David Jones ‘In Parenthesis’

The first time I started to read David Jones ‘In Parenthesis’ I felt that it was the best thing I had ever read. The realism of the first sections is overwhelming, partly because the book begins in media res and the reader is suddenly immersed in the world of Jones’ regiment as they prepare to disembark for France.

Martyn Crucefix does a brilliant job of commenting on the book and concisely summarising its narrative progression here. Stand-to-Arms: David Jones’ ‘In Parenthesis’ (1937) | Martyn Crucefix

Despite my immediate feelings of admiration, I didn’t finish ‘In Parenthesis’ the first time I picked it up. It felt ‘too much’ for me, as though the first few sections were a range of mountains, and I could only go so far.

‘In Parenthesis’ might be thought daunting or difficult for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is unclear if it is a poem or something else. I wonder if it matters what name we give to a book that crosses boundaries and, like its author, avoids or defies easy categorization.  I don’t think it does, although the lack of certainty about ‘where it fits’ probably didn’t help sales of the book, first published in 1937.

What does the title mean? Jones ‘explanation’, in the preface, is ambiguous and mysterious, although maybe not deliberately so.  

‘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 parades despair) the war itself was a parenthesis- how glad we thought we were to step outside its brackets at the end of ’18- and also because our curious type of existence here is altogether in parenthesis. ‘    

‘ how glad we thought we were’ strikes a doubtful and worrying note, as does ‘curious type of existence’.      

Jones description of himself as ‘grotesquely incompetent’ might give an inaccurate or partial impression of his time in the army. He is possibly referring to a certain clumsiness (he hadn’t stopped growing when he enlisted at the age of 19) and an inability to turn right when ordered, instead turning left. While not being the best on the parade ground, it seems unlikely that a front line infantry soldier could survive if he had been entirely ‘incompetent’. From Jones enlistment straight from art school in South London in 1915 until his discharge in 1918, he was on the Western Front for the longest period of any British war poet by some distance. Jones certainly didn’t survive by any calculated evasion of risk, often volunteering for night sorties into no-man’s land in order, according to his biographer Thomas Dilworth,  to avoid the boredom of repairing trench walls and other fatigues or sentry duty.  

Sketch drawing in pencil. Inscribed ‘November 1916 / Rats shot during the pulling down of an old dugout in Ploegsteert Wood’, by David Jones, Nov 1916

Up until submitting the manuscript of ‘In Parenthesis’ Jones had not considered himself a writer, and had no intention of being one until he found himself writing when he was ill in bed and unable to paint. He had frequent doubts about the book, made hundreds of revisions, and greatly appreciated the encouragement of friends who had read excerpts. He was unable to paint while he concentrated on writing, being able to focus on one medium at a time, and this caused him great distress.

Another reason I may have abandoned the book at first attempt might have been the numbers that pepper the text and relate to notes at the back of the book. Many people agree that these are off-putting, which is ironic, as Jones, who agonised about where to put his notes and whether to include them at all, had intended them to help the reader
understand his references and stop them being deterred by them. The second time I picked up he book I read the notes in batches in advance of sections of the text, so that the references were in my head and I didn’t have to keep flicking backwards and forwards. Tim Kendal suggests that one way to approach the book is to read ‘one part per day for seven days’. He writes ‘don’t stop for what you don’t understand. Ignore Jones’s notes until you read it a second and a third time.’ However you chose to read, it seems most people agree that the book should be read slowly.

Jones later regretted including the notes, but I’m glad they are there. It seems a generous act, for Jones to provide so much detail, and his notes, which are not complex or daunting once you get used to them, ultimately serve to make
reading the book a deeper and richer experience. They also point to, and keep alive, references to ancient texts for those who might wish to explore them.

