Vol 17 No 4
In Parenthesis as Chronicle
I asked David Jones, 'What do you think of Yeats?'
‘Not much,' he replied.
‘What don't you like about him?'
‘Hard to say, exactly, but there's something missing.'
‘What do you mean?'
‘Oh, the Plato-Aristotle thing.'
In Parenthesis derives from David Jones's experience as a private soldier in the trenches during the seven months of the Great War that culminated in the Battle of the Somme. Jones chronicles his experience, and examines it in its relation to the traditions of Western culture. Through allusions to history, literature, scripture, liturgy, and folklore, Jones provides correlatives to the experience of modern war, and tests the validity of traditional values. Jones's literary and existential purpose naturally influences the character of his chronicle. For him war is myth in action, but so is life, and the two are basically the same myth. He implies this when he says that In Parenthesis has its title because 'the war itself was a parenthesis ... and also because our curious type of existence here is altogether in parenthesis' (1). The disclosure of war's mythic pattern, and therefore of its relation to the whole of human experience, requires emotional objectivity missing in much of the literature written by other combatants. Emotional objectivity is only possible for Jones because he begins to write almost a decade after the end of the war. But objectivity does not come to those who merely wait, it is a technical achievement involving decisions about content and tone.
As chronicle, In Parenthesis is generally historically accurate. Jones's battalion of Royal Welch Fusiliers (London Welsh) marched from Winnal Down through Southampton, and then embarked on the fifth of December 1915 to Le Havre. The next day they arrived at Warne and, after two weeks of further training, they marched toward the trenches, resting on the way at Reiz Bailleul. The dates and place-names are not given in the poem, but this is its exact sequence and setting to the end of Part 3. Jones spent part of Christmas day on fatigue duty behind the lines, just as the poem's central figure, John Ball, does in Part 4 on Christmas Day (2). The poem's Part 5 telescopes actual events of the spring: the first, ominous, issuing of metal shrapnel helmets (104); the 'quite successful raid' (106); the general alert during an unsuccessful
German offensive (108); the outdoor concert, at which a corporal really did sing Thora (110); the march South to the Somme; and an officer's reading of the 'good news' of initial British success (123) -this took place on July first, and the infantrymen actually were 'permitted to cheer' (3). Then in Part 6 is the confused marching which robbed the battalion of sleep and brought it to battle exhausted. In Part 7 is the assault on Mametz Wood on July tenth, commencing at 4.15 a.m.; the digging of the trench that afternoon at map coordinates 'V, Y, O & K' (172) - you can still see this shallow trench in the wood today; and finally the wounding of Private David Jones, reflected in the wounding of the poem's John Ball, shortly after midnight on the eleventh. Throughout the narrative, dates and place-names are generally withheld Mametz Woods is always, for example, simply 'the wood' - so that the narrative is at once intimate and universal in a way that conventional documentary reporting cannot be.
There are only two important changes in chronology, Jones's battalion first entered trenches on the night of December nineteen. In the poem, this is moved forward to Christmas Eve, so that the first day in trenches is Christmas. The change compresses the action and better accommodates the poem's seasonal and liturgical imagery .The other important change occurs near the end of the poem on the afternoon before the assault. John Ball and some friends watch waves of infantry going forward to attack what must be Mametz Wood, and they
wondered for each long stretched line going so leisurely down the slope and up again, strained eyes to catch last glimpses where the creeping smoke-screen gathered each orderly
deployment within itself. (150)
The terrain is right. To reach the wood the assault-force had to cross over 500 yards of no-man's land which dropped steeply fifty feet into a valley and then rose for 400 yards to the edge of the wood (4). But the time is wrong. The wood was not under attack on the ninth. It had last been assaulted, unsuccessfully, on the seventh, when Jones was not in the vicinity to observe. But he did see what he describes (5). And the only time he could have seen it was on the morning of the tenth, just before joining in the assault and himself becoming part of the picture he gives us. In the poem, Jones moves the description to the previous afternoon where it becomes an objectively perceived image of things to come, and where it affords no visual or emotional relief from the next morning's myopic awareness and increasing anxiety in the moments immediately before battle. Jones had seen the 16th Royal Welch Fusiliers advancing, before his own battalion left the shelter of Queen's Nullah. In the poem, the action is condensed and there is no delay: Ball's battalion goes over the top with the first assault troops. Such changes in chronology indicate that Jones is not recording history, but he is being over careful when he writes in his preface that no 'sequence of events' in the poem is 'historically accurate' (ix).
