David Jones’s In Parenthesis: Event Review

David Jones was feted as one of the most original voices of his generation when his poem, In Parenthesis, was published in 1937. Re-collecting and re-imagining Jones’s own experiences as a private in the Royal Welch Fusiliers during World War I, this long, epic poem skilfully weaves together elements of British and Roman history and Celtic myth and legend in order to place the chaos and violence of modern war within a much wider historical framework. Jones’s allusive, decidedly difficult style has caused him to be somewhat overlooked in relation to other writers of the First World War. But his work has been subject to reclamation of late, celebrated for the haunting beauty it finds at the heart of destruction, its painterly attention to the tiny details of soldier’s lives.

It’s fitting, then, that David Jones’s In Parenthesis should be the subject of the first Cardiff Book Talk of the new academic year, marking the centenary of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Central to the evening’s discussion were the themes of memory, commemoration, and loss that underlie the narrative of In Parenthesis. How does David Jones memorialise the experience of war? Is how and what we remember always politically charged when it comes to difficult events like the Great War? What are the challenges of re-presenting and translating David Jones’s poetry and paintings for a modern audience?

The interdisciplinary panel of speakers offered interesting perspectives on these difficult questions, bringing their different disciplinary specialisms to bear in order to reveal the richness of Jones’s poetry and visual art. Dr. Jenny Kidd, Senior Lecturer in Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, and Dr Clair Rowden, Senior Lecturer in Cardiff’s School of Music, offered a brief introduction to the three speakers by outlining some of the projects and public events seeking to commemorate the First World War in Cardiff and elsewhere. As co-investigator of the AHRC-funded engagement centre, ‘Voices of War and Peace’, Jenny talked of the possibilities offered by digital media for engaging communities around difficult aspects of cultural history, and described the centre’s aim to set up events in Cardiff that explore the Battle of Mametz Wood in bold and ‘maverick’ new ways. Clair has similarly been involved in a series of public events in Cardiff commemorating World War I this year. Gathered under the title ‘Commemorating World War I: Conflict and Creativity’, these events have showcased the astonishing creativity generated by the war, in music, art, and literature, and culminated in a concert, symposium, and talks to mark Remembrance Weekend in November.

The first of the speakers to take the floor was Dr. Toby Thacker, Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at Cardiff University’s School of History, Archaeology and Religion, and expert in the cultural history of the First World War in Britain. Showing great depth of knowledge and sensitivity to the eccentricities of Jones’s work, Thacker outlined some of the ways in which the writers of World War I have shaped – and continue to shape – our shared perceptions of history. The First World War generated a distinctive body of writing, often composed by soldiers and ex-soldiers, which has traditionally been understood as what Thacker terms the ‘literature of disillusion’. Texts such as Robert Graves’s Goodbye to all That (1929) or Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930) show bitterness and cynicism toward the class and political structures that impelled so many to their deaths, and imbue the war with a sense of futility.

David Jones’s In Parenthesis, published in 1937, was the last of these, and as Toby explained, it has been assumed that his text shares in the tradition of disillusion established by his fellow ex-soldiers. Indeed, the striking preface to his poem, emblazoned across the proscenium arch in the Welsh National Opera production in Jones’s distinctive lettering style, seems to confirm this: ‘To the enemy front-fighters who shared our pains against whom we found ourselves by misadventure’. Toby speculated that Jones’s positioning of the war as a ‘misadventure’ suggests that he saw it as an accident, a dreadful mistake that ordinary people on both sides became swept up in, and emphasised that one would be hard-pressed to find a book that displays more horribly the sufferings of war.

Nonetheless, as Toby pointed out, the meanings of Jones’s linguistically intricate and fragmentary poem are often difficult to grasp hold of, and notably, Jones refuses to simplify, or to provide a stable viewpoint on, the strange experience of war. In the second part of his address, Toby explained some of the controversies that continue to rage over In Parenthesis – controversies that bear implications for how we, too, process and imagine the War. Scholar Paul Fussell saw In Parenthesis as an ‘honourable miscarriage’, claiming that by drawing on mythic, chivalric narratives in his poem, Jones uses the past in order to ennoble the present. Viewpoints such as this, Toby explained, beg the question: can In Parenthesis be regarded a poem of protest, or as a piece of pro-war propaganda echoing the mythic, nationalistic images churned out during the war to encourage men to sign up? Critical opinion on this remains divided, as Toby observed: while Thomas Dilworth feels that Jones uses Arthurian myth in order to express the horrors of modern war and the pathos of soldiers’ deaths, writer Réné Hague, a friend of Jones’s, insisted that Jones loved soldiering and comradeship, and claimed that the experience of war left him creatively ‘invigorated’.

