In Parenthesis by David Jones
Even when fought with mere swords, war is hell.
The Great War of 1914-18 was the hottest, most horrible hell in history up to that point, as new technologies of terror stoked the fiery furnace on the front with the bodies of boys.
Writers witnessing that “colossal and mismanaged butchery,” including Erich Maria Remarque, Wilfred Owen, and Ernest Hemingway, who thus described it, still have a place in the popular literary canon.
But nearly forgotten is Welsh poet David Jones’ harrowing first-hand account of months of muddy misery, chronic cold, fearful fatigue, trivial tedium in the filthy, flooded trenches inexorably leading in a Cavalry-esque march toward the killing chaos of the July 10-11, 1916, assault on Mametz Wood, the day 19,000 soldiers would die.
Incorporating Welsh mythology, Shakespeare, Arthurian legend, Roman Britain, and the Bible, In Parenthesis, published in 1937, is truly, as T.S. Eliot declared, “a work of genius.”
Auden, Greene, Waugh, and Sassoon likewise lauded it. A true prose poem, it mingles wry wit and defiant doggerel with swift, shattering scenes of slaughter: “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…the sap of vegetables slobbered the spotless breech-block of No. 3 gun.”
Jones links the men of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, the Dais and Taffys, with all military history: from the Black Prince of Wales and Malory’s Balin to Saul and Longinus: the universal soldiers. Epigraphs ennoble the soldiers even as mundane lists of the things they carried—tea, tobacco, biscuits, postcards, cheese–humbles them.
The desperate attempts at fellowship on the doom-driven march south to the Somme are touching: “They talked of ordinary things. Of each one’s friends at home…Of if you’d ever read the books of Mr. Wells…Of the losses of the Battalion since they’d come to France…Of how everybody rightly ought to have Burberrys, like officers. Of how German knee boots were much more proper to trench warfare than puttees…Of whether they three would be together for the Duration, and how you hoped so very much indeed.”
After 150 pages, Part Seven depicts the long-dreaded moment of battle as a new Gethsemane: “Or you read it again many times to see if it will come out different:/ you can’t believe the Cup wont pass from/ or they wont make a better show/ in the Garden/ Won’t someone forbid the banns/ or God himself will stay their hands.”
Not in the Somme. “But sweet sister death has gone debauched today and stalks this high ground with strumpet confidence, makes no coy veiling of her appetite but leers from you to me with all her parts discovered.”
In his book The Third Spring, Adam Schwartz of Christendom College rightfully restores this work to the prominence it merits. His cogent, catholic, and Catholic critique of Jones calls readers to rediscover this sad, stunning, steely song of war. Writes Schwartz:
“He suggests war re-presents the Crucifixion because its sacrificed innocents are analogously akin to the Sacrificed Innocent. He theodicized the seeming senseless slaughter of innocent soldiers that he had seen by linking their fate to that of Christ, in his mind the ultimate unjustly killed innocent.” As Jesus’unwarranted death saved mankind from sin, “so too will soldiers be redeemed if they fall in needless battles like the Somme.”
In Parenthesis’ harrowed hell reminds us, however, that needless death in a senseless war is redemption without resurrection.
Better that men live like Jesus than die like Him.