David Jones' In Parenthesis: A Retrospective Journey through the Landscapes of Art and War

In the preface to Epoch and Artist, a selection of David Jones's essays about history, myth, and art, he writes:

I have seen myself described as 'A visual artist first and a writer second.' Well, I make no objection to that...for whereas I was thirty before I made a written work I cannot recall a time when drawing was not a preoccupation. However, a day came when I found myself trying my hand at the making of a writing...Eventually, ten years later, this beginning was completed, and published as In Parenthesis, but that is looking ahead (Epoch 11-12).

This beginning was, officially, in 1932, fourteen years after World War I had ended, eight years after Jones had left Eric Gill's Ditchling Community, in the last years of Jones's exhibitions with the Seven and Five Society. While sketching studies for a series of drawings about his experiences as an infantryman in the War, he conceived of writing a few verses to accompany each drawing. Those verses developed. The drawings didn't, and soon Jones found himself faced with the possibilities and demands of an entirely new medium, "When first I came to a contractual, practive, immediate relationship with this (for me) new sort of making, I found myself faced with the same problems, in about the same proportion, that were familiar to me in such visual arts as I had any previous, experimental and day by day knowledge of" (Epoch 12). More specifically, "I tried...to see how the business of 'form' and 'content' worked in relation to writing to what I knew of how it worked in drawing" (DJAE 35).

In his book, The Shape of Meaning in the Poetry of David Jones, Thomas Dilsworth says, "In its movement from realism to symbolism and from narrative continuity to fragmentation, the poem seems to reflect his development as a visual artist" (Shape 9). This reflection can most easily be seen in the landscapes through which Private John Ball and his comrades make their fateful march during seven months of warfare. According to David Blamires,

In all his work there is a strong feeling of unity with nature, which is expressed in a multiplicity of ways...this delight continues from the early paintings right through to the latest enormously complicated watercolor drawings. But the sense of community with the natural world really begins and ends for David Jones in the more generalized sphere of landscape (Blamires 50-51).

If Jones' quest throughout the writing of In Parenthesis was puzzling over how he could make his visual conceptions of "form and content" fit this new medium, then much of that experimentation is apparent in the descriptions of the poem's landscapes, for the question of how to represent them in his paintings was something that preoccupied him his entire artistic career, leading him through several innovative phases of artistic development. Furthermore, it was only through his experiment with the verbal medium of In Parenthesis, and the development of an allegorical sensibility through the seventh and final part of the poem, that would lead him to the discovery of how to portray the ultimate communion and unity with nature through his works. In the landscapes of the poem Jones had a retrospective view of the past, a resurrection of the structures and purposes of his past and present, and this allowed him, once again, to transform it.

In Parenthesis--An Structural Overview

In its final form, In Parenthesis is an unillustrated, novella-length--roughly two hundred pages plus several pages of Jones' annotations--poem spanning seven parts. The story of the fateful march of the poem's World War I battalion is based on Jones' eight months on the Western Front with the 15th Royal Welsh Fusiliers.

In the last month of 1915, the Fusiliers marched from Winnal Down through Southampton and embarked for Le Havre. After arriving in Warne, they trained for a period, and then proceeded to march through France, down La Bassee road, towards a series of trenches. In the summer of 1916, the battalion was ordered to march towards the Somme. During the march, poor directions made a hasty reversal of direction necessary, and the subsequent forced marching--to make up for lost time--robbed the men of sleep. They arrived exhausted at the bivouac field just outside the battle area. Further marching confusion wearied the men, so that when the planned assault on Mametz Wood commenced on the early morning of July tenth, they were barely coherent. Many of the Fusiliers died in battle because of it (Shape 43). Jones himself was wounded and carried from the front. But although the series of events and place and even many of the soldiers that populate the poem had real-life counterparts, the poem must not be conceived of as strictly autobiographical. Jones, in his preface to the poem, is the first to warn that accuracy has been subordinated to fictional intention, "Each person and every event are free reflections of people and things remembered, or projected from intimately known possibilities. I have only tried to make a shape in words, using as data the...things exterior and interior, the landscape and paraphernalia of that singular time and those particular men" (IP ix-x). The following seven sections cover each of the seven parts--and landscapes--of the poem.

Part I--Blank Canvas

Robin Ironside credits Jones' mother with his first introduction to the visual arts. An accomplished sketch artist in her own right, Alice Ann Jones was the first to encourage her son David to draw whenever and whatever he could. Frequently, he would find his subjects for illustrations in the numerous magazines and books his father, by trade a painter's overseer, always left lying around the house. Most of these were animal illustrations; some were drawings of hunters or soldiers in the wilds (Ironside 3-4).

