Category Archives: david jones

The poetic voice in the difficult poem. Geoffrey Hill and David Jones

I embark on this as a result of seeing a paragraph somewhere that puzzled over the nature of Samuel Beckett’s ‘voice’ in his later prose. For some reason this triggered off an internal debate as to the respective voices deployed by Pound in his Cantos and by Charles Olson in his Maximus series. Leafing through these two bignesses, I realised that I didn’t respond well to the voices behind the poem.

This surprised me because both poems have enough of the poet in them to keep me interested but here this turned out to be an appalled fascination rather than enthusiasm.

In this sense, I’m treating voice as the thing in a poem which gives some indication of the poet as a member of the human race rather than as the maker of the poem. I’ve therefore chosen Hill and Jones because the voices they deploy are very different but equally full of humanness.

The Teacherly Voice.

I’ve learned a lot from these two, Jones uses notes to clarify some of his references and obscurities whilst Hill tends to make his explanations part of the poem. From Jones I’ve learned much more about life in the trenches during World War I than any other book could have taught me, I’ve also become reasonably au fait with the tenets and liturgy of the Catholic faith as well as aspects of the history of London.

As an example, there is this from In Parenthesis;

At 350 – slid up the exact steel, thegraduated rigid leaf precisely angled to its bed.

You remember the word of the staff instructor whose Kinross teeth bared, his bonnet awry, his broad bellow to make you spring to it; to pass you out with the sixty three parts properly differentiated.

The note for the first paragraph is “Has reference to adjustment of back-sight leaf for firing at required range. The opposing trench lines were, at this point, separated by approximately 300-350 yards. In other places the distance was very much less. Among the Givenchy craters, the length of a cricket pitch divided the combatants.

This is the gloss for the second- “Scotsmen seemed as ubiquitous among Musketry Instructors as they are among ships’ engineers. There are 63 parts to the short Lee-Enfield rifle.”

The points about sight leaf adjustment and the 63 parts are helpful in attending to the poem, The crater details give additional context but are not needed by the reader. The Ubiquitous Scot is an observation that makes me smile and has a touch of the human about it.

Hill’s A precis or Memorandum of Civil Power does education with regard to Messaien;

Why Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps this has
nothing to do
surely with civil power? But it strikes chords
direct and angular: the terrible
unreadiness of France to hold her own;
and what March Bloch entitled Strange Defeats ,
prisoners, of whom Messaien was one,
the unconventional quarter for which 
the Quator 
was fashioned as a thing beyond the time,
beyond the sick decorum of betrayal,
Petain, Laval, the shabby prim hotels,
senility
fortified with spa waters. (When I said
grand minimalist I'd had someone else in mind-
just to avoid confusion on that score.)
Strike up, augment,
irregular beauties contra the New Order.
Make do with cogent if austere finale.






I was aware of the Quartet but wasn’t aware that Messaien had been in prison, nor was I aware of the Bloch quote although he is one of my favourite historians.

I’ve thus been taught and given additional context to the rest of the poem. I’m also intrigued by Hill’s desire to be understood. He frequently claimed not to be bothered by the difficulty of his work, justifying it, less frequently, by observing that life is difficult and the poems are a reflection of that fact. The ‘grand minimalist’ clarification, I like to think, because he knows how good this series is and he’s tidying up any ambiguities that may have occurred. The score pun is typically terrible but endearing.

The Raw Voice

By this I want to draw out the voice in both that has both startled and moved me. I discover reasonably late in life that I read poetry in order, in part to be emotionally affected. This has come as something of a shock because becauseI’d always told myself that the prime attraction was the quality of the phrase/line/image/idea.

I’ve been thus affected by both Jones and Hill by the unadorned horror in some of their lines. There is a lot of rawness about that is intended to be moving but leaves me cold.

The two extracts here have a personal impact on me because both my grandfathers were seriously wounded at the Somme, events which have permeated down through subsequent generations. My wife and I also lost a child who was only alive long enough to be christened before she died, this has been of enormous significance to both of us and our other children for the thirty six years since.

