HOME / THE POETS / ESSAYS / THE NUTS AND THE BOLTS / RESOURCES.


David Jones, In Parenthesis, the Grimly Voice and the Place of Enchantment.

For entirely other reasons, I've been looking at In Parenthesis for the first time in more than a while and, to my shame, have realised that I'd forgotten just how beautiful it is, just how much splendour it contains. I also have to report that this remembering triggered off something about what Jones has to say in his Preface about the blood soaked gash that ran from Switzerland to the North Sea. This observation struck me on the first reading as being a bit over-poeticised and far-fetched because it contradicted everything that I thought I knew about that terrain (mud, shattered bodies, barbed wire, shell craters, flesh, broken minds and more mud). Reading on I came to the realisation that IP is by far the most honest and least Cluttered with Hyperbole account that we have. This has been especially valuable for me personally as both my grandfathers were severely wounded during the Somme Offensive, a familial scar that has harrowed its way down the last century

Here's the quote:

It was curious to know them harnessed together, and together caught in the toils of 'good order and military discipline'; to see them shape together to the remains of an antique regimental tradition, to see them react to the few things that united us - the same jargon, the same prejudice against 'other arms' and against the Staff, the same discomforts, the same grievances, the same maims, the same deep fears, the same pathetic jokes; to watch them, oneself part of them, respond to the war landscape, for I think the day by day in the Waste Land, the sudden violences and the long stillnesses, the sharp contours and unformed voids of that mysterious existence, profoundly affected the imaginations of those that suffered it. It was a place of enchantment. It is perhaps best described in Malory, book iv, chapter 15 - the landscape spoke 'with a grimly voice'.

I want to pay attention here to the 'place of enchantment' and its 'grimly voice', trying to identify where in the narrative these features are most apparent. Unfortunately my understanding of these two terms is grounded in things Middle English and Spenserian so I'm not approaching them as most contemporary readers might. Briefly, places of enchantment were usually places of danger where heroes could succumb to the wiles of an evil power. Grimly as an adjective had many more meanings and connotations in the Medieval period than it does now, I'll get to these shortly but it also needs to be noted that Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, written between 1460 and 1470, is a major influence in IP.

With regard to the adjective, I'm tempted just to link to the Middle English Dictionary entry and leave it at that but, being me, I'd rather pull out the definitions that seem relevant here:

So, much more extreme connotations than our current usage and perhaps more fitting to the trenches.

With regard to 'enchantment', the OED has this from Malory: "By the damoysels enchauntement the swerd..felle oute of Accolons hande", which gives the flavour of a place that is both alluring and dangerous.

In terms of selection, I've been tempted to hoik out several short passages but have now rejected the scattergun approach in favour of a few descriptions that may benefit from closer attention. I've found three that seem to indicate different kinds of grimliness and enchauntment:

Part 3: Starlight Order.

I'm guessing that the main places that spring to mind in our cultural image (I know what I mean) of the Great War are No Man's Land that ran between the opposing trenches and the trenches themselves. Little thought seems to be given to the area(s) behind the front lines and the routes taken to and from the forward positions. Starlight Order, the third chapter of IP, however tells the story of John Ball, our protagonist, as he and his comrades make their way by night to the trenches. The route is knee deep in mud, is littered with shell craters and subject to the almost casual attention of a machine gunner in the German trench. This gives a flavour of the 'grimly voice':

The road, broken though it was, seemed a firm causeway cutting determinedly the insecurity that lapped its path, sometimes the flanking chaos overflowed its madeness, and they floundered in unstable deeps; chill oozing slime high over ankle; then they would find it hard and firm under their feet again, the mason work in good order, by some freak, intact. Three men sack-buskined to the hips, rose like judgement wraiths out of the ground where brickwork still stood and strewn red dust of recent scattering dry-powdered the fluid earth; and your nostrils draw on strangely pungent air.

No sir - further on sir, but you'd better go by the trench, he's on this bit - yes to Pioneer Keep, then into the front line - it's right of this road - the OBL sir? - we stopt using it a week back sir, he knocked it flat when they went over from The Neb - you can chance the road sir, but he's on it - all the time - three of the Coldstreams, only yesterday - he's traversing now - better get in, sir.

