Tag Archives: in parenthesis

David Jones Week: The Book of Balaam’s Ass

I’m mindful that the week is drawing to a close and, as with Prynne, there are so many things that I need / want to write about but I’ve just paid some attention to the version of the above which closes The Sleeping Lord which was published by Faber in 1974.

Thanks to the input of John Matthias and Tom Goldpaugh I’m now aware that there are three extant versions of The Book but I’m confining myself to this one for the moment primarily because of what Jones says about it in his introduction:

Anyway, for good or ill, these few pages from one section of the abandoned ‘Book of Balaam’s Ass’ were chosen as seeming to afford a link of sorts between the two widely separated books: ‘In Parenthesis’ and ‘The Anathemata’.

On a reasonably attentive reading of all 14 pages, I think I can see more than a few elements that may provide a closer understanding of the relationship (for the want of a better term) between the two longer poems and how the apparently wide gap between them isn’t as wide as I’ve thought. The subject matter is focused on the First World War but there is greater emphasis on myth and ritual together with the kind of incantation that is prominent in The Anathemata’. What I think strikes me most however is the elements which don’t appear to be part of this linkage. The first of these is a different kind of abstraction which seems out of place in Jones’ work. This is, of course a purely subjective response on my part and I haven’t been through the two longer poems to see if I’ve missed anything, no have I looked at either of the other versions to see if this particular tone/mode was extended there. I was however genuinely startled because what I was reading did not in any way tally with the David Jones that lives in my head. This is first part of the second paragraph with the same line breaks as the Sleeping Lord version:

     I know it bores you Cicily, and you too, Pamela/born/
between/the/sirens, but Bertie will corroborate what I'm saying,
and you ask poor Clayton. Willy and Captain Varley never
used any other analogies, and Belle Varley takes it like a lamb,
and even asks intelligent questions between her dropped stitches
-about all kinds of details about what the 5th did when Theodore
Vaughan-Herbert - ('Taffy' for short) caught a nasty one in the
abortive raid, east of Hulluch - O yes I was, I was with Taffy for
a while, only we differed in glory, but I expect he's know me.

In his brief introduction Jones describes The Book as “a harking back to conversations of the immediately post- 1914-18 period and to the later phases of the conflict itself”. The first few lines give an almost impressionist report of a kind of dialogue centring on three women who don’t make any further appearance in this particular fragment. It is not the presence of Cicily, Pamela and Belle that I find surprising but the tone of these few lines. I am aware that ‘ordinary’ real life conversation is often cryptic and haphazard but this ‘feels’ deliberately mannered, as though Jones had stepped outside his own cadences to make a particular point whilst leaving it more than a little mysterious.

This is all the order because I shouldn’t be this surprised, it’s to be expected that a modernist hailed by both Eliot and Auden should experiment with this particular idiom and I didn’t notice this on my first reading of the Book. It then occurs to me that I may be experiencing an example of the ‘dirty eyes’ syndrome that, as social workers, we were supposed to be wary of. This consists of having a fairly rigid and world-weary set of expectations as to how things will work out. Boys born into the underclass will truant, become involved in petty crime, receive a number of custodial sentences and ‘work’ in the black economy with only a few being ‘saved’ at the age of 23 or so by the love of a good woman. Girls who have experienced any kind of abuse will self-harm, develop eating disorders and seek out destructive relationships.

All of this points to a kind of poetry complacency, ‘David Jones writes long poems in his own distinctive voice without any of the more mannered modernist fripperies’ seems to have buried its way into the skin when I wasn’t looking, along with the view that Jones didn’t write anything of significance other than IP and TA. My only excuse for the second of these has been the initial shock of being introduced these two works and finding enough in both to occupy me for more than a few years. However the placing of Jones in this particular cognitive ‘box’ does nothing for the open-minded, eclectic and generally unprejudiced reader that I thought I was. Enough of the morbid introspection, on with the second surprising element.

There exists throughout human history the myth of the soldier who can’t be killed, the one who is always left standing when everyone else is dead. Jones introduces this into the latter part of The Book after an account of a disastrous raid on a windmill:

.......................................................And three
men only returned from this diversion, and they were called:
Private Lucifer
Private Shenkin
Private Austin
and the reason for there vulnerability was this:................

This is followed by a description of Pte. Lucifer’s “agility, subtlety and lightness’ in avoiding enemy fire that the Gremans considered him to be invulnerable to their efforts: “That Tommy, sir, is but an Anointed Cherub’. At the other end of the spectrum, Pte. Shenkin is said to be awkward and clumsy and stumbles into a shell hole about half over no-man’s land. Lying prone there he gets tangled up in his kit and lies there until nightfall. There is a beautiful and compelling account of the voices of the dying and the dead that he hears from his protected position before crwaling back to the safety of the assembly trench.

