Dan Levin


on In Parenthesis by David Jones

David Jones’ long book -- pros and freeform poetry; call it a novel written partly in verse -- that he called ‘In Parenthesis’ is a work of passion and substance.

Its subject, one of the most important, Is War and Men and War, but on the way it also raises a pile of questions about style in literature. Reading it made me understand, as I stubbornly never did, the issue between those who write my way and those who have moved in another, today by far preferred direction: baldly, the issue is between a realistic style and an impressionistic one, a straight-on use of language and a slanted one. The latter is more sophisticated; at this moment in our spiritual history, it may be more acceptable to most people concerned the most with creativity.

This insight penetrated my stubbornness because David Jones is such an original and honest example of the second kind of writer. He made me really see that freshness and surprise are often more readily obtained in that kind of writing. It breaks up and attempts to turn language to new uses. His book is a splendid demonstration.

That style has some self-imposed limitations, and risks being artificial or precious; I see that over and over, sometimes sickeningly, in contemporary writing; not in this.

In Parenthesis:’ that being where the author places our mortal life in an eternal scheme -- is one of the most powerful works on its theme of combat’s dreadfulness I’ve ever read; but it wants to be much more: a religious statement and a religious meditation; a statement of Celtic history and Welsh legend and character; a glorification of English literature; a refusal to separate the blindings and disembowelments and dismemberments of war, and the total experience of war -- as most war novels, including mine, somehow have to end up doing -- from the whole civil life, and from the rest of the domain of literary art, which at its fullest includes legend, myth, religion and philosophy.

That is a lot to carry. As far as I’m concerned he never let any of that superstructure, which is worthy in its own right, bury the hurt, powerful and intermittently lyrical account of men at war, men being destroyed by war, men surviving to grieve til their turn came. And all he says, on all these subjects, all these paths of feeling, emotion and thought, is so worth saying: it’s always worth going deep.

Scholarship, too, which is plaited all through David Jones’ book, is worth for it’s own sake; and also enriches all of the dimensions that writer wished to explore.  The danger is that even such a strong and genuine work, on such a great and aweful subject, and on that scale, may end up as recondite, painful reading for an educated few -- in an age that is, or at least thinks it is, one of anti-elite democracy, suspicious of erudition, with proud and increasing ignorance of the past. Even the new elite hardly reads, while those masses of young people for whom this book could be a lifegiving experience would have such tough going they would likely give up -- if they ever had a crack at it.

Line after line of this work folds in quotations from and appeals to English literature and other literatures; at points in the narrative, every experience is locked into literary reference: Coleridge, Keats, Chaucer, repeatedly the Mort d’Arthur of Malory, the Old Testament, the New. The great emotional power of the work is threatened to be overcome by the loved and apt but mind-diverting asides -- like the gallant determined atttack of David Jones’ British comrades being mired by the all-embracing mud at Paschendaale, which stupid generals refused to anticipate.

As if realizing the problem, the writer supplied notes, which only deepen it.

It isn’t’ that the notes aren’t needed, for that thick field of literary and other references; but so often (causing bemusement, which diffuses the work’s impact) the notes merely add erudition. An example: “Past the little gate/into the field of upturned defences, into the burial yard -- / the grinning and the gnashing and the sore dreading -- / nor saw he any light -- ”.  Jones then refers you to his note: “Malory, book vi.ch.15; -- “as they stumble forward in the dark of the blind”, and the poet feels impelled to add to his note, ‘that Breughel knew about.”

Once unwrapped from these distractions, what a vivid and moving image rises, of a platoon moving forward, blindly, feeling its way, part of a badly planned frontal attack, to suddenly become torn bodies in No Man’s Land. But how many will pursue the unwrapping, and be thrilled and satisfied artistically? And what is the chief nature of literature? What its relation to language? To footnotes? All this I found myself asking.

In an introduction, T.S. Eliot called this book of David Jones’ ‘a work of genius’ and a prime example of ‘a work of literary art which uses the language in a new way or for a new purpose.’  Jones in his own introduction described the writer of “The Wasteland” as ‘the greatest poet of our time.’ I’m confident -- so obvious in every line he wrote is Jones’ integrity -- it isn’t  a case of back scratching; he really meant that he said about Eliot’s poem. And disliking many of Eliot’s opinions though I do, I can only chip in my own superlatives: that ‘In Parenthesis’  is a wrenching work of great originality, filled with sorrow and -- what so often goes with the sorrow of war -- with beauty.

There is a brilliantly original use of language. Instead of worn words, new ones grafted from other uses. And in the process, new shadings emerge, and words imported from their usual duties, and in new combinations, take on freshness, sometimes delighting, certainly striking,  the reader; and sometimes, because of this unexpectedness, striking more deeply than even a strong, direct and ordinary language, loaded with feeling, would.

The men, fearsome, facing the hedge-lined open through which they will advance, await the signal for attack and the slaughter that will take place; they are like stockyard animals, waiting; ”You don’t know which high walls enclose your lethal yard, or what the tight entry opens on.”

A respect for the men squatting and lying in those unfilled, corpse-strewn trenches, joined with a scarcely veiled comment about that war: “They’re worthy of an intelligent song, for all the stupidity of their contest.”

