David Jones: Painter and Poet

By Alex Preston

Alex Preston is the author of two highly-acclaimed works of fiction:  This Bleeding City and The Revelations. Before becoming a novelist he worked in the world of finance, but before embarking on that career he read English at Hertford College, Oxford where he developed an appreciation of the work of David Jones, painter and one of the first British Modernist poets. He was in good company: Jones’s In Parenthesis was considered by T. S. Eliot to be a ‘work of genius’. Alex here takes us through In Parenthesis, from the genesis of the work – its evolution from painting to poem; its ‘landscape of language’; its resonance and lasting importance – to its place in the canon of First World War literature.

‘Part of me, the artist within me, has never left the trenches.’ Dai Greatcoat

David Jones’s cameo appearance in Owen Sheers’ novel Resistance highlights his status as the poet/painter of the valleys, the asexual anchorite who retreated from the world into the craggy peaks of the Black Mountains. But Jones’ greatest achievement, the long poem In Parenthesis, is rooted not in Gwent, but in his experience as a soldier in the Royal Welch Fusiliers during the First World War. It was this poem that T. S. Eliot referred to as ‘a work of genius’ and is the most detailed and moving evocation of the ordinary soldier’s experience of the trenches. It is a work of great subtlety, occasionally dazzling in its complexity, and sees Jones creating a Catholic, Celtic epic to commemorate ‘the war to end all wars’.

Jones enlisted in 1914 and fought until he was wounded at the Somme in July 1916, but In Parenthesis wasn’t published until 1937. The story of Jones’ career is his attempt to render faithfully his experience of the turbulence, the fear and the camaraderie of the trenches. His initial attempts were through painting (he is still better known as a painter), but it was only when he exhausted this medium and turned his hand to poetry that he was able to address the war face-on.

In Parenthesis: the Original Edition

Jones started In Parenthesis after a trip to France with Eric Gill in 1928. Seeing the scarred countryside of his wartime years again, and particularly in the company of his artistic mentor and spiritual guide, prompted Jones to return to thoughts of the war. Re-crossing the channel, he began work on a series of sketches. For each of these sketches he formed a collection of thoughts and notes concerning his time in the trenches.

It is important to recognise that Jones had originally meant In Parenthesis to be a work of illustrated poetry (and this is why it is such painterly poetry). Indeed, it was to have been primarily a work of visual art with accompanying text. As he stated in a letter to H. S. Ede in 1936, he started out with ‘the idea of doing a lot of illustrations with long “captions” of a sort’. He seemed initially to regret the lack of the visual dimension, saying ‘it would have been good to have been able to do engravings, but that would mean waiting until I am able and going through it all again in another medium – another matter of years.’ However, Jones was taken up by the challenge of the merging of form and content ‘in writing as compared with the same problems in the visual arts’.

Jones’ most successful war painting is the frontispiece to In Parenthesis. It is as if, having given himself up to his new medium – poetry, and embracing the freedom of expression this allows him, he is finally able to address the war. The soldier, staring out of blank eyes, hangs crucified against the background of broken trees. Rats scuttle through the barbed wire that trains up his body towards his shrunken genitals – symbols of his emasculation in his final moments. Tiny figures reminiscent of C. R. W. Nevinson or Wyndham Lewis struggle with enormous guns in the background as the night sky smudges into a riot of stars.

It is notably the most avant-garde of Jones’ visual works, and gives a sense of the Modernist riot that is about to be unleashed in the poem. And yet the painting revels why Jones has turned to writing in the first place. Because it necessarily lacks motion and lacks sound – two things that Jones is able to capture in the words of the poem. Both the poetry of the language of the soldiers, and the descriptions of the interplay between the silence of the trenches at night, and the booming and blasting of the shells feature repeatedly in the text. Jones takes the achievement of Nevinson and Lewis – holding us up to experience one instant of the horror of war, the fear and misery of the soldier’s life – and draws it out over time, giving us a sense of the durée of this agony.

In the Preface to In Parenthesis, Jones states that he is setting out to ‘make a shape in words’. It is clear that the poetry of In Parenthesis draws deeply on Jones’ skill as a painter. Scenes are observed as if they were studies for later paintings (and many are clearly the notes for the never-completed illustrations), whilst there are long lists of technical apparatus, meticulous descriptions of the detail of trench life.

Stephen Spender commented in his obituary of Jones that ‘nearly all survivors who were at the Western Front for any length of time were, I should say, men apart, in some way dedicated by that tragedy, afflicted by an inner wound from which they never wholly recovered (perhaps this is the true cause of the wound of the Fisher King in The Waste Land). In the lives of these former soldiers, this wound was sacred, tragic, and singing’. Jones phrases this ‘singing’ in the Preface, stating that writing about the war necessitated ‘a new and strange direction of the mind, a new sensitivity’.

In ParenthesisIn Parenthesis is richly allusive, dense with reference to Arthurian legend, Shakespeare, Welsh mythology and classical literature. Jones stressed in his draft for the BBC recording of In Parenthesis that he had ‘absorbed Eliot and Pound’s lesson about the presence of the past by the early 1930s, and came to feel that the texture of any historical present was linked, necessarily, with a whole historic past’. Jones works to create a monument to the scapegoat-soldiers, the valiant aspiring heroes unmanned by the technological onslaught of the war, by setting them in the context of the past, by making them into Launcelots and Prince Hals. Just as he set soldiers in tin hats at the foot of the Cross in his paintings to demonstrate the fact that they were guiltless tools, Jones interweaves modern war with ancient myth to show that, despite the otherness of the experience of the war, these soldiers as just as heroic as their forebears.