Following this piece of heartbreaking brilliance, we come to Pte. Austin:

The invulnerability of Pte. Austin was by reason of the suff-
rages of his mother who served God hidden in a suburb, and
because of her the sons of the women in that suburb were believed
to be spared bodily death at that time, because she was believed
to be appointed mediatrix there. And it was urged by some that
Mrs Austin conditioned and made acceptable in some round-
about way the tomfoolery of the G.O.C. in C. Anyway it was
by reason of her suffrages that Private Austin was called one of
the three who escaped from the diversion before the Mill.

This is surprising because, to my ear, it doesn’t work and it fails on more than one level. Both the previous survivors are given characters and attributes that convey their humanity and the accounts of their escape are vividly told in ways that I can envisage. Here we are given nothing of Pte. Austin and only a little bit more about his mum. I fully appreciate the sincerity and depth of Jones’ faith and I acknowledge the purported strength of intercessory prayers but surely every mother would be making such prayers at the time. In addition I don’t understand the equivocation in ‘were believed’ and ‘was believed’ unless it is ham-fistedly making a point about the power of faith This paragraph seems weak and not well thought through which is astonishing given the description of the Queen of the Woods in IP.

The fragment closes with Mrs Austen which is a pity because it’s by far the least satisfactory bit. I guess the section for me that most clearly marks for me a link between to two long poems is the description of the voices heard by Private Shenkin in his place of shelter. This obviously retains the setting of IP but takes the density of allusion and reference much further.

I was on the verge of forgiving my ignoring of the fragments because life may be too short and then I realised that I ‘like’ Jones’ work more than that of Sir Geoffrey Hill and I have most of Hill’s material in duplicate and his collection of essays. Will now go and order The Roman Quarry.

David Jones reads from In Parenthesis

We’ll start with the obvious. In Parenthesis is the finest poem in English about WW1. This is not just my view, it is one shared by Sir Michael Howard, our foremost military historian:

David Jones’s In Parenthesis is the greatest poem to emerge from the First World War, and indeed one of the greatest to emerge from any war. It could have been written only by someone who had not only experienced the war in all its horror, but who was himself soaked in both poetry and history and for whom that war deepened his understanding of both.

What is perhaps most remarkable is the way in which Jones gives voice to a wide range of perspectives based on his own experience and those of his comrades. It is an account of one man’s progress from initial training in England until the assault on Mametz Wood as part of the Somme offensive in 1916. One of the most remarkable aspects of the poem is the interweaving of our cultural past into the present whilst not sacrificing the very real depiction of trench warfare.

I’ve written at length about In Parenthesis both here and on arduity so I don’t intend to repeat myself any further. The reason for this post is that, due to the generosity on Nathaniel Drake Carlson, I am now in possession of a number of recordings taken from one of those prehistoric vinyl things of Jones reading his work. These two are from In Parenthesis, the first is from Starlight Order:

The second is from The Five Unmistakeable Marks:

I think both of these illustrate the strngth of the work and the fact that it is uncannily beautiful to listen to. In the first track a tedious and very dangerous task is made almost magical and this is enhanced by the care that Jones takes in his reading. In his introduction, Jones has this: “……for I think that day by day in the Waste Land the sudden violences and the long stillnesses, the sharp contours and unformed voids of that mysterious existence, profoundly affected the emotions of those who suffered it. It was a place of enchantment. It is perhaps best described in Malory, Book iv, chapter 15- that landscape spoke with ‘a grimly voice’.” Of course, the idea of enchantment on the front line in 1916 is more than somewhat at odds with our modern perception of what this particular hell may have been like but both the text and Jones’ reading of it here make a more than convincing case especially if you consider enchantment with a ‘grimly’ voice.

The second track describes the moment of the initial assault on Mametz Wood and again conveys the otherness of this experience, our protagonist is moving forward in his ‘own bright cloud’ which then clears so that he can see the landscape before him. Again, Jones’ careful modulation and cadence transposes the event from something horrifically violent and bewildering into something quite specific, quite detailed culled from a memory that must have been etched on to the inside of his skull.

Neither Sir Michael or I were present at the Somme so we can’t vouch for the absolute authenticity of what is described here but it does appear to have a kind of ‘truth’ that is sharper and clearer, at least to me, than other first-hand accounts.

I intend to continue with the rest of these recordings because I think they provide valuable context for the work and may even encourage more readers to buy the book and read it. Once again my heartfelt thanks to Nathaniel for his generosity.

Geoffrey Hill and the Collected Problem(s)

I was given Broken Hierarchies for Xmas and this is an initial report having spent some time with knotted brow and the occasional moment of delight.

First of all, I must confess to having a chequered history with Collecteds, Lowell’s made me realise that I didn’t like any of his work after The Mills of the Kavanghs which was a shock, R S Thomas’ seemed much slighter and less majestic whole as did that of George Herbert, John Matthias’ otherwise fascinating three volumes commit the sin of omitting Trigons which he and I are currently annotating for the web. So it is with some unease that I’m approaching Hill’s Collected especially since I haven’t been overly impressed with the three (out of six) Daybooks sequences that I’ve read. The other anxiety is about how much has been changed/revised since the original publication and what this may mean for the poems that are already in my head.

