Sunday, 14 June 2015

Diomedes Jones on the Somme: The Best 'War Poem'?

This week a public London Uni Classics conference, ‘Poetics of War’, marks the centenary of the Second Battle of Ypres. So I can publicly celebrate my favourite ‘War Poem’, David Jones’ In Parenthesis. An artist before he turned to poetry, Jones created images of trench life more daring than anything by Owen or Sassoon: ‘Men-bundles here and there in ones and twos, in twos and threes; some eating, others very still, knee to chin trussed, confined in small dug concavities, wombed of earth, their rubber-sheets for caul.’

Private Jones, volunteer Fusilier, aged 19
The poem ironically equates the soldiers with Arthurian heroes, but anchors them in a war history stretching back to Thermopylae, Macedon and Roman Britain. Its objective reporting of death and detail of camp life are resonantly Homeric. The supreme Troy episode is the boasting speech of the eloquent Welsh private Dai Greatcoat at Christmas 1915, a modern response to Diomedes’ famous ‘flyting speech’ in Iliad 6.

In Parenthesis marries aesthetic Modernism and ‘modern war’ content. The underlying economic, technological and political causes of the war were the same as those of the revolution in aesthetic sensibility which we call Modernism. In Britain (with the possible exception of Isaac Rosenberg), the other war poets were conservative in aesthetic terms, rehashing Victorian verse forms and outdated poetic diction. Jones, who didn’t begin writing until a decade post-war, single-handedly invents a Modernist War Poetry.

Jones drew detailed sketches of trench life

It is also a lower-class war poetry. Most of the poets were officers, writing in guilt-laden anguish to question the point of ever waging war at all. But Jones, although from an Anglo-Welsh middle-class home, was an ordinary private soldier. He is proud of his gun and interested in weapons technology; he celebrates the courage and humour of the rank-and-file, the elaborate intricacies of the trench habitations they constructed, their daily heroism in the face of rats and leaking latrines. ‘Two armies face and hold their crumbling limites intact. They're worthy of an intelligent song for all the stupidity of their contest.’
Westminster Abbey WW1 Poets' Memorial


Finally, in his haunting preface, Jones poses the very question which In Parenthesis seeks to answer: how can art respond to industrialisation of war? ‘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 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.’ In Parenthesis was eerily prophetic, too.

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