Thursday, 7 July 2016

Mametz Wood: In Parenthesis by David Jones, Artist, Soldier, Poet, ( 1/11/1895 -28/10/74)

                                David Jones as a young private

During the First Battle of the Somme, one of the most brutal battles of the First World War, the 38th (Welsh) Division was given the job of attacking Mametz Wood on 7th July 1916 a 100 years ago today, but were forced to retreat because of the intensity of German machine gun fire from the wood.
They were ordered to regroup and attack for a second time on the 10th July and succeeded in reaching the wood. By the 12th July the Germans and their machine guns had been cleared out of the woods but the Welsh Division had lost more than 4,000 men. Whole Welsh communities reeled from losing their young men in this slaughter and it came to symbolise the futility of war.
The poet-artist David Jones, a Londoner of Welsh extraction the son of a Welsh father and an English-Italian mother who had trained as an artist in Camberwell School of Art, Jones joined the newly formed London Welsh Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers in January 1915 and, after a prolonged period of training, much hampered by a lack of equipment, finally embarked for France the following December. After a period in and out of the Line in the La Bassee sector, Jones marched south for the Somme in the summer of 1916 serving as a private. Here, he took part in the attack on Mametz Wood on the 10th/11th July, was wounded in the thigh and was subsequently returned to England to convalesce. On his eventual return to the Line, his unit had been moved to the Ypres salient. Jones would have taken part in the initial stages of the prolonged Passchendale offensive, had he not been held back as part of the battalion’s reserve ‘nucleus’.It would have a profound effect on him  because of it's scarring effect. In all Jones spent 117 weeks at the front,longer than any other war poet and in his adult life he suffered severe bouts of depression, nervous breakdowns  and inactivity which could be traced back to his war years in what today would be considered post traumatic stress. In World War 1 the enemy became the war itself in dehumanised form.
His epic prose poem ‘In Parenthesis’ is virtually unique in First World War literature, evoking the horrors, carnage, camaraderie and heroism of the ordinary soldier, his hopes and fears, laughter and tears. The poem covers the progress of a unit from December 1915 to the Somme offensive in July 1916.  At it's most basic level it is a fictionalised account mirroring his own service as a foot-soldier in the First World War. In Parenthesis though graphic in its depiction of the horrors of war, of the mindlessness of much of the violence resulting from nationalistic pride, it also manages to speaks with an aesthetic voice and wonders if some beauty can be found even in the very instruments of human destruction. Jones is skeptical that this will be possible but sees the attempt as part of his responsibility as a poet in the twentieth century, an age that now must live with “increasingly exacting mechanical devices; some fascinating and compelling, others sinister in the extreme. Jones’s poem speaks with a profoundly humanistic voice, transcending the grotesque suddenness of individual deaths in battle and finding in history a common thread connecting all soldiers to the nobility of being a man or a woman.He focuses on the lives of bottom ranking soldiers, adding a dimension to his heroic epic that both elevates the lowly and critiques the lofty.  In Parenthesis deals with powers that tap into the life force itself, the incomprehensible energies that bring humans into existence and dispatch them just as quickly. The poem might be said to be basically religious,using the war as a metaphor for life itself—to Jones, each is a parenthesis.Throughout the prose poem he applies religious terminology and symbolism to his characters, and makes frequent references to religious rituals, holy days and biblical allusions.He also  has numerous allusions  to what we’d consider of  as medieval romances: Malory’s Morte d’Arthur is often referred to, as is the Welsh poetry of the Mabinogion and Y Gododdin.
His poem suggests that war helps people become more aware of that larger parenthetical condition called life, a condition ultimately as sudden and individually. Despite what he has witnessed throughout he remains alert to the flashes of humanity that light up the wasteland of war. Complex in organization, rich in vocabulary, In Parenthesis demonstrates the rich intricacies of Jones’s work.
In it's climax, Part 7 the protagonist John Ball along with his unit attacks Mametz Wood. As he goes forward, he watches as most of his fellows around him being ripped apart, but Ball somehow makes it through unscathed until that evening. When ordered to take part in a subsequent, follow-up attack, Ball is knocked down, hit in the legs by machine-gun fire, and is greviously wounded begins his long crawl back to some place of safety - as Jones himself did. Along the way he discards most of his equipment (except for his gas mask, which he thinks might come in handy). However, his rifle has special meaning: as any soldier knows, a warrior and his weapon are one: it defines who he is, lose it and he loses his identity. As he retreats, Ball carries on a conversation with himself: should he leave the rifle? He hears the voices of his drill instructors driving home the importance of care of arms, the individuality of each soldier's weapon, the intimacy that he should share with it. . 
The assault on Mametz Wood took three days and the British forces succeeded in pushing back the enemy lines — but at huge cost. Jones's battalion alone lost a third of its men, killed or wounded. 
The poem watches them as they fall. A private who married his sweetheart when last on leave is pierced through by a razor of shrapnel. One man, even as he bleeds to death, still fumbles with the wretched straps of his uniform, trying to loosen the choking buckle of his tin hat. Not far from his prone body lies the severed head of a private grinning "like the Cheshire cat". It was images like this, grotesque, absurd and brutal, that would haunt Jones for decades.
The poem ends with Mametz Wood, but for Jones the war went on.On his eventual return to the Line, his unit had been moved to the Ypres salient. Jones would have taken part in the initial stages of the prolonged Passchendale offensive, and so the routine of sandbags and shelling continued.  In mid-February 1918, Jones came down with trench fever and was evacuated to a base hospital with a 105-degree temperature. There he came closer to death than he ever had in the field. He would not return to the front. Nor would he recover from those three years. Though he never called it shell shock, Jones was diminished and unmanned by all that he had seen. Jones was evacuated and saw out the rest of the war in Ireland. He never saw action again and was released from the army in the January of 1919, aged 23.
After the war Jones would have a conversion to Roman Catholicism and joined a small community of Catholic artists headed by craftsman Eric Gill, first at Ditchling, East Sussex then resettling at  Capel-y-ffin, near Hay-on-Wye among the Black Mountains in Wales, where he began to develop a unique concept of art and the function of the artist. The monastery where he stayed I have been fortunate to visit after numerous visits to the area where Jones took comfort from the singularity of the place as his weakened lungs drew in the mountain air. While resident at the monastery there he painted and illustrated prolifically and later reflected that the landscape had allowed deeper understanding of his Welsh identity.