First, there’s the new stuff, there is a lot of new stuff and some of it is intriguing and a lot of it does the half-rhyme thing which isn’t. There is one sequence of poems that are all set out (as with Clavics in the shape of what appears to be a key. Then there’s the revisions and expansions which have been applied to Hymns to our Lady of Chartres, Pindarics, and Clavics. This is okay because I’ve never been keen on the last two and I’ve never read any of the first. The other change that I’ve noticed thus far is that we now have headings in the index for the Offa sequence.

We’ll start with Hymns to our Lady of Chartres which is new to me although I understand from the interweb that it started life in 1984 or thereabouts as a sequence of three poems and then expanded to seven. The new version has twenty one poems each consisting of five quatrains which use half-rhymes. I’ve been giving some further thought to rhyme in general following the discussion between Rowan Williams and Simon Jarvis at the launch of Night Office when they both agreed that the ‘sense’ becomes subordinate to the form in that the poet is never sure where the rhyme is going to lead. Now, puzzling with furrowed brow over the rhymes that Hill deploys, which depend largely on word endings rather than vowel sounds, it occurred to me yesterday that this is a way of retaining more control over sense and direction rather than the full rhymes that Jarvis deploys.

Before we proceed with an example, I’d like to differentiate between two technical terms. The first of these is ‘clunky’ whereby the poem is well-intentioned but some lines are unduly awkward whereas ‘naff’ denotes poems that are so bad/inept that they shouldn’t have been started let alone published. This latter term is similar in many ways to John Matthias’ ‘gawdawful’.

This is poem 9:

A match crack-scuffs, a flame spurts in the fosse,
faces bow to cupped hands, a thing archaic,
a gesture proletarian and stoic;
Homeric, even, look at Odysseus,

who was of course a prince in his own country
champing on Gauloises; Hector of the taut
monocle, dragged helplessly by a foot.
Other manners, another century.

Herod was dire but he was not the Shoah.
What do you say, Vierge, to this Jewish child
fixed at your breast, in the great glass annealed,
Himself the threefold shattering of Chaos!

Another language, such as your Dai Greatcoat
unerringly presented: misadventure
for the machine gun's cunningly-loosed ceinture
binding in blood who late set out-

Jehova's time not ours. We might have given
the temple scroll for Peguy to repair,
indomitable, as an unsold Cahier,
mystique and politique there intershriven.

For those who still haven’t read him, Dai Greatcoat is David Jones and he is (probably) ‘your Dai Greatcoat’ because of the closing scene in In Parenthesis when the Lady of the Woods gathers the dead and dying to her at the end of a day’s fighting in Mametz WSood on the Somme. Now, I may be slow on the uptake but I am not aware of any other reference to Jones in Hill’s poetry. I know that some find the deliberate choice of the obscure word in preference to something more familiar (fosse instead of trench, ceinture instead of scope or range etc) but I’m fond of this particular quirk because there are words and meanings of words that should be kept breathing in the face of the current blandification that appears to becoming dominant. Having written that sentence I realise that I’m sounding as elitist as Hill but it’s something I can live with.

Of course, there is no connection that can be simply made between the biblical Slaughter of the Innocents and the Holocaust but it is certainly a startling line although I am concerned that it may be present just to startle- a tendency that seems to be on the increase lately.

These twenty lines do cover a lot of ground, as well as Jones, we get the Iliad, Christ, the Virgin Mary, French and German stereotypes, Charles Peguy, Herod and the Holocaust. Whilst the whole seems reasonably coherent and has
some threads that run through Hill’s work, I’m not entirely clear that there’s a convincing coherence here. There isn’t, for example, a link between soldiers lighting cigarettes in the trenches of the Somme to the figure of Hector been dragged around behind Achilles’ horse. Peguy was a poet and essayist who edited the literary magazine Les Cahiers de la Quinzaine and in 1909 made the observation that “everything that begins in mysticism ends in politics” which makes much more sense of the last two lines, as does the fact that he was killed in battle in 1914.

We now come to the headings problem, each of the Mercian Hymn poems has been given a title or sub-heading in the index but not on the printed page. Many of the titles occur more than once and seem a bit superfluous, we now have three poems each on ‘Offa’s Laws’ and ‘The Crowning of Offa’ for example which we don’t really need, it’s always seemed self-evident to me what the poems are about. The other quibble is that if these are in the index as part of the title then shouldn’t they be at the top of the poem as well? The opposite problem occurs with Pindarics, there are twenty one of these in Without Title and each begins with a quote from Cesare Pavese and is a response to that quote. We now have 34 Pindarics and all the quotes have been removed. The order of the first twenty one has changed too so that Pindaric 21 has become Pindaric 5 and there have been two changes to the text. This is very puzzling for my small brain, does this now mean that we should forget about the quotes and read the poems as a response to the three sentences from Pavese that now serve as an epigraph? None of this matters much to me because I didn’t like these poems the first time around but I do wonder how less indifferent others may feel.

