In this episode…

Introduction by David Jones
Paul Hills on David Jones

Professor Paul Hills is Professor Emeritus at the Courtauld Institute. In 1981 he curated the retrospective exhibition of David Jones at the Tate Gallery and he has continued to write catalogue essays on Jones. More recently he co-curated the critically acclaimed exhibition of David Jones’ art at Pallant House in Chichester, alongside Ariane Bankes with whom he also wrote a book: David Jones: Vision and Memory (Lund Humphries). This exhibition will be transferring to the Djanogly Gallery in Nottingham between April and June 1916.

In Parenthesis audio
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Portrait of Emma Jenkins

Discovering In Parenthesis

Emma Jenkins

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In Parenthesis is a work of epic poetry by Anglo-Welsh artist, poet and ‘maker of things’ David Jones. It was published in 1937 and concerns Jones’ experiences as an infantryman during World War I, specifically the period between December 1915 and July 1916 that culminated in the Battle of Mametz Wood, a crucial engagement during the early stages of the Somme Campaign. Over a seven day period between the 5 - 12 July this searing assault led to over 4,000 casualties from the newly-formed 38th ‘Welsh’ Division. So traumatic was the experience for Jones that it was to be many years before he found himself able to write about it. It began as a series of drawings but gradually blossomed and evolved to become the extraordinary work that we know today.  Some of the foremost writers of the time including W.B Yeats, T.S Eliot and W.H Auden regarded it as a masterpiece and a work of genius. Indeed Auden asserts that Jones did ‘for the British and the Germans what Homer did for the Greeks and the Trojans.’

In his Preface to the poem, Jones explains as follows:

‘This writing is called because I have written it in a kind of space between - I don’t know between quite what - but as you turn aside to do something; and because for us amateur soldiers (and especially for the writer, who was not only an amateur, but grotesquely incompetent, a knocker-over of piles, a parade’s despair) the war itself was a parenthesis - how glad we thought we were to step outside its brackets at the end of '18 and also because our curious type of existence here is altogether in parenthesis.’

The narrative charts the progress of the 15th Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers as seen through the eyes of the semi-autobiographical character Private John Ball. A little like Jones himself, Private Ball is a ‘knocker-over of piles, a parades’ despair’; a sensitive, fragile visionary who is at odds with the theatre of combat in which he finds himself. The narrative opens with the battalion parading at dawn in a wind-swept camp near Winchester and preparing to march to Southampton. From here the basic story line is very simple, and one that would have been all too familiar to any contemporary of Jones: Private Ball and his battalion embark from Southampton Docks on a ship bound for France.  After a short period of further training they then make their way to the Front Line near Neuve Chapelle where they divide their time between action in the trenches and periods of rest in reserve billets. After six months ‘learning their trade’ as Front Line infantrymen they are inexorably drawn south to the opening stages of the Somme Campaign. Mametz Wood is the scene for the final, catastrophic engagement which will see Private Ball as one of the few survivors.


David Jones with In Parenthesis transcript. Image: David Jones Estate

Although the broad narrative is apparently straight-forward, In Parenthesis is utterly unlike other memoirs and poetry of the First World War. Instead, it is a densely packed stream of consciousness, laden with scholarly references, classical and biblical allusions, mythology and legend. David Jones only began work on the poem in 1928, over a decade after the events described (with final publication not until 1937) and this distance of time enables him to review his experiences through the prism of memory and imagination. The result is that Private Ball and his comrades encounter two distinct levels of experience.  The first is the very visceral and temporal experience of warfare, while the second is a mystical parallel universe in which the soldiers seem to link minds with their ancestors and become one with warriors of old. Perhaps because the landscape upon which they fought in France had been the scene of so many earlier conflicts (going back to the time of the Roman occupation and beyond), Jones is able to transport his protagonists back to the world of Crecy, Agincourt and Arthurian legend.  The result is that the reader understands that they are not just experiencing this war but rather all wars that have ever been, going right back to antiquity. The soldiers of the poem have become something more resonant than just themselves: they have become legends in their own right.

However, in spite of its tragic conclusion, it remains a work of transcendent hope and love. These qualities are subtly interwoven throughout the entire text, but fully come of age amidst the carnage of the final battle with the appearance of the Queen Of The Woods. Her delicate gift of flowers for the fallen soldiers (both British and German alike) brings the promise of regeneration for the ravaged woodland and the redemption of all the dead.

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