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In Parenthesis audio
Portrait of Emma Jenkins

Interview with Thomas Dilworth

Emma Jenkins

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Librettist Emma Jenkins caught up with Tom Dilworth to ask him about David Jones and In Parenthesis. Dilworth is a Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Windsor, Canada and is a leading expert on the work of David Jones. His books The Shape of Meaning in the Poetry of David Jones, which won the British Council Prize in the Humanities, and David Jones in the Great War were inspirational to Emma and David during the creation of the libretto. He is currently finishing a definitive biography of David Jones.

David Jones is so much more than just a war poet. Can you tell us how he sits among his contemporaries such as Owen and Sassoon and what sets him apart?

Yes, Jones is a far greater figure than any other poet of the Great War. He wrote two of the best epic-length poems in English, In Parenthesis (1937) and The Anathemata (1954) –  WH Auden called The Anathemata, after reading it over and over for six months, ‘probably the greatest long poem of the century’. Jones was also an important engraver and painter. That allowed him to bring to modern poetry a unique visual-spatial sense of form. And he was an important thinker. His essays on aesthetics and culture collected in Epoch and Artist (1959) and The Dying Gaul (1978) are original contribution to our understanding of culture and civilization. (On this Kenneth Clark, the New York art critic Harold Rosenberg, and the American writer Guy Davenport agree.) So Jones is an important poet but more than that. He, Virginia Woolf, and Henry Moore are the foremost native British modernists.

'Jones is a far greater figure than any other poet of the Great War.' Tom Dilworth

It is chiefly because of the Great War centenary. In Parenthesis is by far the greatest literary work to emerge from the war. That is the judgment of Auden (who likened Jones to Homer), the military historian Michael Howard, and the novelist Adam Thorpe. In Parenthesis has been called ‘a work of genius’ by TS Eliot, ‘one of the greatest poems of the century’ by Graham Greene, ‘one of the most remarkable literary achievements of our time’ by Herbert Read, and ‘the greatest memorial of any war’ by the novelist Adam Thorpe. Igor Stravinsky thought him ‘a writer of genius’ and, by the way, without specifying a subject or theme, asked him to collaborate with him on an opera, Jones to write the libretto.  
There have also been recent exhibitions of Jones’ visual art in Chichester (ending 21 February) and Ditchling (ending 6 March), both garnering rave reviews in the press. The attraction is largely his engravings and his landscape paintings of the late 1920s, which are easy to appreciate at a glance. Also attracting attention are his delicately beautiful, later paintings of flowers in glass chalices, and his stunningly original painted inscriptions. He made more complicated, subtler paintings, which take longer to appreciate and reward longer looking. But if you have an eye for visual art, many of his pictures areinstantly irresistible. Some think him comparable as an engraver to Hogarth, Bewick, and Blake. Kenneth Clark thought him a painter of genius. Luckily we can now see some of his visual art on the web.
Also the Irish poet John Montague has just published The Bell, his account of conversations with Jones late in life. My biography, David Jones, Soldier, Engraver, Painter, Poet, will be published in February 2017.

In Parenthesis is obviously a very Welsh poem but its influence and importance seems to extend way beyond such confines. Why is this?

