David Jones (1895-1974)

David Jones: The density of the present moment

"In Parenthesis", the English author's masterpiece that tells the story of life in the trenches. Supported by T.S. Eliot and admired by Yeats, Auden and Dylan Thomas, it reveals the signs of a grace that reached him through horror.
Peter Kahn

Jones is best known for his long poem In Parenthesis (1937). T.S. Eliot was deeply moved on first reading In Parenthesis, regarding it as a work of genius. Indeed, he was the person at the publishers, Faber and Faber, who recommended publication. Jones’s admirers included other great poets as well, including Yeats, Auden and Dylan Thomas. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has said that Jones is now widely acknowledged as Britain’s foremost modern native poet.

“Extending fields spread flatly, far to either side, uninterrupted to the sight, not any longer barriered nor revetted in. It was a great goodness in their eyes, this expanse, they drank in this visual freedom gladly, and were disposed to linger before dropping one by one down ...” It is refreshing when you encounter an uninterrupted view across a landscape. Imagine what such a view must be like when for months on end all you have been able to see is a wall. Soldiers during the First World War spent long months with their gazes limited by the walls of trenches, and by the threat of artillery and sniper fire.

The acclaimed poet and artist David Jones was one of those soldiers – born in London in 1895 of a Welsh father and English-Italian mother. He was the longest serving British soldier recognised as a war poet, quite incredibly spending most of his time in the trenches. In Parenthesis tells the story of an infantryman, Private John Ball. Ball’s batallion leaves a training camp in England to embark for France. The soldiers move up into frontline trenches at the edge of a wood. The tension then mounts as they prepare for battle. The poem concludes with an advance against the German lines in which most of the soldiers are wounded or killed.

Detail of ''July Change (Flowers on a Table)'', 1930

Jones first achieved renown as an artist, however, before writing poetry. His watercolours have been compared to illuminated manuscripts, replete with mythic resonances and historical detail. Jones developed a style that involved a distortion of the individual parts of a painting while simultaneously reaching for a cohesive whole. His work Aphrodite in Aulis (1941), for instance, sees a German soldier and a British soldier worshipping the same goddess of love. The painting is filled with images that allude to the crucifixion and to the Greek tragedy of Iphigenia.

He primarily sold his paintings to friends, rather than seeing art as a commercial enterprise. Art made one human, in all its lack of utility. Jones had a vast capacity for friendship. His friends included his early mentor, Eric Gill, and T.S. Eliot, as well as his muse, Prudence Pelham. Figures as diverse as the Queen Mother and Igor Stravinsky fell under his spell.

Jones only made the move into writing poetry, or ‘shaping words’ as he named it, during a period when he was unable to paint. His health continued to be precarious for the rest of his life, as the after-effects of the war took their toll.

His art as a whole was based on a search for what lay beyond appearances. In the Preface to In Parenthesis, Jones noted: “We find ourselves privates in foot regiments. We search how we may see formal goodness in a life singularly inimical, hateful, to us.” What is clear in the poem is that Private Ball comes across one good after another, not just uninterrupted views of field.

In Part 4 we see Ball on sentry duty, looking across at the wood where the Germans are encamped:

"Across the very quiet of no-man’s-land came still some twittering. He found the wood, visually so near, yet for the feet forbidden by a great fixed gulf, a sight somehow to powerfully hold his mind. To the woods of all the world is this potency––to move the bowels within us.
To groves always men come both to their joys and their undoing. Come lightfoot in heart’s ease and school-free; walk on a leafy holiday with kindred and kind; come perplexedly with first loves––to tread the tangle frustrated, striking––bruising the green. …
Come with Merlin in his madness, for the pity of it; for the young men reaped like green barley,
for the folly of it.
Seek a way separate and more strait."

A simple gaze opens out onto a maze of thoughts, allowing for a true judgment on the war. The poem incorporates allusions to works of epic literature, including the legend of King Arthur and Shakespeare’s Henry V. The wizard Merlin, for instance, was said to have gone mad after witnessing a battle.

Goodness is also evident in companionship. In Parenthesis was dedicated to one of Jones’s friends who died during the war. Those who advance together on the German lines are mates, whether they are ‘men of the stock of Abraham from Bromley-by-Bow’, ‘Anglo-Welsh from Queens Ferry’ or ‘rosary-wallahs from Pembrey Dock’. A ‘wallah’ is an Indian word for a person with a particular duty – hence this description of Irish Catholics.
At the climax of the battle, Private Ball is prevented from mourning the loss of a comrade who has just died in his arms. He is commanded to return to his digging of a trench, but this cannot prevent him from grieving in his heart even as he recognises that his mate will be buried beneath the bodies of others. Ball’s own experience of the battle concludes when he is himself wounded.

The signs that Jones crafted within In Parenthesis point to a world that is thick with what is good. The poem constitutes a window onto the great density of goodness that is present each moment. Perhaps there is little obvious awareness within the poem that occasions for goodness are related to a great design. The poem portrays Jones’s experience of the Great War. His understanding of the religious sense continued to grow afterwards. He became a Catholic in 1921. Each present moment takes on yet greater density when it is seen in relation to the gladness and wholeness of entire the world, when linked to the glory of Christ.

An awareness of what is good, nonetheless, opens up the possibility of freedom in all circumstances, even when someone prevents you from mourning the death of a companion. In Parenthesis was the subject of an exhibition at a recent cultural event, the London Encounter, marking the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. The exhibition asked, “Is it possible to be free even when one experiences unbending restraint and relentless suffering?”
The pursuit of goodness is something that Jones holds out to readers of In Parenthesis. At one point a soldier makes a boast, claiming to have been present when Lucifer fell from heaven, when King Pellam’s land was laid waste (in the legend of King Arthur), when Magnus Maximus usurped the Western Roman Empire in the Fourth Century, and so on. It is during this boast that the reader is addressed: “You ought to ask: Why, what is this, what’s the meaning of this.”

What is the meaning of each present moment, of each instant? How better to explore this question than through the eyes and heart of a poet who saw that goodness lurks in manifold places?