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David Jones' is one of the best (and most overlooked) poets in any language in the 20th century. His In Parenthesis has been described by Michael Howard (foremost military historian) as one of the best accounts of warfareeverand The Anathemata was nominated by Auden as the best long poem of the 20th century. What follows is an attempt to justify these claims by means of an overview.
This is an almost documentary account of Jones' experience of the First World War up until when he was wounded at Mametz Wood during the Somme offensive in 1916. Jones, in his preface denies that this is a 'War Book' and continues with:
I should perefer it to be about a good kind of piece - but as Mandevile says, 'Of Paradys ne can I not speken propurly I was not there; it is fer beyonde and that for thinketh me. And also I was not worthi.' We find ourselves privates in foot regiments. We search how we may see formal goodness in a life singularly hateful, inimical to us.
I use the above to point out Malory's influence on the work but, more importantly, to highlight what I see as the centre of the work, this search for formal goodness in the hell of the trenches. I need to mention here a personal note, both my grandfathers were seriously injured during the Battle of the Somme, events which have scarred each subsequent generation. I was expecting a detailed account of this hell and the miseries that it inflicted- a kind of extended Ivor Gurney. Instead I found myself immersed in a much more lyrical, humane and (this is important) , realistic account of the period between December 1915 and July of the following year. It is certainly the case that Jones' has single-handedly transormed my previously and strongly held perspective of that period.
Other David Jones pages.
The poem is dedicated to Jones' comrades but also to 'the enemy front-fighters who we shared our pains against whom we found ourselves by misadventure'. The preface also indicates that it marks a transition from a kind of 'amateurish soldiery' to the more sophisticated gadgets and devices of the second part of the war- Jones is very much in favour of the former.
Our poets was born in London but his father was Welsh by birth and Jones identified strongly with the Welsh and their cultural history, this is very evident in In Parenthesis as is the influence of Malory and the English romance 'tradition'. This a long piece of work (187 pages in the recent Faber edition) and the extracts below can only offer a very brief snapshot- there is another arduity page that goes into more detail.
This is the third part of the poem and it describes how the protagonist (John Ball) and his comrades made their way to the trenches. This is a short extract:
the repeated passing back of aidful messages assumes a ca- dency. Mind the hole mind the hole mind the hole to left hole right step over keep left, left. One grovelling precipitated, with his gear tangled, strug- gles to feet again: Left be buggered. Sorry mate - you all right china? - lift us yer rifle - an' don't take on so Honey - but rather, mind the wire here mind the wire mind the wire Extricate with some care the taut strand - it may well be you'll sweat on its unbrokeness. Modulated interlude, violently discorded, mighty, fanned- up glare, to breach it: light-orange flame tongues in the long jagged water-mirrors where their feet go, the feet that come shod, relief bringing - bringing release to these from Wig- more and Woofferton. Weary feet: feet bright, and gospelled, for these, of Elfael and Ceri. We're relieving the Borders - two platoons of their 12th thet was - in wiv the Coldstreams - relieved to be our 14th.
With regard to the sections of prose, I've preserved the line breaks as they appear in the 2010 Faber edition.
Jones provides detailed notes for both In Parenthesis and The Anathemata, from the above he glosses 'the wire here' with:
Field telephone wires which were a frequent impediment in trench or by roads by night. They ran in the most unexpected fashion and at any height; and, when broken, trailed and caught on any jutting thing, to the great misery of hurrying men.
He glosses 'in wiv the Coldstreams' with:
It was customary for any new unit going into the trenches for the first time to be attached to more experienced troops for instruction.
By the enn of this remarkable account we have a very clear idea of the difficulties and fears that men went through just to get to the forward lines. This is achieved by descriptions of what can be seen and heard together with their verbal support and guidance to each other. This is technically brilliant and uses both prose and verse to great effect, as can be seen from the above. We begin to understand how even simple movements can become both exhausting and debilitating and how this must have felt when under the likelihood of German fire.
