David Jones, from In Parenthesis

[Click on image to enlarge] David Jones (1895–1974) was born in Brockley, Kent, son of a Welsh father and an English mother. He studied at the Camberwell School of Art before joining the army in January 1915 to serve as a private soldier until the end of World War I. His experiences during the earlier part of his service provided the material for his modern epic of war, In Parenthesis (1937). The book is an evocation of the activities of members of a British infantry unit from its period of training in England to its participation in the murderous Somme offensive of July 1916. The book is epic in scope and tone, but it avoids the traditional heroic poet's concentration on high-ranking heroes and instead builds the narrative around very ordinary characters who are presented in vivid silhouettes and sudden stabs of personal memory or reflected in the eyes of their fellow soldiers. Private John Ball is in a sense the central figure, suggesting the poet himself, the sole if wounded survivor of his unit at the book's end.

The first extract below is taken from Jones's "Preface." In the second extract, from Part 2, Private Ball and his fellow soldiers are given instruction in a "vanished order" and a new disorder. The third extract, again from Part 2, relates Private Ball's first experience of the new disorder, "some mean chemist's contrivance, a stinking physicist's destroying toy."


This writing has to do with some things I saw, felt, & was part of. The period covered begins early in December 1915 and ends early in July 1916. >> note 1 The first date corresponds to my going to France. The latter roughly marks a change in the character of our lives in the Infantry on the West Front. From then onward things hardened into a more relentless, mechanical affair, took on a more sinister aspect.


It is not easy in considering a trench-mortar barrage to give praise for the action proper to chemicals — full though it may be of beauty. We feel a rubicon >> note 2 has been passed between striking with a hand weapon as men used to do and loosing poison from the sky as we do ourselves. We doubt the decency of our own inventions, and are certainly in terror of their possibilities. That our culture has accelerated every line of advance into the territory of physical science is well appreciated — but not so well understood are the unforeseen, subsidiary effects of this achievement. We stroke cats, pluck flowers, tie ribands, assist at the manual acts of religion, make some kind of love, write poems, paint pictures, are generally at one with that creaturely world inherited from our remote beginnings. Our perception of many things is heightened and clarified. Yet must we do gas-drill, be attuned to many newfangled technicalities, respond to increasingly exacting mechanical devices; some fascinating and compelling, others sinister in the extreme; all requiring a new and strange direction of the mind, a new sensitivity certainly, but at a considerable cost.


["A vanished order"]

They were given lectures on very wet days in the barn, with its great roof, sprung, unpreaching, humane, and redolent of a vanished order. Lectures on military tactics that would be more or less commonly understood. Lectures on hygiene by the medical officer, who was popular, who glossed his technical discourses with every lewdness, whose heroism and humanity reached toward sanctity.

One the day the Adjutant >> note 3 addressed them on the history of the regiment. Lectures by the Bombing Officer: he sat in the straw, a mild young man, who told them lightly of the efficacy of his trade; he predicted an important future for the new Mills Mk. IV grenade, just on the market; he discussed the improvised jam-tins of the veterans, of the bombs of after the Marne, grenades of Loos and Laventie >> note 4 — he compared these elementary, amateurish, inefficiencies with the compact and supremely satisfactory invention of this Mr. Mills, to whom his country was so greatly indebted.

[Click on image to enlarge] He took the names of all those men who professed efficiency on the cricket field >> note 5 — more particularly those who claimed to bowl effectively — and brushing away with his hand pieces of straw from his breeches, he sauntered off with his sections of grenades and fuses and explanatory diagrams of their mechanism stuffed into the pockets of his raincoat, like a departing commercial traveller.


["Some mean chemist's contrivance"]

John Ball stood patiently, waiting for the eloquence to spend itself. The tedious flow continued, then broke off very suddenly. 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 of 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 >> note 6 — of calculated velocity, some mean chemist's contrivance, a stinking physicist's destroying toy.

He stood alone on the stones, his mess-tin >> note 7 spilled at his feet. Out of the vortex, rifling the air it came — bright, brass-shod, Pandoran; >> note 8 with all-filling screaming 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 — all taking-out of vents — all barrier-breaking — all unmaking. Pernitric >> note 9 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, >> note 10 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 a No. 3 gun.

Jones, David. In Parenthesis. London: Faber and Faber, 1937. http://www.faber.co.uk

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