“In Parenthesis”

Yesterday I listened to a lecture about David Jones that I felt got him wrong. Within its own terms, the lecture was very good – it argued cogently for Jones’s place within the Big Grand Modernist tradition of Eliot, Pound, Joyce, etc, and backed this up with reference to that daunting work The Anathemata, which I’ve never got far with.

I’m a great admirer of Jones’s In Parenthesis. This poem/novel plunges the reader straight into the Great War, taking you to the trenches with astonishing immediacy. Everything is presented; nothing is explained. A lot of the verbs are present-tense (Had Jones read All Quiet on the Western Front?) and many sentences are actually verbless, just noun phrases confronting you head-on with the facts of war, and cold, and wet, and death.

And then there’s the language, the soundscape of war. In Parenthesis is the greatest treasury we have of Great War slang, and jargon, and dialect. Characters appear and disappear, each with his own turn of phrase. There are officers, sergeants and privates; there are Londoners and Yorkshiremen, as well as, of course, the Welsh. The book is a tapestry of dialogue, and Jones adds to this, very effectively, phrases from Malory, and the Mass, and from Welsh epics, that set the book in a more extended time-frame, and suggest the universality of War experience. A sample – the attack on Mametz Wood:

… and Mr Jenkins takes them over

and don’t bunch on the left

for Christ’s sake.

Riders on pale horses loosed

and vials irreparably broken

an’ wat price bleedin’ Glory


Glory Hallulujah

And the Royal Welsh sing:


lover of me soul .. to Aberystwyth

But that was on the right with

the genuine Taffies

but we are rash levied

from Islington and Hackney…

The mythic additions are important, but for me they’re the least essential part of the book (Imitation of Joyce and Eliot? The modernist icing on what would be a very fruity and satisfying cake without them?). In the later works, from what I can gather, the mythology takes over, and the poetic immediacy is diluted.

So looking at Jones’s modernism seems to me to be looking in the wrong direction. Much more important to look at what he was saying about the War, and about the community of men who fought it. In Parenthesis presents them with such respect and care – that’s why it’s a great book.


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