Thomas Dilworth, in the Spring 1982 edition of Poetry Wales refers to 'In Parenthesis as "one of the world's four or five great war books" and it is really difficult to argue with that estimation even though it is also one of the most neglected poems of the twentieth century. There are many, many reasons why this poem is so strong but, for me, the greatest virtue is its humanity and its refusal to over-dramatise the experience of the Somme offensive of 1916. Jones writes of his comrades (most of whom were to die) with enormous compassion and uses a number of innovations to bring the circumstances of the time to light.
An initial reading yields a compelling account of the physical experience of warfare and of the enduring camaraderie of troops as they make their way to the front. The final slaughter at Mametz Wood is conveyed with enormous humanity and depth. Second and third readings reveal the way that the poem is firmly rooted in the English and Welsh past with frequent references to Malory and to aspects of our mythical heritage. In his introduction, Jones describes the front line as 'a place of enhantment' and quotes Malory in saying that the landscape spoke with 'a grimly voice'.
In denying that this is a war poem, Jones goes on to say "We find ourselves privates in foot regiments. We search how we may see formal goodness in a life singularly inimical, hateful to us". 'In Parenthesis' succeeds in that search.
Other David Jones pages.
The poem mixes prose and verse forms but the whole remains firmly in the poetic tradition, the prose paragraphs should be read as prose poems. This is a description of troops under fire-
"As though that Behemoth stirred from the moist places, tensored his brass sinews suddenly, shattered with deep-bellied trumpetings the long quietude; awakening stench and earthquake in his burrowing-up".
The 2010 edition contains T S Eliot's brief introduction from 1961 where he places Jones on a level with himself, Ezra Pound and James Joyce. This is followed by Jone's Preface which explains some of the context for the poem:
The period covered begins early in December 1915 and ends early in July 1916. The first date corresponds to my going to France. The latter roughly marks a change in the character of our lives in the Infantry on the West Front. From then on things hardened into a more relentless, mechanical affair, took on a more sinster aspect. The wholesale slaughter of the later years, the conscripted levies filling the gaps in every file of four, knocked the bottom out of the intimate, continuing, domestic life of small contingents of men, within whose structure Roland could find, and for a reasonable while enjoy, his Oliver. In the earlier months there was a certain attractive amateurishness, and elbow-room for idiosyncrasy that connected one with a less exacting past.
Jones goes on to give some context to the Welsh/London ifluences to the work, his regiment was made up of Londoners and an 'admixture' of Welshmen, he explains that "the mind and folk-life of those two differing racial groups are an essential ingredient to my theme" and this is borne out by what follows. Jones was born and brought up in London although his father was Welsh and perhaps thought of himself as embodying both groups.
The Preface also makes clear Jones' distate for many of the scientific and technical advances of the early part of the 20th century and describes the difficulties that those of his generation have in adjusting to these 'innovations'. These anxieties are still around today withy many of us concerned at the implications of the US use of umanned planes to bomb parts of the North West Frontier in Pakistan.
The reader is also encouraged to make use of the notes that Jones has provided because "I regard some of them as integral to it". It is only fair to point out that some readers differ on this- on my first reading I was so gripped by the text that I ignored the notes completely and have only looked at them on subsequent readings.
This longish quote probably encapsulates, more than the one above, what 'In Parenthesis' does for me. Jones is speaking here of his Welsh and London comrades in a passage that is vividly and beautifully written:
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 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 imgination of those who suffered it. It was a place of enchantment. It is perhaps best described in Malory, book iv, chapter - that the landscape spoke 'with a grimly voice'.
I've quoted this at length because it shows the humanity and tenderness of Jones' approach, of how the maims, deep fears and pathetic jokes brought men into an enchanted place that nevertheless spoke with this 'grimly' voice.
'In Parenthesis' is in seven sections or chapters, it begins in England and ends in Mametz Wood- a place of slaughter and carnage on the Somme.
