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The First World WarLiterature, Culture, Modernity$

Santanu Das and Kate McLoughlin

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780197266267

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: September 2018

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197266267.001.0001

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Scaling War

Scaling War

Poetic Calibration and Mythic Measures in David Jones’s In Parenthesis

(p.56) 3 Scaling War
The First World War

Hope Wolf

British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

David Jones’s In Parenthesis (1937) communicates the excessive character of war experiences by depicting the breaking of measuring instruments. It meditates on the difficulty of conveying the impact of these experiences when the clichéd overuse of violent imagery in everyday contexts has desensitized readers and listeners. A modernist, seeking new representational modes, Jones calls for a recalibration of the scale by which experience is measured. Showing how clichés literalize once transported to the battlefield, he communicates sensory overload in a way that avoids both the reduction of war to shorthand metaphors and aggressive hyperbole. With mythical analogy he offers an alternative to the empirical measures he shows to be inadequate, and finds a way of weighing up experiences without laying down universalizing laws.

Keywords:   David Jones, measurement, cliché, hyperbole, proportion, myth, modernism

IN THE FINAL PART of David Jones’s long poem,1 In Parenthesis (1937), the measuring instruments soldiers use to orientate themselves on the battlefield stop working:

  • Racked out to another turn of the screw
  • the acceleration heightens;
  • the sensibility of these instruments to register,
  • fails;
  • needle dithers disorientate.
  • The responsive mercury plays laggard to such fevers – you
  • simply can’t take any more in.
  • […]
  • you have not capacity for added fear only the limbs are leaden
  • to negotiate the slope and rifles all out of balance, clumsied
  • with long auxiliary steel
  • seem five times the regulation weight –
  • it bitches the aim as well;
  •              and we ourselves as those small
  • cherubs, who trail awkwardly the weapons of the God in
  •                                          Fine Art works.2

The phrase ‘needle dithers disorientate’ presumably refers to a compass. The soldiers have no clear sense of direction. Jones goes on to describe a broken (p.57) thermometer: ‘The responsive mercury plays laggard to such fevers – you simply can’t take any more in.’ At this particularly hot moment – and hot can mean intense as well as warm – the thermometer cannot give a sufficient reading. The soldiers’ sense of weight becomes confused too. Weaponry, ‘all out of balance’, feels heavier: ‘long auxiliary steel / seem five times the regulation weight – ’. At other points in the poem the standardization of time, regulated by the clock, is also compromised: ‘Last minute drums its taut millennium out’.3 And earlier, musical measures are exceeded: ‘counterpointing violences give the thing a new twist, the plain cadence modulates ominously – breaks all remembered records’.4

One of the functions of such descriptions is rhetorical. The breaking of measuring instruments expresses feelings that dramatically exceed precedents in terms of their intensity. The question of whether metrics used in everyday contexts can be transferred to wartime is raised in the writing of other twentieth-century catastrophes. Discussing the Nuremburg Trials and the impact of totalitarianism in 1954, Hannah Arendt reflected: ‘we have lost yardsticks by which to measure’.5 Georges Bataille wrote of the difficulties of comprehending the scale of the impact of the Hiroshima bomb: ‘It is fair to say that between the mind’s habitual standards and the atomic effect there remains a disproportion that makes one’s head spin, leaving the imagination before the void.’6 Yet Jones’s staging of the failure of measuring instruments may also counter a specific way of representing history: representation that relies on scientific facts or data, that reconciles experiences with norms that can be verified by technology. Here he anticipates later writing that connected the Holocaust with a loss of confidence in quantitative evidence. Jean-François Lyotard related Auschwitz to an earthquake that destroyed the seismic instruments:

Suppose that an earthquake destroys not only lives, buildings, and objects but also the instruments used to measure earthquakes directly and indirectly. The impossibility of quantitatively measuring it does not prohibit, but rather inspires in the minds of the survivors the idea of a very great seismic force.7

The difficulty of establishing ‘the quantity of the crime’ was not simply due to the destruction of documents (leaving historians unable to find ‘numerical proof of the massacre’).8 Lyotard is attentive to the ‘silence’ of victims and historians, to unarticulated ‘feelings’, and also to the destroyed ‘possibility of various kinds (p.58) of phrases whose conjunction makes reality’.9 He writes that the historian ‘must venture forth by lending his or her ear to what is not presentable under the rules of knowledge’.10

Breaking the soldiers’ tools, Jones opens a space for alternative methods of orientation. This essay will be particularly interested in Jones’s treatment of the verbal tools communities use to mediate moments of substantive emotional intensity: clichés, idioms and proverbs. It will show how these aspects of language are used at times of extremity to communicate excess, to teach proportionality, and to compare experiences, weighing one against the other. As devices that place experiences on an implied scale, they become bound up in the discussion of measurement. Like the mechanical measures that Jones depicts breaking on the battlefield, the linguistic tools are also shown to fail. Jones foregrounds how conventional phrases are overwhelmed by the excesses of war where he modifies the saying, old-fashioned now, ‘you cannot get a quart into a pint pot’. There are two pints in a quart, and in the quotation below the limited container is wholly inadequate to hold the volume that is poured into it:

  • The memory lets escape what is over and above –
  • as spilled bitterness, unmeasured, poured-out,
  • and again drenched down – demoniac-pouring:
  • who grins who pours to fill flood and super-flow insensately,
  • pint-pot – from milliard-quart measure.11

