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Last year​ – year one of the Great War centenary – David Jones’s In Parenthesis, a long prose-and-verse evocation of his first months as a soldier, got a decent outing. The poet Owen Sheers drew on the text for his play Mametz at National Theatre Wales in the summer; Faber reissued the book with T.S. Eliot’s introduction in its series Poets of the Great War; and in Poetry of the First World War (2013), Tim Kendall chose a fine sequence of extracts – sticking to the verse where he could – even though he reckoned that Jones is ‘by far the most difficult [poet] to anthologise’. He doesn’t say why, but other editors and centenary impresarios seem to feel the same. By comparison with the star alumni, Jones was a marginal presence in the anthology of all things martial, horrible, poetic and ennobling to which we were exposed in 2014.

Jones joined up in 1915. But the idea that this could be the year of In Parenthesis has few takers, even among fans. Why not next year, on the grounds that he first saw action in 1916? In Parenthesis, 225 pages including the author’s notes, is not about to become a big, acknowledged public monument to the Great War alongside smaller, perfectly formed monuments – a single sonnet or 28-line poem from the officer class – that are perhaps more stirring and certainly more accessible. Jones, like Ivor Gurney and Isaac Rosenberg, was not an officer, even though he was offered the chance in the spring of 1916. He said he didn’t think he was ‘that sort of person’, and then, when his commanding officer pressed him: ‘I’m totally incompetent, sir.’

Part of the difficulty with In Parenthesis is that he didn’t start on the book until roughly ten years after the Armistice and it wasn’t published until 1937. Whatever Jones might have thought about The Waste Land, Jacob’s Room, Ulysses, Finnegans Wake – most of it available as fragments of Work in Progress – or Pound’s growing body of Cantos, In Parenthesis was written in the aftermath of a literary upheaval that had set the older sensibilities at a decisive remove. In Parenthesis is a triumph of modernism first and a reflection on the war second. The book brims with confidence in the new poetic order, happy to make large demands on its readers; we’re assumed to have a sketchy knowledge of Welsh legend, along with the battles of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, real or embellished, from the Roman campaigns in Britain across Arthurian legend to the death of Roland. Even though there are helpful notes to the text to get us over obscure references, the puzzles remain.

The book is in seven parts, covering the period December 1915, when Jones embarked at Southampton, to the following summer, the last part unfolding in Mametz Wood where, on 10 July, more than a week into the Battle of the Somme, he and his comrades in the Royal Welch Fusiliers were finally committed (they had relieved Siegfried Sassoon’s battalion on 5 July). Once the attack on the wood begins the allusion thickens like an archaic undergrowth through which the reader struggles in a state of hyper-attentive dismay, one eye on the ground for ‘dark hidden ills’, the other alert for trees felled by artillery, convinced like Private Ball – a kind of David Jones – that all warriors face the same challenges and that this war must be understood, in the thick of it, as a fresh and frightening bloom on ancient, deeply rooted stock. So, as the next flock of shrapnel ‘rides the air’ like ‘broom-stick horrors’, cutting every which way through Mametz Wood, the poem evokes King Pellam’s treacherous brother Sir Garlon in Book Two of Le Morte D’Arthur, who ‘rideth alwy invisible’, killing with impunity. Centrifugal storms of metal become a horror in the wood, ready to ‘clout you suddenly, come on you softly, search to the liver, like Garlon’s truncheon that struck invisible’. (The ‘truncheon’, I guess, is the end of a spear that breaks off from the rest and lodges in the enemy’s body as the assailant rides beyond the moment of impact.)

Jones’s sense of war – a historicising sense but also mythopoeic – meant that he approached it with a fascinated acquiescence quite unlike the reaction of the great officer poets. Jones was not an anti-war poet but he wasn’t wholly for king and country or the glories of the field. He took war to be a venerable, terrifying tradition: you had to set your lips to the cup and drink. He was retrieved from Mametz Wood after being shot in the leg. He felt the blood filling his boot, as Cormac McCarthy’s protagonists, more rugged and inarticulate than Private Ball, feel their boots fill with blood when a knife fight hasn’t gone their way.

Jones returned to duty and was transferred to Reserve – or ‘disembodied’ as they used to say – in December 1918 after a stint in Ireland. The war had dealt him many hidden injuries, as it did most of his comrades, but the extent of the damage wasn’t clear until the early 1930s, when he worked through a draft of In Parenthesis and reeled into a breakdown. Slowly he recovered and fought through another mental crisis to a working compromise with his illness, or ‘Rosy’ as he called it, after the ‘rosi’ in ‘neurosis’. In David Jones in the Great War (2012), a superb study by Thomas Dilworth, we learn that Jones had seen more active service than any other war writer including Edmund Blunden, who’s normally credited with this debilitating honour. ‘Even with the time subtracted for convalescence and leave, he spent a total of 117 weeks at the front, which is at least two months longer than Blunden, half a year longer than Isaac Rosenberg, twice as long as Siegfried Sassoon and Ivor Gurney, and more than twice as long as Wilfred Owen, Charles Sorley, Robert Graves and Wyndham Lewis.’ It isn’t a competition, but his long acquaintance with the front is probably why the matter-of-fact tone of In Parenthesis – one tone among several – is so free of affectation.

In the 1960s, Jones visited Sassoon, another Royal Welch Fusilier and a fellow convert to Catholicism. It was their only encounter but as Harry Ricketts explains in Strange Meetings, Jones’s deafness and Sassoon’s incorrigible mumbling ensured that it was awkward. Ironically, In Parenthesis is rich with a kind of mumbling – soft incantation – that makes it far harder than anything of Sassoon’s. Hard, too, to know how you’d explore it with a first-time reader, since the same difficulties present themselves on a second reading. One way in might be the profane, comic voices of Ball’s London Welsh comrades, condescending to the officers behind their backs; another, perhaps, the poet’s eye for the unwarlike in the midst of war: like Gurney (‘Beauty lies so deep/On all the fields’), Jones catches these moments like the visual artist he was. Of a billet on a hot summer’s day: ‘and now at mid-afternoon, wall and roof, and baked, tilled patches, running back their burning corrugations, slumbered drowsily.’ Elsewhere, as the men are lunching in the sun, we’re shown the ‘warm upward glint’ of ‘buttercup sheen’ on a stack of weapons (why is this so much harder to forget than many more distressing images in the book?).

Finally, there’s a way in through the weapon itself, in this case the Lee-Enfield rifle, a cumbersome friend from which an infantryman like Private Ball was never supposed to be separated. Once he’s been hit, he finds it slows his progress as he crawls about the wood ‘on all paws’, and remembers his RSM hectoring the men about the weapon – ‘it’s delicately and ingeniously made – it’s an instrument of precision – it costs us taxpayers, money – I want you men to remember that’ – before he abandons it by an oak tree. Dilworth (whose long biography of Jones is on its way) records that he was parted from his rifle a second time in Ireland in 1918. He left it standing by the lavatory and when he came out it had gone, most likely stolen for the rebels. He got to Wimbledon not long afterwards to be ‘disembodied’: realising he could not complete the preliminaries without handing in his weapon, and seeing a stack of rifles that had already been turned in, he grabbed one and presented himself at the appropriate desk. For months afterwards he worried that the serial number would give him away.

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