                                          Capel-Y-Ffin , 1926-27- David Jones

Jones never married, never had children. He lived a monkish existence in a series of guest rooms and bedsits, which he referred to as his "dug-outs". His prints, paintings and poems brought a small income but financially he relied on his parents and then on the generosity of friends and patrons. To the end of his life the clatter of a tea-tray or a foggy day would rend his nerves. Each July the horrors of the Somme and Mametz Wood would return, triggering debilitating insomnia. It is more than likely he was still suffering from shellshock, which today we would call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which leaves many ex soldiers with nightmares, flashbacks and feelings of dissociation or intense anxiety, afflicted by an inner wound from which they never recovered. David Jones remembers breaking down : '‘all gone to pieces and not pulling himself together not making the best of things’and was himself unable in fact to write In Parethesis until many years later. Many soldiers like Jones were not able to settle back into their home life afterwards or make sense of their experiences. Some people carrying this mental ‘shrapnel’ in their minds committed suicide. 
If In Parenthesis was an attempt to exorcise these demons, it failed. The completion of the poem in 1932 brought a shattering nervous breakdown. It took five years for Jones to summon the courage to have it published. T.S. Eliot, who oversaw its publication by Faber, called it "a work of genius". He would retire to Harrow and devoted himself mainly to calligraphic inscriptions in the Welsh language and continued painting until his death in May 1974, a few months after he had been made a Companion of Honour. Often overlooked nowadays, I would urge people to discover this book it, it remains a work of great vision,it remains forever a profoundly moving piece of work. A masterpiece of First World War poetry and literature that we should not forget.  