Using the saying signifies that the narrator belongs to a language community, yet showing how, transported to the front, it is unable to function as it once did makes that shared inheritance seem fragile. A milliard is a number equal to a thousand times a million. The inserting of ‘milliard’ shows that it is not only memory that cannot contain experience, and not only the pint-pot, but the proverb too. Where ‘quart’ had previously indicated a relatively excessive quantity, the extremities of war are expressed by enlarging it. Over-abundance of memory and experience is communicated too by the three-fold use of ‘pour’, and also by the polysyllabic word ‘insensately’, a sonic stumbling-block at the end of the section’s longest line. The multiple dashes too suggest a verse barely holding together. So Jones captures his perception of superfluity, and the difficulties of holding back the deluge – a theme which, as Adrian Poole has shown, can be related to Jones’s visual work (for instance, his illustrations for The Chester Play of the Deluge or ‘Noye’s Flood’, 1927).12

(p.59) If a mechanical measuring instrument is not registering data correctly, a calibrator is used which ensures that the readings conform to a regulated standard. ‘You cannot get a quart into a pint pot’ acts as a calibrator too: it disciplines excess. So does the criticism ‘don’t make a mountain out of a mole hill’. But this well-known phrase will not do either: a standard of proportion used in everyday life will not be suited to the new context. A ‘mountain’ in war is not the same as a ‘mountain’ at home – this is why First World War soldiers could call a wound a ‘cushy’.13 Jones would seem to be thinking through this idea when he literalizes this metaphor. Where the mud is deep, and soldiers must march in one another’s footsteps, at night feeling their way in the dark, molehills really do become mountains: ‘for each false footfall piles up its handicap proportionately backward, and No. 1’s mole hill is mountainous for No. 4’.14 Use of this phrase, as with the previously discussed saying, seems to suggest that war has forced an expansion of the scale by which experience is measured and understood: if, for soldiers, molehills had become mountains, then how might they perceive, and convey the perception of, larger obstacles, including mountains themselves?

One of the problems Jones met with when trying to communicate the intensity of war experiences resided in the modern use of everyday language. As will be discussed later, Jones reflects in his prose works upon the ways in which the significations of words had been eroded by an overbearing interest in utility. He seeks, in both his poetry and prose, to provoke readers into giving greater attention to the histories and associations of words. So, for instance, in the preface to his second long poem, The Anathemata (1952), he asks: ‘If the poet writes “wood,” what are the chances that the Wood of the Cross will be evoked? Should the answer be “None,” then it would seem that an impoverishment of some sort would have to be admitted.’15 Most relevantly to this essay, In Parenthesis draws attention to how casually metaphor, and specifically violent metaphor, is used – an observation that still has relevance today (contemporary discourse remains pitted with violent, often military, figurations: ‘all guns blazing’, ‘took the flak’, ‘laughed his head off’). (p.60) Language used in everyday contexts is already replete with hyperbole. Jones might have responded to this by adding hyperbole to hyperbole.16 Yet he had an alternative approach. If he could provoke greater ‘sensibility’ with regard to the meanings of words and their appropriateness for specific places and times, then there might be some hope for those who wished to share their excessive experiences with desensitized readers. This concern for enhancing ‘sensibility’ is suggested by his frustration with measuring instruments: ‘the sensibility of these instruments to register, / fails’. It has some affinity with the Russian Formalist thesis, published in 1917 in the middle of the war, that the role of literature was to ‘defamiliarize’ language, to challenge habitual modes of perception.17 Jones shows how war began some of this work, forcing him to make new everyday ways of expressing intensity. His attempt to find alternative modes of expression also aligns his work with that of other modernists for whom the war occasioned a questioning of dominant discourses in the light of the violence that these had made possible.18

The war itself has become a figure for excess – as if anticipating this, Jones’s poem counters the turning of his own history into cliché and metaphor. The English language is full of verbal remnants of the First World War: phrases that, becoming metaphors, have since lost their immediate connection to history.19 These include ‘trench coat’, ‘basket case’ (it once denoted a quadruple amputee), and, the figure for hyperbole, ‘over the top’.20 Although In Parenthesis is full of idiomatic expressions, Jones resisted abbreviating, familiarizing and banalizing his experiences. He painfully and slowly told of the waiting, the attack and the aftermath. Where today the term ‘lost generation’ frequently accompanies the commemoration of First World War soldiers, the poem offers a more specific alternative, provoking shock by means of language less often associated with the context: ‘adolescence walks the shrieking wood’.21 With his discussion of the religious meaning of ‘wood’ mentioned earlier, the line takes on sacrificial associations as well as having documentary qualities; and the woodland setting additionally offers a contrast to (p.61) familiar images of the trenches. Against a background of cliché, painfully resonant lines like these stand out.

Cliché and Hyperbole

It is in part for their tendency to be used unreflectively that clichés have been associated with the mechanistic. Cliché can be connected with modern concerns about the reduction of spontaneous and independent life to mindless repetition. In the nineteenth century the term denoted a cast, a metal ‘stereotype’, used to make multiple prints.22 But clichés have often also been thought to make those who use them mechanical: automaton-like in the sense of not thinking for themselves. This idea was perhaps most famously articulated in Arendt’s work on the trial of Adolf Eichmann: she described how the bureaucrat, ‘consoling himself with clichés’, was able to avoid thinking about his own responsibilities.23 Clichés are used to deflect, but they also protect. They parry the shocks of the new.24 And it was their protective function that psychoanalyst and First World War tank driver Wilfred R. Bion drew attention to in his life writing. In a curious dialogue between his past (‘BION’) and present (‘MYSELF’) self, published in 1972, Bion offered a commentary on his war diary:


