The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 667

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.

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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 “cattle trucks” on French soil.

In section 2, the platoon sees its first, impersonal, action, coming with an explosion of “some stinking physicist’s destroying toy.” This literal explosion interrupts a personal “explosion” by Sergeant Snell, who is caught in mid-sentence in a diatribe against Private Ball. The explosion rips up the dirt and plants, covering in disorder the invading “order” of the soldiers’ camp.

Section 3 is a nightwatch. Little happens, and very little can be seen. The men cannot see one another clearly enough to recognize their companions. Private Ball, who has by now become the principal figure in the poem, particularly feels a sense of isolation. In section 4, the soldiers are in the midst of the waiting for something to happen. Even as the rain falls miserably down, Lance-Corporal Lewis stands up and offers a paean to all the war heroes in Western history. His speech is somewhat surrealistic in its grandeur and scope, as if he were temporarily possessed by the valor of so many who died in catastrophes similar to World War I.

In section 5, several soldiers get promotions (Quilter, Watcyn, and Jenkins, though Watcyn soon loses his for drunkenness). The troops see more action, and the platoon has its first death. Meanwhile, the focus of each individual becomes increasingly narrow: Each day becomes more important; each minor celebration, like a food parcel from home, seems more significant. Tension increases beneath the “ordinariness” of it all.

Section 6 is the final preparation of the battalion for its turn on the front line. Private Ball sees his friends from back in England, from back before this parenthetical war, one final time. The battalion moves forward and sees, along the road, dead mules “sunk in their servility.” The soldiers cannot help but think of themselves in similar terms.

In the concluding section, characters from the opening of the poem are killed. The killing seems arbitrary, not for any didactic or balancing purpose. Lance-Corporal Lewis dies anonymously, unobserved. Jenkins leads the platoon into battle and is quickly mowed down. Next to die is Sergeant Quilter, who had assumed temporary command. Lillywhite also dies. Private John Ball survives, however, having been wounded in the leg. In the end he discards his rifle and lies down by a fallen oak, hoping the stretcher-bearers will find him and noticing in a cloudy way the many other soldiers who surge past him.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 749

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 recognized at all before the experimentation of Eliot and James Joyce: Since it is even less obviously generic than their creations, it would have been too apparently shapeless even for discerning readers. Following the lead of these modernists, Jones seems consciously to be expanding the generic poetic tradition he has inherited, allowing a topic as brutal as World War I to explode old categories and to reflect in the lines of In Parenthesis the slippery, arbitrary, and confusing experience of modern warfare, as well as its eclectic mix of conflicting emotions.

The topic itself and the time in which the poem was written both contribute to its form, but there are other significant factors in Jones’s biography that shape the poem’s allusions and voice. These, in a more traditional way, break out of the limited setting of one man’s experience of a specific war and let the poem address all such “parenthetical” human experiences. Jones was a Londoner of Welsh and English descent, and a convert to Roman Catholicism. He draws on historical and ritualistic elements from all these sources and lets them influence the form of the telling.

Jones never mastered the Welsh language but hoped he might use this poem and his later The Anathemata (1952) as vessels to preserve a portion of the vast Welsh literary heritage. The most intimidating aspects of this poem often can be clarified with reference to the notes Jones provides. These indicate the Welsh allusions, the early epic Y Gododdin, The Mabinogion, Kulhwch ac Olwen (the Welsh version of the Waste Land myth), and others.

There are Latin references as well, to the Roman invasion of Britain, the battles and heroism of that early period, and the language used to express that heroism. There are Elizabethan allusions and quotations from Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter, Victorian ditties such as Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark: Or, An Agony in Eight Fits (1876), and contemporary slang. The result is an amalgam of the historic languages of Great Britain—a human voice, timebound and amorphous, but expressive of the grandeur and pain common to all, regardless of the age.

Jones’s Roman Catholicism also influenced the form of the poem. (He converted in 1921, three years after leaving the army and seven years before beginning writing In Parenthesis.) This is particularly true in section 3, with its liturgical references to the service for Good Friday and frequent allusions to a battle between light and dark. Section 7, with its early reference to the canonical hours of prime, terce, sext, and none, sets a ritualistic context for the slaughter soon to follow, suggesting participation in a larger mystery beyond the confusion of human violence.

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Themes