I do intend to address the new material once I’ve got my brain around it- Ludo and The Daybooks take up 330 page or one third of the collection. This may take some time.

Bad lines in Good poems.

I’ve just put a page on pt 5 of ‘In Parenthesis’ on arduity. As ever, any feedback would be much appreciated.

Whilst extolling the brilliance of this masterpiece, I came across a couple of lines that could be described as Not Very Good which was a bit of a shock because Jones (in my head) is almost perfect and this got me to thinking about other bad lines in brilliant poems. So, what follows is a compilation of those examples that most readily spring to mind. The bebrowed definition of Not Very Good in this context relates, I think, to a line or two that is out of place and jars with the rest of the poem, lines that sound dissonant when read aloud. I think there’s a difference between these and Keston Sutherland’s depiction of the wrong line because that would seem to be more about apparent banality or the non-poetic in a line which nevertheless works.

This selection is personal and subjective, I’ve chosen to concentrate on poems that I feel are excellent but nevertheless are let down by this small blemish.

John Milton and ‘Lycidas’

This has been called the greatest elegy in English literature, its subject is Edward King who was at Cambridge with Milton and who drowned in 1637. I’m of the view that Milton never does lines of the above sort, in fact I’ve never been able to locate a bad line in the entire length of ‘Paradise Lost’ but the fourth and fifth lines here do seem to be out of place:

Where your old bards, the famous Druids lie,
Nor on the shaggy top of Mona high,
Nor yet where Deva spreads her wizard streams
Ay me, I fondly dream!
Had ye been there.....for what could that have done?
How could the muse herself that Orpheus bore,
The muse herself for her enchanting son
Whom universal nature did lament,

I know that this is intended as a sudden cry of hearfelt anguish and is meant to be dissonant but it does need to be strong and well put together and neither ‘Ay me’ nor ‘and ‘what could that have done?’ are up to the task. It isn’t anguished enough nor lyrical enough to justify its presence. It might be argued that this lack of verbal skill is the ‘point’ that this interjection deliberately refuses to work so as to express the depth of human feeling but the fact remains that there is little anguish in ‘what could that have done’ and that it feels both gratuitous and inept. Perhaps Milton was trying to imitate the sudden outbursts in the work of George Herbert which was published a few years before but Herbert’s interjections are both strong and believable whereas this isn’t.

Simon Jarvis and ‘The Unconditional’.

I have said this before but the above is one of the most important publications of the last thirty years. It runs to 236 pages, it is brilliantly and infuriatingly digressive and defiantly metrical. It is also deeply subversive and I don’t understand why this fact isn’t more widely recognised. It isn’t an easy read but it is important and more than repays the attention that is paid to it. It was published in 2005 and is still available from Barque Press for a mere fifteen quid.

One aspect of the Jarvis thesis is that prosody is helpful when expressing complex or philosophical ideas and ‘The Unconditional’ is, among many other things, an example of this. However, there are a few lines where things go a bit awry and one of these serves to undermine a particularly brilliant passage:

        In that domain a buried A-road may
sometime by old pavilions of its shops
remind a hoarse commercial traveller
of the remediable loss of life
in undefended type face of a font
still mutely pleading for a shoppers loves
still wearily enduring falling sales
still waiting for authenticated close
or still abiding till a ripeness when
the properly intolerable come
and foreclose closure closing it by force.
=x. was ready to feel all that.
There or anywhere else.
But he was nowhere near the area.
The hue of the metallic colouring on
his complicit vehicle accompanying him
could barely properly be named as blue-
fantastically overpropertied as though blue left blue for a blue elsewhere
or settled only in the skull of an
acatastatical erotomane
whose dream then taking vehicle form
inflicts whatever violence it can
on any object-field whose lightest flinch
might intimate a rustable flaw beneath
with a pure undersong of "blue, blue, blue".
Serene irony fell into the wrong tax bracket.

I’ve quoted this at length to emphasis the damage that a line can do. On an initial reading I thought it was the last word in ‘But he was nowhere near the area’ that was wrong, that ‘area’ seemed so out of place in the lyrical brilliance of what precedes and follows it but I’ve now decided that it is the line itself that is the problem. Both the portrayal of the commercial traveller and the improvisation on the colour of the ‘complicit vehicle’ are sustained passage of lyrical invention and technical flair but both of these are let down by the presence of this one decidedly dull line. The other issue is that I don’t entirely understand what it is supposed to be doing, it doesn’t add greatly to the sense of what’s being said and even by page 19 most of us will have recognised that =x. is disposed to this kind of self-lacerating melancholia. it is therefore difficult to see what these three lines might add.