Jones also writes that 'none of the characters in this writing are real persons' (ix), and this too might be misleading. The narrative is fictionalized. Jones's 15th Battalion becomes the imaginary 55th. With only a few exceptions, moreover, characters are not called by their actual names (6). Throughout almost all of the poem, for example, John Ball stands in for David Jones. Ball has Jones's experiences and, like Jones, Ball is clumsy, 'a parade's despair' (xv). After Ball, the poem's important narrative reflectors are Private Aneirin Lewis and Lieutenant Piers Dorian Isambard Jenkins. Together they combine to epitomize the battalion's dual Welsh-and-English character. I once asked Jones whether Aneirin Lewis, with his thorough knowledge of Welsh tradition, is a real person. 'Yes,' said Jones, 'as with other characters, a combination of people: he may have been Aneirin Evans and Cadwaladr Lewis.' Likewise, Lte. Jenkins represents a combination of prototypes. In a letter to Colin Hughes, Jones writes that one prototype was 'an attractive man, very absent minded, and also fair-haired like the squire for the Rout of San Romano' to whom he is likened in the poem, but without "the 'elegance' intended to be implied by my choice of the names Piers, Dorian, Isambard." (7). The prototype of Jenkins is also the prototype of Talbot Rhys, who is Jenkins's friend in the poem, and who is killed in the raid in Part 5. The raid corresponds to an actual raid in which the prototype of Rhys and of Jenkins actually was killed. The other model for Jenkins is an officer who fell during the assault immediately in front of Jones soon after leaving the assault trench and not, like Jenkins in the poem, close to the edge of the wood (8). Other figures, like Colonel Dell, 'Aunty Bembridge', and Signaller Olivier, are based on single prototypes whose names alone have been changed.
The narrative of In Parenthesis is basically chronicle, but without the conventional restrictions of documentary reporting that govern point of view and diminish sensory imagery. In this regard, the poem anticipates modern documentary fiction. But In Parenthesis is even more radically fictionalized. It involves a greater freedom about what to include in the narrative and what to exclude. And always the choice is a matter of technique.
Jones excludes anecdotes. He himself was an inveterate teller of war stories. He used to tell, for example, how his colonel - J. C. Bell, the prototype of the poem's Colonel Dell - after hearing that Jones was 'educated', repeatedly urged him to become an officer. 'I kept declining,' Jones said.
Officers in their boots and close-cut coats had different silhouettes and were easy for the enemy to distinguish and aim at. He said I was shirking my duty. When finally I told him I had gone to art school, he dropped the subject.
Once Dell caught Private Jones carrying on his back half a barn door which he had taken from a farmhouse:
As I went, the door got heavier and I got more bent over. Suddenly I saw a pair of spotless boots. 'What are you doing with that door?' 'I'm going to make a fire with it, sir.' 'We pay rent to the French.' It's true, we did pay rent, for the trenches. 'I'm not saying your regiment isn't brave,' he said, enjoying himself very much, 'but you've got a bad reputation for stealing! Take it back where you got it.' I did, and found some sticks somewhere instead. The next day the house was blown to buggery.
This may be the farmhouse whose destruction is foretold on the poem's page ninety-six, but the personal anecdote is not recorded. And there are other anecdotes: about Lazarus Black, the prototype of the poem's 'little Jew' (155); about finicky and stupid General Price-Davies, the prototype of Aunty Bembridge; and about a night raiding party Jones was part of, whose members suffered an attack of nervous giggling within a few feet of an occupied German trench (9). Nothing like any of this gets into the poem. Such miniature dramas would distract from the larger pattern. You cannot plant little plots in a work that has no plot without those little plots dominating the whole. And as a whole, the narrative is plotless. Infantrymen are 'pawns' (165), they suffer; they do not initiate or control action.