These two are again from In Parenthesis;

And white faces lie,

(like china saucers tilted run soiling stains half-dry, when the moon shines on a scullery rack and Mr and Mrs Billington are asleep upstairs an so’s Vi – and any creak frightens you and any twig moving.)

And this;

And next to Diamond, and newly dead the lance-jack from No 5, and three besides, distinguished only in their variant mutilation.

Whilst I find both of these raw, as in ‘soiling stains half dry’ and ‘in their variant mutilation’ I also accept that they are restrained, poetic and have the feel of the terrible authentic. Both of these are from part 7 which deals with the first couple of days of the Somme offensive. Both my grandfathers experienced mutilation during this period, one lost an eye and the other lost half his face and took sixteen years to die. I’ve read a lot about WWI and the Somme in particular and nowhere have I come across anything close to this in terms of accuracy and humanity.

Turning to Sir Geoffrey, this piece of theological pondering is from Poem CXXV in the brilliant The Triumph of Love series;

                                               So much 
for the good news. The bad is its correlate-
everlasting torments of the non-elect; guaranteed
damnation for dead children unbaptized.
Wycliff and Dame Julian would have raised
few objections or none to those symmetries.

As I indicated earlier, for fairly obvious reasons this touches a nerve. Beth lived for 16 hours which was long enough to be christened but not to be baptized. Earlier in the poem Hill makes clear that he’s paraphrasing Thomas Bradwardine (14th century polymath and Archbishop of Canterbury). After getting over my immediate response I had a look at Bradwardine and his very orthodox attack on the New Pelagians- I think I’ve written about this in the past as an example of extreme obscurity. The entirely accurate bit that I experience as both raw and distressing is the eternal torments and the guaranteed damnation. It doesn’t matter that Hill attempts to balance this with the ‘good news’ which is that “All / things are eternally present in time and nature”. This still strikes me as more than a little gratuitously self indulgent.

The Human Voice.

I accept that I’ve spent more than a few words here and on arduity on what think of as Jones’ humanity and Hill’s tendency to throw himself, body and soul into some of his later work without being clear as the effect this has had on me personally.

By humanity I intend a mix of empathy and compassion for others clearly and unambiguously expressed. This passage from Part 4 is indicative of what I think I mean;

Corporal Quilter gave them no formal dismissal, nor did he enquire further what duties his party might next perform. Each one of them disposed himself in some part of their few yards of trench, and for an hour or more were left quite undisturbed, to each his own business. To talk together of the morning’s affairs; to fall easily to sleep; to search for some personally possessed thing, wedged tightly between articles drawn from the Quartermaster; tore-read again the last arrived letter; to see if the insisted water were penetrated within the stout valise canvas; sufficiently to make useless the very thing you could do with; to look at illustrations inlast week’s limp and soiled Graphic, of Christmas preparations with the fleet, and full portraits of the High Command; to be assured that the spirit of the troops it excellent. that the nation proceeds confidently in its knowledge of victory.

I make no apologies at all for producing this list of troops’ ‘downtime’ activities as I feel it more than adequately expresses Jones’ very human respect and affection for his comrades in arms. Passages like this occur frequently throughout this long work which can be read as a tribute to those who served on both sides of the trenches.

The Personal Voice

On the other hand, Hill’s later work gives many peeks into his life story and he has no problem with ruminating about his work within his poetry.

The Triumph of Love gives us examples of both;

Guilts were incurred in that place, now I am convinced,
self-molestation of the child-soul, would that be it?

The place in question is Romsley which is close to Hill’s childhood home. It is known that, for many years, Hill had problems with his mental health and eventually obtained a diagnosis and some appropriate help. As someone with similar issues who happened to be a social worker, I’m going to resist extrapolating too much from these lines other than to confess that I readily identify with the unerring accuracy of both self-molestation and the child-soul. One of the main functions, it seems to me, of creative endeavour is to provoke us into comparing our own experiences, emotions and ideas with those expressed in the work. Sadly, far too many mainstream poets since the fifties have poured out their pain into poems in a way that I find distasteful and trite. I’m therefore against the confessional poem but Hill is forgiven because these moments are both oblique and rare.