  • These clichés […] do nothing to convey an impression to anyone who had not had that experience, but to me – sixty years later – their very banality recalls that immensely emotional experience. The behaviour, facial expression, and poverty of conversation could give an impression of depression and even fear at the prospect of battle. Fear there certainly was; fear of fear was, I think, common to all – officers and men. The inability to admit it to anyone, as there was no one to admit to without being guilty of spreading alarm and despondency, produced a curious sense of being entirely alone in company with a crowd of mindless robots – machines devoid of humanity. The loneliness was intense; I can still feel my skin drawn over the bones of my face as if it were the mask of a cadaver. The occasional words exchanged echoed like a conversation heard from afar. ‘Wipers’, ‘Yes, the Salient.’ ‘Guns sound a bit frisky.’ ‘Awful – but cheer up – you’ll soon be dead.’ ‘You’ve said it.’25 (p.62) Rather than emphasizing comradeship, the inability of soldiers to share their fears is depicted. They are said to speak as ‘mindless robots’. This is shown in what is ironically called a ‘conversation’, an exchange in which no development of thought is possible. Bion’s depiction of soldiers’ speech complicates the binary Paul Fussell makes between First and Second World War writing. He remarks upon the ‘high-minded loquacity of all those poets of the Great War’ (noting, as an example, ‘the unremitting verbalizing’ of the soldiers in In Parenthesis), and contrasts this with the ‘silence’ and ‘laconic style’ of Second World War soldiers.26 Offering a kind of middle ground between the two, Bion figures cliché as a way of speaking while remaining silent.
  • For its capacity to offer a means of communicating without intimacy, cliché becomes particularly helpful in a context in which it is necessary to avoid ‘spreading alarm and despondency’ to others. Cliché offers a means of managing anxiety – acknowledging fear while also keeping it at bay. Bion describes a policing of language: anything too hot needed to be instantly cooled off. For the soldiers, there was no one to contain the difficult emotions one might have. That word ‘containment’ is drawn from Bion’s psychoanalytic theory. In his essay ‘Attacks on Linking’ (1959), he describes how the patient uses the analyst to ‘contain’ his ‘fears of death’: ‘he split off his fears and put them into me, the idea apparently being that if they were allowed to repose there long enough they would undergo modification by my psyche and could then be safely reintrojected’.27 He goes on to describe the expectation that the mother should be able to take on, and experience, the infant’s fear of death and yet ‘retain a balanced outlook’.28 In Transformations (1965), he uses his idea of ‘containment’ in conjunction with the rhetorical term ‘hyperbole’. The latter term is said to ‘convey an impression of exaggeration, of rivalry and, by retention of its original significance, throwing and out-distancing’.29 For Bion, the role of the ‘container’ was to ‘detoxicate’ the violent emotion of the other, and ‘hyperbole’ resulted when the ‘contained emotion’ suffered the ‘neglect’ of the ‘container’.30 This very brief interpretation offers a means of reading his description of cliché in his War Memoirs. His example does not feature any person sufficiently able to take in, and reflect back in clarified form, the soldiers’ fears. In this military context, it could not be denied that the situation was genuinely life-threatening. Where ‘hyperbole’, depicted by Bion as an aggressive emotive expulsion, was not permitted, clichéd words and phrases were enlisted to provisionally fill the void. They scripted, and signalled the attempt to domesticate, unruly emotions. The poignancy of cliché lies in its (p.63) ultimate failure to mask and ‘contain’ the soldiers’ distress: Bion notes that the ‘poverty of conversation’ (and the dialogue at the end of the quotation above may serve to evidence this) ‘could give an impression of depression and even fear at the prospect of battle’. Instead of smoothing over catastrophe, clichés bear witness to it: ‘their very banality recalls that immensely emotional experience’. The robotic character of the soldiers’ language, and the mortifying impact it had on them to use it, speaks of the dehumanizing context.

    Jones too emphasizes the limited power of cliché to console and conceal. Consider, for instance, how reminiscent his collection of clichés is of Bion’s reported conversation: ‘He found him all gone to pieces and not pulling himself together nor making the best of things.’31 The listing continues later in the stanza: ‘who miserably wept for the pity of it all and for the things shortly to come to pass and no hills to cover us’.32 That Jones pulls these clichés together in such quick succession attests to their weakness: one has not sufficed, so another is tested, and then another. It is telling that Part VII of In Parenthesis begins with such a striking number of clichés and platitudes. The section narrates a battle. It is perhaps when experiencing or anticipating extreme violence and loss that the need for familiar, collectively constructed, expressions is most keenly felt. However, it is also at such times that conventional means of managing distress are most strikingly called into question. If Jones and Bion are directly quoting the soldiers, then we might consider whether the latter were deliberately overusing clichés, making them strange, in order to point knowingly towards what had remained unarticulated. The inventiveness of soldiers’ use of language was noted by Jones: he calls the soldiers ‘natural poets’ in the Preface to In Parenthesis, and draws attention to their thoughtful use of language.33 John Brophy and Eric Partridge also attest to the richness of soldiers’ language in their anthology, Songs and Slang of the British Soldier: 1914–1918 (1930).34 Of particular relevance to the examples from In Parenthesis that will follow is the way in which soldiers punned on the literal resonances of figurative expressions – for instance, the swear word ‘bloody’.35 Jones frequently uses this favourite expletive in his poem: ‘bleedin’ quick’, ‘bleedin’ cripple’, ‘bleeding brass hat’, and ‘last bloody judgment’.36

    (p.64) Showing how war experiences have transformed ordinary language, the soldiers in In Parenthesis share modernists’ awareness of the limitations of inherited representational modes. What is distinctive about Jones’s writing, however, is the sustained way in which he puns, and the plethora of resonances he draws out by means of doing so.37 See for instance the moment in the poem where Jones’s own war wound (he was wounded in the left leg at Mametz Wood, during the Battle of the Somme)38 is inflicted upon the character Private Ball:

    • 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.39

    ‘No leg to stand on’ was used then, as it is now, to describe not a fallen man, but a fallen argument: a case for which there is no support. It is also a fallen piece of language. The experience of cliché is often accompanied by a sense that it has failed to meet the needs of the moment it responds to. To call a phrase a cliché is not to define it but rather to judge it, and an initial judgement is required in order to bring out the complexities of Jones’s linguistic play. The battlefield context breathes new life into dead metaphor: it brings out its visceral connotations. ‘No legs to stand on’ is followed by a description of the blood trickling from a soldier’s boot. This move from metaphor to documentary description is further played out by the partial modification of the idiomatic phrase. Use of the plural ‘legs’ (the singular, ‘leg’, is more usual) implies participation in the practice of empirical accuracy (the right leg remains unwounded; it would be incorrect to say that Ball, and indeed Jones, had ‘no leg to stand on’).40 Showing the cliché ceasing to function as a cliché, ‘no legs to stand on’ speaks of its own fate – its inability to withstand the war’s reality test.

