Home Language & Literature
A new form for working-class War Poetry
The commitment to representing the world of regular, usually working-class soldiers—turning their squalid everyday rituals into a sacrament which has been repeated since the dawn of time—extends to Jones’ extreme colloquialism. In the preface to In Parenthesis he deplores the prudish restrictions which in 1937 circumscribed the poet’s freedom to represent the swear-words of soldier-speak accurately. He saw them as a ritualised reiterative language or Homeric formula. He has felt hampered (xii),
because the whole shape of our discourse was conditioned by the use of such words. The very repetition of them made them seem liturgical, certainly deprived them of malice, and occasionally, when skilfully disposed, and used according to established but flexible tradition, gave a kind of significance, and even at moments a dignity, to our speech. Sometimes their juxtaposition in a sentence, and when expressed under poignant circumstances, reached real poetry.17
Jones fought in the opening stages of Passchendaele. But in February 1918,Trench Fever invalided him home again. He was demobilised on 15th January 1919.
The poem follows Private Jones’ own experiences from mid-1915 to mid-1916. The first three of the seven sections recount the gathering of his division and their first deployments after the Iliadic opening of Part 3, in which a spectacular sunrise is followed by a military parade. Part 4, Christmas 1915, is spent behind the lines. Part 5 telescopes the events of spring 1916, including an officer’s reading of the ‘good news’ of the initial British success of July 1st, when the infantrymen were ‘permitted to cheer’.18 Part 6 correlates to the confused marching which robbed the battalion of sleep and brought it to battle exhausted, with a Homeric-style simile comparing it to a ship’s crew watching another ship depart while they must beach their vessel, ‘turn their eyes from the white in-swell and get down to some job of work’.19 Part 7 is the assault on Mametz Wood on July 10th and the shooting of Private John Ball. This merges with the final hallucinatory sequence, initiated by the Queen of the Woods, who bestows branches on 12 ofjones’ dead comrades.20
Ypres haunts the conversations of the men in the poem, for the protracted butchery of the first Ypres battle had already changed the way people talked about war. During the 7 weeks between 14th October and November 30th 1914, the British had suffered 58,155 casualties (7,960 dead, 29,562 wounded and an enormous 17,873 missing). The poison gas of the second battle of Ypres in the following May then made its terrifying impression.21 Jones drew the strange world he found around him,
as well as the machine-gun and the howitzer, the aeroplane, the 1917 version of the tank and the rather primitive system devised to warn of gas attacks. These drawings are truly the work of “the man who was on the field”.22
Jones was interested in technology. He asked whether art could or should respond to the industrialisation of war. Can lethal chemicals be aesthetic?
It is not easy in considering a trench-mortar barrage to give praise for the action proper to chemicals—full though it may be of beauty. We feel a rubicon has been passed between striking with a hand weapon as men used to do and loosing poison from the sky as we do ourselves. We doubt the decency of our own inventions, and are certainly in terror of their possibilities.23
In 1942 Jones was to write a fine study, ‘Art in relation to war’.24 But in the In Parenthesis preface he writes that poets, who had always faced the same challenge, are finding it difficult to make chemical weapons glamorous: ‘It would be interesting to know how we shall ennoble our new media as we have already ennobled and made significance our old—candle-light, fire-light, Cups, Wands, and Swords, to choose at random’.25
We feel him struggling to ‘ennoble’ the new media of destruction stockpiled in the trench dugout he calls home:
Picks, shovels, dredging-ladles, carriers, containers, gas-rattles, two of Mrs. Thingumajig’s patent gas-dispersing flappers, emptied S.A.A. boxes, grenade boxes, two bales of revetting-wire, pine stakes ,..26
The unique style of In Parenthesis is exemplified by this epic catalogue of military equipment. The poem was held, by W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot (who wrote a complimentary ‘Note of Introduction’ to preface the first edition), W.H. Auden, Graham Greene and Peter Levi to be the most important literary response to World War I.27 It won the prestigious Hawthornden Prize in 1938. Yet it has suffered incomprehensible neglect. No scholar except Oswyn Murray has appreciated its idiosyncratic classicism, its ‘obsession with the frontier walls of the Roman empire and their prefigurement of the trenches’.28 Elizabeth Vandiver omits Jones from her 2010 study of the relationship between Classics and the War Poets, Stand in the Trench, Achilles.
Perhaps the neglect results from Jones’ fame as an artist. In Parenthesis sometimes uses classical allusions as an invitation to visualise an artwork: the cadaver of lance-corporal Aneirin Lewis is ‘more blistered’ than ‘painted Troy Towers’.29
The poem began as a series of pictures rather than words.3“The ink-and-water-colour frontispiece offers a route into understanding Jones’ verbal technique: its thick texture pulses with activity, implying chaos only just under aesthetic control. It straddles figurative/realist art and symbolism or abstract-expressionism. The figure is a half-naked soldier, with an injured leg, whose limbs fuse with the jagged branches of the menacing wood. They both crucify him and enfold him. The suggestion of crucifixion lends the image an icon-like religious dimension, an aspiration to offer a universal meaning. What it represents is not glorious but nor is it despicable: it is men doing and suffering. It subverts celebrated War Poets across all cultural history by asking how war can legitimately have a poetics, if at all. The picture complements his description of taking the first of the two hits he received in the battle at Mametz Wood:31
You know the bough hangs low, by your bruised lips and the smart to your cheek bone.