Toby concluded, however, by suggesting that to become too caught up in the question of whether In Parenthesis is pro- or anti-war is to miss the point of the poem. He emphasised that Jones’s poem is a multi-faceted piece of work that accrues its meanings through a play of opposites. Modernity and tradition, locality and civilisation, organic regeneration and technological destruction, interweave and blur into one another in the poem, gesturing to the complexity and new combinations associated with a world in violent transition. For critic Paul Robichaud the poem offers a kind of ‘double perspective’ on war and history, and Toby similarly suggested that we should look for both anti-and pro-war elements in the text, existing simultaneously. It is clear, though, that Jones’s personal experience of the war was integral to his sense of purpose and identity as an artist. As Toby observed, friends remembered him as a great ranconteur, who returned again and again to his wartime experience, endlessly reworking his memories in an attempt to make new sense out of things.

Next up was David Antrobus, co-librettist, with Emma Jenkins, of the Welsh National Opera’s adaptation of In Parenthesis, performed in the Wales Millennium Centre from 13 May-3 June 2016, before touring the UK. David took up the theme of re-membering and making new by describing the challenges and opportunities afforded by adapting Jones’s poem for use in a modern, operatic production. His initial observations concerned the visceral way that the poem appealed to the senses. For David, it was the poem’s dramatic immediacy, as well as its concern with Wales and Welsh tradition, that made it a particularly appropriate model through which to commemorate the First World War and, at the same time, celebrate the work of the Welsh National Opera.

Cutting down a text of 170 pages to a libretto of 6,000 words was not in any way an easy task, as David explained. Firstly, the writers faced the challenge of making Jones’s long modernist poem meet the specific needs of a large-scale opera. The chorus, David told us, is a central and celebrated part of the Welsh National Opera, and needed to be included. In particular, the librettists needed to accommodate a female chorus, which was difficult because female roles are few and far between in the poem. In David and Emma’s libretto, the anonymous female chorus was made to represent the women left at home, or operating behind the scenes of war. A clip David played from the first part of the opera showed the female chorus, dressed in muted khaki, pretending to wash or wring their hands in a motion conveying the repetitiveness of trauma and a Lady Macbeth-like attempt at purification after bloodshed. Often grouped in a semicircle above and around the soldiers, these women were presented as spectators of a stage of war that was also a performance of soldierly masculinity.

David offered an insider’s insight into the librettists’ strategy for organising the narrative of the opera. Firstly, they considered the original poem’s structure, seeing that it was organised around a key number of locations, such as the café in Northern France where the men are waiting to be called to the front line, the trench at the Somme, and the verdant bank at Mametz Wood where the poem has its ending. Using these locations as ‘landmarks’, they then mapped out the main narrative line they wished to follow. Crucially, the writers wished to emphasise the sense that the soldiers were being drawn inexorably south to the Somme as if by a lodestone, with everything coalescing in the section of the poem that takes place on the front line.

The librettists, as David noted, also needed to work in collaboration with the opera’s director, Iain Bell. Many parts of Jones’s text are dilatory and drawn-out, offering an exploration of inner states of being instead of actions, but this was not always suited to opera. The creation of two narrator figures, the bards of Britannia and Germania, helped to catalyse a sense of action, as well as conjuring the impersonal, even technocratic political forces governing the men’s lives and deaths. Iain wanted the first part to drive with forward momentum towards the interval, and, in particular, asked for a strong ending for the first half. The first explosion of the shell at the end of Part 2 of the poem offered a suitable ending for the first half: as the first incidence of bombardment in the forward zone, it brings with it a cataclysmic sense of shock – what Jones describes as ‘a consummation of all burstings-out; all sudden up-rendings and rivings-through–all taking out of vents–all barrier-breaking–all unmaking’. This moment marks a profound break or point of transition in the poem. David observed movingly that in In Parenthesis, the soldiers’ turning of the corner of the parapet in the trenches indicates a turning point in identity and history, pointing to Jones’s sense that having encountered the front line you are forever different; nothing will ever be the same.

