection with Bartonella quintana. The condition was first described during World War I, when it affected nearly one million soldiers...At the time, trench fever was characterized by the abrupt onset of fever, malaise, myalgia, headache, transient macular rash of the torso, pain in the shins, and splenomegaly. Typical periodic cycles of fever, chills, and sweats occurred at 5-day intervals, resulting in prolonged disability that lasted 3 months or longer in young soldiers. (Lea)

These soldiers in the poem are “yelling in lurid glee” with “grinning faces” (l. 2). They seem to be both irritated and amused at the miniscule pests infesting their trench. One soldier tears off his shirt and ignites it with “oaths Godhead might shrink at, but not the lice” (ll. 6-7). In this particular line, the elevated heads of church are intimated to recoil at curse words that would not hinder the lice at all. It projects an ironic humor which states that no god or prayer can save even the valiant fighting men from the onslaught of little biting bugs; furthermore, it may insinuate that intellectual loftiness or religious faith may not help one much on the front lines against certain tangible, earthly foes.

Next, the soldiers, including the speaker as indicated by the usage of the word “we,” take the offensive route to fix their situation and so they all “sprang up and stript / to hunt the verminous brood” (ll. 10-11). Amidst the candlelit trench, the men’s shadows are exaggerated and grotesque, and the men themselves are all jumping about and flinging their limbs every which way, as if taking part in a pagan dance around a fire and not merely trying to rid themselves of lice. The whole event is even called a “demon’s pantomime” (l. 12), and a “[revel] charmed from the quiet” (l. 22), thus emphasizing the ridiculousness of the situation. Such a to-do was born from infinitely tiny irritants. The whole place seems to come alive, the shadows personified as ‘gaping’ and ‘gibbering.’ Both of these descriptors suggest a relation to mouths, and thus faces, ergo, the shadows seem to have presences of their own in the trench. These “gargantuan figures,” meaning the shadows, but also the actual men, “pluck in supreme flesh / to smutch supreme littleness” (ll. 18-19). In other words, the giants try to destroy the small. Perhaps this notion is a microcosm of WWI, as two enemies try to dismantle each other, or perhaps the start of this entire “revel” in the trench is a critical statement of the start of the war. The point may be that the war itself is a revel, and may have also begun with a series of singularly small or insignificant events and blown into gigantic proportion, akin to the poem’s boisterousness of the soldiers and their additional silhouette companions created by the firelight.

The final image is that of the precursor to the energetic scene. Before the lice plagued them all, the men had been...
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