    Why Jones might be treating language in this way is suggested by that term ‘disproportionate’: ‘He thought it disproportionate in its violence considering / the fragility of us.’ The object of this sentence is unclear: ‘it’ refers to the weapon (p.65) that clouts Private Ball about the legs, but it could also relate to the idiomatic expression in the preceding line. The literalization reminds readers to retain a sense of proportion when narrating relatively minor tribulations. Where fragile bodies really do come to pieces, might attaching the phrase to less threatening moments be insensitively hyperbolic? Perhaps Jones meant to count linguistic sensitivity amongst war’s lessons. It is striking how very careful the soldiers in the poem are with their use of figurative language. So, for instance, one soldier is reported saying: ‘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.’41 ‘Massacre of the innocents’ refers to King Herod’s infanticide, recorded in the Bible. The soldier makes sure to qualify his statement so as not to imply that the two experiences are equivocal: he adds the clause ‘in a manner of speaking’. And ‘proper’ indicates that some use the cliché improperly. It also encourages a closer look at the analogy. As Thomas Dilworth has pointed out, there is a correspondence between the ‘military age’ of the soldiers and the age under which the infants had to be slaughtered: two years.42

    Proportion and Conversion

    The suggestion that for Jones there was a ‘proper’ or ‘proportionate’ way of expressing oneself has troubling implications. To say an action is hyperbolic is to enforce one’s own standard upon it. Antipathy to this way of scaling experience can be found in examples of modernist writing of the period.43 The narrator of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) memorably insists: ‘Proportion has a sister … Conversion is her name and she feasts on the wills of the weakly, loving to impress, to impose, adoring her own features stamped on the face of the populace.’44 The brunt of this critique falls upon Sir William Bradshaw, the doctor who is callously attending to shell-shocked soldier Septimus Warren Smith, and for whom ‘proportion’ is a ‘goddess’.45 Maintenance of a sense of ‘proportion’ is also demanded of the character Rachel Vinrace in Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out (1915). To successfully integrate with society, to perform the role expected of her, Rachel must treat a man’s trespass upon her person as a ‘small thing’: ‘The pity is to get things out of proportion’, says her mentor, Helen.46 The evocation of ‘sense of proportion’ benefits Rachel’s seducer, just as it benefited the doctor in Mrs Dalloway (Bradshaw’s ‘goddess’ puts money into his pocket).

    (p.66) Jones took up this issue of who profits from standardization in The Tribune’s Visitation (1969), a poem ‘concerned with troops of the Roman garrison in Palestine in the earlier decades of the First Century A.D’.47 His inscription on the front cover, ‘Idem in me’, translates as: ‘The same (holds good) for me’.48 This is the soldiers’ oath, promising uniformity. But in this poem uniformity was precisely the problem with imperial ambitions: they eradicate ‘blessed differences’.49 These are associated with the local. The tribune speechifies:

    • Old rhyme, no doubt, makes beautiful
    •                   the older fantasies
    • but leave the stuff
    •                   to the men in skirts
    • who beat the bounds
    •                   of small localities
    • all that’s done with
    •                   for the likes of us
    • in Urbs, throughout orbis.
    •                   […]
    •                   It’s the world-bounds
    • we’re detailed to beat
    •                   to discipline the world-floor
    • to a common level
    •                   till everything presuming difference
    • and all the sweet remembered demarcations
    •                   wither
    • to the touch of us
    •                   and know the fact of empire.
    • Song? antique song
    •                   from known-site
    • spells remembered from the breast?
    •                   No!50

    The poem challenges the idea that diminutive size should be equated with diminutive importance – and in this respect Jones’s gendering of the local as female is significant (‘the men in skirts’; ‘spells remembered from the breast’). Jones alludes to the local practice of ‘beating the bounds’, but the imperialist also beats out time. The latter’s domineering actions are echoed in the way in which the tribune apportions his words into metrical feet. The strictest iambic rhythms are assigned to his assertions of will: ‘and know the fact of empire’. Regimented organization is (p.67) paralleled in the symmetrical visual appearance of the verse; this can be contrasted with the way in which excess is figured by the ordered line-breaks of poetry transitioning to prose in In Parenthesis.51 Jones draws attention to the violence of the action that divides people from past and place: ‘beat’ is an aggressive physical act as well as a musical term. The ‘sweet remembered demarcations’ are decimated. These are both topographical and sonic: ‘old rhyme’ is eradicated by the abstract blankness of the verse. The tribune’s voice is quite different from the collector of voices in In Parenthesis, who allows for the inclusion of nursery-rhyme fragments: ‘and do we trapse dementedly round phantom mulberry bush’; ‘Or come in gathering nuts and may’.52