Dislike or hatred of the staff officers is not stated boldly, as it is likely to be in an American, but by a biting surprise, even wonderment, at one of them killed on the front line:

“What brought him to this type of place, why this immaculate legs should carry him, jodhpurs and all, so far from his proper sphere, you simply can’t conceive.” This kind of razor-thin satire sometimes hits harder than a blunter instrument would.

Or, again, of one of the doomed pals:

“Clarence knows little of the unity for which his hours are docketed -- little more than bleating sheep the market of his fleece.”

This metaphor of the animals slated for butchery returns several times, and always with an added religious or philosophic shadow which carries it farther.

There are flashbacks to home life; and there’s still time, before the unbelieved scale of the slaughter is believed (it can never be understood) for sardonic interjections of tunes sung, possibly by these same men, before it got too serious for tuneful comment: “O it’s a lovely war,” “Mademoiselle from Armentieres, etc.”

As the unsteady movement of the men toward the front line is told, without stint -- for this is a long work,  with its alternations of modes of prose and prose poetry and poetry -- we get the physical, and more than the physical, story of this company, the platoons, these individual men, these Liverpool Pals and other pals, and mates, woven together with Arthurian myth, with Welsh legend and identity (and British, from various towns, huge Midlanders, and from London.). The random deaths begin. “Mr. Rhys and the new sergeant were left on the line, bodies to be recovered later; and the ‘two little Jews’ from London who fell early…

We follow the frightened confused men being dragged forward and back, through the irresolution or ignorance of commanders, under artillery volleys that took now one now another, but all building up to the fantastically foolish frontal attack, in fragments of sentences, seemingly helter-skelter words that nevertheless convey fullest meaning, to a climax as powerful as anything I know in the literature of war.

                     But O Dear God and suffering Jesus
                     Why don’t they bring water from a well
                     Rooty and bully for a man on live
                     And mollifying oil poured in
                     And hands to bind with gentleness.
                                           Fetch those quickly
                     Whose linened bodies learning over
                     With anti-toxic airs
                     Would change your pillow-slip --
                     For the best part of them.                  
                     And potent words muttered, and
                     an anesthetist’s overdose for gaped viscera.

                     But why is Father Larkin talking to the dead?

That dreadful event keeps building, through snatches recognizable to me or anyone who has been there (and I’m sure to many who weren’t) in whatever year or whatever battle --

                     Runners who hasten singly,
                     Burdened bearers walk with careful feet
                     To jolt himself as little as possible,
                     Bearers of burdens to and from
                     Stumble often, notice the lessening light,
                     And feel their way with more sensitive feet --
                     You mustn’t spill the precious fragments, for perhaps these raw bones live.
                     They can cover him again with skin -- in their candid coats, in their clinical shrines and parade the miraculi.

There are a score, literally, of those heart-tearing passages.

This truly symphonic work is carried further in the last movement by passages that could certainly be a gentle down gliding slow allegro, after the drumming horror of action deaths -- as the soldier regards his dead ‘mates’ crowned by the Queen of the Words, lifted out of the horror of the methods of death:

                     Some she gives white berries
                                           Some she gives brown
                     Emil has a curious crown it’s
                                           Made of golden saxifrage.
                     Fatty wears sweet-briar,
              he will reign with her for a thousand years.
And more of them.

He leaves them to us, finally, killed British and killed Germans (he shows the enemy the same sympathy, while fearing them); and ends his work -- really a monumental one -- with the remark: “…the man who does not know this has not understood anything.” (Jones’ last footnote tells us that phrase comes from the Song of Roland, and he gives the French for the whole stanza!)

I end my reading with gratitude, that this important experience, of a great tragic moment in the life of a time which was my childhood’s time -- the experience of the First World War, which must be understood -- was given to me, in the form of a passionate work of art. And with frustration and anger, because I know I can’t share it with many of my surviving comrades of the Marines, except by my own inadequate synopsis, because it is too recondite, it’s language so often special, its references scholarly and demanding; or with so many others -- friends, students -- for the same reasons.

It has after all increased my loneliness, as a combat veteran, and now a survivor, I have an increased understanding, still, and must use it. To make others understand (withholding final judgment on that war, as that Welsh poet meant us to) what those soldiers who were not ours went through, but in a common cause the leaders claimed was theirs, which no one today can quite understand, and which I have to try to untangle for myself  and make sense of. I cannot simply protest, vote against it ever having happened -- just to say it was tragically and immorally wrong 00 or, to quote one of the privates of K Company, blinded in the fight for Belleau Wood: “If it was a mistake and a misunderstanding all the way round, what was the sense of fighting at all?”

But where do you find morality? I would ask -- as people generally in the end do. It has to take its place in the whole human drama, from comic to tragic, with a balanced regard turned on it, without expectation of final answers. (Foolish Hope is something else, to be patted on the head like a special-ed child, and cherished). Such is my ideal. And because he adds these various dimensions of legend, religion, myth to the war story he tells, and in that offbeat, syncopated, mystery-denoting way, David Jones contributed to my ability to understand and study further and possibly make my own conclusions about that Great War in due time.





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