Dancing Bear

The Dancing Bear, sketched in 1903, when Jones was seven years old, is one of the few existing and most famous drawings of this early period, displaying an attention to detail and perspective extraordinary for a child of that age, from the accurate reproduction of the restraints used on the bear to an uncanny, if unschooled, portrayal of the paws of the upright and profiled bear in the background, somewhat covered by the frontmost paws. There was also a childhood fascination with the sea and ships. Jones' maternal grandfather, Ebenezer Bradshaw, was a mast-and-block maker, and Jones would accompany his grandfather to see the amassed ships in the Thames at Rotherhithe. The impression was overwhelming and permanent, Blamires speculates:

not simply because of childhood associations, however dear and deeply implanted they may be, but because the sea is, for all of us, perhaps the most powerful image of the great unknown. For the small child especially, catching his first glimpse of the sea so frequently as a strange new horizon between or beyond the ordered rows of boarding houses at a seaside resort, the sea is so completely other and so fascinating that it almost inevitably begins to symbolize the regions of spiritual as well as terrestrial exploration (Blamires 54).

No matter how technically imperfect the young Jones may have been, his drawings and paintings displayed so much astounding detail and empathy with his subjects that they attracted much public attention and many of them were eventually exhibited with the Royal Drawing Society in London.

What is singular about the first section of In Parenthesis, "The Many Men So Beautiful," is that the most familiar landscape to the gathering companies and battalions, the landscape most of the soldiers embarking on this journey will long for and many will never see again, is not described, because for all intents and purposes, even though the central square of the unnamed town where the soldiers gather in this first section may well be the hometown of many of them, they have already left. They are in a strange new land, a land of confused marching men and officers on horseback, of numbers for names and uniform appearances--the military landscape. The beginning lines of this section are like a blank canvas, disembodied voices without attribute or context, without editorial context supplying the readers, or the characters, with any information that would allow them to move easily in this new landscape. The first visual image, "Movement round and about the Commanding Officer" (IP 1), is equally as vague--focusing upon what will be the new central figure, the new axis, in these solders' new world--the Commanding Officer. The unfocused, unfamiliar imagery continues, "A hurrying of feet from three companies converging on the little group apart from where on horses sit the central command...Heavily jolting and sideway jostling, the noise of liquid shaken in a small vessel by a regular jogging movement, a certain clinking ending in a shuffling of feet sidelong" (IP 1). The language of this passage is the language of disaccomodation and disorder, the violent gerunds like "jolting," "jostling," and "clinking" are the objects first appearing on this canvas--they are defined before the men who are making these movements, because until these movements cease, and the men are in a marching order acceptable to military standards, their transformation into soldiers is incomplete, and they have no place in this wartime landscape.

The expectations of the military are new for these men, and they are having difficulty fulfilling them, difficulty merging into the strict lineup of a military marching parade--they have only the faintest sense of a hierarchy--a personal topography of higher and lower, as expressed through the mounted commanding officers looming above the chaos. This was also a new order for Jones, who was experiencing it at the time, and a new medium for writing about it years after. Jones's language throughout this section shows some close relation to the technique of "defamiliarization" first examined by Russian literary critic Victor Shklovsky in his essay, "Art as Technique."

Jones uses the same technique, the description of objects and events as if seen, in whole and in part, for the first time, throughout the first part of the poem to bring the reader into the same immediate painful feeling of disaccomodation and confusion that the soldiers felt in this new situation, "The body of the high figure in the front of the head of the column seemed to change his position ever so slightly. It rains on the transparent talc of his map-case" (IP 5). The first and last ray of the sun over England is reflected by a "shining sanded mess-tin giving back the cold early light" (IP 2), and the soldiers' last sleep in England is referred to by the painstakingly detailed military supplies left behind, the "rolled mattresses, the neatly piled bed boards, and the empty tea-buckets of the orderly-men, emptied of their last gun-fire" (IP 3). They march through the wind and rain, chafing at the military lifestyle already, as "in brand-new overseas boots weeping blisters stick to the hard wool of grey government socks" (IP 6), and finally reach the "town of embarkation," where the people do not even acknowledge them, because, late in the second year of the war, platoons of soldiers have faded into the background. In the middle of the night, the soldiers are herded into the ship for France, and they spend this journey in almost absolute darkness, deprived of sight or control over where they are going, crossing the vast sea of Jones' childhood into the great unknown, the beginning of the soldier's physical journey, and the author's spiritual odyssey,

Platoon upon platoon formed single file and moved toward an invisible gangway. Each separate man found his own feet stepping in the darkness on an inclined plane, the smell and taste of salt and machinery, the texture of rope, the glimmer of shielded light around him. So, without sound of farewell or acclamation, shrouded in a dense, windy darkness, they set off towards France(IP 8).