This narrates the movement of the troops from training in Enlgand to France in December 1915. We are introduced to Private John Ball (Jones in thin disguise) and to the fact that he is a particularly clumsy soldier. Jones mixes brief pieces of narrative in between the speech of officers, NCOs and their men which combines to provide an almost documentary feel:
The rain increases with the light and the weight increases
with the rain. In all that long column in brand-new overseas
boots weeping blisters stick to the hard wool of grey govern-
I'm a bleedin' cripple already Corporal, confides a limp-
Kipt' that step there.
Keep that proper distance.
Keept' y'r siction o'four - can't fall out me little darlin'
Corporal Quilter subsides, he too retreats within himself,
he has his private thoughts also. It's a propere massacre of the innocents in a manner of
speaking, no so-called seven ages 'man only this bastard
military age. Keep that step there.
Keep that section distance.
Anyone who has broken in new boots whilst wearing heavy woolen hiking socks will know all about the messy combination of open blisters and woolen fibres, especially when there are many miles to go. Through the narrative there's this contrast between the worldly wisdom of the NCOs and the veterans and the naivety of the newly trained troops until the point where most are slaughtered by machine guns that don't make such delicate demarcations.
Reading some poems about Bad Things, there's a sense of the inevitable whereby the reader is simply waiting for the known outcome to be reported. This is not the case with 'In Parenthesis' because Jones' emphasis is not fixed on the useless slaughter but on the 'complete' human experience of what life was like for and between men during this period. The reader is therefore held by the small observations and incidents even though she knows things will end badly.
There is a small detail in Part One that feels completely authentic and is succinctly expressed: "They were given tins of bully beef and ration biscuits for the first time, and felt like real expeditionary soldiers" which encapsulates that cut-off point where things feel a little distant and then suddenly become quite real- the above realisation came as the troops were about to embark for France.
This takes us from the first camp in France, some way from the front, where the troops underwent a further three weeks' training to the march towards the trenches and the first indication of the violence and mayhem that was to follow. As the quote from the introduction shows, Jones wasn't at all keen on the innovations that were being introduced and this passage underlines his disdain:
One day the Adjutant addressed them on the history of the regiment. Lectures by the Bombing Officer: he sat in the straw, a mild young man, who told them lightly of the efficacy of his trade; he predicted an important future for the new Mills Mk. IV grenade, just on the market; he discussed the improvised jam-tins of the veterans, of the bombs of after the Marne, grenades of Loos and Laventie - he compared these elementary, amateurish, inefficiencies with the compact and supremely satisfactory invention of this Mr Mills, to whom his country was so greatly indebted.
He took the names of all those men who professed efficiency on the cricket field - more particularly those who claimed to bowl effectively - and brushing away with his hand pieces of straw from his breeches, he sauntered off with his sections of grenades and fuses and explanatory diagrams of their mechanisms stuffed into the pockets of his raincoat, like a departing commercial traveller.
It seems to me that there are several quite distinct things going on here, the first being a straightforward account of the kind of training that Jones and his comrades underwent in France. The second is the description of an officer who is well-meaning and doing his duty in explaining the 'efficacy of his trade', this contrasts sharply with the gruff and somewhat maternal attitude of the NCOs. The third is the sarcastic denunciation of all this new-fangled weaponry. The Mills bomb was the first fragmentation grenade to be brought into use, these are grenades that, according to Wikipedia are "designed to "dispense shrapnel when exploding" so Jones' controlled sarcasm is also aimed at the use of technology to create even greater destruction.
The documentary aspect of 'In Parenthesis' is underlined by the level of detail- sitting in the straw, asking about those who were good bowlers, his 'grenades and fuses and explanatory diagrams'.
The analogy with the sales rep is well made, 'an important future' and 'just on the market' are exactly the sort of devices that reps still use to interestretailers in their wares and they still carry a caseful of examples to demonstrate the particular efficacies.