Whilst I’ve got the opportunity, I would like to draw your attention to the brilliance of “as though blue left blue for a blue elsewhere” which is almost as good as “on any object field whose lightest flinch / might intimate a rustable flaw beneath” which is obviously wonderful.

As with Milton, this kind of ineptitude is completely out of character for Jarvis and for ‘The Unconditional’ in particular, it may of course be that this is deliberately ‘wrong’ but this kind of knowing wink is absent from the rest of the poem and doesn’t occur in what Jarvis has published since. I’ve now read the poem four times and this remains the bit that is most strikingly bad, there are other sections and lines that are overly self-indulgent, obscure or badly expressed but this is the only line that seems to be irredeemably bad.

David Jones and ‘In Parenthesis’

Anyone who doesn’t think that David Jones was one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century either hasn’t read any of his work or is a complete fool. Tom Dilworth’s claim that ‘In Parenthesis’ is one of the five great war books that we have seems to me to be an altogether reasonable claim. Having spent the last ten days or so thinking and writing about it for arduity, I now have to report that it isn’t perfect and that there is at least a couple of lines that should have been cut.

The poem recounts Jones’ experience of his service in World Ward One leading up to and including the assault on Mametz Wood during the Somme offensive in July 1916. This is from Part Five and is a dialogue between two French civilians who run the bar that the troops frequent during rest periods away from the trenches:

        She bolted the door for the night
and when it was morning
Jacques said that the Englishman's guns had kept him awake.
She said that it was a pleasant morning, and the first in June.
He said it was time the English advanced, that there wera a
stupid race, anyhow.
She said they were not.
He would like to remind her of the Pastoral,
for which she laughed a long time.
with: Vah, vah,
and her head wagging
with: La - la la, and her finger pointed, with:
Tawny-tooth go watch the priest, and:
She said that the war was lucrative and chid him feed the
fowl, and smoothed her pinafore: sometimes the Siege Artil-
lery came in during the morning, if there wasn't a shoot on.

Jones glosses ‘Tawny-tooth…bent wit’ as “Cf. Skelton. I cannot find the passage I had in mind”- and neither can I, even with the assistance of the Adobe ‘find’ gizmo. In some notes Jones also explains why he is using a particular quotation but chooses not to do so here. I have a couple of concerns:

  • the two lines spoil the rest which is a reasonably straightforward account of a conversation that isn’t at all difficult to follow;,
  • if you are going to quote something then you should try and make sure of it’s accuracy;
  • if you know that the quote might be spurious and you are providing notes then you should explain (as you do elsewhere) what you were hoping to achieve.

It could be argued that this was an innovative and experimental work but there are elsewhere sustained pieces of experimental brilliance that do what they should whereas we will never know what this was meant to achieve, it serves simply to get in the way.

So, none of the above examples are essential to the poem and could be removed without too much difficulty and perhaps it’s this more than the poor quality that I find most difficult. None of these do serious damage to the rest of the poem and I would urge all readers to read the last two, you won’t be disappointed.

‘In Parenthesis’ is currently available from Amazon at just over twelve of your finest English pounds.

Poetry and goodness

I need to start by expressing my gratitude to Michael Peverett, John Stevens and Steffen Hope for their feedback of the ‘Mercian Hymns’ page on arduity which has been invaluable and much appreciated. I’ve just added a longish page on the first four parts of ‘In Parenthesis’, any feedback on this would be much appreciated- either in the comments here or via e-mail- the address is at the bottom of each arduity page.

In his response to my recent thing on David Jones, Tom Dilworth expressed the view that “In IN PARENTHESIS the supreme value is not human life but goodness” which has set me thinking in a number of different directions. The first of these is that poetry is much better at badness than it is on the more positive aspects of the human race. The second is that those great poets who have tried to deal with goodness or virtue have clearly dealt with badness and vice with greater relish. The third thought is that there are those poets who exude goodness in their work and who approach their material with both empathy and compassion for the human condition.

In chronological order, I’m going to have to start with Book I of Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queene’ which describes the quest of the Red Cross knight in achieving holiness. I think it is reasonable to observe that the most interesting/absorbing/entertaining characters are irrevocably Bad and that the way in which they do Badness is much more convincing than the good characters who help the knight on his way. Archimago and Duessa are eminently believable and Despair is a brilliant portrayal of what might be described as early nihilism but the virtuous Fidessa and Contemplation have all the realism of cardboard. The knight is so inept that we can’t take his side whilst Una, the object of his love and devotion, has only one scene where she is allowed to display her real emotions, for the rest of the 12 cantos she remains simply a bland paradigm of virtue.

Book III is ostensibly ‘about’ chastity as embodied by Britomart who does act with compassion and generosity, who does appear to be keen on doing the Right Thing and is much more complex and involving than any of the other ‘good’ subjects of the poem.