The Triumph of Love also has this;

At seven, even, I knew the much-vaunted
battle was a dud. First it was a dud,
then a gallant write-off.

As with all those who were children between 1939 and 1945, the Second World War was formative for Hill and frequent references are to made to aspects ranging from the German resistance movement, Dunkirk, the fate of the Jews and the bombing of Coventry.

The posthumous Book of Baruch has this;

Eagle-eyed ancient history, look down on us from your eyrie with    
           resolved countenance: as when, in the Daily Mail, I read about 
           Spain, and drew dread in, and put the question 'will it come   
           here?' to my dad though he knew well it would.

Here I’m taking ‘Spain’ to refer to the Spanish Civil War and Hill’s father’s response an attempt to soothe the anxieties of a small child- our poet was born in 1932.

Baruch also has;

In my father's time I worked rhyme against form with smears of         
            poisonable blue indelible pencil. He also let me part-expend
            my rage  on any leftover blank page of a 'surplus' police 
            notebook; my lips of purple slake.
He was a good man; I brought him pain and pride.

Elsewhere Hill expresses his anger about his grandparents’ poverty but here we have something more complex going on. His father was a police sergeant and in the thirties and forties would have been seen as a figure of some authority in the wider community. I’m assuming that the pride would come from Hill’s Oxbridge education and subsequent academic career – I have no idea about the cause(s) of the pain.

The voice here is restrained but lyrical- the lines kick off for me my own relationship with my dad and his complete mystification as to why I should enjoy reading and writing.

As a result of these small observations and clear interjections, I feel that I know more about the humanness of Hill than I do of Jones although I’ve read much more about the latter’s life.

I’ll finish here, I’ve found this a rewarding experience in that I’ve had to try and think about both poets’ work as a whole- something that’s quite different from the close attention that I try to pay to individual poems. I hope that others will find it useful.

As some of you may have realised, I’m still kicking around the glories of the wordpress ‘verse’ button and its unusual rendering of the <pre> tag. I now intend to try and find a way to make it ‘work’ in a much friendlier manner. The lineation on the Baruch extracts doesn’t match the format in the book either, will try to fix this as well.

David Jones and art for art’s sake.

For the first time in a numbers of years I’ve been reading the Epoch and Artist collection of Jones’ essays and find myself struck again by Art and Sacrament and by The Utile from 1955 and 1958 respecitvely. This is primarily because of what Jones says about the relationship to the making of art with participation in the Catholic Mass in a note to The Anathemata which has always puzzled me.

I’m puzzled because this is a view that’s given with some force and has, what I find to be, an unpleasant sting in the tail:

But I here confine my use of the word to those artefacts in which there is an element of the extra-utile and the gratuitous. If there is evidence of this kind of artefacture then the artifex should be regarded as participating directly in the benefits of the Passion because the extra-utile is the mark of man.

For which reason the description ‘utility goods’ if taken literally could refer only to the products of sub-man.

This is note 2 on p.65 of the 2010 Faber edition of The Anathemata the italicised adverb is in the original text. I write as a reader who is unsettled by both paragraphs and, although I have had conversations with the leading critics on this, what follows is intended in a readerly way rather than lit crit.

I’m unsettled specifically by this notion of direct participation and by the use of sub-man.

I am happy to accept that taking part can be an unconscious thing and that it therefore includes non-believers. What I’m agitated by is how it works, even for believers. Being far too curious in many things I do like to know the details of this kind of belief. I’ve spent many hours getting to the finer points of how the dialectic is supposed to function, how religious grace has been fought over by Christians since the time of Christ for example. In comparison the what I think of as the Jones Problem is a very, very minor concern.

It matters to me because the use of emphasis disrupts my enjoyment of the work as a whole and this particular poem that I consider to be the finest long poem of the 20th century. I also consider myself to be, in part, an explicator of Jones’ longer work and therefore feel a bit of a fraud because I’ve never got to grips with this.

‘Sub-man’ is different because it smacks of a number of ideologies that I find repellent. I’m prepared to accept that this was an accepted ‘type’ used to refer to some indigenous people to justify colonial expansion and slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries and the Nazi’s extermination of the Jews during World War II. Naively I had thought that all Western artists had rejected thinking in this way after the discovery of the camps in 1945. The above paragraph demonstrates clearly that this isn’t the case.