The Marne, Loos and Laventie were all places where British troops had been in fierce combat.
On the way to the trenches, the troops rest in some farm buildings. It is here that John Ball has his first close-up experience of the realities of war:
He stood alone on the stones, his mess-tin spilled at his feet. Out of the vortex, rifling the air it came - bright, brass-shod, Pandoran, with all-filling screaming the howling crescendo's up-piling snapt. The universal world, breath-held, one half second, a bludgeoned stillness. Then the pent violence realeased a consumation of all burstings out, all sudden up-rendings and rivings-through - all taking-out of vents - all barrier-breaking, all unmaking. Pernitric begetting - the dissolving and splitting of solid things. In which unearthing aftermath, John Bull picked up his mess-tin and hurried within; ashen, huddled, waited in the dismal straw. Behind 'E' Battery, fifty yards down the road, a great many mangolds uprooted, pulped, congealed with chemical earth, spattered and made slippery the rigid boards leading to the emplacement. The sap of vegetables slobbered the spotless breech-block of no. 3 gun.
Most of us today have no experience whatsoever of an artillery bombardment but 'In Parenthesis' was published in 1937 and many of Jones' readers will have shared this kind of terror. The passage reflects both the shock to the senses and the absolute sense of total devastation when the physical world really has gone awry. The careful re-moulding of language, the hyphenations do indicate that this is at the edge of human experience and brilliantly conveys that sense of extremes. The repetition of 'all' adds emphasis to the sense of total destruction and ends with the acute 'all unmaking'.
Prior to this passage (which is the last paragraph in Part Two) there is nothing of this level of creative innovation, there are passages of enormous humanity and the language is used to convey a sense of both the authentic and the reasonably mundane. Given that this is most likely an account of Jones' personal experience, he is aware of the necessity to push language as far as it might go to describe an experience which, for many, would simply be beyond language, beyond articulation. I also have to observe the shining poetic glory of 'Pandoran'.
Incidentally, pernitric acid is an explosive acid which would 'fit' with the 'dissolving and splitting' above.
This recounts the last part of the march to the trenches, although 'stumble' would probably a better noun. The men proceeded at night so as not to draw enemy fire and the route was very muddy and scarred by shell craters and other obstacles which made progress both difficult and slow. Jones captures the physical discomfort and fears of the men as they approach the front but also remarks on the enchanted aspects of the landscape. For the men there was also a sense that after months of preparing they were finally going to do what they'd signed up to do- this is Jones' on John Ball just before the march forward:
For John Ball there was in this night's parading, for all the fear in it, a kind of blessedness, here was borne away with yesterday's remoteness, an accumulated tedium, all they'd piled on since enlistment day: a whole unlovely order this night would transubstantiate, lend some grace to.
Jones converted to Catholicism four or five years after the end of the war and remained a devout (and traditional) Catholic until the end of his life. As we will see, there is a religious element to the work but it's sufficient to point out here that Jones never uses terms like 'grace' or 'transubtantiation' lightly. This mix of 'bleesedness' and fear is also given some emphasis throughout which adds to the humanity of the work.
The moon presides over the march, when it is obscured by could the men proceed in total darkness with even greater difficulty. Jones uses the moon to add a degree of lyricism and an aspect of the mythical past:
The rain stopped.
She drives swift and immaculate out over, free of these ob-
scuring waters; frets their fringes splendid.
A silver hurrying to silver this waste
silver for bolt-shoulders
silver for butt-heel irons
silver beams search the interstices, play for breech-blocks
underneath the counterfeiting bower-sway; make-believe a
silver scar with drenched tree-wound; silver-trace a fes-
tooned slack; faery-bright a filigree with gooseberries and
picket irons -grace this mauled earth-
transfigure our infirmity-
shine on us.
