The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The 187-page poem In Parenthesis is in seven sections, and it tells the story of a group of British soldiers of all ranks as they proceed from England to the trench warfare at the battle of the Somme. The action, therefore, is set during World War I but extends only from December, 1915, to July, 1916.

The preface and the thirty-five pages of footnotes, both written by David Jones, should be considered a part of the poem. In the preface, David Jones explains that the title refers, first, to the war itself as a “space between,” a turning aside from the regularity of one’s ordinary business. Second, he implies that life itself, “our curious type of existence here,” is a space between nonexistence and the future.

T. S. Eliot’s “A Note of Introduction” was added in 1961 and suggests that readers will have to “get used to” this unusual poem. Eliot puts his literary mantle over Jones by including him in a quartet of modern writers (Eliot himself, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound being the other three) whose lives were altered by the war, but he singles Jones out as the only one of the four who had actually been a soldier.

The first section introduces the reader to the principal characters: Major Lillywhite, Captain Gwynn, Lieutenant Piers Jenkins, Sergeant Snell, Corporal Quilter, Lance-Corporal Aneirin Lewis, and Private John Ball. They, and others, are members of the Royal Welsh Regiment, 55th Battalion, “B” Company, No. 7 Platoon. They are somewhat clumsy and apprehensive of the new role that has been thrust upon them, as they move across the Channel and disembark from...

(The entire section is 667 words.)

In Parenthesis Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

From the time of its publication there has been controversy over the genre of this “writing,” as Jones himself called it. Large portions read very much like narrative prose, and at least as many read like lyric poetry. In his preface, Jones describes his work in terms that seem to refer to sculpture rather than song, and he suggests he has carved out a new “shape in words” from an otherwise amorphous welter of experience. The emphasis on physical description is not surprising, since Jones was a painter before he wrote any poetry.

The materials he uses for this new shape derive from “the complex of sights, sounds, fears, hopes, apprehensions, smells, things exterior and interior, the landscape and paraphernalia of that singular time and of those particular men.” This is clearly, therefore, a poem of mixed styles, some imitative of colloquial speech, as though the poet were standing in the field of battle with a tape recorder, surrounded by the welter of British accents and vocabularies. At other points in the poem, however, Jones’s style becomes highly crafted and careful, far more dense and lyrical than common speech. This poem, he writes, “has to do with some things I saw, felt, and was part of.” Therefore, it might be described as autobiography, though it is impersonal and not confessional writing; it shares much, as well, with the genres of historical writing, philosophy, and even theology.

It is significant, however, that Eliot in 1961 added his introduction to the poem, since, in doing so, he put his imprimatur on the “Eliotic” stitching together of allusions, myth, history, snatches of conversation, songs, and the other elements that had come to be associated with his own poetry, and especially with The Waste Land (1922). It is unlikely that Jones’s poem would have been...

(The entire section is 749 words.)