No poetry has touched readers' hearts more deeply than the soldier poets of the First World War. Published to commemorate the centenary of 1914, this stunning set of books, with specially commissioned covers by leading print makers, is an essential gathering of our most beloved war poets introduced by leading poets and biographers of our present day.'In Parenthesis was first published in London in 1937. I am proud to share the responsibility for that first publication. On reading the book in typescript I was deeply moved. I then regarded it, and still regard it, as a work of genius... Here is a book about the experience of one soldier in the war of 1914-18. It is also a book about War, and about many other things also, such as Roman Britain, the Arthurian Legend, and divers matters which are given association by the mind of the writer.' T.S. Eliot'This writing has to do with some things I saw, felt, and was part of ': with quiet modesty, David Jones begins a work that is among the most powerful imaginative efforts to grapple with the carnage of the First World War. Fusing poetry and prose, gutter talk and high music, wartime terror and ancient myth, Jones, who served as an infantryman on the Western Front, presents a picture at once panoramic and intimate of a world of interminable waiting and unforeseen death. And yet throughout he remains alert to the flashes of humanity that light up the wasteland of war.' W.S. Merwin
The NYBR reprint of David Jones' 1937 novel/epic has 3 introductions: one by W.S. Merwin for this 2003 edition, one by T.S. Eliot for the 1961 reprint, and one by the poet himself for the original edition. Eliot was partially responsible for its original publication by Faber and Faber. At the time and in his later introduction, he said of the book, "On reading the book in typescript I was deeply moved. I then regarded it, and I still regard it, as a work of genius."
David Jones was born in 1895 to a Welsh father and English mother.
During WWI he served as a member of the Welsh Fusiliers in a company that consisted of Londoners and Welshmen. The period covered in the book moves from December 1915 to July 1916 as his infantry company marched into the flooded trenches on the Western Front and then onto the Battle of the Somme and the attack on Mametz Wood.
In his introduction, David Jones says that the title to this book [In Parenthesis] alludes the war -- a parenthetical time in the lives of amateur soldiers -- a kind of space between: "how glad we were to step outside its brackets at the end of '18 -- and also because our curious type of existence here is altogether in parenthesis."
The intensity of Jones' work is hard to describe -- it is both novel and poetic epic. It's the work of a Welsh bard modelled on Aneirin's Y Gododdin and a thoroughly Modern sensibility determined to bring the "nowness" of the battlefield imagery -- auditory, visual, tactile, olfactory -- to the reader. To a reader who has never experienced the battlefield, it is a dream/nightmare experience, but one that is seared into the memory. I would imagine to someone who has been there, it would create an even more visceral response.
Like the High Modern masters -- Yeats, Eliot, Pound -- Jones is highly allusive and brings to bear the weight of Western civilization. Anything that touches on the battlefield comes into play -- from the ancient Welsh epics and Old Testament tales to Malory and The Song of Roland and Shakespeare's Henry V . But he is also completely of his time with musical hall songs, folklore and, most especially, the Cockney rhyming slang that was the common parlance of all British NCOs.
The intensely heightened language ranges from descriptive prose to stream-of consciousness to dialogue to rhythmic open verse. The experience of reading [In Parenthesis] was so intense that I couldn't concentrate on more than 20 or so pages at a time. This is not a long work -- and Jones himself provided 20 some pages of notes to explain his allusions -- but it thoroughly plunges its readers into the concrete, specific experience of the soldiers at the time. their camaraderie, and the overall horror of war.
The battle beasts in the trenches:
You can hear his carrying parties rustle out corruptions through the night-seeds -- contest the choicest morsels in his tiny conduits, bead-eyed feast on us; but a rule of his nature, at night-fest on the broken of us.
Those broad pinioned;
blue-burnished, or brinded-back;
whose proud eyes watched
the broken emblems
droop and drag dust,
suffer with us this metamorphosis.
These too have shed their fine feathers; these too have slimed their dark bright coats; these too have condescended to dig in.
The white-tailed eagle at the battle ebb,
where the sea wars against the river-
the speckled kite of Maldon
and the crow
have naturally selected to be un-winged;
to go on the belly, to
sap sap sap
with festered spines, arched under the moon, furrit with
whiskered snouts the secret parts of us.
When it's all quiet you can hear them:
scrut, scrut, scrut
when it's as quiet as this is,
It's so very still.
Your body fits the crevice of the bay in the most comfortable fashion imaginable.
It's cushy enough.