    Jones’s defence of local measures in The Tribune’s Visitation has a connection to his breaking of scientific measuring instruments in In Parenthesis. The local is maintained and produced through preserving alternative measures to the standards imposed from the nominal centre. Both of Jones’s poems challenge the temporal constructions that accompany the imperial project – where time is disciplined by clock and calendar, ensuring that work across vast distances can be monitored and controlled. It is possible that Jones’s resistance to mechanical measures was influenced by Eric Gill whom he worked with in the Sussex crafts community of Ditchling and later at Capel-y-finn in Wales. Measurement facilitated industrialization: it enabled plans to be drawn up to which the obedient worker was compelled to adhere; so, for Gill, was he denied responsibility for his creations, and the possibility of becoming an artist.53 Such ideas are reflected in Gill’s sculptures and craftwork. For instance, a carved stone garden roller, made by Gill and David Kindersley in 1933, might quite literally, quoting Jones again, ‘discipline the world floor’, but its form also shows resistance to aesthetic flattening.54 Not only does it have ornamental characteristics (speed, efficiency and functionality have not entirely dictated the shaping of the stone), but it emphasizes that individuals have done and will do the work. The cylindrical roller that presses down the grass is inscribed on each side respectively with a female and a male rolling figure, possibly Eve and Adam, but they could also be children (a girl and a boy), somersaulting.55 The provision of different ways of ordering time and space to those regulated by machines can be found in other modernist explorations of craft – attempts to (p.68) ‘make it new’ by reviving older practices. It is, for instance, to both a local and natural rhythm that the stonemason’s hammer in Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts: An Autobiography (1966) beats: ‘A mason times his mallet / to a lark’s twitter’.56 Jones’s visual work too would seem to resist the abstraction and homogeneity that is often associated with print and mechanical reproduction. Examining his inscriptions, Nicolete Gray has shown how Jones’s ‘irregular’ letters and spacing temper the ‘straightforward’ forms associated with ‘Roman austerity and rationality’.57

    The breaking of measuring instruments can be seen as a challenge to the functional ends to which the modern age tended. Yet Jones also had a more specific protest to make with regard to the war context, one which has different bearing upon questions of proportion and profit. Stephen Kern has argued: ‘World War I was the simultaneous drama of the age of simultaneity’.58 He considers how ‘millions of soldiers were united by chain of command, electronic communication, and synchronised watches and united in spirit by the commonality of events’.59 Jones represents the horrors that follow from these technological shifts. Without synchronized watches there could be no ‘zero hour’. Jones includes this phrase in the poem (it is perhaps in keeping with his interest in local specificity: the experience of time was different in war; there is no zero on a clock).60 As the hour approaches, Jones writes of soldiers’ vain wishes for mythical time to replace metrical time. They seek someone or something with sufficient power to overrule the temporal regimentation that propels them towards an almost certain end: ‘and seconds now our measuring-rods with no Duke Josue / nor conniving God / to stay the Divisional Synchronization’.61 Perhaps Jones offers a new set of ‘rods’ in order to protest the violence facilitated by clock time. Describing that last minute before ‘zero hour’, he distinguishes the temporal experience of two groups: ‘you can’t swallow your spit / and Captain Marlowe yawns a lot’.62 The Captain expresses his socially superior, and presumably safer, position by acting as if he has all the time in the world. A parallel here can be made with ‘one of the pieces of military literature most talked about in the British army before the First World War’: the short story, ‘A Sense of Proportion’, by General Sir Edward Swinton.63 Kern uses this story in The Culture of Time and Space, to illustrate his point that: ‘The sense of the (p.69) future depended on rank’.64 A general is shown to have a confident sense of his destiny – he has planned it out and so feels he can, as the battle approaches, spend his time trout fishing. In Parenthesis also encourages consideration of the divergent temporal experiences of different classes. Jones depicts a man born wealthy enough to have a ‘wet-nurse’; star-gazing she sees ‘his happy constellation through the panes’.65 The ‘common run’, by contrast, have ‘no mensuration gear to plot meandering fortune graph’.66

    Mythic Measures

    And so we are left with a couple of problems faced by Jones. How to communicate the experience of war when everyday language is already operating at such an intense register? How to call for linguistic calibration without playing the part of doctor and tribune: invoking ‘sense of proportion’, and, by that action, laying down a universalizing law? Vincent Sherry has discussed how Jones was influenced by an idea of measurement, signifying a kind of self-restraint or self-control, which appears in the literature of medieval chivalry.67 He describes how Jones criticizes technological warfare for lacking this virtue. The examples provided by characters in literature and mythical tales offer a means of thinking about what is too much, too little and just enough. Rather than dictating a set of unmovable rules, they instead provide a series of actions with consequences, the rightness or wrongness of which can be debated. But it is particularly to myth, to a kind of story that cannot be verified by fact, that Jones turns at the conclusion of In Parenthesis. Rather than banishing myth to the past as superstition in the name of reason (an action associated with certain Enlightenment thinkers), Jones joins other modernists in rethinking and reviving it.68 Once the battle is over, only myth can provide (to cite T. S. Eliot on James Joyce’s use of myth in Ulysses) ‘a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history’.69 Specifically, myth offers a way of thinking about the significance and scale of what cannot be measured – namely, the value of life and limb. In order to distribute adequate rewards for the soldiers, (p.70) Jones leaves reason behind and delegates the process of weighing-up to a figure whose inclinations or systems are unknown to both reader and writer.

    Jones gives the ‘Queen of the Woods’ the extraordinarily difficult task of deciding how much is owed to the soldiers who have given so much, and what the value of their lives might be.70 No footnote accompanies the description of this figure – her appearance in a prior literary work is not referenced. Her enigmatic qualities perhaps add to her authority – outside of history, she has neither been superseded by an alternative arbiter, nor can she ever be. To this maternal figure is given the responsibility of giving meaning to the soldiers’ experiences – a mythical reward in place of the necessarily insufficient one they will receive back at home: ‘She knows what’s due to this elect society’.71 Readers are told that the soldiers are paid adequately, but her means of measuring their virtues (if indeed virtues are what she is measuring) remain mysterious: ‘Some she gives white berries / some she gives brown’, Jones writes, ‘Siôn gets St. John’s Wort – that’s fair enough’.72 As well as renewing the men, she is renewing the cliché, playing on the double meaning of ‘fair’: the soldiers’ prize is both ‘fair and square’ and sufficiently beautiful.