When the shivered rowan fell
you couldn’t hear the fall of it.
Barrage with counter-barrage shockt
deprive all several sounds of their identity,
what dark convulsed cacophony
conditions each disparity
and the trembling woods are vortex for the storm ...
The phrase ‘dark convulsed cacophony’ reminds us that calling In Parenthesis a ‘poetic’ response is problematic: much of the text is printed as syntactically disjointed prose.
Critics have been reluctant to designate it a prose poem, but by the 1930s the genre was well established. 32 The earliest manifestations of the form are the passages in prose within poetic texts which feature in early bible translations. The name John Ball is an adaptation of the canonical character who had represented typical Englishmen in cartoons since the 18th century; yet it is also the name of a Lollard rebel priest during the 1381 Peasants’ revolt, a rhyming preacher who invented the couplet, ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, / Who was then the Gentleman?’ This John Ball used the English translations of the Vernacular Latin Bible (the Wycliffe Bible), which feature both verse and prose. Jones may have encountered Ball in the novel by William Morris (whom he admired), A Dream of John Ball (1888). During a scene in a bar in In Parenthesis, Ball’s companion asks a ‘ma’m’selle’ in prose for drinks. Then, swaying his pelvis ‘like a corner-boy’, he launches into song:33
He shall die he shall die with one mighty swipe I
will I will
diss-lo-cate his bloody jaw.
At this point Jones’ omniscient narrator, intermittently merged with John Ball, tells us:
He reverts to the discipline of prose.
Jones draws attention to his jarring formal hybridity. He is going beyond the limits of poetry as the other War Poets understood it—as rhyming verse in conventional stanzas. He finds these limits constricting. He reveredJamesJoyce, and it shows. He combines free indirect discourse, fragmentary dialogue, description, sensory evocation and dense allusiveness. This fusion requires, the ‘discipline of prose’ if it is to do justice to the psychic and physiological bombardment he underwent as a soldier, as well as presumably during his first nervous breakdown of 1932, when the poem was half-finished.
Jones understood the impossibility of reconciling the unprecedented experience of World War I to inherited poetic forms. Amongst the War Poets, only Jones welds the aesthetic revolution we call Modernism—the ideological expression of the economic and socio-political contradictions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries—to the historical events in which those contradictions exploded in military conflict. World War I and Modernism are inseparable, as military and aesthetic instantiations of the same crisis in the global order. This involved the apocalyptic collision of forces unleashed by new technologies (internal combustion engines; aviation; telecommunications; chemical munitions), Germany’s industrialisation, pressure on internal European geopolitics, the rise of Proletarian radicalism, and cracks in British, French, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian imperialism. It is unsurprising that the older literary forms—lyricism and realism in fiction, metre and rhyme in poetry—failed to delimit the aesthetic expression of such a crisis. Yet amongst the so-called War Poets, Jones is (with the arguable exception of Rosenberg) the sole Modernist. In Parenthesis assumes the innovations of Pound in metre and Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) in atmosphere. More famous War Poets used traditional poetic structures inherited from the Victorians, and conventional, even obsolescent diction.
Their generic form keeps the terrible experiences they aesthetically process safe, sealed in a box labelled ‘The Past’. This past is a formal category which makes World War I close an old cultural epoch (the Victorian Age, the British Empire and the world before women and workers were liberated, unironic patriotism morphing into guilt-laden pacifism) rather than the foundation stone of a new epoch (global war, the industrialisation of death, nuclear weapons and terrifying racism/nationalism). In Parenthesis is an arduous experience. Reading it after Sassoon is like tacklingjoyce’s Ulysses after Thomas Hardy. Yet, as Dudley puts it, Jones explodes a ‘tension at the heart of modernity: the seeming failure to find a poetic or narrative mode adequate to control and convey the extent and gravity of the problems of the modern world.34 The tonal strangeness of In Parenthesis was a unique achievement, even if it explains why it has not appeared on GCSE syllabuses or been recited in Westminster Abbey.
Jones only refers once to any other War Poet. In Part 6, the soldiers are waiting, terrified, for the Mametz assault.35 Jones strains to remember what they discussed: John Ball is talking to his closest companions, a man with the Lewis guns (a newly invented light machine gun), and the most educated of those we meet, Signaller Olivier.
They talked of ordinary things ... Of the dissimilar merits of Welshmen and Cockneys. Of the diverse virtues of Regular and Temporary Officers. Of if you’d ever read the books of Mr. Wells. Of the poetry of Rupert Brooke ... Of the Lloyd George administration, of the Greek, who Olivier said was important, of whom John Ball had never previously heard.36
The mention of Brooke is historically accurate. He had come to sudden fame on 11th March 1915 when the Times Literary Supplement published two sonnets (‘IV: The Dead’ and ‘V: The Soldier’). ‘The Soldier’ was read on Easter Sunday in St Paul’s Cathedral, shortly before Brooke died on Skyros. Brooke’s 1914 & Other Poems, containing the 5 famous sonnets, was published the following month and reprinted no fewer than 11 times before the end of 1915. His verses were in the minds of the men on the Somme. But verses like his no longer satisfied an emotionally honest trenches survivor like Private Jones.