First World War Poetry Digital Archive

Background to 'Dead Man's Dump'

‘Dead Man’s Dump’ is one of Rosenberg’s more disturbing poems, though it returns to many themes he explores elsewhere (notably in ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’). In January 1917 Rosenberg was transferred to the 40th Division Works Battalion and part of his responsibility was taking supplies, and notably barbed wire up to the front line. It would appear that his experiences here, possibly coupled with other observations, led to the poem - indeed MS F in this tutorial records a date of May 1917 which would be in keeping with this theory.

The poem opens with the cart, delivering the wire (‘the rusty freight’ that would ‘stay the flood of brutish men/Upon our brothers dear’ l. 2-6), struggling along the track to the front. Yet this is not just an ordinary road, it is a scene of horror, littered with ‘sprawled dead’ (l. 7) that the wheels of the cart crushes. The poet observes the dead, noting that they do not cry out, as their ‘shut mouths made no moan’ (l. 9). Towards the end of the poem (the last two stanzas) they come across a dying soldier who stretches his hand weakly out for help, but the cart crashes on oblivious to his cries.

In the poem Rosenberg reflects on the fragility of life, noting that he, and his companions, could easily join the dead or dying. Moreover, that in death ‘friend and foeman’ are brought together (l. 11). Despite his Jewish background, Rosenberg again does not shy away from using Christian imagery to heighten the suffering with ‘the crowns of thorns’ (l. 3).

The overall effect of the poem is one of shock and brutal imagery (faces splattered with brains). Doomed men, are mixed with the dead and dying, as the machines (the cart) crush the bones.

As witnessed by the variants Rosenberg worked on the poem at length, and we know from a letter that he corresponded with Lawrence Binyon seeking his views on the poem prior to publication. This was written in the 5th December 1916, which shows he was working on a poem then, prior to his shift to the Works Battalion. On the 27th May, 1917, he was discussing the poem with Edward Marsh and sending some missing lines, and by June, in correspondences to Gordon Bottomley, the poem was reaching completion.

Dr. Stuart Lee, 2009