This is the seventh and final part of the sequence and describes the attack on Mametz Wood. This is part of the decription of the agonies of crossing no man's land:
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. By one and one the line gaps, where her fancy will - how- soever they may howl for their virginity she holds them - who impinge less on space sink limply to a heap nourish a lesser category of being like those other who fructify the land
I defy anyone not to find that both terrifying and brilliant. The other crucial part of this section is the appearance of the Queen of the Woods amongst the dead and the dying:
The Queen of the Woods has cut bright boughs of various flowering. These knew her influential eyes. Her awarding hands can pluck for each their fragile prize. She speaks to them according to precedence. She knows what's due to this elect society. She can choose twelve gentle-men. Sho knows who is most lord between the high trees and on the open down. Some she gives white berries some she gives brown Emil has a curious crown it's made of gold saxifrage. Fatty wears sweet-briar, he will reign with her for a thousand years. For Balder she reaches to fetch his. Ulrich smiles for his myrtle wand. That swine Lillywhite has daisies to his chain - you'd hard- ly credit it. She plaits torques of equal splendour for Mr Jenkins and Billy Crower. Hansel with Gronwy share dog-violets for a palm, where they lie in serious embrace beneath the twisted tripod.
This visitation is breathtaking and startling, up until this terrible moment we have no hint of this spiritual/mythological aspect of the work and yet we are swept away by the lyrical beauty of the language and the contrast it provides to the ongoing carnage. This may well be the moment of 'formal goodness' that Jones mentions in his preface.
This has the reputation of being very difficult indeed but most of this arises from the use of obscure and foreign phrases and the frequent use of Welsh. It's also magnificent in many (many) different ways. My understanding of what it may be about is still at a fairly superficial stage but I take Jones at his word when he says:
So that to the question: What is this writing about? I answere that it is about one's own 'thing', which res is unavoidably part and parcel of the Western Christian res, as inherited by a person whose perceptions are totally conditioned and limited by and dependent upon his being indiginous to this island. In this it is necessarily insular; within which insularity there are the further conditionings contingent upon his being a Londoner, of Welsh and English parentage, of Protestant upbringing , of Catholic subscription.
While such biographical accidents are not in themselves any concern of, or interest to, the reader, they are noted here because they have are responsible for most of the content and have had an overruling effect upon the form of this writing.
This provided my with a point of entry to the work once I'd discovered that 'res' could mean reality. I recognised that I and everybody else have a res of cultural clutter that goes around with and provides some framing and wallpaper for our lives. My res thing has one town in the English north-east, the English language, a mix of urban and rural parentage and a secular upbringing. I hadn't really considered this before but I'm very aware of it now and use it to compare the subjects of The Anathemata with what mine might be. A further point arises from the above, that Jone's particular biography should not be either any concern or point of interest to readers. I find that focusing on the poem as poem enables me to stay focused on the matter in hand without getting bogged down in the extraneous. I have wandered away from the poem itself on one occasion and began to read Gregory Dix' The Shape of the Mass which is referenced by Jones in what seems to be quite an important note. I soon discovered that I didn't need Dix in order to grasp what Jones was saying. Since then I've stayed with the poem, I haven't read Malory, I haven't learned Welsh nor am I any more familiar with Roman soldiering although I have discovered, from Jones, much about these subjects.
Given the material on other pages, I've restricted myself to one extract, this is from Mabiog's Liturgy and is at the more difficult/obscure end of the scale:
Thirty three, back last early fall since the hamadryad leaning from Pomona's wall showed her ripe cherries was first to keep the rubric's word hic genuflectitur. Within the thirty-fourth year from the Stille night since wolf watcher's rollick and blithe introit in Pales brighted yard since Hob, to his butty, Goodfellow cried: Transeamus.
Jones glosses 'genuflectitur' and 'Transeamus', we're left to our own devices for the rest- but the interweb can readily provide help for the others.
Of course, at 196 pages, many readers will feel that life is too short to give the text the attention that it requires. This is understandable but it is a mistake, stands at the pinnacle of literary modernism and must not be overlooked.