David Jones: A Case Study in Modernist Belatedness

3rd July 2020

Ann Marie Jakubowski, Washington University in St. Louis

Reading David Jones within the context of this special issue’s focus on “belatedness” highlights the possibility that many of the thorniest elements of his poetic legacy are also the most compelling features of his work. Jones – a poet, painter, engraver, essayist, and World War I veteran – was much admired by his contemporaries, yet he has remained marginal in modernist studies until recently.[1] His literary reputation rests largely upon two book-length poems: In Parenthesis (1937) and The Anathemata (1952). The former recasts Jones’s memories of war but arrives nearly twenty years after the armistice; the latter dilates to encompass the history of Britain from its pre-Roman origins into modernity and is aptly described as a ‘glacial erratic in the landscape of modern poetry,’ in Paul Keegan’s memorable phrase.[2] I want to consider how this element of untimeliness is not incidental to Jones’s work but rather fundamental to it – that is, his belatedness is as much a defining element of his poetic imagination as it is the result of critical paradigms ill-suited to appreciating his work.

In Parenthesis draws heavily upon Jones’s memories of serving as an infantryman with the Royal Welch Fusiliers, blending the horror of war with its banality while rendering the experience through a decentered, polyvocal perspective. In both works, Jones develops a highly allusive, palimpsestic poetic form that forges associative links between past and present, combining myth and materiality. Jones began writing In Parenthesisin the spring of 1929 because he felt he could ‘do better’ than the slew of war memoirs flooding the literary market in the intervening decade.[3] His poem’s central figure is Private John Ball, whose movements largely correspond to Jones’s own war experiences from late 1915 to July 1916, culminating with the Battle of Mametz Wood. However, In Parenthesis presents a kind of poignant case study in bad timing: ittook Jones nearly eight years to complete, and by the time it was published in 1937, nearly twenty years had passed since the end of WWI, and the outbreak of WWII was just two years away. In a letter, Jones recounted his realization that ‘recent preoccupation with, & fear of, newer, & dreadfuller, & equally meaningless wars has made […] the war I wrote about […] of very remote interest to anyone.’[4] These circumstances make us feel the poem’s belatedness more acutely, but as Keegan points out, the timing also underscores its formal and thematic ‘revelation […] that the peacetime distinction between past and present is unreal, and that our historical condition is to be between wars.’[5]

In addition to its publication history, In Parenthesis opens with a scene of belatedness. On the first page of the poem, our first impression of Private Ball finds him failing to appear at roll call:

Private Ball … absent.
’01 Ball, ’01 Ball, Ball of No. 1.
Where’s Ball, 25201 Ball – you corporal,
Ball of your section.[6]

These opening lines register how the procedures of war administration – roll call, inspection, etc. – chafe against the fallible individuals it disciplines into troops and battalions. The syntax of Ball’s arrival a few lines later is halting and strange: “The silence of a high order, full of peril in the breaking of it, like the coming on parade of John Ball.” Ball arrives belatedly in the sentence itself, with accumulating prepositional phrases that bury his invoked presence in layers of text, and he appears a rather pathetic sight: ‘Private Ball’s pack, ill adjusted and without form, hangs more heavily on his shoulder blades, a sense of ill-usage pervades him.’[7] The effect of this opening scene is to endear us to the hapless Private, but Ball’s awkward untimeliness– his belated arrival on parade, his ill-fitting, ill-adjusted pack – also provides a poignant metonym for Jones’s position in modernist studies.

Jones’s advocates have long highlighted the superlative praise his work received from canonized giants of modernism, pointing to it as proof of the injustice of his relative contemporary neglect.[8] But as Anna Svendsen and Jasmine Hunter Evans write in their introduction to a 2017 Religion & Literature special issue on the poet, ‘Many now understand Jones’s mastery as achieved precisely in his “periphery” outlook, both on the “literary generation” of the postwar moment and on broader discourses engaging with the art of the First World War, the intersection of verbal and visual art, and the notion of the “Catholic artist.”’[9] Building on their insight into the importance of his ‘periphery outlook,’ I suggest that as we recover Jones’s importance to modernist studies, we must also retain the sense of profound untimeliness that is integral to his poetry and not merely the incidental result of his critical history.  

The notion of being out of sync with one’s times is foundational to Jones’s poetics, and especially his commitment to re-presenting the past and reimagining its relevance to the present. This is evident in his preface to In Parenthesis, where he reflects on his choice of titles:  

This writing is called ‘In Parenthesis’ because I have written it in a kind of space between – I don’t know between quite what – but as you turn aside to do something; and because for us amateur soldiers (and especially for the writer, who was not only amateur, but grotesquely incompetent, a knocker-over of piles, a parade’s despair) the war itself was a parenthesis – how glad we thought we were to step outside its bracket at the end of ’18 – and also because our curious type of existence here is altogether in parenthesis.[10]

To understand the poem as existing ‘in a kind of space between’ is to understand its insistent contingency. ‘How glad we thought we were to step outside its bracket,’ he writes ruefully; the tenses revise the memory even as he records it. The poem’s formal and thematic concerns emphasize this contingent time, and in doing so, Jones’s example invites us to see how belatedness is an essential attribute of modernist temporality, not a mere exception to it. In this sense, his legacy suggests how reading for belatedness in modernist poetry might help dissolve nebulous distinctions between the contingent and essential, parenthetical and central.


Sources   

[1]A series of recent publications and cultural events seems to suggest a shift on this front. The journal Religion & Literature dedicated a special issue to Jones in 2017; Jones’s most prolific critic, Thomas Dilworth, published a long-awaited biography in 2017; and new editions of his previously unpublished prose and poetry were released from Bloomsbury’s Modernist Archives series in 2018. Outside of academia, in 2016, the Welsh National Opera produced an adaptation of In Parenthesis, and the BBC produced a documentary titled “The Greatest Poem of World War One: David Jones’s In Parenthesis.

[2]Paul Keegan, ‘Mulishness,’ London Review of Books41, no. 21 (7 Nov. 2019).

[3]Thomas Dilworth, David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet (London: Jonathan Cape, 2017), p. 128;the fray of war memoir publication began with Henri Barbusse’s Le feu (1916) and continued with such landmark titles as Ernst Jünger’s In Stahlgewittern (1920, trans. 1929), Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That (1929), and Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930). For more on the titles Jones read and his reactions to them, see Dilworth, p. 128.

[4]Jones qtd. in Dilworth, p. 191.

[5]Keegan, ‘Mulishness’.

[6]David Jones, In Parenthesis (New York: New York Review of Books, 2003), p. 1.

[7]Jones, p. 2.

[8]Even the briefest round up of these accolades includes T. S. Eliot’s labeling of In Parenthesis as a “work of genius” and W. H. Auden praising The Anathemataas “very probably the finest long poem written in English in this century.” Igor Stravinsky called Jones “a writer of genius”; W. B. Yeats theatrically bowed to him at a tea, intoning “I salute the author of In Parenthesis”; and Dylan Thomas said “I would like to have done anything as good as David Jones has done.”

[9]Anna Svendsen and Jasmine Hunter Evans, “Introduction.” Religion & Literature, 49: 1 (Spring 2017), pp. 3-4.

[10]Jones, p. xv.

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