Spenser doesn’t write with compassion, he writes as a poet who is keen to demonstrate his value and skill. I am and always will be a Spenserian but that doesn’t mean that I’m blind to the rampant egotism that runs through the work which really does get in the way of any sense of understanding of the reality of human talents and frailties. This self-regard is most obviously on display in the ‘Amoretti’ sequence but it also runs through the Faerie Queene- Spenser describes a great many fight scenes not because they are essential to his theme but because he’s very good at them even though the reader is weary after the first five or six.

George Herbert’s Love III deals with God’s love for mankind and the way in which salvation might work. I don’t want to re-visit Prynne’s detailed analysis but I do want to suggest that the poets displays a degree of goodness (in the sense of compassion and tenderness) as well as insight in the following lines. The poem uses the analogy of a guest and a meal that is offered:

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack any thing.

A guest, I answered worthy to be here.
Love said, You shall be he.

This is probably an entirely personal response but this strikes me as more than a theological ‘point’ because it seems to encapsulate the struggle that most of us have with the notion of worthiness. I know than a few individuals who have dedicated their lives to some kind of public service as a way of reconciling or dealing with their own sense of unworthiness and the above exchange seems to explore this in a particularly accurate and humane way that is absent from most of the rest of great English verse.

This brings us to John Milton and his God problem. In Paradise Lost, Jesus has compassion for humanity and does all the right/good things from defeating the bad angels to undertaking to sacrifice himself in order to redeem mankind. God, on the other hand, is grumpy and complains a lot about man’s ingratitude and disobedience. Being omniscient, God knows about Adam’s disobedience before it occurs but also knows (because of Free Will) that there is nothing he can do to prevent it. This makes him far more compelling than either Satan or Christ because he confounds our expectation that God must be inherently good and kind and never, ever bad-tampered.

The other bits of goodness turn out to be rather tedious, I find myself becoming irritated by the unalloyed virtue of Adam and Eve in the idyllic garden prior to the Fall. Milton is our greatest poet but he’s also a streetfighter with a number of points to make and this doesn’t leave much space for an empathetic stance.

Charles Olson’s compassion for the people of Gloucester and the way in which he describes existence on the edge of the Atlantic is an example of warmth and his love for the place which is enunciated in detail throughout ‘Maximus’, drawing us in to a similar viewpoint.

As with David Jones, one of Olson’s concerns is the relationship of the past to the present and the following fourteen lines explore this with great personal warmth;

A year that year
was new to men
the place had bred
in the mind of another

John White had seen it
in his eye
but fourteen men
of whom we know eleven

twenty two eyes
and the snow flew
where gulls now paper
the skies

where fishing continues
and my heart lies

I could go on for a very long time about how the archive and archival poetry brings the past into the immediate present a how Jones and Olson are two of our greatest poets (in part) because of this element in their practice. Instead, I just want to point to the love expressed and written in the above which to my mind is also an expression of Olson’s goodness.

Finally, Elizabeth Bishop is one of the very few poets who does goodness really well and I want to produce the closing lines of ‘Filling Station’ as an example of technical brilliance and a very human compassion:

Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:
to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.

There is a lot going on here but the ‘point’ is beautifully and expertly made and it is these expressions of compassion and human worth, even in the mundane, that makes Bishop so very, very good. There’s a reported conversation in ‘Moose’ which is technically perfect but is also soaked through with this sense of innate value in the human race.

So, I need to thank Tom Dilworth again for enabling me to think about yet another aspect that I’ve taken too much for granted and will now pay much more attention to.

David Jones as (profound) chronicler.

I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Nathaniel Drake Carlson for pointing me in the direction of the Spring 1982 edition of Poetry Wales which contains two particularly fascinating pieces on ‘In Parenthesis’.

I know I should be reading all that Thomas Dilworth has written on Jones but I haven’t yet because I’m still having this internal debate with the insightful Rene Hague on ‘The Anathemata’ and because the person in charge of the Bebrowed accounts has gently pointed out that I should read the books I’ve acquired before buying any more, which is entirely reasonable.

In this particular issue of Poetry Wales there are articles by Dilworth and Joseph Cohen on aspects of ‘In Parenthesis’, the first deals with the poem as chronicle whereas Cohen considers the profundity of the work. Regular readers will know that I have a long standing interest in the archival / documentary / commemorative aspects of poetry and that I wrote a week ago about profundity and poetry which generated more than a little debate so I’ve read both with great interest.

Before we proceed I need to point out (again) that David Jones is one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century and I remain dismayed that his work isn’t better known. ‘In Parenthesis’ is a sequence of poems that recount Jones’ experience as a soldier from training in England to being wounded during the disastrous Somme offensive of 1916. It is a work of immense humanity and technical skill, in his piece Dilworth makes a claim for it being “one of the world’s four or five great war books. It is far better than any other work or collection of works on the Great War”, I don’t know enough about war books to support this claim but it is certainly the best book on conflict that I have ever read.

