Private David Jones’s In Parenthesis and The Anathemata

By | 1 May 2017

Jones, frankly, is having none of this. In Parenthesis does not moralise or sentimentalise, its mode is not elegiac. The poem does not stand in judge either the causes of war, nor those who wage it. The higher ranks are, in fact, barely mentioned – the poem, as it were, keeps its eyes down. It is about as interested apportioning blame for the rights and wrongs of war as the Iliad.

Instead, In Parenthesis simply – and not so simply – describes. War, for Jones, is part of man’s estate, and ever will be. Some aspects change, some endure, and it is the job of the poet to record through art how it is in a specific instance. As Jones writes in the preface to the poem:

I have only tried to make a shape in words, using as data the complex of sights, sounds, fears, hopes, apprehensions, smells, things exterior and interior, the landscape and paraphernalia of that singular time and of those particular men.

He wished to re-present (to use his own word) the war, such that he reveals ‘the immediate, the nowness, the pressure of sudden, modifying, circumstance’ (IP, 28) from the particular viewpoint of ‘the essential foot-mob … who has no qualifications, who looks out surprisingly from a confusion of gear, who endure all things’ (IP, 126). Jones believed that the task of the poet – at least this poet – was not to ‘edify’ but to ‘uncover’ which is, as he notes in the preface to The Anathemata (sounding Heideggerian), ‘what a mystery does, for though at root mystery implies a closing, all mysteries are meant to disclose, to show forth something’ – including the mystery of war.

To capture the newness, Jones deploys, in a way reminiscent again of the Iliad, small, quotidian details:

He preached from the Matthew text, of how He cares for us above the sparrows. The medical officer undid, and did up again, the fastener of his left glove, behind his back, throughout the whole discourse. They sang Onward Christian Soldiers as the closing hymn. (IP, 107)


Their vitality seemed not to extend to their fingertips, not to enable any precise act, so that to do an exact thing, competently clean a rifle, to examine and search out intricate parts, seemed to them an enormity and beyond endurance. (IP, 64)

However for Jones – again as for Heidegger – ‘nowness’ is not as simple as the present moment. Rather, it has embedded in its very being layer upon layer of the past – as a series of allusions, correspondences and contradictions. As he was later to write in his preface to The Anathemata, poetry is ‘the embodiment and expression of [both] the mythus and deposits of a cultural context’ (TA, 18)., Jones the artist – born in London of a Welsh father and English mother – found himself in a constant conversation with the epic traditions of both. The Arthurian legends, as noted, were of particular moment to him, but never as dress-up. A piece of wire sticking out of the water becomes ‘a corkscrew picket-iron, half submerged, as dark Excalibur, by perverse incantation twisted’,I while individual deaths, invariably described with laconic deftness, again evoke the Iliad, situating the individual in a life context which neither sentimentalises them nor robs their death of its tragic aspect. Thus Wastebottom, who we have not met before,

… married a wife on his Draft-leave but the whinnying splinter razored diagonal and mess-tin fragments drove inward and toxined underwear. He maintained correct alignment with the others, face down, and you never would have guessed.

In the final scenes, the poem achieves an almost luminous intensity in its descriptions of the shot in the calf received by the ‘central character’ (Jack Ball) and of the final battle. In re-presenting his dead companions, fallen under bowers, Jones invokes the legend of the Queen of the Wood who has ‘cut bright boughs of various flowering’ and will ‘pluck for each their fragile prize’ to make ‘curious crowns’ (IP, 185), so the ‘secret princes between the leaning trees have diadems given them. Life the leveller hugs her impudent equality – she may proceed at once to less discriminating zones’.

This luminosity is not accidental – for Jones art was a kind of sacrament, and In Parenthesis deals exclusively with the seven months from Jones enlisting to his wounding at the Battle of the Somme. Once he recovered, he returned to the front.

‘The artist,’ writes Jones in his preface to The Anathemata, ‘deals wholly in signs’. In creating a work of art, the artist must ‘somehow or other … lift up valid signs; that is his specific task’. This presents itself as a practical problem as ‘all artistic problems are practical problems … for the artist the question is ‘Does it?’ rather than ‘Ought it?’’ (TA, 15)

In 1921, Jones had converted to Catholicism, and the idea of the sacrament became central to his art. He had long grappled with his faith, finding the Church of England lacking in the sort of holy communion he sought in his art and in his life. A key moment occurred on his return to the front after Mametz – one Sunday, looking for firewood he came upon a byre which he thought may contain dry wood. Inside, he saw a man in vestments, using a stack of ammunition boxes as an altar, before which knelt half a dozen men. They were, as the bombs fell, engaged in a Catholic Mass. It was ‘a great marvel’ he wrote, and it would have a profound influence on his life and thought.

Anglicanism he now saw as a creation of the Enlightenment – in order to engage with antiquity, one had to embrace Catholicism. One entered into a symbolic relationship with the past, and was able to imbue the ‘now’ with meaning by so doing. For Jones, the Catholic Mass was the supreme artistic creation, in which (as in other rituals) an observer would ‘witness corporeal creatures doing certain manual things with material elements and proclaiming that these things were done for a signification of something’. There is nothing within this ritual that is ‘necessary’ – it is, in its core, absolutely gratuitous.

For Jones, as expounded in both this preface and in his 1955 essay ‘Art and Sacrament’ and the preface to The Anathemata, to be gratuitous was in no sense a negative quality. Far from it. The ability to carry out gratuitous acts – in fact the compulsion to and necessity of doing such acts – is precisely what makes us human. For Jones there was a crucial distinction between what he termed ‘gratuitous acts’ and what he termed ‘utile acts’. The latter are acts carried out simply for their utility, while the former have symbolic value – they enter us into the world of signs. The rest of the sentient world (as far as we know, and can know), carries out only utile acts – a bee hive may be (to us) a thing of beauty, but the bee creates it to house itself and procreate. It does not enter into a symbolic relationship with it.

For Jones art is, of course, a supremely gratuitous act in this sense, and is arguably, the greatest of all gratuitous acts. The act may be painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or writing Beethoven’s Ninth, or it may be as simple as putting a rose in one’s button hole. Each deploys a system of signs that invoke a symbolic order.
Jones uses, brilliantly, the example of a birthday cake, presented by a cook as art. While you ‘may or may not agree with the cook’s notion of beauty, you would not be able to deny the ‘art” as

all the conditions determining what is art from what is not are more than fulfilled. There is making, there is added making, there is explicit sign, there is a showing forth, a re-presenting, a recalling and there is gratuitousness and there is a full intention to make this making thus. Moreover, this particular making signifies a birth. It recalls a past event and looks back at some anniversaries and looks forward to future anniversaries … but this making, though joyful and celebrative of a birthday recalls also, by implication a day, or many days of at least some degree of acute pain, perhaps of great anguish, and perhaps even of death. So that this making covers, in a rudimentary way, or contains in embryo, all that is shown forth in the greatest imaginable art-works.

While noting that such a declaration runs the risk of ‘being a sitting bird for the guns of unsporting metaphysicians’, it is through taking quotidian things such as cakes (which, if placed on the food in the presence of a dog would resume a wholly functional presence) and, as the bread in the Mass is converted into the body of Christ, raising them to a symbolic state which conveys a meaning separate from mere utility. In its day-to-day being, a human is ‘unavoidably a sacramentalist and … his works are sacramental in character’. (Jones notes that, for the believer, ‘the creation of the world was not a necessary, but gratuitous act. there is a sense in which the gratuitousness of the Creator is reflected in the art of the creature’)

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