The trenches of the Western front were so extensive, so complex and so permanent, give or take the few metres of ground exchanged from time to time at a huge cost of life, that they gave rise to what can only be called a civilisation. Jones captures this civilisation, complete with its vanished mores, social structures, languages, incidents, preserving for us the texture of daily life in the trenches. The footnotes are especially good on this aspect of preservation:
We used to sing a variation of the song ‘Where are the boys of the village tonight’ which seemed to suggest that the object of the BEF was to enjoy the charms of the Emperor’s daughter.
The poem attempts to heroise the experience of the common soldier by incorporating a range of mythological British and Celtic texts, including, Chaucer, Malory, Shakespeare’s history plays, Arthurian legends, and the Welsh epics Mabinogion and Y Goddodin. At the same time, it attempts to bring the war into the purlieu of a longer epic tradition. To do this, Jones employs a variety of styles, including a kind of heightened, poetic prose, and free verse. As poetry, the work is gripping, intense, beautiful and grand.
But three things are curiously absent from it right up until the final part: fear, death and a sense of anger at the waste. When death does appear, it does so in the guise of a metaphysical conceit wholly in keeping with the mood of Jones’s medieval source texts, but unaccompanied by a sense of outrage that the carnage is someone’s fault:
But sweet sister death has gone debauched today and stalks on this high ground with strumpet confidence, makes no coy veiling of her appetite but leers from you to me with all her parts discovered.
In the closing pages, as a group of men reach the copse which is their objective, the Queen of the Woods appears to garland them with flowers.
But, is this really an adequate response to the trenches? Without satirical anger is a modernist tapestry of texts enough? Doesn’t Jones’s attempt to heroise the experience of the trenches ultimately play into the hands of those who were responsible for their creation?
Not to say there isn't lots to enjoy, because there is. Jones is detail-driven, with the mystical, somewhat spaced-out tone of someone running on too little sleep, so that the smallest routines of daily life acquire a gentle transcendence:
How cold the morning is and blue, and how mysterious in cupped hands glow the match-lights of a concourse of men, moving so early in the morning.
The book begins in rhythmic, free sentences of this sort; but increasingly, even that flexible prose is not enough, and line-breaks become a crucial element of Jones's punctuation, his descriptions shattering into poetry. Sometimes this happens halfway through a sentence, as for instance when he comes across an artillery crew:
Night-lines twinkle above the glistening vegetable damp: men standing illusive in the dark light about some systemed task, transilient, regularly spaced, at kept intervals, their feet firm stanced apart, their upper bodies to and fro…
slid through live, kindly fingers
the dark convenient dump, momentarily piling.
These techniques are used gradually to build up layer after layer of allusion on to the basic story of Private John Ball's part in the assault on Mametz Wood, during the First Battle of the Somme. The conceit of In Parenthesis is that nothing here is really new; what the soldiers are enacting, in this industrialised way, is the same story that has been told again and again through history, literature and (especially) legend. The point is not to reclaim some kind of glory, but rather to mark everything that happens with an element of timelessness – and also, I think, to set up a series of unexpected contrasts that allow you to see both the war and its mythic progenitors in a new way.
So, for Jones, a piece of mangled iron protruding from a waterlogged shell-hole is a ‘dark excalibur, by perverse incantation twisted’. Men he sees unconscious in their trenches are like barrow-wights, ‘tranquil as a fer sídhe sleeper, under fairy tumuli, fair as Mac Óg sleeping’. And comrades machine-gunned in the woods are
like those others who fructify the land
Lamorak de Galis
Alisand le Orphelin
Beaumains who was youngest
or all of them in shaft-shade
at strait Thermopylae…
But this is barely to touch upon the scope of the referential network Jones constructs for his story. For a better look at his approach, consider the following passage, where John Ball's unit first sees the entrance to the front-line trenches, lit up by a sudden flare:
This gate of Mars armipotente, the grisly place, like flat painted scene in top-lights' crude disclosing. Low sharp-stubbed tree-skeletons, stretched slow moving shadows; faintest mumbling heard just at ground level. With the across movement of that light's shining, showed long and strait the dark entry, where his ministrants go, by tunnelled ways, whispering.
This is not easy to unpick, unless you know that Jones has in mind a passage from Chaucer's Knight's Tale:
Al peynted was the wal, in lengthe and brede,
Lyk to the estres of the grisly place
That highte the grete temple of Mars in Trace,
In thilke colde, frosty regioun
Ther as Mars hath his sovereyn mansioun.
First on the wal was peynted a forest,
In which ther dwelleth neither man ne best,
With knotty, knarry, bareyne trees olde,
Of stubbes sharpe and hidouse to beholde,
In which ther ran a rumbel in a swough,
As though a storm sholde bresten every bough.