Anecdotes also round out character, and Jones wants his characters flat. He identifies them with single traits. Aneirin Lewis remembers, Lte. Jenkins daydreams, John Ball is clumsy. They could be almost anybody, and Ball as the central figure is a sort of archetypal Anybody. Because flat characters do not engage or compete with the reader's ego, they free the reader from personality. Consequently they are better than round characters would be at mediating the work's symbolic dimensions.
Although Jones shuns anecdotes, autobiography does inform the narrative. Always, however, the meaning is never merely personal, and usually it has a symbolic dimension. For example, at the end of Part 2 Jones' s fictional proxy, John Ball, experiences a shell-explosion in vivid slow motion. It is a 'Pandoran' epiphany of 'all unmaking' (24). Jones told me he actually experienced this explosion as Ball does in the poem. Like Ball, he had just given matches to a lieutenant whom he had failed to address properly as 'sir'. So the ironic contrast between a breech of ettiquette and a breech in ontology is remembered, not invented. And after the explosion, the blood-red sap of mangolds really did slobber 'the spotless breech-block' of a nearby artillery piece.
Similarly, on Christmas morning Germans sing the carol 'Es is ein' Ros' entsprungen' and the British irreverently counter with 'Casey Jones' (67-68). In the poem, this exchange becomes an ironic pastoral song-contest, which heightens the morning's violation of the conventions of classical and Christian pastoralism. But Jones said that on Christmas morning, 1915, the Germans really did sing that carol and the British really did try to drown it out with 'Casey Jones'.
And on the eve of the assault, Jones, like Ball, heard hammering 'as though they builded some scaffold for a hanging' (154). Actually they were building coffins but, Jones said, 'Ball didn't know what was being made,' and we may assume that neither, at the time, did Jones. The poem's symbolism moves from scaffold to gallows-cross to Calvary ('the place of the skull', 154), but the movement begins in something actually heard.
The meaning of a memory partly determines whether it is included in the narrative. But the overriding criterion governing selection is tone, which is the relationship of narrative consciousness to narrated event. Jones consistently ensures that this relationship is immediate, sometimes at the expense of broad historical perspective. A recovery of this perspective makes possible an appraisal of this aspect of Jones's narrative technique.
Artillery fire lasts the length of the poem's Part 6. Jones must have known when writing the poem that this was, to date, the greatest artillery bombardment in military history. He may have been tempted to say so. He does write that the Somme is 'the magnetic South' (119), which implies that it attracts all available canon and shells. There was, in fact, one howitzer or mortar for every seventeen yards of enemy front line- 1,437 big guns to fire almost two million shells during the barrage that began on June twenty-fourth and could be heard as far away as the coast of England (10). Everywhere in the background of Part 6 is artillery fire, but that is where it stays, in the background. The poem's infantrymen know no more than infantrymen then knew: unending noise and the night sky on fire. Jones rejects the historical perspective which might have enriched his chronicle, but which would have placed the reader's view outside that of the infantrymen.
Sometimes Jones excludes irony along with historical perspective. When writing the poem, he knew that the raid in which Talbot Rhys dies was, according to General Headquarters' dispatches, 'the third best raid carried out so far by the British Army' (11). But to have said so would have been to relinquish the immediate awareness of a private soldier for the perspective of the officers who evaluated the raid and sent the dispatches. Instead, Jones simply writes, 'The raid had been quite successful' (106), so that the irony is not heavy-handed when it comes: 'Mr Rhys and the new sergeant were left on his [the enemy's] wire; you could see them plainly, hung like rag-merchants' stock' (106). Immediacy mitigates irony.