As with T S Eliot and many others, Jones was an admirer of the French Action Francaise party (which was both far-right and monarchist) in the thirties. He was also a keen reader of the works of Oswald Spengler which was intially appropriated by the Nazis.

To return to the passion, Art and Sacrament clarifies what is meant by participation and why the proposition is universal rather than confined to the Catholic mass. This is arrived at by a long and detailed argument and I realise that it didn’t sink in to my brain because its various twists and turns will have deterred me from giving it the attention that it deserves.

What follows is a much abbreviated summary of what I read as the central argument. This, as ever, is both tenuous and subjective and should not be taken as in anyway definitive. It has, however, given me as a reader a better handle on some of What Might Be Going On in the glorious complexities that make up The Anathemata.

The essential bits are the function of religion as a binding force, a kind of ligament that binds man so that he man be free. Then there is art as a making/doing of signs, the sacrament as strategy and the mass as the place where signs are done.

To give the full flavour of the arguments made in support of these, I would need to produce the essay in full. Instead, I reproduce below the passages that I find most helpful.

It was in order to convey this that I chose the art of strategy as my example. For strategy in so far as it partakes of art, offers less occasion for those particular misunderstandings which would tend to arise had something more recognizably an art, and immeasurably more typical, been chosen: for example had poetry, dancing, painting, sculpture, song or architecture been chosen.

But having made some attempt to indicate certain characteristics that are implicit in the activity of art we are now free to consider some more explicit manifestations of those same characteristics by which we recognize that the art of man is essentially a sign-making or ‘sacramental’ activity. We have come through a tangled wood of attempted definitions and have been hampered by unavoidable explanations, but now perhaps we are more free to deploy in the open and can see better how the front shapes.

As it is the sign-making or ‘sacramental’ character of art that is our chief concern, I shall, in the following pages, confine myself to a more explicit consideration of what that may mean, and especially what it may mean to us today in view of our civilizational trend.

and;

But brief reflection will show that Calvary itself (if less obviously than the Supper) involves poiesis. For what was accomplished on the Tree of the Cross presupposes the sign-world and looks back to foreshadowing rites and arts of mediation and conjugation stretching back for tens of thousands of years in actual pre-history.

finally;

But leaving Christians and their obligations altogether aside and speaking, for a while, as one unconcerned for the truth or untruth of the Christian documents, main tradition or divergent theologies, it remains true that in the signs referred to we have not only an element of art but some indication of the kind of activity that we predicate of Ars at her most abstract. This much should be as evident to those who imagine themselves to be antipathetic to the signs as to those who claim a love of them. A non-Christian person would rightly observe that these signs equally involve Ars whether the intention of the sign-makers is un-Catholic or Catholic. But such a person would also observe that in the latter case something further was involved. He would note that the intention in this case envisaged an abstract art par excellence; for nothing could be less ‘representational’ or more re-presentative or further from ‘realism’ or more near reality than what is intended and posited in this latter instance. He would note an extreme objectivity in the view that sign and thing signified are regarded as having a true identity. He would note the rejection of the opinion held elsewhere that such an identification overthrows the nature of a non-Christian person would rightly observe that these signs equally involve Ars whether the intention of the sign-makers is un-Catholic or Catholic. But such a person would also observe that in the latter case something further was involved. He would note that the intention in this case envisaged an abstract art par excellence; for nothing could be less ‘representational’ or more re-presentative or further from ‘realism’ or more near reality than what is intended and posited in this latter instance. He would note an extreme objectivity in the view that sign and thing signified are regarded as having a true identity.

I’m obviously not impressed by this ‘explanation’ and this isn’t because I’m a lifelong agnostic but rather that I still don’t have an explanation of how this might come about. I am, mostly, a materialist but I like to think that I’m reasonably accepting of things spiritual. I also accept that I have a soul and find that it is mostly fed by poetry.