Part Two--The Horizon Line

In 1909, at the age of sixteen, Jones enrolled at the Cumberwell Art School, under the tutelage of A. S. Hartrick, Reginald Savage, and Herbert Cole. Cumberwell's first priority was to break Jones's dependence on those old magazines and "the general dead weight of outside opinion" for artistic inspiration and drill him in the proper techniques of artistic construction. What techniques Jones was actually drilled in is largely unknown. Much of his student work is not yet available to scholars, if it still exists at all. Jones offhandedly refers to his time in Cumberwell being spent "drawing stuffed rabbits and Voltaire's death mask" (Shape 370). But, undoubtedly, the young artist's instinctive sense of perspective, as demonstrated in the sketch Dancing Bear, was refined and strengthened, teaching him how to render objects in space on the canvas. This had been the first step of artistic composition in the visual medium for centuries, and had been only recently challenged in metropolitan centers such as Paris and New York by radicals like Paul Cezanne and Pablo Picasso. Drawing was a technique any new artist first had to master, no matter how he intended to warp that perspective in later works. For a man who was at that time toying around with the idea of painting either animals or Welsh historical scenes , it would be especially important to learn to gauge the placement of soldiers on a battlefield, or a leopard slinking through a jungle.

The soldiers in France at the beginning of In Parenthesis' Part Two, "Chambers Go Off, Corporals Stay," are learning to react to and rely upon the military lifestyle to guide them through this strange new land. The communication lines that stretch from the front lines back to where the platoon practices its drills and ultimately back to England are fraught with possibility, and rumor. These communication lines are usually presented in the poem as message fragments, literal word-and-dash chains of half sentences, incomplete thoughts, which represent both the intermittent nature of the reception of messages over the wires, and the always unsubstantiated, half-overhead rumors concerning those messages that floated through the infantry. "A week before Christmas, Corps communicated with Division...Up the line on Thursday afternoon--Monday--Thursday--back to the Base--back to England...they say at the transport lines--Tim Bolney the Brigade Linesman heard over the wire" (IP 14). Being ordered to march towards the front is known as "going up the line" (IP 15). "The Line" is "the broad paved grey way going east, and very straight, with its flanking guard of trees" (IP 16). All these literal and imagistic "lines," as far as the platoon knows, stretch east as far as the eye can see, towards the horizon line, the vanishing point, "the firm, straight-thrust, plumb forward way, to march upon" (IP 18). These lines--the road, the trees, the communication wires--could be conceived as the lines a landscape artist sketches or envisions upon a canvas in order to properly gauge how the natural features he chooses to paint will change as they recede towards the horizon in the background of the picture. The platoon marches along this road at a breakneck speed, unable to deviate from the path even when the troops have to begin to weave around the "filled-in circular roughnesses pitting the newly mended road" (IP 20), while "a man emerged upon the landscape...where a newly painted board...marked the direction of a gun position" (IP 21). Finally, at a forking in the road, the troops pause briefly. As John Ball stands being reprimanded by a superior officer for not showing all proper respect due to higher ranks, a mortar shell lands close by. "Out of the vortex, rifling the air it came" (IP 24). This vortex is the intersection of all the perspective lines, and the horizon line. It is the literal horizon line, the limits of the soldiers' line of sight, and the unseen dwelling place of the enemy, where death resides. The troops have not yet reached that vanished point. Instead, it rushes ominously forth to meet them. Much in the same way does Hugh Kenner describe the energy contained within the artworks of Vorticist Wyndham Lewis, whom Jones much admired. Lewis's forms are "oblique lines sprang from points of radiation to reverse the thrust of traditional perspective which tapers or dwindles to a point" (Kenner 232). The violent mortar attack is both an attack on the soldiers, and an attack on the landscape, violating the boundaries of space, bringing death from the beyond the horizon into the foreground. This first mortar serves both as a foreshadowing of the grim events to come, and as a foreshadowing of the flattening of perspective that will dominate the next section, and serves as a step through the vortex into the night beyond. Death no longer lurks beyond the horizon. It is here.

