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.
Among the many accomplishments of the original In Parenthesis is Jones’ successful attempt to render accurately all the sensations of army life as they are experienced, including warfare. Jones initial training was as a painter, and several of his works are on display in such prestigious institutions as London’s Tate Gallery. It was Jones’ desire to depict what he remembered as a painter provides his or her audience with several different points of view, but including as well aural, touch and olfactory sensations. As noted by poet and critic W.S. Merwin:
David Jones made intimate and inimitable use of sensual details of every kind, from sounds, sights, smells, and the racketing and shriek of shrapnel set against the constant roar of artillery, to snatches of songs overheard or remembered, reflections on pools of mud, the odors of winter fields of beets blown up by explosives, the way individual soldiers carried themselves at moments of stress or while waiting. All of these become part of the “nowness” that Jones said was indispensible to the visual arts. The resulting powerful and intense evocation, however, occurs in what seems like a vast echo chamber where the reverberations resound from the remote antiquity of military activities, and of the language and mythology of Britain, from Shakespeare’s Histories, in English, and from the poems, conflicts, and divinities of the more venerable traditions of Wales and the Welsh, and from the legacy, civil, political, and military of the Roman occupation of the island, some remnant of which Arthur himself had fought to preserve.
Yes, indeed, it’s that type of poem: dense and so often difficult it sometimes makes Pounds’ Cantos seem as easy as Edward Lear by comparison (not really). Allusions and literary references abound, from the sixth-century Welsh poem Y Gododdin, the Welsh Taliesin myths, Arthurian legend, the reverential poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and James G. Frazier’s The Golden Bough to Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark.” Woven throughout is the reverence for God, humanity and the feminine act of rebirth and creation. War is portrayed as hell, certainly, but the human race isn’t disparaged in the slightest – it was breathed into life by the Creator, and that act of artistic making transfers to living beings who curse, sweat, joke, sing off-color songs, kill and die in the most barbaric fashions. The critic Jeremy Hooker remarked:
Is it, then, a man’s world that David Jones evokes? Not at all. The female principle as the fundamental creative faculty in man and nature is everywhere present, for David Jones deliberately presents the creative and creaturely as essential female: the moon, the woods, the beasts, earth are all described in the imagery of woman. Implicit, explicit once or twice but never obtrusive in the poem, is the purified transcendent embodiment of this principle as the Mother of God.
Despite its difficult nature, In Parenthesis is worth every second it takes to read and absorb, and the libretto (adapted by David Antrobus and Emma Jenkins) of Bells’ operatic adaptation quite admirable in providing an adequate gloss of the text while at the same time succeeding for the most part as a stage production (a full 1:45-hour performance can be viewed here). Unlike another adaptation of World War I poetry for the opera – Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, in which the composer replaced portions of the Latin Mass for the Dead with nine poems by Wilfred Owen – In Parenthesis is reverent throughout. Whereas Owen openly declared he was a war poet, Jones declared:
I did not intend this as a ‘War Book’ – it happens to be concerned with war. I should prefer it to be about a good kind of peace – but as Mandeville says, ‘Of Paradys ne can I not speken properly I was not there; it is fer beyond 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 inimical, hateful, to us.
Again, Jeremy Hooker:
[I]n the work of David Jones, we have a poetry relevant now to everyone implicated in the Western thing, its religion, its politics, its art – in short, the culture by which we have been made in making it. That his poetry addresses itself to crisis, to the breakdown of this culture, makes it as immediate a poetry of psychic distress, despite the enormous difference in method and aim between David Jones’ art and that of the ‘confessional’ poet.
“[C]risis and the breakdown of culture” certainly are apparent today, but the roots of both wound beneath the soil as early as July 1916 and more than likely, Jones reminds his readers, well before then. In Parenthesis remains relevant to contemporary readers because its author recognized the perpetual turmoil of the human condition whether outright warfare, economic uncertainty, contentious election cycles or political disaster. As a people we’ve endured far worse than what we’re currently experiencing. What will ensure our endurance is no different from what provided comfort to Jones and for millions of others before and after In Parenthesis; namely, our faiths properly understood.