That's an exquisite, no other adjective will do, evocation of how this terrifying, dangerous and harsh voice made itself heard to the beleaguered rank and file clambering and clumsering under fire through the darkness of an almost impassable terrain. It also has the 'feel' of authenticity, of an absolute compressed precision, something that the Poem does better than any other form of expression.

It might be argued that the above is set out to give the appearance of prose and therefore is prose rather than verse. I'd counter this by encouraging readers to try reading the above out loud, paying reasonably close attention to other Poem devices (rhythm, cadence, word-choice etc.) and draw their own conclusions. Set out here is the Poem at its very best rather than the poetic.

In work as strong as this, it's always quite tricky to select elements rather than attending to the piece as a whole but I would like to hold up the brilliance of word use in the first paragraph that I find, as a less than average practitioner quite breathtaking:

I'd kill to have written any one of these and IP is packed full with these brilliances which, far more than Eliot and Joyce, exemplify what modernism could have achieved if it had not gone so badly awry.

Before proceeding, it seems to me that it might be time for a digression on the subject of the authentic as touched on above. Regular readers will know that this reader has more than a few problems with the 'truth' and gets mildly angry when those who Should Know Better assert that poetry is best placed to provide us with access to this thing. Along with the late Richard Rorty, I'm of the view that we should be much less concerned with an abstract that Might not Exist and instead attend to things that might be useful or helpful.

I used the term 'authentic' in describing the above description and I now need to clarify that. It may be that this is an imaginary trek described by someone who has only been told about it and is therefore not 'true'. Either way it is much more helpful to me as an interested and involved reader than anything else I have read. This is because I can relate on a very human level to the spirit sapping and ooze-laden awkwardness entailed. These fumbling, groping misadventures are overlooked by others, poets and historians, whose concern seems to be exclusively about the horrors of this most horrific of wars.

In almost complete contrast, device-wise, we then have this half of a conversation whereby the buskin-clad sapper gives the clearest possible impression of the dangers involved. Throughout the poem the Germans are referred to as 'he'. What I find particularly effective in this is the conversational tone in the sapper's voice when very important / crucial information is being given: "but he's on it - on it all the time - three of the Coldstreams, only yesterday". Again, these words uttered without drama give a much more accurate sense of the casual speech of men accustomed through brutal experience of the 'grimly' realities of this murderous war.

We now come to the place of enchantment. I haven't read Malory and don't intend to but The Faerie Queen does contain many of these Special Places where a beguiling appearance belies a mortal threat. In terms of historical scholarship, Alexandra Walsham has made a convincing case for the magical powers attributed to these places as a cultural 'thread' spilling over from the Medieval period into the Early Modern.

What's omitted in IP is the identity of the enchanter, the dark power that has intitiated and maintained this seemingly unbreakable spell. One of the aspects that I haven't previously considered is the narrowness of the stretch of land taken up by the area of slaughter where many thousands were lost for the sake of a few hundred yards which were repeatedly fought over for four years. The bizarre and tragic absurdity of this senselessness isn't referred to explicitly in IP Jones allows the facts to speak for themselves, the General Staff are viewed as incompetent but not butchers.

Part 4: Squat Garlands for White Knights.

On either side of this grimly spoken wound there are the largely undisturbed things of nature which are described in lyrical detail. This is a journey back to the front lines:

They moved within the hour, in battle order, in column of company where the road cut a face of downland chalk.

And grass-tufts, too, were like they grow on seaward hills - with small wiry flowers against the white, and with the return of summer's proper way, after the two days storm, blue-winged butterflies, dance between, flowery bank and your burnished fore-sight guard star gayly Adam's dun gear.

After an hour they halted, to move forward with long tended intervals between each platoon, but before they left their gully, for the wide ridge, they halted again, to advance by section.

He found the range as 'D' company's kitchen drew into dead ground beyond.

Now in this hollow between the hills was their place of rendezvous.