Part Three--Vorticist Night

As traditional as David Jones' Cumberwell and later Westminister education may have been, he was immersed in the art world at a time when it was anything but traditional, and could not help but be exposed to and influenced by the shocking innovations rocking the world of painting. His Cumberwell teacher A. S. Hartrick had known Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh in Paris, and impressed upon Jones the techniques of the Post-Impressionists. His Westminister teacher, Bernard Meninsky, had exhibited works with the Vorticists, and made Jones aware of artists such as Wyndham Lewis. However traditional a painter Jones had once wanted to be, and however traditional his bare-bones education, his work now began to go through radical changes. "Objects and figures securely located in uniform perspective are solid, weighted, and somewhat tubular, with heavily defined and shaded hard, outer edges" (Shape 13). Typical examples of this phase of Jones' style are the paintings The Garden Enclosed (1924) and The Maid at No. 37 (1926).

The Maid at No. 37The Garden Enclosed

After leaving Westminister School of Art for Eric Gill's religious craft-guild community of Ditchling, Jones learned several skills, such as wood-carving and mural painting. But his developing skill as a wood-engraver would begin his career as a professional artist, as he eventually engraved illustrations for publishing companies such as Faber and Faber and Golden Cockerel Press. Some of these engravings capture, according to Dilsworth, the "Vorticist combination of solidity and linear thrust" (Shape 13), and reflect an intelligent admiration of the techniques of Wyndham Lewis, as shown by Lewis' "Alcibiades" design for Timon of Athens (1912), and Jones' eighth engraving for The Chester Play of the Deluge (1927).

Lewis--AlcibiadesJones--Deluge 8

Both contain, to quote Kenner, the "energy of the diagonal" (Kenner 241), comparing the limbs and weapons of Lewis' soldiers to the falling flood rain of Jones' engraving, for example.

In Part Three of In Parenthesis, "Starlight Order", the platoon is on a hurried night-march after the mortar attack. The mortar attack has succeeded in bringing death very close to the troops. There is a sense of a collapse of the perspective of the previous section. The road and tree lines snap. Death overlaps them.

The immediate, the nowness, the pressure of sudden, modifying circumstance: some certain, malignant, opposing brought intelligibility and effectiveness to the used formulae of command: the liturgy of their going-up assumed a primitive creativeness, an apostolic actuality, a correspondence with the object, a flexibility (IP 28).

Location means nothing. The linear, prosaic order of In Parenthesis begins to shatter for the first time, slowly transforming itself into the free, run-on verse that will come to dominate the final sections of the poem.

when they paraded
               at the end of the day, unrested,
                               bodies, wearied from the morning,
               troubled in their minds,
                                      frail bodies loaded over much (IP 27).