In Parenthesis only seems very Welsh because it is Welsh at all – Wales being excluded from most, if not all, English literature after Shakespeare’s history plays. In Parentheis is predominantly English.
Why? Because Jones (English on his mother’s side) was a Londoner by birth and upbringing, and because his battalion, unlike the rest of his regiment, was mostly Cockney – as is the main character in In Parenthesis, John Ball. But Welshness does figure against this English ground. There are three important Welsh characters. One is Dai Greatcoat, the universal infantryman, whose time-transcending boast occupies the centre of the poem. His boast is one of two occasions when ancient legendary Welshness erupts through the surface narrative in a major way. The poem does not so much extend beyond Welshness as include it in a vast Britishness. This Britishness is vast owing to an unusual range of allusion, opening to the Middle Ages, the Dark Ages, the scriptural past. This in itself is implicitly Welsh. Jones told me, ‘Most Englishmen see history as Churchill did, as extending from the Renaissance to himself.’ In fact, Jones in this poem is restoring Wales to its proper place as origin and underlying vivifier of British culture. He implies this in his preface when he writes that together the Welsh and Londoners ’bore in their bodies the genuine tradition of the Island of Britain, from [Welsh legendary] Bendigeid Vran to [Dickens’] Jingle and [the English music-hall star] Marie Lloyd’. But In Parenthesis is not primarily about national cultural identity or history. Its predominant characteristic is the vivid physicality with which it poetically re-presents life in the trenches, culminating in horrendous battle, and the vivid humanity of the infantrymen. In Parenthesis is the more widely loved of his two long poems largely because it is (?) emotionally so moving.

Is David Jones’ conversion to Catholicism helpful in understanding the symbolism of In Parenthesis and its sacramental nature?

No. Familiarity with Catholicism helps a lot in reading The Anathemata, his great poetic summa, a dramatic-symbolic anatomy of western culture, which he told me was ‘worth 50 In Parenthesises’. But it’s not important for In Parenthesis, and that helps explain why it is more widely read.
Jones did think that the Catholic Mass was the greatest work of western art. And he said that In Parenthesis gathers momentum like the Mass. In the poem there is a multiple liturgical parallel between the arrival of men at the front on Christmas, the Nativity, and the offertory of the Mass (when bread and wine is presented at the altar); and later between the massacre of infantrymen at the Somme, Good Friday, and the consecration of the Mass. But you can appreciate and be moved by the poem without awareness of any of this. The numinous Queen of the Wood bestowing garlands on the dead at the end of the poem does, however, imply moral and, therefore, I think, religious significance. In its apparent absurdity, war is, Jones thought, basically no different from the rest of life. That’s why he writes in his preface, ‘I did not intend this as a “War Book”’. Either there is meaning in war or there is basically no meaning in life. When the Queen of the Wood rewards the virtues of infantrymen, she implies that goodness is the meaning of life. Goodness is metaphysical. It implies religion or, at least, spirituality.
Rather than familiarity with Catholicism, it would help to be familiar with British military language, technical and slang. The best readers of In Parenthesis are probably British ex-servicemen – though it is also revered by US Vietnam veterans because, one of them wrote to me, David Jones ‘really knows what war is’. For others of us, the military language is something to learn along the way.

You were lucky enough to be able to spend time with David Jones towards the end of his life. What kind of a man was he? Can you share any anecdotes with us?

Yes, I was lucky. He was a lovely man. I’ve never met a more warmly affectionate adult male. And with women he was even warmer. He spoke from a great depth of mind with strong feeling. He liked visits and talked for hours: about meeting Yeats and conversations with Dylan Thomas and ‘Tom’ Eliot, about other writers, about artists and friends, about visits to Wales as a child, his visit to Jerusalem, the history of Wales, and often about the war. Whenever I asked, he said that what happens to John Ball in In Parenthesis had happened to him, Jones. He said that association with the remote past, a characteristic which critics of the poem think unrealistic, was pervasive in himself and his friends in the trenches. I remember him saying that no-man’s land was one of the most beautiful things he had ever seen. (He frequently said something profound that you could not imagine anyone else saying.) He had a great gift for friendship, and despite being agoraphobic on account of the war, he had a huge number of friends.