I want you to play with
and the stars as well.
curtained where her cloud captors
pursue her bright
pursue her darkly
when men mourn for her, who go stumbling, these details
for the ambuscade praise her, for an adjutrix; like caved rob-
bers on a Mawddwy the land waste as far as English
Maelor; green girls in broken keeps have only mastiff-guards
-like the mademoiselle at Croix Barbee.
I've quoted this at length because I think/feel that it exemplifies a lot of what this material may be doing. Before we get to this, I need to point out that Jones provides several notes to the above:
'festooned slack'- "Hanging field telephone wire" which is later explained in more detail "which were a frequent impediment in trench or on 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".
'gooseberries' - "Arrangements of barbed wire hoops fastened together to form skeleton sphere, the barbs thrusting outward at every angle; usually constructed in trench at leisure, by day, convenient and ready to handle by night. These could be easily thrown in among existing entanglements".
'picket irons' - "Twisted iron stakes used in construction of wire defences".
'I want you to play with / and the stars as well' - "Cf. song:
Loola, loola, loola Bye-bye,
I want the moon to play with
And the stars to run away with
They'll come if you don't cry'"
'caved robbers......Maelor' "'The red-haired bandits of Mawddwy' are notorious in local tradition. Historically a band of outlaws who troubled the authorities in Mid-Wales in the sixteent century in whom legend has accumulated. Perhaps they have become identified with that idea of a mysterious (red?) lurking in fastnesses which I seem to have heard about elsewhere".
'green girls......Croix Barbee' "I had in mind Cloeridges Christabel, and associated her with a nice dog I once saw and a French girl in a sand-bagged farm building, off the la Bassee-Estaires road".
Earlier, Jones glosses 'butt-heel-irons' "Metal at butt end of rifle furnished with trap opening into recess (i.e. the 'butt-trap') in which are kept necessary cleaning material, oil-bottle, pull-through, rag."
'Ambuscade' isn't glossed but the OED defines it as a military ambush but also as a kind of overwhelming (as a noun) as in Samuel Johnson's "He that perishes in an ambuscade of envy". Jones probably intended that we should take both these into account.
The OED states that 'adjutrix' is rare and defines it to mean a 'female helper' and gives the above phrase as one of the four examples.
This brilliantly ambitious passage manages to combine the 'enchanted' and the grimly landscape together and to convey the mundane but very real difficulties of the men as they make their way forward. There's also this strong sense (as there is throughout) of the historical past existing in and alngside the present. I know that this aspects is seen differently by some critics but this does become clearer to me with each reading- even though I know I have my own subjective reasons for this to be the case.
This is also an example of Jones' verbal dexterity and technical innovation to create what T S Eliot refers to as the Celtic 'music of words' which is close but not near enough to do justice to the majestic power of phrases like "make-believe a silver scar with drenched tree-wound; silver-trace a festooned slack;" nor to the humanity of the heartfelt, aching plea- "grace this mauled earth- / transfigure our infirmity- / shine on us." I accept that this may carry too much religious faith for some but for me (as a non-Dawkins atheist) it does add greater depth and context to our sense of this dismal trek.
I think it's also important to recognise the experimental and innovative nature of the above. In his introduction Eliot identifies an 'affinity' here with Joyce- hence the 'music of words' but is also careful to distance this likeness from any notion of influence. What isn't recognised is that this was written before 1937 and was, at least fifty years ahead of its time. In fact some of us would argue that we have yet to catch up with the strength and scope of this and with the equally important 'The Anathemata'.
I've already mentioned the humanity of this material with Jones' empathy with those involved and his compassion. I think this quality extends beyond the material and into the way in which it is put togather. One of the problems with many talented writers is that they often become too pleased with their talents and this self-admiration comes through in the work. There is not a trace of this in Jones' work- as if he knows that he is writing / making at the edge of his talent and doesn't have time for this particular vanity.
I'm not suggesting that the above is perfect, I have some doubt as to the wisdom of the song quote which seems out of place with the strength of the rest but it is certainly a supremely skilled and honest piece of craftsmanship.