As opposed to the smooth, regular procession of the text in the first quote, the text in the second quote, and much of the free verse that begins to appear in the third section of the poem, is erratic, broken and diagonal, like the bombed road that lies before the soldiers, like the nervous sidelong glances into their surroundings, like the diagonals in the visual works of Lewis and Jones. The darkness of Part Three comes alive, providing a frightening contrast to the flat, grey, plumb-straight landscape of the day described in Part Two, "ditch circumscribed; this all depriving darkness split now by crazy flashing; marking hugely clear the spilled bowels of trees, splinter-spike, leper-ashen, sprawling the receding, unknowable, wall of night--the slithery causeway" (IP 31). The "wall of night", the receding causeway of perspective, is upended and thrust forward. The smooth surface of Part Three's all-encompassing night is scratched with lines of white moonlight, much, Dilsworth observes, like the final print of a wood engraving, "The print looks a little like a photographic negative. Because the lines are not cut in relief but engraved in the wood, they are finer than lines that print black on white, and the black background unifies the picture" (Deluge 7). Part Two's plumb-straight road begins to be more warped than straight, forcing the troops to deviate from their path again and again, zigzagging around the potholes, making their weary marching all the more weary "Obstacles on jerks-course made of wooden planking--his night-phantasm mazes a pre-war, more idiosyncratic skein, weaves with stored-up very other tangled threads" (IP 32). It begins to rain, in a vivid verbal resurrection of Jones' rainfall in his Deluge etching, "in a settled fashion, acutely aslant, drenching the body" (IP 33). The night becomes a hallucinogenic, crazed landscape where depth and direction are everywhere and nowhere at all. Sometimes those marching can't see a foot in front of their faces, and sometimes, in the crazed patches of moonlight, " his bobbing shape showed clearly; stiff marionettes jerking on the uneven path; at rare intervals he saw the whole platoon, with Mr. Jenkins leading" (IP 37). The men are tonally at one with the background, visible only when the background is lit by lightning, flashes of white on a black background, flattened like a wood print. Descriptions of the diagonal moonlight and rainfall mingle with descriptions of the diagonal path of the road. Unable to depend upon their outside senses for any sort of confirmation, the troops marching along finally quit depending on them, withdrawing within themselves, suffering the weather and the uneven pathways and the flashing of light and dark without complaint. But the troops' psychological landscape is just as collapsed and crazed as the outside landscape, as is demonstrated by the interior monologue of John Ball, who stands sentry in the trenches where the troops try to find a little rest. The switching of narrative tense warps perspective, presenting multiple perspectives on a single event, much like a Cezanne painting showing two sides of a church at once. As the narrator's voice switches point-of-view from third-person to second-person in order to enter the mind of John Ball, so does John Ball enter the mind of the enemy. Ball's taking on the persona of the enemy brings the theoretical background to the fore. He is no longer looking out over the dark ridge, he is looking at himself, "You can hear his carrying-parties rustle our corruptions through the night-weeds...bead-eyed feast on us...Those broad-pinioned;/ blue-burnished, or brinded-back;/ whose proud eyes watched/ the broken emblems/ droop and drag dust/ suffer with us this metamorphosis" (IP 54). The boundaries between conscious and unconscious observation are also cinched, as Ball falls asleep on duty, a final violation of military orders that brings the order that began in Section Two into complete collapse.

Part Four--The Labyrinth

Being an infantryman on the Western Front with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers did not give Jones much time to practice what he had learned in Cumberwell Art School. When he had a few seconds, he would sketch in a diary he kept throughout the early months of his tour, but the diary was eventually lost. But after serving as an infantryman, Jones was sent to headquarters from September 1917 to March 1918, where, it having been discovered that he was a trained artist of sorts, he was assigned to draw maps for the battalion intelligence officer (Shape 50). Much of his memory of the terrain that later made up the landscape of In Parenthesis is derived from his mapmaking days, marking trench-lines and roads, the latest known location of the enemy, regained and lost territory.

Map of Parts Three and Four of IP

Among his notes for the poem was found a map of the terrain the troops cross in the middle sections of the poem, which Jones made to aid his memory of the events.

In Part Four of In Parenthesis, "King Pellam's Laude", Jones describes a new landscape, the artificial landscape of war. "Nothing was defined beyond where the ground steepened just in front, where the trip-wire graced its snare-barbs with tinselled moistness" (IP 61). The defining lines of the landscape and the horizon are the wire thickets sent up by both armies to trip up and snag attacking soldiers, "The wire-thicket hanging, the rank grass-tangle drenched, tousled, and the broken tin-glint showed quite clearly...the dissipating mist reveals saturate green-gray flats, and dark up-jutting things, and pollard poles" (IP 62). This is an artificial, mechanized landscape, a contraption of man. War has transformed it into a labyrinth, filled with wire traps and pollard poles to try and contain the monster--death--lurking within. But the contraptions, created to serve man in warfare, entrap man. To march outside the lines carefully designated by intelligence would be a certain disaster. Here, closer to the front lines of battle, travel is possible only through the maze of narrow, half-submerged trench-lines. They cannot see the horizon, but must faithfully follow the path laid by others for them--the enemy seems everywhere, "The thudding and breath to breath you don't know which way, what way, you count eight of him in a flare-space, you can't find the lane--the one way--you rabbit to and fro" (IP 71). As they march further and further into the trenches, it is the communication trench, their only thread to the outside world, which cuts off their vision almost completely, leaving them almost entombed underground. The wire communications are intermittent and insufficient; the construction meant to protect and shield soldiers instead introduces them to an experience not unlike grave burial after death. The paltry view of the sky above is their only thread through the labyrinth, "These reeking sack walls block all lateral view, and above, nothing is visible save the rain-filmed, narrowing ribbon of sky" (IP 84). The second mortar attack that comes at that moment further artificializes the landscape--the shells that shake their narrow confines are the violent thrashings of a monstrous "Behemoth" with "brass sinews" (IP 85), something monstrous and mechanical that shakes the ground, as opposed to comparing the damage to natural disasters such as earthquakes or volcanoes. The strip of visible sky is filled with "black chemist's smoke." The sounds and sights of battle, the misery of the sunken, freezing trenches, the cramped conditions, the smell of smoke, has so changed the landscape that when the battalion emerges from the deep trenches, it takes them a while to recognize that they have been marching down the same straight road all along, "Most of them failed to recognize this landmark and were at a loss as to their position and precise direction...They felt only the maze-likeness of all their goings, being aware of nothing much more than the approximate direction of the enemy line" (IP 87).