One of the poem’s central characters, Private John Ball, is assigned the role of night sentry when his battalion is in the trenches. The mise-en-scène used by the Welsh National Opera to depict this episode, which sees Ball inching on his front high up along a narrow sap cut into the back of the blue-black stage-set – emphasised the isolation and extremity of his position, suggesting that he can move no further into No Man’s Land, and, like the poet himself, is literally and figuratively on the edge of experience. Yet if the opera portrays Jones’s sense of the extraordinariness of war, it also stresses its ordinary aspects: the writers, David told us, wished to emphasise how in Jones’s Catholic sensibility all objects, even dusty cheese in a soldier’s mess tin, take on the heightened meaning of the communion wafer.

David explained how the opera’s narrative arc culminated in the famous battle of Mametz Wood. In this part of the poem, the depictions of the natural world are vivid and lyrical, conjuring idyllic Welsh or English scenery. The soldiers, David noted, are situated in the landscape, lying against a chalk bank populated by tiny creatures, and what lies beyond or behind the bank is the future. Yet this part of the poem is also a scene of great destruction, dramatizing as it does the tragic attack on German defences by Jones’s Welsh Division between 7 and 12 July 2016 in which thousands of men were killed or injured. David told us that he and his co-librettist used the line ‘sister death has gone debauched today’ as the basis for creating a mythic female character who brings death to the soldiers: echoing Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the chorus became dryads, felling the soldiers wantonly one by one.
David relayed how he had attempted to draw out what he saw as a strong feminine voice in the poem, infusing the entire narrative. This is embodied by the moonlight in Part 3 of the text, as well as the supernatural Queen of the Woods who features at the end. The concept of femininity, David suggested, is central to the poem’s themes of redemption and regeneration, registered in its engagement with archaic fertility myths. In this regard, the female chorus, David told us, sought to convey an ‘agency of hope’.

The on-going importance of Mametz Wood in Welsh cultural memory was further illuminated by final speaker Beth McIntyre, curator, at the Welsh National Museum, of the exhibition ‘War’s Hell: the Battle of Mametz in Art’ (30 April – 4 September 2016). In her talk, she explained how the exhibition’s curators decided to approach Jones’s poem, and how it fitted into the wider narrative of the exhibition. The title of the event was taken from A Dead Boche (1917), a book written by another famous veteran of Mametz Wood, Robert Graves. A medium-scale exhibition, it offered an exploration of the human response to the battle, rather than the battle itself. The exhibition took as its starting-point Christopher Williams’s large painting, ‘The Welsh Division at Mametz Wood’ (1916), a painting commissioned by Lloyd George, which arguably presents the bloody battle as a Welsh triumph. However, by counterpointing state-sanctioned artworks such as these with images such as J.B. Morrall’s ‘The Abomination of Desolation’ (1916), the exhibition subtly called into question any triumphalist portrayal of war. Some of the paintings included told interesting stories: Margaret Lindsay William’s ‘Care of Wounded Soldiers at the Cardiff Royal Infirmary’ (1916) depicts a soldier being bandaged in front of the attentive eyes of a doctor and nurse in a Cardiff hospital, a melancholy older officer looking on at his bedside.

Beth underlined the fact that writing was as important to visual art in the exhibition, which drew together paintings, sketches, poetry, and prose, without elevating one form over the other. Furthermore, writing was presented in the guise of a visual exhibit, with lettering blown up large and placed on the wall like a painting. In this way, viewers could experience different media simultaneously, affording them a kind of ‘three-dimensional’ understanding of the cultural responses to the Battle. The exhibition brought together many important artworks by David Jones, notably ‘Capel-y-Ffin’ (1926-7), ‘Trystan ac Essylt’ (1963), and his ‘Frontispiece for In Parenthesis’ (1937). The first, Beth observed, conveys the impact of Welsh hill rhythms on Jones’s visual imagination, while the second demonstrates his predilection for almost obsessive detail (suggested by the Irish Greyhound depicted on a rowing boat). Jones’s Frontispiece for In Parenthesis – a work that interweaves images of grazing animals, mythical sylphs, barbed wire and soldiers on a single plane – is sacrificial in nature: as Beth observes, though the wonderful artwork can be appreciated alone, the poetry illuminates more complex layers of meaning inscribed within it (and vice versa).