A page from David Jones handwritten manuscript of ‘In Parenthesis’

When a friend suggested to Jones that in the aftermath of the war ‘all modern efforts at creative work’ would fail. Ending up ‘in the void’, Jones responded in a letter     

‘I still cling, however vainly, to the idea that if you make a living thing with words that really correspond to something perceived (oh bugger why have I got into this awful stuff!) then some chap somewhere at sometime will understand & it’s worthwhile and furst class and primb ‘in the void’ or no’

‘In Parenthesis’ was well received, and Jones, who was often full of doubt over whether his art had ‘worked’, was relived that his intention had been understood by some. Herbert Read, an ex-soldier himself wrote a review of ‘In Parenthesis’ that included this appreciation.  

“For the first time all the realistic sensory experiences of infantrymen have been woven into a pattern which, while retaining all the authentic realism of the event, has the heroic ring which we associate with the old chansons de geste … a book which we can accept as a true record of our suffering and as a work of art in the romantic tradition of Malory and the Mabinogion.”

What Read doesn’t say, at least in this extract, is that the book is also tender, humane, funny and beautiful. 
Jones, in his inclusive dedication, written entirely in capital letters like an inscription on a memorial, mentions not only the his immediate comrades, ‘especially PTE. R.A. Lewis gunner from Newport Monmouthshire killed in action N.W of Ypres some time in the winter 1916-17’ but also ‘the bearded infantry who exchanged their long loves with us at a sector’s barrier’ (the French) and ‘the enemy front-fighters who shared our pains against whom we found ourselves by misadventure.’  

Jones suffered terribly with his mental health towards the end of writing the book, which was published almost twenty years after the experiences he recorded. He seems to have had a premonition of this, or at least had begun to realize the potential impact on him, when he prefaced the book with a quote from ‘Mabinogion’ , the earliest prose stories of the literature of Britain, compiled in the 12th–13th centuries from oral traditions.

Evil betide me if I do not open the door to
know if that is true which is said concerning
it. 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;…and
because of their perturbation they could not

It is difficult to do any sort of justice to the complexity of Jones relationship with his art and the contexts in which it was made. As Jones’ wrote in a letter to a friend   ‘If you start didactically making up statements about your so & so being a so & so Artist then it seems to get wrong- or untrue or cheap or boring or something. I don’t mean that is true for everyone- I mean it’s true for me.’

I recommend ‘In Parenthesis’ to anyone who hasn’t read it. Despite his awful suffering, Jones achieved his goal-
to make a ‘living thing with words that really correspond to something perceived’.
This passage is from the end of Part 2 of ‘In Parenthesis’.

He looked straight at Sergeant Snell
enquiringly—whose eyes changed queerly, who ducked in
under the low entry. John Ball would have followed, but
stood fixed and alone in the little yard—his senses highly
alert, his body incapable of movement or response. The
exact disposition of small things—the precise shapes of
trees, the tilt of a bucket, the movement of a straw, the
disappearing right boot of Sergeant Snell—all minute
noises, separate and distinct, in a stillness charged through
with some approaching violence—registered not by the ear
nor any single faculty—an on-rushing pervasion, saturating
all existence; with exactitude, logarithmic, dial-timed,
millesimal, of calculated velocity, some mean chemist’s
contrivance, a stinking physicist’s destroying toy.

He stood alone on the stones, his mess-tin spilled at his
feet. Out of the vortex, rifling the air it came—bright,
brass-shod, Pandoran; with all-filling screaming the howl-
ing 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 burst-
ings out; all sudden up-rendings and rivings-through—all
taking-out of vents—all barrier-breaking—all unmaking.
Pernitric begetting—the dissolving and splitting of solid
things. In which unearthing aftermath, John Ball picked up
his mess-tin and hurried within; ashen, huddled, waited in
the dismal straw. Behind ‘E’ Battery, fifty yards down the
road, a great many mangolds, uprooted, pulped, congealed
with chemical earth, spattered and made slippery the rigid
boards leading to the emplacement. The sap of vegetables
slobbered the spotless breech-block of No. 3 gun.


The David Jones Society

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