    There is perhaps a parallel between the Queen of the Woods’ blessings and the biblical ‘measuring-rod’: the angel with the reed is told to measure the worshippers in the temple of God to decide who has a dissembling heart.73 This nod to the religious dimensions of Jones’s work sparks the suggestion that his use of idiomatic language may not only be careful and restrained but also devotional. Once Jones’s religious thinking is taken into account it becomes difficult to casually gloss ‘no legs to stand on’ with the metaphor of ‘fallen language’. Jones converted to Catholicism in 1921. Dilworth links Part VII of In Parenthesis with the major climax of the Mass: when the bread and wine are transubstantiated, that is, when bread becomes body and wine becomes blood.74 References to incarnation appear frequently in Jones’s work. Jones’s translation of the Latin words of his painted inscription QUIA PER INCARNATI (1949–59) reads: ‘For by the mystery of the Word made flesh the light of thy brightness has shone anew upon the eyes of our mind. Minerva has sprung from the head of Jove.’75 ‘Word made flesh’ might aptly describe what Jones does to the cliché when he describes the wounding of Private Ball. Sophie Read, discussing early modern poetry, writes: ‘Protestant (p.71) sacramentalism privileges the figurative, and the eucharist acts as a model for rhetorical expression’.76 That the literal takes precedence over the metaphor in Jones’s poem may be indicative of his Catholic beliefs. Bringing the contexts of both war and religion to bear on fallen language he is able to make it – to remember the words of the inscription – ‘shine anew’.

    Jones’s privileging of the literal can be viewed as an act of ‘anamnesis’.77 As he writes in the preface to The Anathemata: ‘The arts abhor any loppings off of meanings or emptyings out, any lessening of the totality of connotation, any loss of recession and thickness through’.78 To translate ‘anamnesis’ as ‘remembrance’ would enact a kind of violence, a ‘loppin[g] off’ of the word’s religious connotations. ‘Anamnesis’ can mean: ‘The recalling of things past; recollection, reminiscence.’79 But it also denotes: ‘That part of the Eucharistic canon in which the sacrifice of Christ is recalled and pleaded.’80 Renewing cliché, Jones transforms it into a sign-maker. The significance of this has implications for two terms he uses in his essays on art. ‘Gratuity’ involves the making of ‘signs’, and for Jones there was an ‘analogy’ between ‘the things that Christians called the eucharistic signs’ and ‘what we call “the Arts”’.81 He contrasted the ‘gratuitous’ with the ‘utile’, and to the latter term he attached ideas of use and functionality.82 These terms can be brought to a reading of Gill’s garden roller: the object could be understood in terms of the ‘utile’ if it only served to flatten the grass, yet because its form inspires interpretation (Who are the male and female figures? Are they cultivating a new Eden?) it partakes in ‘gratuity’. The terms are also relevant to the readings of In Parenthesis in this essay. Jones chooses not to ornament the mechanical measuring instruments, the breaking of which was discussed at the beginning of this essay – he focuses only on their functional properties (although they later prove dysfunctional). Breathing new life into clichés, idioms and proverbs, he renders them ‘gratuitous’. He gives them meanings that are superfluous to what is immediately required to understand what has happened (the plot): they do not simply serve as means to the end of representing war experiences to readers. So ‘you’ve got no legs to stand on’ does more than communicate that Ball has been hurt: Jones revives the cliché by prompting reflections on the excesses of both war and everyday language.

    (p.72) Jones sacrifices clichés in order to resurrect them (the religious term is here a more fitting description of Jones’s work than the mechanical metaphor, ‘calibrate’). Jones wrote that the ‘act of sign making’ at the Last Supper was ‘an act to be, in some sense, repeated’.83 In making word flesh when describing war experiences was he suggesting soldiers’ actions should be seen in terms of religious sacrifice – a repetition of Christ’s actions on Calvary? Jones does not answer this question, but, by means of parataxis, asks readers to compare historical and religious narratives. The line above ‘you’ve got no legs to stand on’ is: ‘When golden vanities make about’. ‘The Golden Vanity’ is a ballad about a forsaken cabin boy who, having saved his ship from an enemy fleet, was either not rewarded by his Captain or, in some versions, left to drown at sea.84 Analogies between Christ, Private and cabin boy must be inferred. While the reference to the cabin boy suggests sacrifice, it seems significant that the soldier loses his leg, not his life. As Jones wrote in the preface to In Parenthesis, the soldiers he fought with spoke ‘in parables’: they do not give truth or fact directly, as a compass might.85 Analogy suggests a certain kind of proportionality between one thing and another, but it does not insist upon equivalence. Comparing historical experiences with episodes in myths, legends and other stories does not make sense of difficult experiences or emotions in any straightforward or closed way: the meanings of the parallels drawn are open to debate. While the cliché transubstantiates (metaphor literalizes, word becomes flesh), the wounding of Private Ball can be viewed as an inverse incarnation (flesh is taken away, or as Dilworth writes, ‘desubstantiation’).86 Is Jones here drawing attention to a causal relation between the revival of language and the violation of the body? Without the latter would the former have been necessary?