I have to refute this notion of religious sign = artistic sign and the consequent participation in what the sacramental sign stands for by all sign makers and doers. At least I’m a lot learer on what Jones’ note intends and this does give me an additional hold on the thinking behind and within the Anathemata.

The following chapter was written as a kind of addendum to the first and part of it offers a clarification and defence of the term sub-man. First of all, I need to point out that Jones intends utile to mean that which is practically useful useful rather than art which isn’t. As was stated in the preceding essay, man is essentially a maker of art and the making of the merely useful is much less significant- hence the term in question.

I have just used the term ‘sub-man’ but that will not really do, except rhetorically. Also it is too suggestive of some primitive anthropoid or hominiform type, and that is not at all the association intended. On the contrary these apparently ‘sub-human’ works are the products of full homo faber, homo sapiens, modern man, and they are of course made and used by men, some of whom are in a high state of spiritual, moral, intellectual and aesthetical awareness. None the less these products are, to all appearances, ‘sub-human’ in quality. And they are not few, but many, not only many but ubiquitous and characteristic

I understand this but it feels like special pleading after the event by a man who now realises the offence that he has caused. Unlike the universal participation, I do understand how this is supposed to work but disagree with it, even without the sub-human quip. Jones claims that man has a special status as a maker of art because he has consciousness. Again this manages to be both too simple and complicated in equal measure.

There have been many over the centuries who have claimed that poetry is somehow closer to the truth than other art forms. This also strikes me as silly.

This ‘above and below’ way of thinking is a product of the very human desire to put things in order, to invent orders of hierarchy and then to argue about both. Both are constructs and have no grounding whatsoever in reality. Even if we apply the practical/creative split we find that it is perfectly possible to be a technically proficient artist just as it is to be an artistic technician.

In terms of the quote, Jones’ ‘it will not do, except rhetorically’ misses the point. It will not do at all, not in 1958, nor in 2021 especially in light of the growth of antisemitism across Europe. It’s significant that Jones doesn’t make a specific reference to the most obvious ways in which ‘sub-man’ can be defined and his defence / explanation is too convoluted and illogical to be taken seriously.

In conclusion, I’m disappointed and my view of David Jones the man has been diminished. I’m particularly concerned that I’ve spent the last decade informing others that Jones’ finest quality is his humanity. Sadly I feel the need to go back to the work to see if this view remains the same.

Incidentally, Faber published in 2017 a new edition of Epoch and Artist which is available from most UK outlets.

David Jones, his notes as strata.

I’ve been re-reading Tom Goldpaugh and Jamie Collison’s brilliant and essential edition of Jones’ The Grail Mass and Other Works. I was going to pick out a few of the notes and talk about Jones’ views on both the Roman Empire and All Things Welsh. Something in the editors’ introduction, however, caught my eye before I had the chance to dive in;

These notes are best understood not as didactic attempts to limit the meaning of the lines to which they refer, but rather in terms of Jones oft-used geological metaphors of ‘strata’ or ‘deposits’ to describe the way in which meaning builds up over time within a culture. He was particularly concerned with layers of meaning, and argued that to appreciate the textures on the surface one must know what lies beneath. A page of Jones’ poetry with footnotes running along the bottom and the verse printed above instantiates this understanding. The footnotes do not explain away the verse, they uncover a lower stratum of meaning upon which the poetry above is built. From this perspective, they endeavour not to draw the text down to a fixed meaning, but rather point upward, opening out possibilities of association that would have been otherwise inaccessible and which Jones hopes will subsequently inform the reader’s engagement with the verbal play of the poem itself. The visual impact of Jones’ footnoted poetry is one of the reasons the editors have confined commentary to extended endnotes.

As a self-opinionated Jones obsessive, this detailed explication provides a lot to think about. I’ve been of the view that the notes to The Anathemata don’t ‘work’ in that they often explain things that don’t always need an explanation glide over in silence the things that are Very Obscure Indeed. Self-annotation always seems to me to be fraught with hazard. Some poets manage it reasonably well but others seem much more concerned with self-justification rather than providing assistance. Of course, different readers require different kinds of help but Jones’ later work is so obdurate that I feel that we could all benefit from more consistent ‘cover’. The editors describe these notes as providing a ‘lower stratum of meaning’ that is somehow foundational to that particular part of the poem. If this is the case then I’m not sure that it’s something that I need, I’d much rather have some idea of context which provides broader information rather than these foundations. If this is the case then I don’t mind if more information is provided than I need as long as it gives me that cognitive breadth.