Part Five--The Village Windows

In 1929, the painter Ben Nicholson had Jones elected into the Seven and Five Society, which included the artists Christopher Wood, Frances Hodgkins, Ivon Hitchens, and John Piper. Although the group had, on the whole, a more traditional aesthetic that what was racing through Europe at the time, its members were in close contact with the leading figures of European Post-Impressionism and Cubism. Nicholson and Wood knew Pablo Picasso. Jones himself eventually met Georges Braque. During his time in the group, Jones's watercolor painting evolved into something "semi-transparent and multi-layered, with surfaces fractured or bent by multiple perspective...color and line separate" (Shape 14). In the watercolor The Long Meadow (1932), for example, the meadow's space is cinched by the placement of the animals within it. The three cows in the foreground would appear to be standing in a series, closest to further away, but the shape of the third cow appearing through the head of the second reduces the space between them to nothing. The same occurs with the horses painted one on top of the other in the background, and the trees in the upper corner, where branches from the tree in the very front of the meadow tangle with branches from the trees along the back. Following the examples of one of his favorite painters at this time, Pierre Bonnard, Jones tried his hand at painting window views. Dilsworth calls Jones's painting of window views a "direct assault on perspective" (Shape 18). "It allows an abrupt juxtaposition of foreground and background that eliminates intervening space and therefore largely circumvents the operation of perspective. Near and far remain distinct but no longer continuous in depth" (Shape 18).

Jones--Curtained Outlook

In the beginning of Part Five, "Squat Garlands for White Knights," the battalion passes through Mametz village. One of the most popular establishments during their brief stay is a bar with a glass door. Jones inserts a literal window view into this scene in order to demonstrate how this landscape of war is affecting those not marching through it. As the battalion passes for the last time, the barmaid, Alice, stands at the window to watch yet another line of troops march by,

She could see their efficient looking iron hats, between where the taped curtains nearly met at the middle pane; in fourfold recession, subtly elliptical, each one tilted variously yet in a strict alignment, like pegs on a rigid string. Words of command lost shape against the sealed windows; the beam of light from her oil lamp shone on them through the glass, shined on cleaned numerals, and on the piling-swivels of rifles slung (IP 104-105).

The language of Part One's "defamiliarization" dominates this passage, like the reference to the soldiers' metal shrapnel helmets as "iron hats," which is consistent with the observations of an outsider. But Alice's observations are not those of a person completely outside and disconnected from the world outside her window. Like the images of Part Three, the black background of the night is scratched by the ominous symbols of war--the glint of metal shrapnel helmets and rifles, the shine of insignia. And, while the night might block the maid's view of the enemy lines, while the military commands might not be heard by her, the window view collapses the distance between the soldiers and her. The darkness flattens her view of the road, the hills beyond. The oil lamp reflects the military insignia back to her. The terrors of war are not just for the soldiers to face. The enemy lines are encroaching just outside, which makes cold comfort of luxuries the village might offer.

Each variously averts his perceptions, makes the inward abysm, and Sergeant Ryan watches from the open door the signs in the evening sky. You suppose the texture of his soul to inform the dark and exact contour his buff coating describes against the convulsed cones of light, he would seem of one piece with his slanted iron hat-rim (IP 109).