    In Parenthesis cracks open clichés that are so often used when depicting violent experiences, and resists using the shorthand phrases that are frequently employed when remembering the First World War. The difficulties of doing so are suggested by its epigraph, a quotation from the medieval Welsh legend, The Mabinogion. A Pandora-like character opens a door he is forbidden from opening: ‘he opened the door … and when they had looked, they were conscious of all the evils they had ever sustained, and of all the friends and companions they had lost and of (p.73) all the misery that had befallen them, as if all had happened in that very spot’.87 Here again, with the repetition of ‘all’, is the memory flood, referred to earlier in this essay. There is a parallel too with Jones’s painting Manawydan’s Glass Door (1931), the title of which borrows from the same episode of The Mabinogion and which shows the sea spilling into the room in which Jones paints as he looks out to France.88 The making of this painting coincided with Jones’s writing of In Parenthesis, and he is said to have suffered a breakdown soon after in the autumn of 1932.89 The story of Manawydan is reminiscent in some respects of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of trauma: the belated return of the past in the present.90 Beginning the poem in this way, Jones seems to be making a link between the mythic tale and the writing of the poem. But the epigraph may also be suggestive of the experience of reading it. Reading In Parenthesis can often feel overwhelming; it resists easy consumption. As the breaking of measuring instruments indicates, this is not the text to go to if one is looking for the facts of the war. But what if the poem is instead viewed as a site for both remembrance and reflection? It brings long and close attention to the events it narrates, and also provokes consideration of the restrictions forms of language place upon representation. Jones ensures that readers ‘stumble at the margin of familiar things’.91 Instead of providing information, he encourages anamnesis: recognition that words are not just useful conduits for action, but richly, often painfully, connoted verbal remnants.


    (1) In Parenthesis is here called a ‘poem’, although this is a shorthand which obscures the hybrid form of the text: it combines poetry with prose elements; like T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), it includes footnotes; the art works that enclose the text can also be considered part of the poem. Jones’s experimentation with different genres might be viewed as part of his struggle to find an adequate means of representing his experiences: he concludes with myth, but also uses fragmentation, allusion and devices associated with realism (chronological narration, for instance).

    (2) David Jones, In Parenthesis (London: Faber and Faber, 1937), p. 156.

    (3) Ibid., p. 159.

    (4) Ibid., p. 108.

    (5) Hannah Arendt, ‘Understanding and Politics (The Difficulties of Understanding)’ [1954], in Essays in Understanding 1930–1954, ed. Jerome Kohn (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994), pp. 307–27: p. 321.

    (6) Georges Bataille, ‘Concerning the Accounts Given by the Residents of Hiroshima’, in Trauma: Explorations in Memory, ed. Cathy Caruth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), p. 223.

    (7) Jean-François Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute [1983], trans. Georges Van Den Abbeele (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988), p. 56.

    (8) Ibid., p. 57.

    (9) Ibid., pp. 56, 57.

    (10) Ibid., p. 57.

    (12) See Adrian Poole, ‘David Jones’, in The Cambridge Companion to the Poetry of the First World War, ed. Santanu Das (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 144–55: pp. 153–5. To Poole’s examples might be added Jones’s depictions of the sea spilling over window frames in his Portslade series. Poole has also noticed the conceptual expressiveness of the title of the poem (p. 153): parentheses demarcate but do not enclose. Jones described ‘the war itself’ as ‘a parenthesis’ (In Parenthesis, p. xv); haunting the present, it cannot be straightforwardly relegated to a past time and place. He also said he liked ‘looking out on to the world from a reasonably sheltered position’ (see David Blamires, David Jones: Artist and Writer (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1971), p. 59). In the context of his depiction of the failures of containment – a term that will be explored further in the next section of this essay – ‘reasonably’ becomes particularly poignant. For images of The Chester Play of the Deluge and Jones’s Portslade pictures see Ariane Bankes and Paul Hills, The Art of David Jones: Vision and Memory (Farnham: Lund Humphries, 2015), pp. 34–7 and the chapter ‘Watercolour Vision’, pp. 91–107.

    (14) Ibid., p. 34.

    (15) David Jones, ‘Preface to The Anathemata’, in The Anathemata (London: Faber and Faber, 1952), pp. 9–43: p. 23.

    (16) See the ‘over-estimation of casualties’ described in Robert Graves, ‘Postscript to “Good-Bye to All That”’, in But It Still Goes On: An Accumulation (London: Jonathan Cape, 1930), pp. 13–56: p. 42.

    (17) See Victor Shklovsky, ‘Art as Technique’ [1917], in Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, trans. and with an introduction by Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), pp. 3–24: p. 13.

    (18) See Vincent B. Sherry, The Great War and the Language of Modernism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). Sherry explores how modernist writers, Woolf, Pound and Eliot, ‘reenact a disestablishment of a rationalistic attitude and practice in language, in the verbal culture of a war for which Liberal apologies and rationales provided the daily material of London journalism’ (p. 14), and also discusses the etymological and cognitive associations Leonard Trelawnly Hobhouse, author of Liberalism (1910), made between the words ‘rational’ and ‘measure’ (p. 24).

    (19) See Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory [1975] (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 189–90.

    (23) Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil [1963] (London: Penguin, 1977), p. 55.

    (24) See also Gillian Beer, ‘The Making of a Cliché: “No Man is an Island”’, European Journal of English Studies 1.1 (1997), pp. 33–47: ‘Yet how would we live or communicate without clichés? Daily life might founder without them, in the heady encounter of realised feelings, fresh ideas. So much time would be needed for communication; and so ardent an expression would release intensities of passion and opinion hardly to be contained; we would all fall exhausted before evening, if we survived the laughter, rage, vehemence, and silence of which talk might then consist’ (p. 33).

    (25) Wilfred R. Bion, ‘Commentary’ [1972], in War Memoirs 1917–19, ed. Francesca Bion (London: Karnac Books, 1997), pp. 197–211: pp. 203–4. Quotations are reproduced by permission of The Marsh Agency Ltd on behalf of J. F. Bion, executor of the Estate of Francesca Bion.

    (26) Paul Fussell, ‘Killing in Verse and Prose’, in Thank God for the Atom Bomb and Other Essays (New York: Summit Books, 1988), pp. 125–44: p. 131.

    (27) Wilfred R. Bion, ‘Attacks on Linking’, International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 40 (1959), pp. 308–15: p. 311.

    (28) Ibid., p. 312.

    (29) Wilfred R. Bion, Transformations [1965] (London: Maresfield Library, 1984), p. 141.