I’m nevertheless intrigued by this geological aspect and have now paid some attention as to where this might apply in the Grail Mass. I want to start with a couple of lines from The Third Celtic Insertion;

or circumambulate the world of
Mother Mona to wheat her furrows
for Camber's mess.........


Mother Mona gets this lengthy note;

Anglesey was known as Mon fam Cymru, ‘Mona the Mother of Wales’, on account, it is supposed, of the corn grown on the island. We have already noted the association of the sea god Manawyddan with the soil, The great fabulist, Geoffrey of Monmouth, in order to provide suitable founders for England, Scotland and Wales respectively names as the sons of Brute: Locrine, Ambarnact and Camber. Camber, no more than the other two, has any place in the earlier mythology. He is, I suppose, a literary invention of the Angevin age. Geoffrey was trying to provide an Aenid for Henry of Anjou’s empire. We can, however, at this date afford to utilise his inventions, for he himself has become part of our deposits. (Incidentally what a tragedy it was for Britain as a whole that the Angevin hegemony ever disintegrated. For had it continued the unity between these islands and French civilisation would have been assured).

The above would appear to be a bit at variance with our editors’ observation. It’s more of a justification for making use of an erroneous reference than ‘a deposit’ in itself. The two elements which may require explanation (‘Mother Mona’ and ‘Camber’) are dealt with first and this provides all the information that I need. As a reader, the observation about Geoffrey’s work having become ‘part of our deposits’ strikes me as extraneous to my engagement with the work. As Jones ackowledges, the last observation is also extraneous (and incorrect).

I also want to have a think about this;

Here in Kemais, igneous and adamant, 
and high - there in Penfro, the high trees
are low under Manannan's tide
where the Deisi foray who converse with incubi.

Does the tufted coverlet drape the shifting
or do we tread the paleozoic
certainties?
                Where, hard strata lean on leaning strata
harder yer, and with each greater hardness
the slow gradient falls, slowly falls to where
the basalts dark gull's side beyond the fretted
knuckles of Pebidiog
                 Where the brittle rim of the lithosphere
hangs and jutties between water-cloud
and water
                  where the last grey tokens are.

All the names, except ‘Mannanan’ from the fist stanza are directly defined in the notes and that omission is clarified by the explanation of the reference to the ‘high trees’ lying low under the tide.

The rest of this extract however has no notes at all so I’ve had to use the interweb to elucidate both ‘Pebidiog’ and ‘lithosphere’ and to look up ‘jutty’ as a verb. This is what I mean with regards to the notes not ‘working’ in any of the later poems but especially this and The Anathemata. It may be argued that The Grail Mass is an incomplete draft an and Jones may have been intending to do this at a later stage before publication. All the same, this seems unlikely given the similar gaps in The Anathemata. Jones’ introduction to that work has;

I have a last point that I wish to get clear. Although in the notes to the text and in this apology I refer to or cite various authorities and sources that does not mean that this book has any pretensions whatever of a didactic nature. I refer to those sources only to elucidate a background.

This seems to me to be reasonably clear, I think that Jones could have done more elucidating but feel that thinking of the notes as some kind of strata just serves to complicate things that are already complex.

David Jones, In Parenthesis as Documentary..

What follows is a version of the brief paper I was going to give at the York University Jones conference in July 2016 The reason for putting it here is that heart surgery had prevented any long distance travel and various other normal activities a couple of months. I originally put this on my arduity site but it may well be of interest to readers here.

In Parenthesis is a heartbreakingly beautiful account of the days leading up to and including the first day of the Somme offensive on July 1st in 1916. According to our foremost military historian, Michael Howard, it is also one of the greatest ever accounts of warfare.

In 1938 IP won the then prestigious Hawthornden Prize, in his 1961 Note of Introduction T S Eliot describes it as a “work of genius” and places Jones in the same group as himself, Pound and Joyce.