So, Dilworth concentrates on the poem as an authentic / accurate account of Jones’ experiences which in itself (for us devotees) is valuable in itself but I’m a bit concerned that this focus might be missing other aspects of what the poem might be about- and whether ‘chronicle’ is the right noun.

Jones’ dedication at the beginning of the poem is long and complex but it includes “especially Pte. R.A. Lewis- gunner from Newport Monmouthshire killed in action in the Boesinghe sector N.W. of Ypres some time in the winter 1916-17″ and his preface starts with “This writing has to do with some things I saw, felt, & was part of” which might indicate that this is more of a personal memoir which also commemorates a fallen comrade. There’s also a ‘political’ edge – Jones goes on to condemn the increasing mechanisation of the war which led to even more ‘wholesale slaughter’.

Dilworth is the expert on all things David Jones but it does seem to me that there are a couple of quibbles. He writes:

Such changes in chronology indicate that Jones is not recording history, but he is being over careful when he writes in his preface that no ‘sequence of events’ in the poem is ‘historically accurate’.

The full quote is “None of the characters in this writing are real persons, nor is any sequence of events historically accurate” – this may be an indication of being overly careful but it is also an indication that it isn’t his intention that the poem should be read as a historical account, in fact the preceding passage seems to indicate more of a memorialisation of a time and a way of soldiering ( “a certain amateurishness, and elbow-room for idiosyncrasy that connected one with a less exacting past”) that was obliterated in the Somme offensive of 1916- the end-point of Jones’ narrative.

Dilworth rightly points to Jones’ technical brilliance and the ‘documentary’ feel of the sequence as a whole but also states that Jones doesn’t do anecdote. I’m struggling a bit with this observation because there is at least one (albeit loaded) innstance that seems to me to be anecdotal.

The OED’s primary definition of anecdote is “Secret, private, or hitherto unpublished narratives or details of history” and this seems to me that this (from part 2) might fit:

One day the Adjutant addressed them on the history of the regiment. Lectures by the Bombing Officer: he sat in the straw, a mild young man, who told them lightly of the efficacy of his trade; he predicted an important future for the new Mills Mk. IV grenade, just on the market; he discussed the improvised jam-tins of the veterans, of the bombs of after the Marne, grenades of Loos and Laventie – he compared these elementary, amateurish, inefficiencies with the compact and supremely satisfactory invention of this Mr Mills, to whom his country was so greatly indebted.

He took the names of all those men who professed efficiency on the cricket field – more particularly those who claimed to bowl effectively – and brushing away with his hand pieces of straw from his breeches, he sauntered off with his sections of grenades and fuses and explanatory diagrams of their mechanisms stuffed into the pockets of his raincoat, like a departing commercial traveller.

Ignoring the bitter sarcasm for the moment this strikes me as a previously unpublished detail of history. The Mills bomb was the first fragmentation grenade – a device which not only exploded but threw out shrapnel over the surrounding area and it would make sense for good bowlers to be recruited to throw these things far enough to prevent themselves being injured. This weapon was first introduced in 1915 and is one of the elements of mechanised brutality that Jones deplores so there is an additional ‘point’ being made in this particular passage which seems to me to be anecdotal.

I also accept that the sales rep device is particularly effective but it is entirely feasible that such an officer would do what he could to ‘sell’ this kind of innovation to the troops whilst providing explanation and context because that was part of his role.

Turning now to Joseph Cohen we find this:

In Parenthesis, if it is anything, is a profound work. It has unusual depth. It is a product of two complex cerebral functions: (1) reflection and the play of the imagination on the poet’s experience as an infantryman on the Western Front: an extreme condition, prolonged, marked by danger, suffering, privation and loss, unparalleled in history to that time; and (2) subsequent omnivorous reading and more reflection on the literature and history of individual and collective military experience reaching back to antiquity. Through this juxtaposition of the experience of the past with that of the present, Jones focuses out attention on the panoramic range of feelings human beings express in the throes of war. By comparing the past to the present, Jones emphasizes the supreme value of human life.

I don’t want to revisit the recent debate on the various elements of profundity but for me the above combination is not where this particular quality of ‘In Parenthesis’ lies- it is rather in the accuracy and honesty of what it was like to be in the midst of this senseless carnage and the sensitive portrayal of the human dynamics between officers, NCOs and the ‘ordinary’ rank and file. Once again, I accept that my definition of ‘profound’ is entirely subjective and (probably) subject to change but, as with Hill’s observation, there is this sense of insightful/useful humanity that makes ‘In Parenthesis’ so profound.

I also think Cohen misses the point about the past and the present which he sees as a juxtaposition- I’m of the view that all of Jones’ work is about the real existence of the past in the present, one of his many strengths is his ability to quietly insist on this in both ‘In Parenthesis’ and ‘The Anathemata’. I’m currently writing an extended page on the former for arduity and this seems clearer to me with each reading.