Under normal circumstances I'd now set off in pursuit of the difficult bits in the above, I'd worry about the fore-sight guard and the dun gear, about the strange use of the comma, about these intervals that are 'long tended'. Instead I'm going to try and attend to the nature (almost deliberate) of this enchantment.

First we have the initial wariness, they are going forwards in 'battle order' which I'm assuming, is a formation used to deal with an attack. This is followed by the wiry flowers and dancing butterflies and the flowery bank, a trope used down the ages to indicate a place of edenic beauty and the onset of summer. Then there's the bit I don't understand before the ascent to the ridge.

The initial wariness is now justified by the German artillery finding the correct trajectory to shell these marching men. The only way of knowing that this range had been found, I'm guessing, is the proximity of landing and exploding shells. For men walking along a narrow ridge, exposed on the skyline, this must have been a terrifying and numbing experience.

We have this Enchanted Place where pastoral bliss is shattered by the grimly voice of war. The staggering brilliance here is contained in the brevity of description, the butterflies contrasted with 'he found' depicts what 14th and 15th century poets used to illustrate the perils of being taken in by mere appearance.

Part 5: Pavillions & Captains of Hundreds.

Here we have the days just before the Somme Offensive with the men taking a brief break behind the front line before being sent to Hell:

The other slope was still sun-lighted, but it was getting cool on this east-facing hill and the creeping down and so across so gradually, gathered to itself, the lesser cast-shadows, the little glints and smallnesses, garnered all these accidents of light within a large lengthened calm. Very soon the high ridge-line alone cast lateral ray. But for long after that, his shrapnel bursts, away beyond were gauffered at their spreading edges with reflective gold. Across the evening, homing birds, birds of the air with nests cawed on high above them waiting, and the preparation there. Oddly stirred winds gusted coolish to your face, that might have borne things webbed and blind, or the grey owl suddenly. And some people began settling down for the night or at least to get a snooze before this talked-of bombardment loosed off to make it difficult. Some of them were already fallen to sleep, but the more solicitous disposed themselves in groups and stood about on t6hat hill, and rather tended to speak in undertones as though to not hasten or not disturb, to not activate too soon the immediate potential empoweredness - and talk about impending dooms - it fair gets you in the guts.

In this instance it probably helps to note that the OED has this for 'gauffered': " to make wavy by means of heated goffering-irons; to flute or crimp (the edge of lace, a frill, or trimming of any kind)" which again is precise and lyrical and grimly juxtaposed by the fact that the gauffering is done here by the enemy shelling. This otherwise tranquil scene is populated by men who know the terrors of what awaits them and the chances of their survival brilliantly captured as dooms rather than the rather tired singular. There's no hint of avoidance, no suggestion of running away but rather a quiet acceptance that this is, simply, what they are here to do. Other memoirs that I have read also describe the inherent strangeness of bird song amidst these scenes of carnage in defiance of the thought that nothing natural could possibly stay in these places, enchanted or not.

Thus far I think I've done quite well to avoid too much lit crit but here I think I need to observe that there is something of Homer in the above, isn't there? We have the fading sunlight, the distant cries of battle, the coolish breeze on the face and the impending horrors of war. All of these seem to my untutored brain to be almost a direct 'steal' from the Iliad's various set pieces.

Those already familiar with IP will notice that I've omitted the scenes in Mametz Wood, the poem's final scene of Grimly Enchantment. This is because I've written at length about this elsewhere and don't enjoy repeating myself but also to highlight some of the equally magisterial episodes that aren't as frequently noted. I think it's really important for new readers to start at the beginning and end at the end.

The final point that I'd like to make is that all of Jones' work demands to be read aloud, otherwise its greatness is diminished. I hope all three of the above have demonstrated how magical (a rarely used arduity adjective) this practice can be.

In conclusion, bearing witness and memorialising the dead are major features of the Poem in any tradition, I would submit that In Parenthesis is one of the finest examples of both functions, an achievement carried out with personal integrity and immense skill.

This piece of magnificence is available for less than a tenner on second hand book sites. Buy it.