This narrates the soldiers' first day in the front line and contains within this 'frame' a brilliant device that establishes and gives emphasis to the magnificence of Jones' poetic art. This soldier's 'boast' is a working through of our military past and the culture of warfare which in many ways anticipates 'The Anathemata' in technical artistry and daring.
We are first introduced to some of the mundane routine of daily life on the front line:
Then was a pulling though of barrels and searching of minute vents and under-facets with pins, and borrowing of small necessaries to do with this care of arms. Then began prodent men to use their stored-up oil freely on bolt and back-sight-flange. And harassed men and men ill-furnished, complained bitterly. And men improvising and adventurous slipped away along the traverses, to fetch back brimming mess-tin lids or salvaged jam tins steaming. How do you get hot water in this place of all water - all cold water up to the knees. These poured quickly lest it should cool off, and eyed their barrels' bright rifling with a great confidence, and boasted to their envious fellows, and offered them the luke-warm left over. So one way and another they cleaned their rifles - anyway the oil soothed the open cracks in your fingertips.
In an earlier note, Jones provides this additional context_
Fine wire gauze was used to celan rifle when fouled after firing. Officially scarce and only reluctantly allowed to the rank and file, who set great store by it and who would barter a packet of cigarettes for a small piece. It cleaned the bore effectively & quickly, but was said to wear the rifling if constantly employed - boiling water was to be preferred, but not always easily procurable. In any case, 'There's nothing like a bit of gauze' was certainly the common soldiers' maxim.
I think this illustrates the documentary nature of some of this material and also the great care that Jones took to ensure that readers could also understand the background to some of the apparently ordinary routines that are described. The way he differentiates between the rank and file ('harassed and ill-furnished', 'prudent', 'improvising and adventurous' provides us with a sympathetic but accurate picture of his comrades. The 'truth' in pasages like this is contained in the small details, the adventurous men offering their left over water to others and the soothing effect of the oil on the fingertips. This level of detailed precision serves to bring the reader alongside the men in this 'grimly' land.
The soldier's monologue is a great poem in its own right. In the notes Jones explains that he 'associates' this piece of work with 'Taliessen at the court of Maelgwn', with 'the boast of Glewlwyd, Arthur's porter' and with 'the boast of the Englishman, Widsith'. He goes on to note "I undrstand that there are similar boasts in other literatures. I was not altogether unmindful of the boast in John vii. 58". This last reference reads- "Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am."
As an aside, the increasingly comprehensive and reliable wikipedia does make life a lot easier for those who want to follow up these sorts of references that would previously be unavailable to those without access to academic libraries.This is a lengthy boast with many detailed notes so I don't intend to reproduce all of it. This is how it begins-
This Dai adjusts his slipping shoulder straps, wraps close his
misfit outsize greatcoat - he articulates his English with an
My Fathers were the Black Prinse of Wales
at the passion of
the blind Bohemian king.
They served in these fields.
It is in the histories that you can read it, Corporal - boys
Gower, they were - it is writ down - yes
What about Methusalem, Taffy?
I was with Abel when his brother found him,
under the green tree.
I built a shit-house for Artaxerxes.
I was the spear in Balin's hand
that made waste King Pellam's land.
I took the smooth stones of the brook,
I was with Saul
Playing before him.
I saw him armed like Derfel Gatheren.
I the fox-run fire
consuming in the wheat-lands;
and in the standing wheat in Cantium made some attempt to
form - (between dun August oaks their pied bodies darting)
And I the south air, tossed from high projections by his Oli-
fant; (the arid marcher-slopes echoing -
should they lose
Claire Espagne la bele).
