David Jones was born in England on 1st November 1895 at Brockley, Kent. Typically for the period, Jones’s Welsh father had been encouraged to distance himself from the heritage and language of Wales, as it was perceived as a hindrance to ‘getting on’ in life. He had moved from North Wales to London to practice his trade as a printer; here he met Alice Ann Bradshaw, daughter of a Rotherhithe mast-maker, whom he married in 1888. In this genealogy, much of the matter of David Jones poesis was fixed: the Roman-English history of the Port of London and the history, culture and myth of Wales. Of equal importance was the religious conflict that often surfaced in the household. Though Jones’s father was an Evangelical lay-preacher, his mother Alice was a Puseyite. Jones became fascinated by, and drawn to, the symbolism of the Anglican ‘high church’ and would later ‘go over’ to Rome.
The young David Jones demonstrated a remarkable precocity towards the visual arts; such precocity, in fact, that he was enrolled at the Camberwell School of Art in south London at the age of only 14. Though exhibiting great promise, Jones was, in the summer of 1914, struggling to find a direction for both his young life and his art; a predicament that was solved for him, as it was for so many of his generation, by the coming of war.
Jones joined the newly formed London Welsh Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers in January 1915 and, after a prolonged period of training, much hampered by a lack of equipment, finally embarked for France the following December. After a period in and out of the Line in the La Bassee sector, Jones marched south for the Somme in the summer of 1916. Here, he took part in the attack on Mametz Wood on the 10th/11th July, was wounded in the thigh and was subsequently returned to England to convalesce. On his eventual return to the Line, his unit had been moved to the Ypres salient. Jones would have taken part in the initial stages of the prolonged Passchendaele offensive, had he not been held back as part of the battalion’s reserve ‘nucleus’. He never saw action again. Suffering from trench fever, Jones was evacuated and saw out the rest of the war in Ireland. He was released from the army in the January of 1919, aged 23.
David Jones – poet, essayist, painter, engraver – died in 1974, having lived a long and prolific life. His masterpiece of the war, In Parenthesis was finally published in 1937. Subsequent works included The Anathemata (1952), Epoch and Artist (1959) and The Sleeping Lord and other Fragments (1974). Jones equalled his prolific textual output with that of his painting and engraving. Thirteen of his works are held by the Tate Gallery, including Aphrodite in Aulis (1940-1) and The Garden Enclosed (1924).
In Parenthesis is a 187 page poem of seven parts. It is a poem of allusive, syntactic and semantic complexity. Written long after the conclusion of the war, the poem recounts Jones’ experiences from Embarkation to his being shot in the leg during the battle for Mametz Wood. In this ‘writing’ Jones renders a ‘shape in words’, an eclectic admixture of literary, historical and mythological ‘data’. Heralded by T.S Eliot as a ‘work of genius’ In Parenthesis directly challenges – through form and content – our understanding of what makes a ‘first world war poem’. As such, critics and anthologists often struggle to locate this work within the established canon of First World War poetry: Jones was a soldier and later a poet, but he was not, in any way, a ‘soldier poet’. For Jones, the poetry is not in the ‘pity’; rather, In Parenthesis enacts an epic vision of war as part of an historical continuum and seeks redemption in the common infantryman’s ability to establish a strategy of survival – a ‘folk-life’ -even in the most harrowing of circumstance.
David Jones’s unique vision of this war finds illustration in the following excerpt from In Parenthesis, where Private Ball experiences the terror of an ‘incoming’ artillery shell for the first time.
The exact disposition of small things – the precise shapes of trees, the tilt of a bucket, the movement of a straw, the disappearing right boot of Sergeant Snell – all minute noises, separate and distinct, in stillness charged through with some approaching violence – registered not by the ear nor any single faculty – an on-rushing pervasion, saturating all existence; with exactitude, logarithmic, dial-timed, millesimal – of calculated velocity, some mean chemist’s contrivance, a stinking physicist’s destroying toy.
He stood alone on the stones, his mess-tin spilled at his feet. Out of the vortex, rifling the air it came – bright, brass-shod, Pandoran; with all-filling screaming the howling crescendo’s up-piling snapt. The universal world, breath held, one half second, a bludgeoned stillness. Then the pent violence released a consummation of all burstings out; all sudden up-rendings and rivings-through – all taking out of vents – all barrier breaking – all unmaking. (In Parenthesis, part 2: p.24)
David Jones: In Parenthesis. London: Faber & Faber. 1937
David Jones: The Anathemata. London: Faber & Faber. 1952
David Jones: The Sleeping Lord and other fragments. London: Faber & Faber. 1974
David Jones: Epoch & Artist. London: Faber & Faber. 1959
Robert J Yates, January 2005