When most literature students are asked about literature inspired by World War I, they typically respond with such names as Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Richard Aldington. As well, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound are included by extension as both “The Waste Land” and “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” are largely informed by the 1914 to 1918 conflagration.
Largely forgotten is David Jones, a writer of many sensibilities that are all synthesized and informed by his Roman Catholicism. In Parenthesis, Jones’ World War I “poem,” was begun in 1928 and published in 1937. One of Geoffrey Faber’s editors, the aforementioned Eliot, was instrumental in the work’s initial publication, and even wrote a brief introduction to the book-length manuscript. Not only was the Anglican Eliot an admirer of In Parenthesis, no less another poet who wrote devoutly Christian poetry, W.H. Auden, declared Jones’ book the best long poem written in English of the twentieth century. Your writer concurs with full knowledge he’s in no league to challenge either Eliot or Auden in any event, but he senses the poems’ larger themes resonate in our current milieu of heated rhetoric and other forms of violence. Further, the poem prescribes religious faith as a tonic for the ails of the world whether past, present or future.
The enduring quality of Jones’ body of work was reinforced earlier this year by the Welsh National Opera, which commissioned composer Iain Bell to transform the poem into an opera. The opera commemorates the centennial of the Battle of the Somme. That battle and, specifically, the fate of the 38th Division comprised of Welsh Royal Fusiliers at the Battle of Mametz Wood are the focus of In Parenthesis. Of the 670 members of the 38th Division in which Jones actually served, an estimated 400 were killed or wounded during the battle. Writing in the modernist style of combined prose and verse, Jones recounted the Welsh and British dead:
And here and there and huddled over, death-halsed to these, a Picton-five-feet-four paragon of the Line, from Newcastle Emlyn or Talgarth in Brycheiniog, lying disordered like discarded garments or crumpled chin to shin-bone like a Lambourne find.