This image contains an unnamed second-person observation of a soldier experiencing and being contained in yet another window view. The signs in the night sky are most likely the white-red streaks of flares and mortar shells from the near-by front lines of battle, scratching and streaking the blackness much like the reflections of the oil lamp on the military insignia. Sergeant Ryan is a cut-out against the frame of the door, a two-dimensional silhouette, collapsed and tonally one with his uniform and his shrapnel helmet. This is a more informed window view, a soldier's observation. And the two window scenes overlapping each other have the same effect as the two overlapping cows in The Long Meadow have--bringing the background into the foreground--in this case, death to the village. Alice's window view infers that the military lifestyle will soon overrun her village. Sergeant Ryan's window view infers that these soldiers will soon meet with battle. The two have the combined effect of bringing the war right to the bar's front door. The window views serve the double function of foreshadowing the events to come for the villagers and the soldiers, and as a representative of their emotional concerns. An open door displays an undeniable truth. All this is suggested in the prologue of In Parenthesis itself, which is a paragraph from the Mabinogi of Branwen ferch Lyr, describing the effect on the unnamed narrator, looking through a doorframe much like Sergeant Ryan: "So he opened the door...and when they had looked, they were conscious of all the evils they had sustained, and of all the friends and companions they had lost and of all the misery that had befallen them, as if all had happened in that very spot" (IP, Prologue). The entire poem is, in effect, a window view. It is a recollected chronicle, but that chronicle's unnamed narrator relates the events with a sense of immediacy. The use of defamiliarization, the lack of place names, for example, keeps these past events from being easily recognized as past events, from sounding like a history. What is in the background comes to the fore, an uncomfortably close distance, to be reconsidered by those observing it. It happens, again, "in that very spot," for both writer and reader.

Part Six--Happy Valley

Thomas Dilsworth attributes part of Jones' collapse of uniform perspective in his painting to the remote mountain valley of Capel-y-ffin in Wales, where Eric Gill and his family moved after their Ditchling experience. Jones visited it several times during a period of wandering from London to a Caldy Island Benedictine monastery to the Pyrenees and back again. Capel-y-ffin is made of "huge irregular hills in which spatial planes at various heights slope in wildly different directions. Even landscapes painted here in strict, uniform perspective tend to appear to be done in multiple perspective" (Shape 16). Jones produced several landscapes of the area, and afterwards, multiple perspectives appear more regularly in his work, although never to the radical degrees of many of the Cubists.

Hill Pastures--Capel-y-ffin

David Blamires comments upon the "strictness of outline, and strongly stylized depiction of trees and flowers... the clear demarcation of shapes everywhere" in the watercolor Hill Pastures--Capel-y-ffin, "the colouring is a subtle combination of thin yellows and green with the odd hints of blue and pink, darkened and given varied tones by cross hatching with pencil" (Blamires 52-53).

In Part Six of In Parenthesis, "Pavilions and Captains of Hundreds", the battalion must descend into a valley order to reach Mametz Woods, where the Germans are holding their line. "The valley was dotted in roughly ordered lines...over the ridge, spread up fans of light, and from the deeper part of the valley, where by day there seemed nothing other than a stretched tarpaulin and branches artfully spread, eight bright tounges licked, swift as adder-fangs" (IP 135). The valley is a series of ordered lines, similar to landscapes such as Capel-y-ffin, where terrain breaks push towards the peak like ripples in a wave. The similarities of the lines lessen the illusion of depth. The sun touches the far ridge, where the Germans fire sporadically down into the valley, in a description which very much does with words which Cezanne's use of 'passage' did with colors: "The other slope was still-lighted, but it was getting almost cool on this east-facing hill, and the creeping down and so across so gradually, gathered to itself, minute by minute, the lesser cast shadows...all these accidents of light within a large lengthened calm...his shrapnel bursts...were gauffered at their spreading edges with reflected gold" (IP 146). The more advanced platoons at the other end of the valley are marching over the slope into the woods, vanishing over the peaks. But in this valley of upheaval and treacherous footing, the battalion soon loses their ground. There is confusion about what slope they can ascend, what troop is coming to relieve them. The Germans have cunningly dressed the valley for that sort of confusion, "You marked how meshed intricacies of wire and cunning nest had played sharp tricks on green and eager plaintiffs" (IP 148). The wires and nest recall the cross-hatchings of the Capel landscape, which serve to flatten the surfaces of the hillside slopes. The battalion is forced to retreat back through the valley, fired upon by the Germans, and back up the slope with little sleep, waiting in line to cross the vanishing point, literally vanishing into the smoke as they do so: "They wondered for each long stretched line going so leisurely down the slope and up again, strained eyes to catch last glimpses where the creeping smoke-screen gathered each orderly deployment within itself" (IP 150).

Part Seven--Vanishing Point

The previous parts of In Parenthesis have shown that Jones drew upon three decades of experience in the visual arts to assist him in composing in the strange new medium of verbal art. Jones reincarnates landscapes painted in the past through his words, and through various techniques of flattened perspective learned through his paintings and etchings. But the visual-verbal influence was not one-way. In the seventh and final part of In Parenthesis, man and nature finally achieve the ultimate communion Jones had sought throughout his artistic career. This would trigger yet another transformation in Jones' visual style.

