Monday, 30 August 2010

David Jones: In Parenthesis

'To attempt to explain, in such a note as this, is futile.' Such was T S Eliot's warning when he added a laudatory introduction to David Jones's In Parenthesis (1937). I see no reason to promise more than Eliot, but in this blogpost I aim to gather some of the online resources which may help to guide readers through what Eliot considered to be 'a work of genius'.

Jones took several decades to find the right form for In Parenthesis. He had served during the War as a private in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, coming nearest to a fellow poet when (as the two men established many years later) his company once relieved Siegfried Sassoon's. In Parenthesis ends in Mametz Wood, where Jones himself was shot and wounded. After the War, he attempted to convey his experiences through visual art: 'Part of me, the artist within me, has never left the trenches'. But although he excelled as a painter and an engraver, Jones remained dissatisfied with his work until finally inventing a new literary form capable of such a task. The drafts record the drama of that struggle.

It has to be acknowledged that there are two major (and related) obstacles for Jones's audience. In Parenthesis is, from orthodox perspectives, a fiendishly difficult text; and it earns that overused label, sui generis. A contemporary readership is given few if any bearings. What sort of text are we wrestling with? Neither novel nor poem but held in parentheses between them, Jones's hybrid exposes the sameness and formal conservatism of all but a few subsequent writers. That tends not to be a successful career move. Wordsworth believed that great poets create the taste by which they are to be appreciated, and in that single respect, Jones seems to have failed, until now at least. Eliot could optimistically state in 1961 that In Parenthesis would be 'widely enough known in time'. The best reviewers of Jones today (such as David Wheatley and Alex Preston) repeat the mantra that Jones is scandalously neglected, and continue to hope for better.

Perhaps that hope is justified. Jones's work has always attracted a brilliant scholarly cult (although I agree with George Simmers, contra most scholars, that Jones's version of the modernist 'mythic method' is the least interesting thing about In Parenthesis, and blights his later poem, The Anathemata). However, his influence on creative writers has seemed negligible. The most significant exception is (as ever) Geoffrey Hill. A powerful advocate for Rosenberg and Gurney, Hill keeps such silence in respect of David Jones that even the least Bloomian of his readers ought to grow suspicious. A recent lecture by Hill praised Jones in passing, but to date Hill has published virtually nothing on Jones's work, despite passages like this:

The memory lets escape what is over and above---
as spilled bitterness, unmeasured, poured-out,
and again drenched down---demoniac-pouring:
who grins who pours to fill flood and super-flow insensately,
pint-pot---from milliard-quart measure.

This is pure Hill. Proto-Hill, I ought to say. It comes from Part 7 of In Parenthesis.

If Hill's prominence, and our increasing familiarity with his voice, offer one way of approaching In Parenthesis, so much the better. But In Parenthesis comprises multiple voices, sudden shifts in perspective, characters which appear and disappear --- the whole making a 'shape in words' as Jones called it, but a shape the like of which has never previously been encountered.

In Parenthesis has strong claims to be the literary masterpiece of the War. Read it, one part per day for seven days, and don't stop for what you don't understand. Ignore Jones's notes until you read it a second and a third time. Beyond that, I must admit as Eliot admits: 'All that one can say amounts only to pointing towards the book, and affirming its importance and permanence as a work of art.'


  1. In an August 5, 1964, letter to D. Felicitas Corrigan, Siegfried Sassoon writes:

    "David Jones came to lunch with the Lascelles -- ulta[sic]-sensitive. I talked to him alone for 1-1/2 hours, & worked hard. He was a private in the 15th R.W.F. & wounded at Mametz Wood. His Battn. relieved ours after my day out bombing the Prussian Guard. Have you tried to read him? Fr. Sebastian (Moore) specialized in 'The Anathemata' -- quite beyond me. 'In Parenthesis' is an important war record. But doesn't reach me like 'Undertones of War'."

    The letter may be found in Corrigan's "Siegfried Sassoon: Poet's Pilgrimage" (1973) at page 232. I am not offering the letter as any definitive judgment on Jones, but I thought that some might find it interesting for the connection between Sassoon and Jones.

  2. Thanks, Steve. Yes, two poets, both served in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, both wounded, both increasingly attracted to Catholicism as they aged --- and yet their respective views on art could not be further apart. I like Sassoon's comment that he 'worked hard'; it sounds like the conversation didn't flow.