The Poet as Witness, Marvell’s ‘Last Instructions to a Painter’.

The above poem is a gloriously vicious account of the circumstances leading to the Second Dutch War which in 1667 saw the Dutch fleet sail up the Thames with impunity, steal our flag ship, set fire to a few towns and sail away without loss. This was going to be a ‘compare and contrast’ exercise with other primary sources (Pepys and the Calendar of State Papers) in an attempt to differentiate between the official, the personal and the poetic but then I got sidetracked into another line of enquiry which I should tackle first.

Re-reading the ‘Instructions’, I came across Henry Jermyn, Earl of St Albans, who is one of the first political figures to fall under Marvell’s scrutiny. In the poem he is portrayed as a kind of seventeenth century sex machine and pointedly crude reference is made to his alleged affair with Henrietta Maria, Charles I’s queen. Being struck by the severity of Marvell’s gaze I (in the interests of balance) decided to look at Jermyn’s entry in the Dictionary of National Biography. The DNB article on Jermyn contains a reasonably objective account of Jermyn’s life in terms of posts held and the ‘close’ relationship with Henrietta Maria. Dealing with Jermyn’s role after 1660, we get this-

” Andrew Marvell’s great satire on the conduct of the war, ‘Last Instructions to a Painter’, attacked St Albans’s alleged lack of ability, his appearance, and his overindulgence in the pleasures of the court:
Paint then St Albans full of soup and gold,
The new court’s pattern, stallion of the old.
Him neither wit nor courage did exalt,
But Fortune chose him for her pleasure salt.
Paint him with drayman’s shoulders, butcher’s mien,
Member’d like mules, with elephantine chine.
Well he the title of St Alban’s bore,
For Bacon never studied nature more
But age, allaying now that youthful heat,
Fits him in France to play at cards and treat.”

So, poet as witness becomes poet as ‘official’ recorder. The Jermyn article is written by his only recent biographer and yet he chooses to include part of Marvell’s diatribe as part of the objective record which wasn’t part of Marvell’s intention. The poem portrays a high degree of political incompetence and corruption but Marvell was no innocent bystander, he had been MP for Hull since 1659 and was therefore part of the dismal political malaise that infected British public life during the 1660s and beyond. As an act of polemic, the poem needs to be considered as part of a series of ‘advice’ poems penned by Marvell and others and should perhaps be read both as testimony and as a demonstration of poetic skill.

There is a ‘point to this dismal tale and that is that the King, who is addressed directly in the poem’s closing lines, should pay more heed to the advice of the landed gentry rather than his courtiers and their parliamentary supporters. The primary reason given is that the gentry have substantial and enduring wealth and are not dependent on royal patronage and the corruption that this entails.

As well as being a scathing account of contemporary events and a polemic against the corrupt and sexually charged culture of the court, ‘Instructions’ contains a memorialisation in oddly erotic terms of Archibald Douglas who chose to stay aboard his burning ship whilst the rest of the crew fled. In a subsequent poem, ‘The Loyal Scot’, Marvell uses Douglas’ heroic example to suggest that national distinctions shouldn’t be given prominence in political debate.

So, poem that bears witness to a national disaster by recording both the circumstances and the disaster itself, a poem that acts as polemic against contemporary incompetence and corruption, that provides pithy descriptions of a range of powerful characters and, in the process, presents a vivid portrait of the culture and concerns of the ruling elite.

Incidentally, both Milton and Marvell eulogise characters who chose to stay on board sinking ships. Milton’s ‘Lycidas’ is an elegy for Edward King who drowned in 1637 after deciding to pray on deck rather than try to escape. It strikes me that we wouldn’t think of either of these deaths as in anyway heroic now (stupid, but not especially brave) yet this does seem to have been an act worthy of praise in the 17th century.

I’d like to conclude by means of comparison with a more recent piece of witnessing. David Jones’ ‘In Parenthesis’ memorialises the Somme offensive, that great British disaster of WWI but for other reasons. Jones does not seek to berate the dismal incompetence of the generals that sent so many men into this carnage, his stated aim is to mark the turning point in the British army with the arrival of new-fangled technologies that reduced much of the good natured camaraderie of the first two years of the war. Notwithstanding Jones’ aim the poem is a first hand account of soldiers moving up to the front and the initial suicidal assault on Mametz Wood. Jones resists polemic and even the scenes of death and dying are handled in a lyrical and moving way which is far removed from the anger so evident in many other war poets.

It can be argued that all poetry bears witness but Marvell’s ‘Last Instructions’ seems to cover most forms of testimony, apart from the eye-witness account, and also makes a significant contribution to the wider cultural landscape of his time. For those who are interested, it is especially rewarding to follow Pepys’ account of the same period (as well as having some responsibility for the naval fiasco, he read the poem in manuscript form) and the official records which show a government immobilised by panic.