David Jones: The Greatest War Poet From the Greatest War

John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), "Gassed"
John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), "Gassed" (photo: Register Files)

Last year publishers put out an unprecedented number of new books on World War I, in observance of the centenary of the outbreak of hostilities. My personal favorite was The Great And Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade by Philip Jenkins (HarperOne), whose basic premise is that all sides fought this “war to end all wars” invoking God-Is-On-OUR-side.

So why, one-hundred-and-ONE years later, should we remark on this war? Two reasons: 2015 marks the 120th anniversary of the birth of the great Catholic Welsh-English poet, David Jones. Second: 2015 marks one hundred years since Jones was sent to fight in World War I with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers.

When we think of the great war poets from the Great War, the two names that immediately come to mind are Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. However, these are two capable and brave lyrical poets. By contrast David Jones was an epic poet and his recollection of his war experiences, an epic poem entitled In Parenthesis, was first published by Faber and Faber in 1937, with a foreword by T.S. Eliot (then a partner in that publishing house) who called it “a work of genius.”

In Parenthesis defies classification. A “proem” or a piece of epic “proesy”, In Parenthesis can read for pages (and pages) like some kind of disjointed post-Modern novel. It goes almost whole sections without traditional poetical line-breaks. It was heavily influenced by James Joyce—especially Ulysses, but also Work-In-Progress aka Finnegans Wake-to be—in terms of “in-stream-of-consciousness” monologues. Though it seems like the reader is in a stream of mud rather than the lucid epiphanies of Joyce, Jones was equally influenced by Eliot. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine that a poem as erudite and recondite and long (225 pages) as In Parenthesis could have been written without the existence of Eliot’s The Waste Land, which had appeared in 1922 (the same year as Joyce’s Ulysses).  Certainly, instead of skirting the issues Eliot dabbled in in The Waste Land, Jones outright embraced them, giving us an eight-page preface and twenty-five pages of notes. And where The Waste Land brought in mere shards and fragments of Romance (and Eastern) languages, David Jones sowed whole patches of Welsh—including the almost unpronounceable subtitle “seinnyessit e gledyf ym penn mameu.”

Further, while T.S. Eliot converted it was to High Anglicanism, but Jones went even further, joining the Catholic Church (still a bit of strange thing to do in the United Kingdom). And as if that were not enough, he joined sculptor and printer Eric Gill (another English convert) and Gill’s family and acolytes at Gill’s Dominican Commune, where they lived as Third Order members of the Order of Friars Preachers. Gill, of course, was famous in his lifetime for creating religious sculptures and fonts that we still use today (“Gill Sans Serif”, “Johanna”) in Microsoft Word. Later, of course, it was found out that Gill had had unnatural relations with his children and his sister (cf. Fiona McCarthy, Eric Gill, Faber and Faber, 2011) and Jones left that man’s company. In fact, at one point Jones was engaged to one of Gill’s daughters.

However, there is still more that sets David Jones apart from his contemporaries than his affection for all things Welsh and his affiliation with the Church of Rome. First, he was the only member, as Eliot points out, of the High Modernist writers—including Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Eliot—to actually fight in World War I. Second, he was also a very accomplished artist. In the 2003 American version of In Parenthesis from the New York Review of Books, not only is Jones’s original frontispiece lovingly preserved, but the “Lamb of the Apocalypse” end-piece is restored, while a “trench-drawing” by Jones himself adorns the cover. This was not some artistic dabbling: Jones’s next major poetical work, the imperturscrutable (to use Baron Corvo’s term) The Anathemata (London: Faber, 1952)—which is based on the Latin Mass, Anglo-Roman history and other “Fragments of Attempted Writing”, as Jones called it—was published with nine pieces of Jones original art (in various media) and inscriptions. His artwork can still be seen in The Tate and The National Galley in Britain.

It is worth noting that the famous American poet/scholar W.S. Merwin does a fine job of a foreword for the new edition of In Parenthesis (and Eliot’s original foreword is retained, too), but an opportunity was missed here: the greatest David Jones scholar in America is John Matthias, professor emeritus at Notre Dame, who edited both The Selected Works of David Jones (Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1992) and the 600-page exhaustive David Jones: Man and Poet (Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, N.D.). By all rights and logic Matthias should have had first crack at the new foreword. Still, Merwin was a fine (and more salable) choice.

“So why haven’t I heard of this David Jones or his epic war-poem In Parenthesis, if it’s so good?” Well, for one thing it’s a very British—make that Welsh—poem. And while a Welshman like Dylan Thomas could cross the Atlantic and make something like A Child’s Christmas in Wales (New Directions: 1952) due to his Caedmon recordings and book tours, Jones was more or less a recluse.

Another reason for its being a bit of an unknown masterpiece, even among the many great 20th Century epic poems in English (The Waste Land and Four Quartets, The Cantos of Ezra Pound, The Bridge by Hart Crane, Zukofsky’s “A”, The Maximus Poems by Charles Olson, John Berryman’s DreamSongs, Stevens’s Notes Toward A Supreme Fiction, and, if the judges are in a very generous mood, W.C. Williams’s Paterson) is that nothing remotely like In Parenthesis existed before—and many readers find it either off-putting or a sort of rip-off of the “religious” verse of Eliot and W.H. Auden.

Still, it is a book, an epic, that like all epics is worth reading aloud:

“Racked out to another turn of the screw
the acceleration heightens;
the sensibility of these instruments to register,
needle dithers disorientate.
The responsive mercury plays laggard to such fevers—you
simply can’t take any more in.
And the surfeit of fear steadies to dumb incognition, so that
when they give the order to move upward to align with ‘A’,
hugged already just under the lip of the acclivity inches below
where his traversing machine-guns perforate to powder
white creatures of chalk pounded
and the world crumbled away
and get ready to advance
you have not capacity for added fear only the limbs are leaden.”
 (from Part 7: “The Five Unmistakable Marks”, lines 100-116)

It is all here, In Parenthesis: from Coleridge to Milton, artwork by Paolo Uccello, hard-headed drill-sergeants, trench-talk, war-codes, references to Welsh football, Malory and Chaucer, tripwires and poison gas attacks, all the seed-ground for shell shock/PTSD. It even has Lewis Carroll (“the five unmistakable marks” refer to his “The Hunting of the Snark”, not the Crucifixion). And tying the whole crazy thing together is the Welsh epic Y Gododdin and Jones’s own penchant for Catholic liturgy. This is not epic war poetry as we know it from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey—nor poetry as we know it, period. Perhaps the best assessment, the last word, should belong to Eliot, whose foreword begins:

“In Parenthesis was first published in London in 1937. I am proud to share the Responsibility for that first publication. On reading the book in typescript I was deeply moved. I then regarded it, and I still regard it, as a work of genius.”

As we observe Veterans’ Day, we could do worse than recall that one of the great, forgotten—perhaps unknown—Catholic poet-artists of the past century got the grunts-eye-view of World War I down perfectly, if uniquely, in his masterpiece In Parenthesis.