Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 683

The title page of section 7 quotes from a sixth century Welsh poem: “Gododdin I demand thy support. It is our duty to sing: a meeting place has been found.” This suggests the complex theme running through the “shape” of this poem and the war it records: As horrible as war is, there is something here to celebrate. This is not a classic antiwar poem in the same vein as that of a Rupert Brooke or a Wilfred Owen. In Parenthesis is graphic in its depiction of the horrors of war, of the mindlessness of much of the violence resulting from nationalistic pride, but it also speaks with an aesthetic voice and wonders if some beauty can be found even in the very instruments of human destruction. Jones is skeptical that this will be possible but sees the attempt as part of his responsibility as a poet in the twentieth century, an age that now must live with “increasingly exacting mechanical devices; some fascinating and compelling, others sinister in the extreme.”

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Jones’s poem speaks with a profoundly humanistic voice, transcending the grotesque suddenness of individual deaths in battle and finding in history a common thread connecting all soldiers to the nobility of being a man or a woman. In Parenthesis deals with powers that tap into the life force itself, the incomprehensible energies that bring humans into existence and dispatch them just as quickly. The poem might be said to be basically religious, using the war as a metaphor for life itself—to Jones, each is a parenthesis. His poem suggests that war helps people become more aware of that larger parenthetical condition called life, a condition ultimately as sudden and individually crafted as the war would have been for each soldier.

“It is our duty to sing,” as the Welsh poem states, because “a meeting place has been found.” It is a sad and grim meeting place, but there, at the bloody battle of the Somme, humanity meets its past, and in some sense its future. In the search for this meeting place and in the preparations for this bloody battle, Jones’s characters take their place in an oddly liturgical procession, each rank knowing its proper place. This arbitrary, human-imposed order finally becomes ineffectual in the face of the war’s blind aggression.

The new level of alienation forced upon soldiers by modern weaponry is, on one level, imitated by Jones’s insistence, like Eliot’s, on stitching together a tapestry from the colored threads of many unfamiliar cultures. The need for footnotes in major works by both poets emphasizes this growing ignorance. Most readers, after all, will know few of the details of the Arthurian legend, let alone the lesser known Welsh myths and the ramifications of other literary and liturgical allusions.

Use of theological language reminds the reader of a sacrament, and reading the poem becomes something of a ritual of remembrance. Common humanity is certainly a thematic strain running throughout this poem; the increasing difficulty modern men and women have in maintaining this sense in the face of cultural disintegration necessitates the poem’s melancholy tension.

The poem produces a sense that history, as well as the individual, is slipping through the cracks even as Western civilization concentrates its attention on “toys” of destruction. In such a porous world, simple goodness becomes heroic, and salvific. This seems to be what Private John Ball learns as he observes the various sorts of British fighter. Wounded and waiting for rescue, watching an endless stream of fresh-faced soldiers streaming by, he remembers past Welsh heroes and the Song of Roland (c. 1100).

Jones seems finally to offer up to God the entire poem and all it represents: the history of the British Isles and much of Western civilization. The formal poem is followed by footnotes (and the cultural history they embody), and then Jones offers a concluding frame: a final page of scriptural quotations, equating the soldiers throughout history with sacrificial victims and with the Sacrificial Lamb of Christianity, Jesus. In Parenthesis is, finally, a poem about the “mystical body of Christ.”

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