Tag Archives: joseph cohen

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.