John Ball, the hero of the poem (to the extent that this is a useful term when the speaker, tense and perspective shift so often), is named after the leader of the Peasant’s Revolt. As a figure who challenged the rule of the aristocracy, this chimes well with Jones’ presentation of the soldier as the guiltless victim of scheming higher powers. However the name John Ball stresses very much that he is not John Bull, not an Englishman and not a patriot, but very much a Welshman. Indeed the ‘a’ which steers us away from John Bull echoes the ‘a’ in Wales. His somewhat clumsy progression through the war, the sense he gives of a pawn being manipulated from Victoria Station to the trenches and then out onto the scarred fields of Ypres, certainly gives no impression of bravery. So Jones, by placing these soldiers amongst the pantheon of mythical heroes, elevates them.

As has already been stated, Jones’ skill as a painter also fitted him with unique literary tools in the creation of his great literary work. The text itself on a visual level, which Jones wanted to have fashioned in a more dramatically radical font and typesetting than Faber & Faber eventually allowed, challenges us with its shift from prose to poetry, the lines which seem to stutter, spill over, hesitate as Jones girds himself up to face the final brutal denouement of the battle of Ypres. Rather like Nevinson’s Returning to the Trenches, Jones’ work starts off relatively tentatively, the prose rarely breaking free into poetry, the language and imagery muted and clearly comprehensible. However, just as Nevinson’s soldiers dissolve into abstraction as they head towards the trenches, Jones’ prose becomes more and more experimental, his meaning more obscure, the allusion richer and more arcane as the final battle approaches. And because he is not subject to the constraints that held him back in his painting, he is able to embrace radical techniques in presenting the war, his concrete poetry straining every sinew to tell the truth of the experience.

The poem is structured in three sections: the journey to France from England; the time in the trenches; and the final battle. As the soldiers make their way towards that bloody end, we see shifts in style, and particularly in the way that Jones uses his painter’s eye to convey meaning. It is perhaps misleading to call the text a poem given that the majority of the opening three chapters is in prose. Jones breaks out into poetry only during moments of intense emotion, most notably during the night-passage at the end of Part 3, which owes a great debt to Eliot. As John Ball sits listening to the oppressive silence of night in the trenches, fingering the trigger of his gun, the prose cannot bear the weight of his fear, and escapes into the more expressive medium of poetry. Only ‘the creeping things’ are audible now:

‘You can hear the silence of it:
you can hear the rat of no-man’s land
rut-out intricacies,
weasel-out his patient workings,
scrut, scrut, sscrut.’

As the battle approaches, the text increasingly uses poetry as its main medium. As more men die, even poetry seems unable to stand up to the task of presenting the horror of the scene, as lines break and shift position, trying to escape the monstrosity of what they are saying:

‘When the shivered rowan fell
you couldn’t hear the fall of it.
Barrage with counter-barrage shockt
Deprive all several sounds of their identity,
what dark-convulsed cacophony
conditions each disparity
and the trembling woods are vortex for the storm;’

Similarly, the text begins in the third person describing the progress centred largely on John Ball, however as the work develops, it skips between second person singular and plural, and occasionally first person singular, with this shifting of viewpoint occurring more frequently as we move towards the climax. This brings us close the experience of a painting, where we are at once deeply involved in the work of art, and yet also made aware of ourselves as viewers, our privileged position as spectators outside of the sphere of the action.

As John Ball and his comrades move towards Ypres, and the text struggles to express meaning through its stuttering poetry, Jones’ painting-imagery becomes radically experimental, moving into a realm of abstraction that is both dense and powerfully affecting. The soldiers strafe the cliffs facing them trying to pick out snipers:

‘where his traversing machine-guns perforate to powder
white creatures of chalk pounded
and the world crumbled away.’

As the soldiers crouch in the trench awaiting the first charge, with the sergeant bawling ‘two minutes to go’, we are suddenly taken inside John Ball’s mind, with words and images clashing and flashing by, dizzying in their rush:

‘Minutes to excuse me to make excuse.
Responde mihi?
for surely I must needs try them
so many, much undone
and lose on roundabouts as well and vari-coloured polygram
to love and know
and we have a little sister
whose breasts will be as towers
and the gilly-flowers will blow next month.’

Finally, as his comrades are killed around him, and John Ball listens to bullets snap past his ears, we enter his mind again, although it is a mind losing touch with reality and sanity, a blur of images that has something of the madness of Surrealism and Dadaism, something of the rush of Futurism and Vorticism about it:

‘fanged-flash and darkt-fire thrring and thrrung athwart thdrill
a Wimhurst pandemonium drill with dynamo druv staccato
bark at you like Berthe Krupp’s terrier bitch and rattlesnakes
for bare legs; sweat you on the sudden like masher Bimp’s
back-firing No. 3 model for Granny Bodger at 1.30 a.m. rrat-
tle a chatter you like a Vitus neurotic, harrow your vertebrae,
bore your brain-pan before you can say Fanny – and comfort-
ably over open sights.’

The poem, like The Waste Land, ends in a madness of allusions and fragments of snatched thoughts, as the only way that one can try to make sense of the insanity of the war.

In Parenthesis creates a landscape of language which holds us, the viewer/reader, up against the vicious reality of the war, and slowly drags us towards the brutal climax. Nowhere else is the experience of trench warfare presented so intricately or so powerfully. The poem’s complexity and use of arcane allusion means that it has been largely ignored next to the more accessible war poems of Sassoon and Owen. This will change as a new generation of readers struggles to comprehend this bloody period in our history.

David Jones’s In Parenthesis and The Anathemata, and Alex Preston’s This Bleeding City and The Revelations are available from the Faber website. alexhmpreston.com
Epoch and Artist, Dai Greatcoat, The Sleeping Lord, and The Dying Gaul by David Jones have recently been reissued by Faber, and are also available from the Faber website.

This post first appeared on the Faber blog in August 2010