The poetic works of David Jones (1895-1974), at the time of publication, won the acclaim of the public and critics. Dylan Thomas, W. H. Auden, Basil Bunting, Hugh MacDiarmid, W. B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney are just some of the many exponents of the British cultural world who celebreted the lyric talent of the Welsh author. Yet Jones continues to be among the lesser-known of modernist poets. The reason is to be found above all in the particular form pursued by Jones, between poetry and prose, and in the linguistic difficulties. Added to this is the impressive amount of images, symbols and cultural references that form the framework of his works.
Jones, who led a retired life, was not only a writer but also an engraver and painter of moderate fame. His biography – meticulously presented in Thomas Dilworth’s massive volume of 2017 – was marked by his experience on the French front during the First World War. He served in the ranks of the Royal Welch Fusiliers and spent 117 weeks on the front line, more than any other British writer. He accompanied his fellow soldiers in the assault on Mametz wood, during the first battle of the Somme, in 1916, and in the attack on Pilckem Ridge, at Passchendaele, in 1917. He survived an injury and illness, but from trauma of war never recovered. Everything he saw and suffered remained with him, like a shadow, for the rest of his life. He began to suffer from panic attacks, depression and violent forms of agoraphobia. Perhaps this growing sense of unease was one of the reasons that led him, in 1921, to become a Catholic. He later lived for a time in the community of Ditchling led by Eric Gill, became a Dominican tertiary and, in later life, was among the signatories of the petition that led to the well-known “Agatha Christie Indult” to preserve the Tridentine Mass in England and Wales.
Jones himself testifies that the roots of his conversion were linked to his experience of the trenches. According to his account, it was in 1917 that he began to talk about religion with the Jesuit Daniel Hughes, the Catholic chaplain of his battalion, then stationed in Ypres. Father Hughes lent Jones a book by St. Francis de Sales and it was from that moment that he began to think about the Catholic Church. He was also deeply impressed by the Mass, celebrated on the front line and served by zealous soldiers, mostly of Irish or Italian origin.
From the mud, pain and ashes of that conflict, Jones also drew inspiration for In Parenthesis, perhaps his masterpiece, published in 1937 by Faber & Faber, the result of more than ten years’ work (it was sponsored by T. S. Eliot, who also signed the introductory note).
What at first might appear to be an unusual war poem turns out to be, in reality, a universal parable of redemption, a magnificent tapestry made up of quotations ranging from Celtic and Welsh myths to Chanson de Roland, from Shakespeare’s Henry V to Le Morte d’Arthur by Malroy, from the Bible to the adventures of Alice narrated by Carroll, from the Catholic liturgy to the famous paintings of Renaissance artists, from The Ballad of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge to modern folk songs, those in vogue in cafes and among the troops, from lyrics by the Jesuit G. M. Hopkins – another fundamental source of inspiration for Jones – to Welsh nursery rhymes. The various sources of inspiration merge with the autobiographical experience of the author, from which he draws episodes and characters that are transfigured by his pen, taken in a never-ending dialogue between realism, myth and vision, never clearly distinguishable (this is the reason which prompted Jones to accompany the text with a large array of explanatory notes).
This is why the style, halfway between the informal manner of the journalistic news and the heroic hyperbole of the epic, and the language, which ranges from the rough expressions of the troops and from the “Cockney” colloquialisms to ancient Welsh and Latin, are part integral to that human chain which, far from being merely an appeal to brotherhood among men, for Jones becomes an effervescent comparison between present and past, between legend and reality, between groups and individuals, though without renouncing for this renouncing the verticality of the chain that binds earth and heaven. The man of In Parenthesis is therefore laid bare in every aspect according to that integral approach dear to the French philosopher Jacques Maritain, much admired by Jones.
After all, the latter was always particularly fond of the notion of “sign”, that is, the re-creation of reality – a form of re-incarnation – which constitutes the essence of his writings and of his best paintings. According to him, the artist’s aim was not to simply represent an object, but rather to reveal the universal light of God in it. This aspect differentiates him from most British war poets, whose poems are characterized by satire against officers and by the explicit moral indignation for the relentless slaughter.
In Parenthesis begins in December 1915, when the battalion leaves the English coasts to reach France, and ends with the confrontation in Mametz Wood, seven months later, with an epilogue in which the mythical Queen of the Wood visits the fallen and give them garlands to honour their value. Each of the seven parts into which the volume is divided is introduced by a quotation from Y Gododdin, a Welsh epic poem that tells of the battle of Catreath, fought around 600. The meaning of the title is clarified by Jones in his preface: «For us amateur soldiers […] the war itself was a parenthesis».
Among finely worked fragments that create unexpected dissonances and insertions, In Parenthesis ends by speaking of man, between misery and greatness, and of the hope of redemption offered by Christ.