The Poet, the Great War, and “The Break”

David Jones’ great poem, "In Parenthesis," is a modernist masterpiece, a war poem, and a guide to the story of salvation

The centenary of World War I has occasioned numerous commemorations of the generation of poets who wrote about the war. The work of Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Edmund Blunden, Julian Grenfell, Wilfred Owen, and many others define the experience of the Great War in a way different from almost any other conflict. If the post-World War II era is defined by reportage, and current conflicts by YouTube videos and Twitter accounts, the first real world war remains defined and understood by its poetry.

However, one poet of that generation has not received similar attention, even though his experiences as a British soldier in France became a poem praised by T. S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats. In 1937, David Jones published a long narrative poem titled In Parenthesis. Born in Brockley, Kent, in 1895, Jones (1895-1974) was the son of a Welsh father and an English-Italian mother. It was the Welsh heritage that Jones warmed to above all others. He was just short of twenty years old, a promising art school student, when he entered the British Army. He was a soldier in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers (as was fellow war-poet Graves), and went on to become a well-known painter and engraver and a convert to Catholicism. The central events of In Parenthesis arose out of Jones’ searing memories of the War, especially the attack by the British on German-held Mametz Wood in 1916. In his adult life he suffered severe bouts of depression and inactivity, and it was not until later in life, in the 1950s and 1960s, when he achieved some level of renown. Even that was short-lived, however, and he again is threatened with being forgotten.

The Times Literary Supplement called In Parenthesis “one of the most remarkable literary achievements of our time,” and it ended up winning the prestigious Hawthornden Prize in 1937. Jones’ biographer Keith Alldritt lists it alongside James Joyce’s Ulysses and Eliot’s The Wasteland as one of the great modernist literary works. Like many modernist masterpieces, the poem is not conventionally structured and it has long semi-prose passages with lots of military argot and slang, not all of which is explained at once. Like Eliot with his 1922 poem, The Wasteland, Jones appended notes to the poem to explain some of the more obscure references and allusions. But that structure gives the poem much of its power. The poem carries readers into the training grounds and battle field, and the shifting voices and perspectives Jones uses gives some sense of the confusion and complexity of battle.

But In Parenthesis is also a war poem in the tradition of the Iliad, the Aeneid, and the warrior legends of Jones’ native Wales. He begins inmedia res, as any epic must, with the mustering of soldiers already organized into companies and regiments to face battle on the continent. “Heavy jolting and sideways jostling, the noise of liquid shaken in a small vessel by a regular jogging movement, a certain clinking ending in a shuffling of the feet sidelong—all clear and distinct in that silence peculiar to parade grounds and refectories” goes a typical passage, the sounds of the words invoking the sounds on that parade-ground. The poem is divided into seven parts, following the actions of several soldiers, but centered around John Ball and Aneirin Lewis. Ball is the personification of Britain; Lewis and others, including the mysterious Dai Greatcoat, of Wales.

Jones worked for years after the War to finish In Parenthesis, but did not publish it until dark clouds were already forming in advance of the next European, and world, war. That timing perhaps partially explains its relative neglect; the poem was seen as explaining the last war, when all eyes were on the one coming. But there is also a difference in tone between Jones’ work and those of the other poets during this centenary. Many of the war poets who have perhaps been better remembered convey their elegaic tone in their poetry, of a world lost in a mad rush to war, and the tragic death of so many young men. Thus Owen famously wrote poems like “Dulce et Decorum Est,” which dwelled on the ugliness and waste of modern warfare, and that was meant to counteract what some saw as the more straightforward war poetry of others, such as Brooke. That antiwar mood largely suits our own, comparatively peaceful era, where the governing classes are further away from the fighting classes than they were a century ago. And there is an added difficulty: much of the poetry in the war focuses on individual experience and on individual suffering and pain, and so is more easily understandable in our individualist age.

