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Into the dark wood
Dai’s uncommon aria on past military exploits anchors the action at a point in a transhistorical process which stretches back to the earliest conflicts recorded in European literature and even beyond. This diachronic perspective is bound up with Jones’ identity as an Anglo-Welshman fighting in the Welsh Fusiliers. In the preface, he says that he fought alongside Londoners and Welshmen, who bore together in their bodies ‘the genuine tradition of the Island of Britain .... Those are before Caractacus was’.50 The Caractacus allusion recalls the use of the defiant Briton Caractacus, celebrated by Tacitus, in early 20th-century British imperial propaganda (see Chapter 12). The climax of In Parenthesis contains the most emotionally intense engagements with classical War Poetry, in a sequence which places the Aeneid before us. John Ball, who shares Jones’ skill at draughtsmanship, contemplates the wooded grove chosen for the engagement. He becomes an avatar of Virgil’s Aeneas on his quest for the golden bough. It grows on a tree within the sanctuary of Diana of the Wood, Diana Nemorensis, at her sanctuary near Aricia in the Alban hills (Aeneid VI.136-8). Aeneas’ mythical journey inspired Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890):51
Keep date with the genius of the place—come with a weapon or effectual branch—and here this winter copse might well be special to Diana’s Jack, for none might attempt it, but by perilous bough-plucking ....
In the mirror: below the wood, his undulating breastworks all along, he sees and loses, thinks he sees again, grey movement for the grey stillness, where the sand-bag wall dipped a little.52
Jones implies that terrible violence is about to take place. At Aricia, each priest of Diana, each ‘King of the Wood’ (Rex Nemorensis) was replaced in the cult when a runaway slave mounted a challenge and then killed the incumbent priest in single combat. The grey ‘mirror’ which Ball thinks he sees beneath the sandbag walls alludes to the circular Lake Nemi at Aricia.
The ‘golden bough’ sequence of In Parenthesis now segues into another classical vision at the wood: ‘great strippings-off hanged from tenuous fibres swaying, whitened to decay—as swung immolations for the northern Cybele’.’3 The descent into the lethal Underworld of Mametz Wood is accompanied by the image of vegetation swinging from trees like sacrifices for a northern Cybele, the near-eastern goddess for whom men voluntarily castrated themselves. Jones’ reference to the German foe as coming from places beyond ‘Hercynia’ and the description of the gateway to the trenches as ‘this gate of Mars armipotente, the grisly place, like flat painted scene in top-lights’ crude disclosing’ are both informed by W.F. Jackson Knight’s translation of Aeneid VII.601-.5, on the opening of the twin Roman Gates of War (as a fellow Roman Catholic, Jones was influenced by this classical scholar and expert on Virgil and Augustine): the custom applied ‘when Romans first stir Mars to engage battle, alike if they prepare to launch war’s miseries with might and main on Getae, Hyrcanians, or Arabs, or to journey to India’.54 For Jones, World War I was a sacrificial offering to both Diana of the Wood and Cybele of the North, but also the latest in the perpetual re-opening of the primordial Gates of War, consecrated to Mars.
The poem’s nekuia reminds us that the descent to the Underworld had become ‘the single most important myth for Modernist authors’.55 T.S. Eliot said that Tiresias was the unifying figure of the nightmarish The Waste Land (1922), at ‘the evening hour that strives / Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea’.56 In 1935 Ezra Pound, whose first Canto begins with Tiresias, said that the nekuia was an atavistic remembering of primeval rites capable of putting us in touch with the earliest Mediterranean sensibilities.’7 Joyce, in the Hades chapter of Ulysses, ‘represented the material and spiritual dislocations produced by Western capitalism as an infernal condition’58 which led directly to the hellish trenches of World War I. And Jones’ poem portrays a katabasis with no corresponding anabasis, except the unachievable goal of‘ascendancy’ over the enemy after climbing upwards from a trench and ‘over the top’:’9
it all went west with the tin-hat—that harbinger of their anabasis, of these latter days, of a more purposed hate, and the establishment of unquestioned ascendancy in no-man’s-land.
Mametz Wood is in the final, seventh section finally called simply ‘the dark wood’,60 in a resounding echo of the selva oscura of the second line of the Inferno of Dante Alighieri. It is at the dark wood that John Ball is injured and his comrades die. This climactic section opens in Latin, with allusions to the vulgate Latin Bible: Invenimus eum in campis silvae, ‘we have found it in the fields of the woods’, which in Psalm 131.6 refers to the tabernacle David vows to build for God. Then come the evocative words from the Vulgate version of the Lamentations of Jeremiah for the fall of Jerusalem, ‘Matribus suis dixerunt: ubi est triticum et vinum? Cum deficerent quasi vulnerati... cum exhalarent animas suas in sinu matrum suarutn. ‘They say to their mothers, Where is grain and wine? When they swoon as the wounded ... / When their soul is poured out into their mothers’ bosom’.
Despite the classicism of the katabasis and Dai Greatcoat sequences, Jones’ In Parenthesis is a profoundly Christian poem, partly structured on the ritual sequence of the Eucharist.61 But its classicism reveals Christianity as an outgrowth of an earlier, pagan theology. The ‘Christmas’ sequence is introduced thus:62
It was yet quite early in the morning, at the time of Saturnalia, when men properly are in winter quarters, lighting His birthday candles—all a green-o.
When children look with serious eyes on brand-new miracles
The antique conjurings underlie the poem’s strangely objective tone, its gaze like children ‘with serious eyes’. It is not patriotic. It is not a protest poem. It is not a pacifist poem. The war may have been senseless, even absurd, but the lower-ranking men who fought in it were not.
Jones defines what he is trying to do while describing the unsuitability of the damp lowlands around the trenches to combat:63
It was a bad country to contend in, when such contention most required a way of life below the ground. Yet by fascined track they come to within their walls. They labour with the bulging gabions, they ladle and wattle ... Two armies face and hold their crumbling limites intact. They’re worthy of an intelligent song for all the stupidity of their contest. A boast for the dyke keepers, for the march wardens.
In Parenthesis is an ‘intelligent song’ to celebrate the deeds of the trench-digging lower-class warriors of the Somme; ‘the stupidity of their contest’ is not the point. The infantrymen’s varied voices, and Ball’s intermittently prominent consciousness, along with the subdued, Homerically non-judgemental omniscient narrator, present the appalling events with a curious detachment. Despite its use of epigraphs to each of its seven sections taken from Y Gododdin, a medieval Welsh poem attributed to the bard Aneirin, and consisting of elegies to the men who fell at the battle of Catraeth (600 ce), In Parenthesis is not elegiac.64 Nor is its vision exactly tragic: there is investigation of the causes of the suffering and no emotive lingering on trauma. There is, however, a reference to Melpomene, Muse of Tragedy, towards the end. The wounded Ball’s thoughts veer between the stretcher-bearers and the hospital, where ‘Mrs. Willy Hartington has learned to draw sheets and so has Miss Melpomene; and on the south lawns, men walk in red white and blue under the cedars and by every green tree and beside comfortable waters’.65