    (30) Ibid., p. 141.

    (33) Jones, ‘Preface’, In Parenthesis, p. x. He additionally notes the profundity of the soldiers’ language, linking their use of expletives, ‘Bugger! Bugger!’, to the ‘“Fiat! Fiat!” of the Saints’ (p. xii).

    (34) John Brophy and Eric Partridge, eds, Songs and Slang of the British Soldier: 1914–1918 (London: Eric Partridge, 1930).

    (35) See Hope Wolf, ‘“Something Yet Unpublished”: Anecdotes in the Imperial War Museum Archive of the 1964 BBC Series, The Great War’, unpublished Ph.D. thesis (University of London, 2010), pp. 122–3. For the linguistic inventiveness of the troops see also ‘Fresh Idiom’, in Paul Fussell, Wartime: Understanding and Behaviour in the Second World War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 251–66.

    (37) Jones, ‘Preface’, In Parenthesis, p. x.

    (38) See Thomas Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War (London: Enitharmon Press, 2012), p. 116.

    (40) See Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Clichés [1940] (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978), p. 131.

    (42) Thomas Dilworth, Reading David Jones (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2008), p. 34.

    (43) See the challenges to hierarchies of ‘bigness’ and ‘smallness’ in Melba Cuddy-Keane, Adam Hammond and Alexandra Peat, Modernism: Keywords (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014), pp. 20–6.

    (44) Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (London: Hogarth Press, 1925), p. 151.

    (45) Ibid., p. 150.

    (46) Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out (London: Duckworth, 1915), p. 91.

    (47) David Jones, ‘Introduction’, in David Jones, The Tribune’s Visitation (London: Fulcrum Press, 1969), n.p.

    (48) Jones, ‘Notes on the Inscription’, in The Tribune’s Visitation, n.p.

    (50) Ibid., n.p.

    (52) Ibid., pp. 34, 66.

    (53) Eric Gill, ‘Art and the People’ [1932], in Beauty Looks After Herself: Essays by Eric Gill (London: Sheed & Ward, 1933), pp. 141–51: p. 143.

    (54) Eric Gill (designer) and David Kindersley (cutter), ‘Garden Roller: Adam and Eve’ [1933]. Leeds City Art Galleries. An image can be found in Judith Collins, Eric Gill: The Sculpture (London: Herbert Press, 1998). pp. 186–7. See also www.leedsartfund.org/collection/leeds-art-gallery/adam-and-eve-garden-roller.html (accessed 30 April 2016).

    (55) The different interpretations of the object are noted by David Kindersley in Collins, Eric Gill: The Sculpture, p. 186.

    (56) Basil Bunting, Briggflatts: An Autobiography [1966] (Highgreen: Bloodaxe, 2009), p. 13.

    (57) Nicolete Gray, The Painted Inscriptions of David Jones (London: Gordon Fraser, 1981), pp. 16–19.

    (58) Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space 1880–1910 [1983] (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), p. 295.

    (59) Ibid., p. 295.

    (61) Ibid., p. 159.

    (63) John Keegan, The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme [1976] (London: Bodley Head, 2014), p. 232; referred to in Kern, Culture of Time and Space, p. 295.

    (67) Vincent Sherry, ‘David Jones’s In Parenthesis: New Measure’, Twentieth Century Literature, 28.4 (Winter 1982), pp. 375–80.

    (68) See Steven Connor, ‘Modernity and Myth’, in The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century English Literature, ed. Laura Marcus and Peter Nicholls (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 251–68.

    (69) T. S. Eliot, ‘Ulysses, Order, and Myth’ [1923], in Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (London: Faber and Faber, 1975), pp. 175–8: p. 177.

    (72) Ibid., pp. 185, 186.

    (73) For ‘measuring-rods’ see ibid., p. 159; for ‘the measure of the angel with the reed’ see David Jones, ‘The Book of Balaam’s Ass’, in The Roman Quarry and Other Sequences, ed. Harman Grisewood and René Hague (London: Agenda Editions, 1981), pp. 185–211: p. 200.

    (75) David Jones, QUIA PER INCARNATI [1949–50]. Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge. The inscription is reproduced in Bankes and Hills, The Art of David Jones, p. 152. See also the inscription between pp. 76 and 77 in Jones, The Anathemata.

    (76) Sophie Read, Eucharist and the Poetic Imagination in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 38.

    (78) Ibid., p. 24.

    (80) See Oxford English Dictionary (OED Online). See also David Jones, ‘Art and Sacrament’ [1955], in Epoch and Artist: Selected Writings, ed. Harman Grisewood [1959] (London: Faber and Faber, 2008), pp. 143–79: p. 168.

    (81) See David Jones, ‘Art and Democracy’ [1942–3], in Epoch and Artist: Selected Writings, ed. Grisewood, pp. 85–96: pp. 87–8; Jones, ‘Art and Sacrament’, p. 171.

    (82) See David Jones, ‘The Utile, a note to ‘Art and Sacrament’ [1958], in Epoch and Artist: Selected Writings, ed. Grisewood, pp. 180–5.

    (84) Steve Roud and Julia Bishop (eds), The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs (London: Penguin Classics, 2012), pp. 22–3, 382–3.

    (85) Jones, ‘Preface’, In Parenthesis, p. x.

    (87) Jones, ‘Prologue’, In Parenthesis, p. xix. Jones describes a shell as ‘Pandoran’ later in the poem (p. 24).

    (89) See ibid., p. 101.

    (90) Sigmund Freud, ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ [1920], in Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Other Writings, trans. John Reddick with an introduction by Mark Edmundson (London: Penguin, 2003), pp. 42–102, part III, pp. 56–62. See also Cathy Caruth’s discussion of Freud’s use of myth, specifically the story of Tancred and Clorinda in ‘Introduction: The Wound and the Voice’, in Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), pp. 1–9.