Before beginning, I’d like to acknowledge Tom Dilworth’s account of the very close parallels between IP and David Jones’ personal experience of the war, a proximity I’ll return to more than once as we progress.

Regular readers will know that I’m a fan of the documentary poem but I’m suggesting that that this is more, that IP transcends this particular Poetry Mode and spills over into a thing both more specific and, at the same time, universal. I’m fully aware that this doesn’t make any kind of sense but (please) bear with me. As well as being a fan on the Poetry Mode, I’m also a devotee of the documentary film because great factual films bring with them a sense of immediacy and exactness that both moves and fascinates me.

In his Preface, Jones sets out his two main aims, the first being to memorialise his fallen comrades and the second to give an account of the period leading up to the mechanization of warfare that, as he saw it, coincided with the slaughter on the Somme:

This writing has to do with some things I saw, felt and was part of. The period covered begins early in December 1915 and ends early in July in 1916. 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 on things hardened into a more relentless, mechanical affair, took on a more sinister aspect. The wholesale slaughter of the later years, the conscripted levies filling the gaps in every file of four, knocked the bottom out of the intimate, continuing, domestic life of men, within whose structures Roland could find, and, for a reasonable while, enjoy, his Oliver. In the earlier months there was a certain attractive amateurishness, and elbow-room for idiosyncrasy that connected one with a less exacting past.

The are the opening lines of Jones’ preface and I’m suggesting that it might be useful to take him at his word. It’s a writing that a specific period of time, not a written record, nor a memoir, nor an elegaic account but a having to do with and it’s this aspect that I’d like to pay some attention to here.

This writing proceeds by way of narrative, by telling the story of its protagonist, private John Ball, as he makes his way from the English parade ground to the first day of the battle. The focus is almost entirely on the internal relationships within Ball’s company, the men’s responses to each other and the events going on around them. In this way Jones’ captures and conveys a specific and personal kind of reality. Now, I know very little about the Great War, only a little more than the consensus cultural view of a senseless slaughter that didn’t achieve anything for either side. I am therefore in no position whatsoever to assess the accuracy or otherwise of this story. What I have done is noted how it has affected me and my perspective on these events. The first thing to be said is that this tired old cynic continues to be emotionally stirred up and that his view of the quotidian existence of these men has changed dramatically.

Because of the reported conversations and behaviours, I feel as if I know all of these characters and yet throughout the story I know that many of them are going to die. During the first reading i attempted to maintain some kind of manly distance from the characters but still managed to be heartbroken and emotionally mangled for them, as living and breathing individuals, as they fell. In terms of my perspective, that’s changed on both the event and on the priorities I give to historical trends and the bigger perspective in general.

In terms of the event, I now understand that WWI wasn’t four years of continuous and relentless hell, that there were periods of respite and recuperation to be had whilst behind the trenches, that the main thing that kept men going was their camaraderie and resolve, even though they didn’t hold the officer class in any great regard. The second is the importance of personal experience in the scheme of things, as in it is of little use knowing and understanding the causes of and the general progress of things without an at least equal understanding of the effect of these on individual lives.

I’ve written before about the physical awkwardness and effort involved in getting to and living in the front lines but here I want to think about this in terms of documentary, of this ‘having to do with’. This brief extract is from Part 3, Starlight Order which deals with the Company moving at night towards the forward positions:

And sleepy-eyed see Jimmy Grove’s irregular bundle-figure, totter upward labouringly, immediately next in front, his dark silhouette sways a moment above you – he drops away into the night – and your feet follow where he seemed to be. Each in turn labours over whatever it is – this piled brokenness – dragged over and a scared hurrying on, the slobber was ankle-deep where you found the road again.

And this as the troops near their destination:

The night dilapidates over your head and scarlet lightning annihilates the nice adjustments of your vision, used now to, and cat-eyed for the shades. You stumble under this latest demonstration, white-hot nine-inch splinters hiss, water-tempered, or slice the cross-slats between his feet – you hurry in your panic, which hurrying gives you clumsy foothold, which falling angers you, and you are less afraid; you call them bastards – you laugh aloud.

