In Parenthesis: Part 1

This writing has to do with some things I saw, felt and was part of. The period covered begins in early December 1915 and ends in July 1916. – David Jones, in the preface to In Parenthesis 1937

In Parenthesis
is a poem-novella in seven parts that culminates in the dramatic attack on Mametz Wood at the Battle of the Somme.

Part 1 opens on the parade ground and ends with the battalion’s disembarkation in France. The narrative parallels Jones experience with the 15th Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Camped at Winnall Down just east of Winchester they marched the fifteen miles to Southhampton Docks to board the SS Queen Alexandra for Le Havre. The protagonist – hapless Private John Ball 25201 – clumsy, late for parade and improperly dressed – is the impersonal stand-in for Jones.

Part One – The Many Men So Beautiful

Men marched, they kept equal step … Men marched, they had been nurtured together.

’49 Wyatt, 01549 Wyatt.
Coming sergeant.
Pick ’em up, pick ’em up—I’ll stalk within your chamber.
Private Leg. . . sick.
Private Ball. . . absent.
’01 Ball, ’01 Ball, Ball of No. 1.
Where’s Ball, 25201 Ball—you corporal, Ball of your section.
Movement round and about the Commanding Officer.
Bugler, will you sound the ‘Orderly Sergeants’.

        A hurrying of feet from three companies converging on the little group apart where on horses sit the central command. But from ‘B” Company there is no such darting out. The Orderly Sergeant of ‘B’ is licking the stub end of his lead pencil; it divides a little his fairish moustache.
        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 the feet sidelong—all clear and distinct in that silence peculiar to parade grounds and to refectories. The silence of a high order, full of peril in the breaking of it, like the coming on parade of John Ball.
He settles between numbers 4 and 5 of the rear rank. It is as ineffectual as the ostrich in her sand. Captain Gwynn does not turn or move or give any sign.

Have that man’s name taken if you please, Mr. Jenkins.
Take that man’s name, Sergeant Snell.
Take his name, corporal.
Take his name take his number—charge him—late on parade—the Battalion being paraded for overseas—warn him for Company Office.

        Private Ball’s pack, ill adjusted and without form, hangs more heavily on his shoulder blades, a sense of ill-usage pervades him. He
withdraws within himself to soothe himself—the iniquity of those in high places is forgotten. From where he stood heavily, irksomely at ease, he could see, half-left between 7 and 8 of the front rank, the profile of Mr. Jenkins and the elegant cut of his wartime rig and his flat head held front; like San Romano’s foreground squire, unhelmeted; but we don’t have lances now or banners nor trumpets.


Mr. P.D.I. Jenkins who is twenty years old has now to do his business:
No.7 Platoon – number seven.
number seven – right – by the right.

Corporal Quilter intones:
Dress to the right – no – other right.
Keep those slopes.
Keep those sections of four.
Pick those knees up.
Throw those chests out.
Hold those heads up.
Stop that talking.
Keep those chins in.
Left, left, lef’ – lef’ righ’ lef’ – you Private Ball it’s you I’v got me glad-eye on.

So they came outside the camp. The liturgy of a regiment departing has been sung. Empty wet parade ground. A camp-warden, some unfit men and other details loiter, dribble away, shuffle off like men whose ship has sailed.
        The long hutment lines stand. Not a soul. It rains harder: torn felt lifts to the wind above Hut 10, Headquarters Company; urinal concrete echoes for a solitary whistler. Corrugated iron empty – no one. Chill gust slams the vacant canteen door.

Some like tight belts and some like loose belts – trussed-up pockets – cigarettes in ammunition pouches – rifle-bolts, webbing, buckles and rain – gotta light mate – give us a match chum. How cold the morning is and blue, and how mysterious in cupped hands glow the match-lights of a concourse of men, moving so early in the morning.                                                                                                      The body of the high figure in front of the head of the column seemed to change his position however so slightly. It rains on the transparent talc of his map-case.

        In ‘D’ Company round the bend of the road in the half-light is movement, like a train shunting, when the forward coaches buffer the rear coaches back. The halt was unexpected. How heavy and how top heavy is all this martial panoply and how the ground seems to press upwards to afflict the feet.