Beth proceeded to compare Jones’s more mature works with the sketches and drawings he made during his time as a young private in the war. The exhibition made use of some of the 25 sheets and sketchbooks of Jones’s currently held in the Imperial War Museum. Though Jones himself felt these sketches were ‘without any sense of form’, taken together they chart his movement during the war from Llandudno to Salisbury to France and Ireland, where he was evacuated in 1918. What’s more, they offer an authentic record of the war, capturing the minutiae of bodily life in the trenches; as Beth suggests, Jones experienced the war through his art, rather than just observing it. In a suggestive aside, Beth mentioned that when at the front Jones even designed his own Christmas cards, which he sent to his father, a printer, to be reproduced and sent round to friends. Showing how she sought to demonstrate the poem’s continued influence on writers today, Beth noted that the exhibition included audiovisual instalments, such as a clip from poet Owen Sheers’s acclaimed play Mametz depicting actor Rhys Isaac Jones, who played David Jones, reciting passages from Jones’s poem. Since these passages did not make the final edit of the play, it was exciting to show it in the National Museum.

These thought-provoking talks, as might be expected, elicited lively debate amongst members of the audience. One member of the audience questioned whether In Parenthesis does in any way celebrate war, citing substantial evidence from the text in support of a pacifist reading. David responded that Jones’s approach to the war changed over time: he felt that the Somme marked a turning point at which the war became more brutally mechanised. For Jones, the earlier period of the war was in contrast marked by community, comradeship, and a certain amateurishness, which connected it back to previous moments in history. Another audience member interrogated why we are so drawn to trying to define whether In Parenthesis is pro- or anti-war. She noted eloquently that as a nation we are perpetually at war, even while we make the claim never to forget the devastation wrought by World War I. Do the large array of events organised for Remembrance Day and the Somme centenary say that we are a liberal nation, focused on commemorating and reflecting on the past in order to avoid it ever happening again, or is there a tacit sense of celebration? Does the unquestioned veneration of war ‘heroes’ serve to challenge, or support, a culture of war? In response, Beth and David stressed that in their adaptations of In Parenthesis, they did not wish to push any particular political line. Rather, they aimed to leave things open to interpretation, so as to encourage the public to make their own decisions. David acceded that, in the case of the opera, the production team were able to put their own slant on the narrative. Thus, the dark, semi-circular wooden set within which the soldiers sit, as well as the scene in which the shadow of a soldier is projected, massive and diabolic, against a red background, seem to be suggestive of a spiralling down into ‘war’s hell’. Toby held that the message that the soldiers’ deaths were futile is a bitter and perhaps unhelpful one, and suggested that the generals’ and politicians’ decision to enter the war was premeditated and complex, rather than down to incompetence or insouciance. All speakers agreed that the links between a contested past and the present are very real, which is what makes dealing with texts such as In Parenthesis so loaded.

David affirmed that Jones worried greatly about the role of the artist at a time when the web of allusions on which he drew was being lost to the western world. In relation to this, an audience member reflected on how she could still recall English folk songs learnt at school. While Jones’s references to folk-song (or the ‘jingle and Marie Lloyd’, as he put it), resonated with her, this connection she felt was lost to her daughter’s generation. Jamie Castell observed that perhaps In Parenthesis is not only about the loss of life, but cultural loss too. Yet in Jones’s work, an exploration into the heart of death and destruction reveals death’s opposite: survival. Memory – reaching back into the past, rescuing the fragile fragments of culture and experience almost lost to history – becomes an act of resistance to the technological machines of war, and an affirmation of the role of poetry in ensuring continuity and new creation. Jones had a heightened sense of the role of poet as maker, feeling that it was his or her job to weave a connection between past and present, to find a sense of meaning and beauty at the heart of chaotic and disruptive experience. The experience of war allowed him to reflect on the diversity and multiplicity of British identity and history, to celebrate ‘that hotchpotch which is ourselves’.

(image credit)

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