He often told war anecdotes: about being knocked unconscious by a mine fragment, about being wounded in Mametz Wood, about the VAD nurse he fell in love with on recovery leave, about his incompetence as an artillery ‘flash spotter’, and about going out on night patrols. ‘One night’, he said, ‘I went on patrol with an officer and two other men, one of them a sergeant named Morgan. We crawled up to the enemy wire. I could see the sentry’s Stahlhelm moving back and forth in the trench.
Morgan loudly kicked a tin. We began to laugh, tried to suppress it, shaking with hilarity. Minutes later we stopped laughing and crept back as fast as we bloody well could.’ He also recalled shaving in a reserve trench when – it was, he said, ‘like Alice in Wonderland’ – the Prince of Wales appeared and asked directions to a location in the forward trench. Soon after, a large puffing colonel ran up and asked, ‘Have you see Wales?’ ‘Yes, sir’. ‘Where did he go?’ Jones told him. ‘Why didn’t you stop him?’ the colonel said and ran off, Jones calling after him, ‘How could I, sir.’  Jones remembered that during the assault on Mametz Wood a young English officer exhorted the men in a public-school voice, ‘Remember your nationality!’ and a Welsh former miner beside Jones responded, ‘What nationality?’ To return to your first question about the war poets, it is worth noting that Jones served longer in the trenches than any other war writer.

What advice would you give to people who are totally new to In Parenthesis and who are opening up the poem for the first time?

The first poetry to read by David Jones is ‘The Hunt’ and/or ‘The Tutelar of the Place’ in The Sleeping Lord (1974). These are his most musical shorter (mid-length) poems. They will convince most readers that he is a truly great poet. Then read In Parenthesis, ignoring the notes as much as possible. (At the end of his life Jones wished he had not included notes in his poems. As he then realised, they put off readers.) The end of Part 2 and the centre of Part 4 (Dai’s boast) are thick with unfamiliar allusions, so consult notes for them – I like reading notes, if at all, in advance. After reading through the poem once, you may chiefly feel frustration at all its unfamiliarity. Don’t settle for that. Read it again.

I had a very bright graduate student, a good poet herself, who read it and hated it. She said so to a friend of hers. He advised her to read it again. So, finding herself alone with it on a train, she reread it.
As a result she was tempted to give up writing poetry: how, she said, could she ever write something so beautiful.

Portrait of Emma Jenkins

Recommended reading

Emma Jenkins

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While we were preparing the libretto for In Parenthesis, we naturally did a lot of background reading so we thought it might be useful for audiences to have a reading list of books that we have found helpful for getting a deeper insight into the world of In Parenthesis and the wider work of David Jones.

David Jones in the Great War by Thomas Dilworth: this is a fantastic book to begin exploring the life of David Jones. It is short, very accessibly written, and documents Jones’ life from his enlistment in the Royal Welch Fusiliers right the way through to the end of his involvement in the war. Tom Dilworth is THE expert on the life and work of David Jones and so this book is a must for anyone wanting to learn more.

The Shape of Meaning in the Poetry of David Jones by Thomas Dilworth: another great book by Dilworth, this time focussing on Jones’ writing.  Dilworth drills down into the deeper meaning behind Jones’ poetry. There is so much symbolism and allusion in In Parenthesis, and indeed in all the poetry of David Jones, that it really helps to have a clear interpretation of his references.

The Art of David Jones, Vision and Memory by Professor Paul Hills and Ariane Bankes. This is a beautiful book which was published in tandem with the recent exhibition of David Jones’ paintings at Pallant House in Chichester which was curated by the authors. The books shows the progression of Jones’ work as an artist and the various influences that triggered changes in his work. It also very neatly demonstrates how the writing of In Parenthesis reflected an important transition in his style of painting.

David Jones: Fusilier at the Front by Anthony Hyne. This book showcases the pencil sketches that David Jones created while serving as an infantryman with the Royal Welch Fusiliers.  It is an evocative and vivid record of his experiences, and is interspersed with excerpts from In Parenthesis and explanations of the context of the drawings.

Up to Mametz and Beyond  by Llewelyn Wyn Griffith. First published in 1931 this book has long been regarded as one of the most important accounts of soldiering on the Western Front, and was written by an officer in the same battalion as David Jones. It beautifully charts the experiences of the famous ‘Welsh Army’ (the 38th up Division) both up to and including the fighting in Mametz Wood, and offers an illuminating counterpoint to the events described in In Parenthesis.