The bastard’s lost his way already.
Various messages are passed.

Some lean on their rifles as aged men do on sticks in stage plays. Some lean back with the muzzle of the rifle supporting the pack in 6 the position of gentlewomen at field sports but not with so great assurance.  

It’s cold when you stop marching with all this weight and icy down your back.
Battalion cyclists pass the length of the column. There is a fresh stir in ‘A’ Company.
Keep your column distance
The regular rhythm of the march has re-established itself.

The rain increases with the light and the weight increases with the rain. In all that long column in brand-new overseas boots weeping blisters stick to the hard wool of grey government socks.

I’m a bleedin’ cripple already Corporal, confides a limping child.
Kipt’ that step there.

Keep that proper distance.

Keept’ y’r siction o’four – can’t fall out me little darlin’

Corporal Quilter subsides, he too retreats within himself, he has his private thoughts also.
It’s a proper massacre of the innocents in a manner of speaking, no so-called seven ages o’ man only this bastard military age.

Keep that step there.
Keep that section distance.

So they went most of that day and it rained with increasing vigour until night-fall. In the middle afternoon the outer parts of the town of embarkation were reached. They halted for a brief while; adjusted puttees, straightened caps, fastened undone buttons, tightening rifle slings and attended each on to his own bedraggled and irregular condition. The band recommenced playing; and at the attention and in excellent step they passed through the suburbs, the town’s center, and so toward the docks. The people of that town did not acclaim them, not stop about their business – for it was late in the second year.

        Out of step and with a depressing raggedness of movement and rankling of tempers they covered another mile between dismal sheds, high and tarred. Here funnels and mastheads could be seen.Here the influence of the sea and of the tackle and ways its people fell upon them. They revived somewhat, and for a while. Yet still those interminable ways between – these incessant halts at junctions. Once they about turned. Embarkation officers, staff people of all kinds and people who looked as though they were in the Navy but who were not, consulted with the Battalion Commander, A few more halts, more passing of messages, – a further intensifying of their fatigue. The platoons of the leading company unexpectedly wheel. The spacious shed is open at either end, windy and comfortless. Multifarious accoutrements, metal and cloth and leather sink with perspiring bodies to the concrete floor.
        Certain less fortunate men were detailed for guard, John Ball amongst them. The others lay, where they first sank down, wet with rain and sweat. They smoked; they got very cold. They were given tins of bully beef and ration biscuits for the first time, and felt like real expeditionary soldiers. Sometime between midnight and 2am they were paraded. Slowly with every sort of hitch, 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, and the glimmer of shielded light about him.
So without sound of farewell or acclamation, shrouded in a dense windy darkness, they set toward France.

        Under a high-slung arc-light whose cold clarity well displayed all their sea weariness, their long cramped-upness and fatigue they stumbling and one by one trickled from the ship on to French land.

        ‘B’ Company were conducted by a guide, through back ways between high shuttered buildings, to horse stalls where they slept. In the morning, they were given Field Service postcards – and sitting in the straw they crossed out what did not apply, and sent them to their mothers, to their sweethearts.
Toward evening on the same day they entrained in cattle trucks; and on the third day, which was a Sunday, sunny and cold, and French women in black were hurrying across flat land – they descended from their grimy, littered, limb restricting, slatted vehicles, and stretched and shivered at a siding. You feel exposed and apprehensive in this new world.

David Jones by Eric Gill 1921

And so Private Ball and the 55th Battalion arrive in France, limping, blood-shod with blisters, like wrongs hushed up, (see Owen’s Dulce et 
Decorum Est
and The Send-Off)

It’s December of the second year of the war so there are no excited crowds to cheer them as they march through Southampton to the docks. The casualty lists, the sense of war without end, have sapped the enthusiasm and made them weary.

Already in Part 1 we see the techniques that Jones will use throughout the poem.

To begin with there’s no one settled voice. You have find your bearings in an elusive linguistic world of many voices. Jones served with the 15th Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. It was made up of Welshmen and Londoners and it is their voices and those of the officers that we will hear in the poem. This is our introduction to a fragmented and sometimes disorienting linguistic world that parallels the experience of soldiers at war.