  3. "Worked hard" could also mean 'challenged intellectually."

  4. I never realized he was also an artist. I don't know how I missed that.

    Great post!

  5. May I ask, parenthetically, if anyone ever plumbed David Jones' footlocker for whatever revelations might lie (or obfuscate, always with obscurant difficulty) within? Otherwise, your own casual "Welch" variation threw me for a bit, but I knew you'd never Welsh on a major (or private, for that matter) matter. So in the matter of Jones's scattered significance and catholic taste, who can possibly keep up at length? (Or in the short term either.) As our fund of mentals get older, they do not get any younger, and grasping Jones exceeds the reach of those schooled in Brownian emotion, not to mention Eliotic dissociation and Dylanian dissolution, especially when one turns, like Jones, 64 at some point--which might be his point after all: an apt parent thesis better served in another space... for a time at least.

  6. In 1946, Douglas Cleverdon dramatized In Parenthesis for the BBC Third Programme. Among the actors were Richard Burton and Dylan Thomas with music by Elizabeth Poston. In 2004, the BBC produced a new version. Artist Joy Finzi, widow of the composer, knew David Jones and drew his portrait. She would visit him on Boxing Day and describes the "strange" boarding house where he lived, north facing and very cold and on one occasion going in search of shillings for his electric fire because he had run out. Of Jones she wrote "I felt that all the photos I had seen did not give a true look to him...He looked as if made of white run-down candle wax with a sense of crucified lines I could not fully draw." The resulting portrait was published in Joy Finzi's In That Place, 1987.

  7. I am particularly moved by Jones' statement, 'Part of me, the artist within me, has never left the trenches'. I know a rifle company artist who has been unable to pick up his pencils since his second tour in Afghanistan (he's done three). He has lost the will, the ability to sketch. He has lost the ability to design tattoos. I am hoping to bring him to a conference on war artists that is in the early stages of planning for 2011.

    I am equally moved by the photograph of the young, fragile Jones. I have seen those young, tired eyes many, many times. In the field, outside the wire, and across the mess table in KAF. Canadian, British, American, Australian.

    as always, thanks Tim,


  8. Does anyone know of a link to listen to the BBC reading of David Jones' In Parenthesis? James

  9. Not the best quality ever, but here's an MP3 recording:

  10. Michael Hollington1 May 2012 at 10:43

    Thanks for the link, Anonymous. I am very pleased to have downloaded this version. But although I have only listened thus far to the first section, it appears to be a recent BBC production based on the 1946 Cleverdon dramatization with Richard Burton and Dylan Thomas - a kind of holy grail I am after. I don't suppose THAT is available anywhere, is it?

  11. Ed- Welch wasn't a solecism, but the official (archaic) spelling of the regiment for most of its history. It was changed to 'Welsh' officially through the Boer & First World Wars but the original spelling was retained internally and restored officially in 1920 (thanks Wikipedia).

    IMichael- I've been searching to no avail for a recording of the 1946 BBC production but can find no definitive indication even of whether the recording survived. There is a two audio cassette collection "Burton at the BBC" that contains selections from a range of works including "in Parenthesis" but I don't know how much is included. I've found a copy on eBay for less than a fiver so I guess it's worth a punt.

  12. Just discovered you can listen to it at the British Library, but for some reason I can't paste the link.

  13. I know that David Jones is *supposed* to be fiendishly difficult but ever since I've first read him I've just jumped in with both feet and swum - if that's an appropriate metaphor. I'd rather read him than "The Waste Land" any day - to me Eliot doesn't seem to have his feet on the earth, and Jones does.

  14. robert bunselmeyer23 September 2015 at 19:16

    Amen to heloise1415. Also, odd to say DJ was "increasingly attracted to Catholicism as [he} aged" since he was received into the Church in 1921 and for the rest of his life remained an observant and greatly erudite RC.

  15. Like heloise1415, I am surprised that Jones is supposed to be difficult. I first read it in the sixties. I read it episodically standing up in rush hour tube trains and in packed lunchtime pubs. The best way to read it is without reference to anything but Jones' own notes. There is a copy beside me now; I hope there always will be.