Jones fits in neither camp, and indeed in his later years despaired that his poetry would be understood because the past he meant to capture was disappearing. He does not discount the disaster and sorrow of war, which are there throughout the poem, along with the boredom and endless waiting. Jones can convey the fierceness of war in short phrases: “When the shivered rowan fell/you couldn’t hear the fall of it./Barrage and counter-barrage shockt/deprive all several sounds of their identity.”) In the last part of the poem, for example, the British and Welsh soldiers are pinned down, and can hear the cannon fire around them.

And the surfeit of fear steadies to dumb incognition, so that when they give the order to move upward … hugged already just under the lip of the accilivity inches below where his traversing machine-guns perforate to powder white –
white creatures of chalk pounded
and the world crumbled away
and get ready to advance
you have no capacity for added fear only the limbs are leaden
to negotiate the slope and rifles all out of balance, clumsied
with long auxiliary steel

For Jones, war was simply a fact, and it was a horror unless it could be understood, and for Jones the scarring experience of fighting could be understood only through the cultural traditions in which it took place. Thus the Roman legions and the Round Table, crusading knights and medieval Welsh warriors, haunt this poem and enrich its language. But he nevertheless contended that there was something noble about the profession of soldiering amidst the violence, tedium, and tragedy. In his own introduction to the poem, Jones marvels at the experience of different men being thrown together in common experience and to a shared purpose; Jones speaks of it as a place of dark “enchantment.” His soldiers come from a variety of backgrounds, from “Islington and Hackney/and the purlieus of Walworth/flashers from Surbiton/men of the stock of Abraham/from Bromley-by-Bow.”As a Catholic, Jones knew that war was an inevitable result of the Fall; but because of grace even fallen activities can be redeemed. Indeed, in his preface to the poem, he writes he was not necessarily intending to write a “war poem” at all. Rather, he wanted it to be about “a certain kind of peace … We search how we may see formal goodness in a life singularly inimical, hateful, to us.”

During the 1920s and 1930s, Jones, who converted to Catholicism in 1921, was among a group of Catholic writers and intellectuals who were exploring a world that seemed to be falling apart.  At that time, the threats were from the materialist ideologies of communism, Nazism, and fascism; more broadly, the West was faced with a general rejection of religious belief and with it a rupture from its cultural past, what Jones and others at the time called “the Break.” Those figures, including the historian Christopher Dawson, confronted what they saw as a real challenge to religious artists and writers. If the culture no longer spoke in the language of the Gospel, literature or art invoking that language was at risk of being incomprehensible. Like the early Christian engagement with the pagan Roman Empire, Christianity—and the art used to express it—needed to be familiar and yet also completely new.

In Parenthesis was one attempt to repair that break; so in another way was Jones’s visual work, as he was an accomplished painter and illustrator even before he achieved prominence as a poet. The danger for Jones was that an entire way of seeing and understanding that world lay on the other side of that widening space; he feared that and once it was gone, art as it had been known in the West, with a shared symbolic language and references, would be gone as well. Without what he called the materia of the larger culture, poetry becomes either simple narcissism or empty word games, a fate many would say has already befallen contemporary poetry. So his work is tightly wrapped with allusion and citation to the great tradition of the West, both Christian and pagan, in an effort to connect the experiences of the soldiers in the trenches with the larger martial tradition.

This gives his poetry a completely different feel from that of the other war-poets, even those with a then-typical classical education. In Parenthesis ends, for example, with a passage combining the ancient legends of Europe such as King Arthur, and Christendom’s tales of heroism, such as the Song of Roland. The complexity of the poem, therefore, was not, as it became in some works of the period, simply for its own sake. It was meant to point outside of itself toward the truths of human nature and the story of salvation.

In his work, Jones was trying to compress the history of his culture into an account of the war that brought that culture to an end. He continued this project in later, even more challenging works such as his long poem called The Anathemata, published in 1952, which combined the Christian story of salvation with the unique history of the British Isles. These poems, and his visual art, remain a kind of guidebook to the history of the West, and to the world without end to which he believed that history points.


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.


About Gerald J. Russello 7 Articles
Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman (www.kirkcenter.org) and editor of two volumes of work by Christopher Dawson.