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 “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...
(The entire section is 1,416 words.)