My subject is War, and the pity of War.
Let’s say you’re a British poet publishing your first book in 1937, and you want to ensure its success by getting favorable blurbs from other, more established poets. Who would you look to? The most obvious first choice would be T. S. Eliot. By 1937, Eliot had already published The Waste Land (1922), was the editor of the Criterion (arguably the most important literary review of the time), and, in his role as editor at Faber & Faber, helped determine which young poets got into print in the first place. A close second would be W. B. Yeats, the 1923 winner of the Nobel Prize whose poetry seemed only to be getting stronger and stranger with age. And, just to mix things up, maybe you decide your third choice is W. H. Auden. While not as august a figure as Eliot or Yeats, Auden was certainly the most famous (and influential) young poet around—there’s a reason that the 1930s quickly became known as the “Auden decade.” Secure the good opinion of these three poets, you figure, and your present and future fame are guaranteed.
In his great World War I work, In Parenthesis, the Welsh poet and painter David Jones managed to quickly win over all three of these literary luminaries. As W. S. Merwin relates in his foreword to Jones’s poem/novel/memoir (it’s impossible to classify this truly singular work, which is written in a strange mixture of verse and prose), Eliot read In Parenthesis in manuscript form and declared it “a work of genius.” Yeats sought out Jones at a 1938 literary gathering and then, very publicly, bowed towards him, saying, ‘I salute the author of In Parenthesis.” Finally, Auden declared The Anathemata, Jones’s later, most complex work, “probably the finest long poem in English in this century.”
How is it, then, that Jones is so little known nowadays? As far as I can tell, his work is never taught at the high school level, and rarely at the college or graduate level. (When it is taught, it’s generally within three very specific kinds of courses: first, courses on World War I literature; second, courses on Catholic writing, since Jones converted in 1921, counted Jacques Maritain as a friend, and was obsessed, in both poetry and prose, with sacramental and liturgical theology; and third, courses on Welsh literature— though born in Kent, Jones was a Welsh poet through and through, and his work constantly alludes to the great Welsh epics of the medieval period.) Most academic accounts of literary modernism mention Jones’s achievement in passing, but offer little in the way of analysis. Even the most passionate lovers of twentieth-century verse have largely forgotten Jones. In 1961, Eliot asserted without hesitation that In Parenthesis “will no doubt undergo the same sort of detective analysis and exegesis as the later work of James Joyce and the Cantos of Ezra Pound.” Eliot’s confidence has proven unwarranted.
This critical and popular neglect is a shame. In Parenthesis is one of the most powerful works of art to have emerged from World War I. It largely follows the experiences of Private John Ball as he and his English-Welsh regiment fight and die on the Western Front. Jones knew of what he wrote: he served as an infantryman and was wounded at the Battle of the Somme. (The Somme has, for future generations, become a symbol of the futility of war. On one day there in July 1916, 19,000 English soldiers were killed.)
In Parenthesis is unsparing in its depiction of the fear and bewilderment brought about by mechanized warfare. Here is Jones’s description of the eerie quiet right before an artillery attack: “all minute noises, separate and distinct, in a stillness charged through with some approaching violence—registered not by the ear nor any single faculty—an on-rushing pervasion, saturating all existence; with exactitude, logarithmic, dial-timed, millesimal—of calculated velocity, some mean chemist’s contrivance, a stinking physicist’s destroying toy.” Jones’s later image of an exploding shell’s “sudden up-rendings and rivings-through” is chillingly beautiful; his invention of compound words and use of consonant chiming hearken back to one of his favorite predecessors, Gerard Manley Hopkins. By forcefully jamming two words together, Jones’s language embodies the violence it describes.
Yet, despite this commitment to representing war’s inhumanity, Jones also shows us the resiliency and patience that survived in the trenches. Soldiers are shocked at how little “time it took to become so knit with the texture of this country-side, so germane to the stuff about, so moulded by, made proper to, the special environment dictated by a stationary war.” Elsewhere, Jones says that humans are, at root, makers, and the soldiers at the front display this species-wide trait, attempting to make homes even within the trenches, building “hastily contrived arbours and a place of tabernacles and of no long continuing nor abidingness, yet not by no means haphazard nor prejudicial to good-order.” “Kindly” is one of Jones’s favorite words, and amidst so much carnage, soldiers still display kindness, to their comrades and sometimes to their enemies. (In the book’s dedication, Jones lists “the enemy front-fighters who shared our pains against whom we found ourselves by misadventure.”) Jones shows that, even if these temporary homes don’t abide, some bit of compassion does.
Just as striking as the complexity with which Jones treats war is the formal complexity of his writing. Throughout, In Parenthesis displays a deep engagement with tradition in all its forms: a single four-page chunk from Part 7, for instance, includes quotations from Lewis Carroll’s Hunting of the Snark, the epic Welsh poem Y Gododdin, Shakespeare’s Henry V, and Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Mort d’Arthur, as well as bits from the Psalms and the Tenebrae for Good Friday. And Jones never simply alludes for the sake of showing off or proclaiming his own learnedness. (Although, as someone trying to write a chapter of his dissertation on Jones’s relationship to contemporary theology, I can tell you that his reading was certainly impressive.)
Rather, he writes in this way to show the deeply layered, accretive nature of culture itself. Jones’s is a poetry of density: each word, each image radiates outward to other words and images both within his own poetry and within the broader tradition. In his preface to The Anathemata, Jones asks, “If the poet writes ‘wood’ what are the chances that the Wood of the Cross will be evoked? Should the answer be ‘None,’ then it would seem that an impoverishment of some sort would have been admitted.” He argues that “the arts abhor any loppings off of meanings or emptyings out, any lessening of the totality of connotation, any loss of recession and thickness through.” His poetry is one of the best arguments I know for the thickness of language, the fact that, as Emerson claimed, “language is fossil poetry.” Jones shows that within every word we can uncover the most complex histories if only we try.
I hope that the preceding paragraph doesn’t suggest that In Parenthesis is something that must be slogged through rather than enjoyed. Jones’s style has many virtues besides allusiveness. For one, it often displays incredible precision. In In Parenthesis, Jones perfectly captures a Brigade Commander’s character by mentioning in passing his “fussily efficient eye.” What a perfect adverb-adjective combination! As soldiers pass a bombed-out church, they witness the “gleamed white inner-plaster where the apse bared in cross section its engineered masonry.” Jones brilliantly sums up these remains as “the bright bones of the thing.”
In Parenthesis is also a wonderful evocation of the day-to-day life and rituals of soldierly life, what Jones calls at different points “the liturgy of a regiment” and the “used formulae of command.” He lets us hear the “ritual words by virtue of which a regiment is moved in columns of route.” We witness soldiers at roll call and at dinner; he lets us heart the language of common soldiers, their bawdy songs and their informal poetry.
In Parenthesis deserves a wider audience. (As does Jones’s critical prose. His 1959 collection of essays, Epoch and Artist, contains one of the most interesting meditations on the relationship between art and the sacraments that you will ever read.) So let me add my much smaller, more inconsequential voice to those of Eliot, Yeats, and Auden: if you are a lover of modern poetry, you must read Jones. It’s as simple as that.