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.

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5 responses to “David Jones Week: The Book of Balaam’s Ass

  1. OK, I’m in a hotel 100 miles from my books but going on just what you have here this bit about Austen being saved because of his mother reads more to me as a compassionate comment on the way other people explained the inexplicable (Austen’s survival). It doesn’t read at all is if Jones believes it. Is that at all possible, or should I just be quiet when I’m away from my books?

  2. Tangentially off-topic – well, about Jones but not about Balaam’s ass, have you seen this typically excellent post by Richard Warren, which is largely about In Parenthesis?

    http://richardawarren.wordpress.com/2014/04/27/the-kensingtons-in-parenthesis-1914-18s-best-poem-and-painting/

  3. I’m thinking about Mrs Austin, and I feel that there’s a sort of hovering mystery about that third survivor. Phrases like “in a roundabout way” clearly distance the voice from the poet. (The kind of folk-superstition described here is very like Kipling’s stories in Debits and Credits.) I would say the passage is conflicted, it is half-scornful and yet in the describing of this mediatrix nonsense it starts to gain a sense of religious wonder and also top think how survival in such a hell is truly blind chance or God, what else is there? (Ah now I ‘ve just read John B-R’s comment, yes I like the way he puts it.)

    • John and Michael,
      I take your point and I should perhaps have paid more attention to the roundabout and the believeds but it still feels clunky to me, flat and awkward after Lucifer and Shenkin. I accept that my view is entirely subjective but I felt this on the first reading and subsequent readings haven’t improved my experience. This kind of folk-superstition and related mysticisms were an understandable response to the ongoing carnage, I just don’t think Jones deals with it very well.

  4. Christine Pagnoulle

    First I’d like to say that I too read the were / was believed and in a roundabout way as indeed not quite saying what is said (so equivocation seems to be the right word). Next, even though Jones did pick those pages to be printed in The Leeping Lord and Other Fragments, there are (to me) several passages in this section that are not at all satisfactory, and this I felt particularly when translating the piece into French (Le livre de l’ânesse de Balaam, Clapas, 2003).

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