I am '62 Socrates my feet are colder than you think
I the adder in the little bush
In his introduction to 'The Anathemata' Jones provides a kind of rationale for this sort of incantation and expands on his belief that one of the functions of the poet is to remind those in power of those elements of our cultural past that are loved, an undertaking that he describes as inherently 'dangerous'. So, as well as making use of the soldierly boast as it was used in Anglo-Saxon verse, Jones may also be deploying additional references as a way of undertaking this task.
As will be seen, Jones makes use of a wide range of cultural elements but these primarily relate to Welsh history and legend, the work of Thomas Malory and the romance tradition in general,Catholic beliefs and practices and the workings of the Roman Empire. It may seem odd or incongruous that this 'reminder' should be placed in the middle of an account of a twentieth century battle but (to this reader at least) this evocation of the military past in the here and now of 1916 makes absolute sense because forgetting where we come from is one of the most negligent and irresponsible things that we can do.
As well as addressing those in power, this section also serves to remind 'ordinary' readers of the past exisiting within and alongside the present and our role, as ordinary citizens, in the business of war. I like to think that this is why Thomas Dilworth makes the claim quoted above.
I'm sure that most of us will require some assistance with the references in this passage and Jones does provide this in the notes. I would however recommend that readers read the whole passage through first to get a sense of the order of things.
I set out below the notes that Jones provides to the above:
for Artaxerxes. Cf. the following reported front-area conversation: 'He was carrying two full latrine-buckets. I said: "Hallo, Evan, you've got a pretty bloody job". He said 'Bloody job, what do you mean?" I said it wasn't the kind of work i was particularly keen on myself. He said: "Bloody job indeed, the army of Artaxerxes was utterly destroyed for the lack of sanitation."
Derfel Gatneren. Derfel Gadarn, 'Derfel the Mighty', whose wonder-working effigy, mounted and in arms, stood in the church of Llanderfel in Merionethshire. One of the great foci of devotion in late mediaeval Wales. The Welsh, with engaging optimism and local pride, put aside theological exactness and maintained that Derfel's suffrages could fetch souls from their properplace. In the iconoclasm under t. Cromwell this image was used at Smithfield as fuel for the martyrdom of John Forest, the Greenwich Franciscan. The English made this rhyme of him:
'Davey Derfel Gatheren As sayeth the Welshmen Brought him outlawes out of hell Now is com with spear and shield For to bren in Smithfield For in Wales he may not dwell.'
I quote from memory, and may be inaccurate, but it explains my use of the form 'Gatheren' in text.
in the standing wheat...(....bodies darting). Cf. Caesar, Gallic war, book iv, ch. 32; book v, ch 17.
And I the south air......Espaigne la bele. Cf. Chanson de Roland, lines 58 and 59:
'Asez est mielz qu'il perdent les testes Due nus perduns clere Espaigne la bele'
I used Mr Rene Hague's translation.
'62 Socrates.....duckboard. Cf. Plato's Symposium (Alcibiades' discourse).
The adder in the little bush.......victorius toil. Cf. Malory, Book xxi, 4.
As can be seen, the notes range from the full and expansive to the brief reference to other texts without further explanation. Fortunately, as noted above, the increasingly comprehensive range of resources available online means that most of these can be 'followed through' even though I'm still have problems identifying which Artaxerxes lost a battle in this way.
Part 4 ends on the evening of the troops' first day with an exchange of fire:
The Lewis-team by the road are experimenting through
their newly enlarged loop-hole.
Fans of orange light broke in dancing sequence beyond his
Bursts in groups of four jarred the frosted air with ringing
Brittle discord waft back from the neighbourhood of the
Guns of swift response opened on his back areas. In turn his
howitzers coal-boxed the Supports.
Here we have on display Jones' technical skill in conveying a wide range of information in five brief but dazzling sentences which seem to capture something authentic that most other writers and poets fail to grasp, the lyricism that breathes alongside the horror that warfare brings. 'Coal-box' is not defined by the OED as a verb but the noun is given as "Brit. Army slang. A low-velocity German shell emitting black smoke".