                                             sketch by David Jones

From In Parenthesis, part 7
And to Private Ball it came as if a rigid beam of great weight
flailed about his calves, caught from behind by ballista-baulk
let fly or aft-beam slewed to clout gunnel-walker
below below below.
When golden vanities make about,
you've got no legs to stand on.
He thought it disproportionate in its violence considering
the fragility of us.
The warm fluid percolates between his toes and his left boot
fills, as when you tread in a puddle--he crawled away in the
opposite direction.

It's difficult with the weight of the rifle.
Leave it--under the oak.
Leave it for a salvage-bloke
let it lie bruised for a monument
dispense the authenticated fragments to the faithful.
It's the thunder-besom for us
it's the bright bough borne
it's the tensioned yew for a Genoese jammed arbalest and a
scarlet square for a mounted mareschal, it's that county-mob
back to back. Majuba mountain and Mons Cherubim and
spreaded mats for Sydney Street East, and come to Bisley
for a Silver Dish. It's R.SM. O'Grady says, it's the soldier's
best friend if you care for the working parts and let us be 'av-
ing those springs released smartly in Company billets on wet
forenoons and clickerty-click and one up the spout and you
men must really cultivate the habit of treating this weapon with
the very greatest care and there should be a healthy rivalry
among you--it should be a matter of very proper pride and
Marry it man! Marry it!
Cherish her, she's your very own.
Coax it man coax it--it's delicately and ingeniously made
--it's an instrument of precision--it costs us tax-payers,
money-I want you men to remember that.
Fondle it like a granny--talk to it--consider it as you would
a friendöand when you ground these arms she's not a rooky's
gas-pipe for greenhorns to tarnish.
You've known her hot and cold.
You would choose her from among many.
You know her by her bias, and by her exact error at 300, and
by the deep scar at the small, by the fair flaw in the grain,
above the lower sling-swivel--
but leave it under the oak.
Slung so, it swings its full weight, With you going blindly on
all paws, it slews its whole length, to hang at your bowed neck
like the Mariner's white oblation.
You drag past the four bright stones at the turn of Wood
It is not to be broken on the brown stone under the gracious
It is not to be hidden under your failing body.
Slung so, it troubles your painful crawling like a fugitive's

At the gate of the wood you try a last adjustment, but slung
so, it's an impediment, it's of detriment to your hopes, you
had best be rid of it--the sagging webbing and all and what's
left of your two fifty--but it were wise to hold on to your
You're clumsy in your feebleness, you implicate your tin-hat
rim with the slack sling of it.
Let it lie for the dews to rust it, or ought you to decently
cover the working parts.
Its dark barrel, where you leave it under the oak, reflects
the solemn star that rises urgently from Cliff Trench.
It's a beautiful doll for us
it's the Last Reputable Arm.
But leave it--under the oak.
Leave it for a Cook's tourist to the Devastated Areas and crawl
as far as you can and wait for the bearers.


From In Parethesis, David Jones:  London: Faber & Faber. 1937 part 7, pp. 183-86.

                                                    Picture of David Jones in later life 

                                                Animals going to the Ark - David Jones

The Greatest Poem of World War 1: David Jones's In Parenthesis

Poet Owen Sheers will be tracing the story of David Jones poem  tracing its inspiration from  the English military parade ground to the carnage of the Somme, on a programe on BBC 2 Wales this, Saturday July 10th at  from 9.00 pm to 10.30 pm.

This will be followed at 10.30 by  In Parenthesis: The making of the Opera

 Further reading :-

 Tate Gallery, David Jones (1981)

 David Jones: Vision and Memory - Ariane Banks and Paul Hills, Lind Humphries 2015

 David Jones: The Maker unmade, Jonathan Miles and Derek Shiel, Seren, 1995.

David Jones also makes a cameo in the poet and writer Owen Sheers book; Resistance, and Owen Sheers himself  wrote a poem called Mametz Wood a link I enclose here  :-

Link to Poetry Foundation article on David Jones, that explores his life in more detail :-

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