The final section of In Parenthesis, "The Five Unmistakable Marks," differs from the landscapes of the previous section. In the previous landscapes, realistic descriptions of the natural order are combined in such a way that an indirect, otherworldly connotation is inferred. But the Mametz Woods, where most of the soldiers in the battalion meet their deaths, is filled with direct literary allusion, evocation, and connotation. The narrative frame dissipates; allusions to Eden align with allusions to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, quotes from the Gospels mingle with scenes from Mallory's Morte D'Arthur, weaving together the alpha and the omega, the pagan and the Christian, into a whole, one eternal battle. The landscape also undergoes a transformation, from the natural to the elaborately symbolic. "The gentle slopes are green to remind you of South English places, only far wider and flatter spread and grooved and harrowed...Across upon this undulated board of verdue chequered bright...small, drab bundled pawns severally make effort" (IP 164-165). At this point, right before the troops cross into the forest to engage with the Germans, the field of war is portrayed as a chess board, its geometric properties invoking the artificial, mathematical artful manipulations of man in war, the fields scored with longitude and latitude lines, dug with trenches, trampled upon by lines of dying soldiers. This landscape is soon overrun by the lush foliage of the forest, "And now the gradient runs more flatly towards the separate scared saplings, where they make fringe for the interior thicket and you take notice" (IP 165). There, briars tangle with trip-wire, and silver birch leaves line the German trenches, bound together by sun beams: "tentative step by step deployment of the shades; grope in extended line of platoon through nether glooms concentrically...solid things dissolve, vapours ape substantiality" (IP 179). The forest becomes a "crypt," the place of ultimate flattening and transparency, the vanishing point--the dying soldiers become one with the trees of the forest. This is the ultimate communion, man becoming one with the landscape. And the landscape reciprocates by becoming one with man. From this the allegorical figure of the Queen of the Woods is born. She crowns the fallen dead with rings of flowers--"the secret princes between the leaning trees have diadems given them"--and the secret princes proceed to "reign with her a thousand years" (IP 185). She is called "Life the leveller," a symbol of eternal life through death, recalling the ancient vegetation myths of countless cultures and the death and resurrection of Christ. She is also first allegorical figure to spring to life in Jones' poetry or visual art, a breakthrough figure appearing at the end of a poem shot through with allusions and suggestions of the historical and mythical, but never before resurrecting the historical and the divine in the flesh.

After the publication of In Parenthesis in 1937, Jones turned his attention to another sort of landscape, labeled a "Stimmungslandschaft" by Robin Ironside, a landscape of mood, often with literary associations. In these paintings, Jones frequently turned to Arthurian and mythological motifs, resulting in intricately detailed watercolors like The Four Queens (1940).

The Four Queens

Blamires describes the transition: "Their broadly applied color has changed to a misty delicacy of light touches over pencil and brush outlines...a tracery of fine lines, in both paint and pencil, that links the various corners and details of the picture in a delicate kind of tapestry" (Blamires 59).

But the first example of this new innovation in Jones' visual style was the frontispiece Jones sketched to accompany In Parenthesis.


The frontispiece is not an impression--it is a narrative. It has a symbolic context that must be "read" in order to attain a deeper, mythical meaning, metaphors of line and shadow. A twisted, half-naked soldier is suspended in a position similar to crucifixion across a landscape filled with rats, wire, and soldiers preparing the woods for war. The background itself is a web of tree branches and barbed wire, whose lines overlap and show through each other--the rats on the right side of the picture are roughly the same size as the soldiers in the woods on the left side of the picture, all of which flatten the background. The use of light and dark renders the soldier at one with the background. The soldier, featureless, unadorned, an everyman archetype of war, is half-submerged, half-emerging from the chaotic background, the crucified position suggesting the loss of life, and immortality in memory of such a sacrifice, in much the same way as icons of Christ's sacrifice.

At the time of his first venture into the mysterious world of words David Jones may have been designated as primarily a watercolor painter playing around with a different medium, but after the experiment of In Parenthesis, the titles of painter and poet would remain inseparable. Like the tangled tree branches and wire traps of Mametz Wood, the word and the flesh in the work of David Jones had become one, an artistic transubstantiation which finally allowed the unity of man and nature through the innovation of allegorical symbolism.


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