Another decision for immediacy over historical perspective and ironic effect involves the waves of men walking 'so leisurely' (150) towards Mametz Wood. The usual and much safer tactic was (and still is) to assault in short rushes between cover (12). But on July tenth, the infantry walked slowly in 'admirable formation, in the high-port position' (162), four paces between each man, 100 yards between each line of men. This carefully rehearsed slow walk was especially invented for the Battle of the Somme by General Henry Rawlinson, who believed the new recruits of his Fourth Army would not otherwise keep ranks in a frontal attack on strongly fortified enemy positions. And so line after long line of infantrymen walked slowly into the devastating fire of enemy machine guns. They were, in fact, forbidden to run until within twenty yards of enemy trenches. The Germans, seeing them coming, thought them mad (13). The number of British casualties was high, as Jones suggests: one-third of Ball's section reaches the Wood, and of his platoon of sixty, only nineteen. But Jones does not inform us in the poem or in its notes that the lines of walking men are disciplined against their own safety on this occasion only and by their own commanding officer. If Jones had told us this, he would have generated a bitter irony and gained historical perspective, but at the expense of narrative immediacy and narrative consistency. The universal character of the experience of assault would have been lost, furthermore, in a particularized historical moment.
In Parenthesis is one of the world's four or five great war books. It is far better than any other work or collection of works on the Great War .The importance of In Parenthesis as a work of literature does not lie in its documentary aspect, but it does begin there, for even as a war record, In Parenthesis is a model of technique. As chronicle it maintains an objectivity to match that of the work's multi-layered allusions. It also achieves an immediacy that allows easy movement between sensory experience and the interior matrix of the allusions by which modern war becomes an epiphany of "our curious type of existence here." In these allusions, but perhaps more clearly in the underlying chronicle, Jones bases his aesthesis on the Aristotelean reality-principle, and in a way that demonstrates both the limitations and the validity of his favourite words of Picasso, that the artist 'does not seek, he finds'.
1 In Parenthesis (London: Faber and Faber, 1969), p. xv. Page references to this text appear hereafter in parenthesis.
2 See David Jones, The Anathemata (New York: Viking, 1955), p. 216.
3 Rene Hague, Dai Greatcoat (London: Faber and Faber, 1980), p. 72.
Except where otherwise noted, my bases for determining the historical accuracy of Jones's narrative are Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, Up to Mametz (London: Faber and Faber, 1920), and A History of the 38th (Welsh) Division by the G.S.O.s I of the Division, Lieut. Colonel. E. Munby, ed. (London: H. Rees, Ltd, 1920).
4 Wilfred Miles, History of the Great War, Military Operations, France and Belgium, 1916 (London: Macmillan, 1938), pp. 49-53.
5 The authors of A History of the 38th (Welsh) Division record that 'one of the most magnificent sights of the war' was 'wave after wave of men. ... advancing without hesitation and without a break', and Jones notes in the margin of his copy of this book, 'I saw something of this myself and it was an impressive sight'. For a complete transcription of Jones's marginalia in his copy of the book, see my article, ‘A Book to Remember by: David Jones's Glosses on a History of the Great War', The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 74 (1980),221-234.
6 The exceptions are 'Reggie with the Lewis-Gunners' (74), who is Reggie Allen, the 'PTE. R. A. LEWIS-GUNNER' of the poem's dedication; 'Elias the Captain' (136), who is Captain Thomas Elias; and ‘’79 Jones' (108). David Jones once told me, 'There were three Jones in my regiment. I was '79 Jones'.
7 Colin Hughes, David Jones: the Man who was on the Field (Manchester: David Jones Society, 1979), p. 12.
8 Ibid, p. 20.
9 These stories, which I heard Jones relate sometimes more than once are recorded more or less as I heard them by William Blissett in The Long Conversation, A Memoir of David Jones (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1981).
10 Martin Middlebrook, The First Day on the Somme (New York: Norton, 1972), pp. 68, 86.
11 A History of the 38th (Welsh) Division, p. 15. Jones indicates in the margin of his copy that he was involved in this raid 'as part of the covering troops. To be part of a raiding-party you had not only to volunteer but be judged the kind of person best suited for the job. I was not considered suitable'.
12 The men of Jones's battalion had not, at this time, participated in or witnessed an assault, and so may not have realized the extraordinary nature of their method of assault on this occasion.
13 Middlebrook, pp. 175, 137-8.
(Thomas Dilworth is Assistant Professor, English, University of Windsor, Windsor, Ontario.)
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