Jones was a modernist. Blunden Graves, Sassoon and others published their memoirs in the late 1920’s. Jones began writing In Parenthesis in 1928 and it was not published until 1937. He had the benefit not only of the output from the soldier poets and memoirists of the war but also the work of modernist experimental writers like Eliot, Pound, Woolf and Joyce.

David Jones A pastel portrait by Rosalind (Ray) Howard-Jones

The unsoldierly, unprepossessing, late to parade and improperly dressed Private Ball is compared with the solemnity of the army system of which he is a small, insignificant part. The martial panoply and command sit on high. But the ground presses upward to afflict the feet. 

In Parenthesis is a fictionalized poetic account of six months of army service. It slides, slips and jumps between poetry and prose providing both a both a lyrical literary experience and a realistic detailed accounting with the precision of a documentary.

Grounded in the quotidian and the familiar, it uses modernist techniques to elevate the story to the mythological. We see both the immediate here and now and also experience seen from a distance. The time gap allowed Jones the benefit of hindsight and reflection. Events are presented with emotional intensity of the moment yet also refracted through a far light.

Our psychological reality is that our past is always with us. For Jones this means a world populated with literature, history and mythology.  The poem is both a lived experience  – a detailed narrative of what happened, tight with sensory and practical detail  – as well as well as a mediation on human history and the war texts of the past. Truth telling is woven into a literary tapestry.  Jones soldiers live in the here and now but the past intrudes. It is – in Rosenberg’s phrase – the same old druid time as ever. Past and present collide, connect and overlap. There’s a parallel reality that is an escape from the present and also a layering on of meaning and significance. The 55th Battalion was not the first army to fight and fight in France. Jones was not the first person to write about it. Ghosts of the past shadow and shade the here and now.

Jones uses allusion, juxtaposition, and closely observed sensory detail to tell his story. Already in Part 1 we have the title from Coleridge and the free association to another Wyatt – Sir Thomas Wyatt of the 16th century poem “They flee from me that sometime did me seek” –  in the third line.

Detail from The Battle of San Romano by Paolo Uccello showing the “fair-headed squire”

Part 1 introduces characters who have the capacity to see things in terms of something else. Corporal Quilter – chivvying blistered weary soldiers to keep in formation – has his own private thoughts of the seven ages of man and the slaughter of the innocents.

Private Ball, enduring the indignities of the parade ground, withdraws within himself to soothe himself. He sees the young officer Mr. Jenkins as the fair-headed squire (detail left) surrounded by the helmeted warriors at The Battle of San Romano .

Below is the painting that Ball escapes to. It’s by the Florentine painter Paolo Uccello and hangs in the National Gallery in London. It’s a dramatic scene with all the colorful banners and trappings of medieval warfare.

This escape to a parallel reality is a coping mechanism, a mental escape. It’s a method for controlling emotions as well as a literary technique. This superimposing of one story and experience on another lends a depth and richness to the narrative. Private Ball and his companions are in the the 55th Battalion in France in 1916 but they are also Everyman who ever fought in battle.

The effect is to create a sense of both immediacy and distance. Jones uses all kinds of sensory detail of sight and sound  to present a scene and capture a moment while at the same time establishing a perspective that puts that scene in a much broader context.

Jones frequently makes use of a cultural elements drawn from Welsh history and legend, from literature and romance traditions as well religious beliefs and practices and the Roman Empire. When Ball clangs and clatters his way onto the parade ground its silence is compared to that of a monastery refectory. As they leave the camp, the liturgy of a regiment departing has been sung.

If you find yourself getting a little lost in the text he best thing to do is just read it aloud and let the words take over. That way the voices and the poetry win the day. It’s always possible to return to the unfamiliar bits and untangle them later. And Jones also provides notes that help with the more obscure parts. Don’t let them stop you. Don’t let them get in the way.

The Battle of San Romano by Paolo Uccello probably about 1438-40.

Private Ball’s battalion embark in the dark. Lavery’s painting allows us the benefit of sunlight.

Embarking for the Western Front. Sir John Lavery c.1917.



1 Comment

  1. Great piece, and great images to accompany it. Your last lines are sound advice for reading anything that might seem daunting.

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