And dounward from an hille, under a bente,
Ther stood the temple of Mars armypotente,
Wroght al of burned steel, of which the entree
Was long and streit, and gastly for to see.
Chaucer's description underlies Jones's; the ‘knotty, knarry trees’ from Chaucer's painting have for Jones been made horribly real as ‘tree-skeletons’ in no-man's land; the ‘rumbel’ in the forest has become a ‘mumbling’ of shells. And indeed the entire episode in Chaucer from which I've taken this extract influences how you read Jones, full as Chaucer is of black smoke and explosions and evil people moving half-underground.
This is a simple example, because there is only one primary source. Many other passages of In Parenthesis draw simultaneously on two, three or more sources, of which Chaucer and Malory are just the most prominent. And underlying the entire work is the early Welsh poem [book:Y Gododdin|1250908], about a band of Celts raiding an English town; extracts from Y Gododdin are placed at the head of every chapter.
In a sense, Jones is writing not on blank paper but on older manuscripts; In Parenthesis is not an individual work but a palimpsest.
The denseness of what results means that when Jones gives you a straight, simple line of his own, it has an extraordinary power. When John Ball is shot in the legs, we have this, which in its tone of mild reproach seems to me one of the most exquisite comments on the whole conflict:
He thought it disproportionate in its violence considering the fragility of us.
There is nothing adversarial about In Parenthesis. Indeed it is dedicated in part to ‘the enemy front-fighters who shared our pains against whom we found ourselves by misadventure’. And this is one effect of Jones's carefully-layered context: what he describes is applicable to all sides, indeed to all times. Though the conflicts men are forced into are obscene, insane – still they're just men, and, as Jones concludes, ‘they're worthy of an intelligent song for all the stupidity of their contest.’
Faber Faber has re-released the poem that made David Jones a household name in 1937 along with both prefaces that were written by T.S. Elliot. Now as in 1937 it is still hard to categorise In Parenthesis as a poem or as a novel, as it is a mixture of poetry and prose and has been called an example of High Modernism. In the 1961 preface T.S.Elliot compares Jones with himself, Ezra Pound and James Joyce, high praise indeed.
As a historian I have used poetry and prose other than the primary sources to convey the feeling of men at war when one explores their thinking, the feeling of the ordinary soldier in the trenches. In Parenthesis is often forgotten not just by historians but those who teach war history and go for the shorter form of War Poetry. This edition is a timely reminder of why we should remember In Parenthesis for study and an example of the complex feelings of the men fighting in the trenches.
In Parenthesis is based around the events leading up to and including the fighting at Mametz Wood between 7th July and 12th July 1916, the events that took place here would later influence his writings and paintings. It took Jones until 1937 to write and have published In Parenthesis as he struggled for the right words to convey their feelings of those times and the horror of battle.
In Parenthesis, a wonderful mixture of poetry and prose published as a seven part book that has been described as one of the best Great War books ever published. For some unknown reason In Parenthesis seemed to fall out of favour in the 1960s just as teaching War Poetry fell in to fashion, may be they thought it too long to teach or the High Modernism to complicated for students to understand.
Part One “The Many Men So Beautiful” is the narration and introduction of Private John Ball (Jones) as a member of the Royal Welch Fusiliers and the training and movement of the men from England to France in 1915.
Part two, “Chambers Go Off, Corporals Stay” is about the further training that they are undergoing in France with the endless drills but this is also where we get the first indications of the violence that is to come. Part Three, “Starlight Order” is about the final march towards the trenches and the orders they have received. Part four, “King Pellam’s Launde” is about being on the front line and the undertaking of your duties and all the mundane duties for a soldier in forward positions in the Great War.
Part five, “Squat Garlands For White Knights” is about the events leading up to the Somme offensive which began on 1st July 1916. This section deals more characters and is an accurate narrative of what Jones would have faced at that time. Part six, “Pavilions & Captains of Hundreds” in turn deals with all the events and anxieties that led up to the assault on Mametz Wood, something which speaks directly from the heart straight to the reader.
Part seven, “The Five Unmistakable Marks” is Jones recollection and account of the attack on Mametz Wood and the horrors of what he had to do and the area he had to cover. They had to cover 500 yards of no man’s land which then dropped into a small valley before rising again for 400 yards to the edge of the wood making them easy targets to be shot at.
To me this is a beautiful account of one man’s war who took twenty years struggling to find the right words to portray the battle scene. To some the Modernism of the poem may make it seem complex especially from Part Five onwards but that complexity brings out the full force of war and that there is no seemingly right answer to it.
4 stars- rightfully earned.