Before we proceed, theere is a note to ‘Jimmy Grove’s’ but I don’t understand it (the notes don’t always ‘work’). Whatever this may refer to, I don’t think my ignorance in any way detracts from the jaw-dropping brilliance of the above. Incidentally ‘hedropsaway’ isn’t a typo, it’s how it appears in the 2010 Faber edition.

Reading part 4, I’m on this road with these men, I’m struggling with them, I’m aware of the immediacy of danger and equally scared by the annihilating lightning. I’m sucked in by the use of ‘you’ and carried along by the quicknesses of the rhythm and the exquisite use of language. All of these convey to me the most convincing ‘having to do with’ warfare that I have ever read. Of course, this is a subjective and personal view but I’m happy to argue for it against other contenders for the above reasons.

Jones’ is also keen to describe aspects of life behind the trenches and there is one passage concerning a local couple who run a bar serving the troops during their days of respite. This is from Part 5, Squat Garlands for White Knights:

   She bolted the door for the night
and when it was morning
Jacques said that the Englishman's guns had kept him awake.
   She said that it was a pleasant morning, and the first in June.
   He said it was time the English advanced, that they were a
stupid race, anyhow.
   She said they were not.
   He would like to remind her of the Pastoral,
for which she laughed a long time,
with: Vah, vah,
and her head wagging
with: La - la, la, and her finger pointed, with:
Tawny-tooth go watch the priest, and,
Bent-wit.
   She said that the war was lucrative, and chid him feed the
fowl, and smoothed her pinafore: sometimes the Siege Artil-
lery came in during the morning, If there wasn't a shoot on.

There are many conversations in IP but this is the only one between non-combatants and thus the only one that is likely to have be supposition rather than direct experience. The Preface addresses the issue of the authentic thus:

Each person and every event are free reflections of people and things remembered, or projected from intimately known possibilities.

I’d argue that this rationale and these components embody the very best documentary form in every genre from Lanzman’s Shoah to the accounts of Eamon Duffy and Vanessa Place. I’d also like to observe that, as a close and attentive Jones reader, I have yet to encounter any aspect of dishonesty, as in things done exclusively for effect, or artifice in his work.

To return to these two and their conversation, the perspective is new to me in that I haven’t read an account of those who lived in proximity to these horrors and went on as, best they could, with their ‘ordinary’ lives. What I find particularly efficacious here is the casual, almost incidental, discussion of what I would consider to be terrifying and murderously destructive events. Both the artillery barrage (described with vivid clarity by Jones elsewhere) and an ‘advance’ are given this everyday tone. Again, I don’t empirically know if this is accurate or not but it does seem to me to be as close a ‘projection’ of the real that we are going to get.

This is also achieved by the Pastoral joke, the stupidity argument and the general observation that the war was an economic opportunity for those who chose to stay near the fronts. People talk like this, conversation is generally good-humoured and the subject under discussion tends to jump around a bit.

There a couple of possible quibbles that spring to mind and the first of these relates to genre. It could be argued that IP is a memoir or a personal history rather than a documentary, that the events describe an aspect of Jones’ life or an account of that period immediately before the descent into mechanised ‘wholesale slaughter’. It might also be argued that poetry-wise that it’s an extended elegy for the first half of 1916. In response, I’ll quote again from the preface:

None of the characters in this writing are real persons, nor is any sequence of events historically accurate. There are, I expect minor anachronisms, e.g. the suggestion in Part 4 of a rather too fully developed gas-defence system for Christmas 1915. The mention of ‘toffee-apples’ (a type of trench-mortar bomb so shaped) at perhaps too early a date.

That appears to me to be a clear refutation of the history argument. There is the last part of the above where Jones indicates his awareness of two inaccuracies and provides these to show that he either is arguing for the history reading or he is indicating that this is not his primary task. Given the preceding disclaimer, I’d go for the second option. This extract follows on from the ‘intimately known possibilities’ quote provided above:

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.

I’d like to think that this diminishes the memoir argument as especially by the careful ‘using as data the complex’ which would seem to enhance my case as this again is an essential part of the documentarist’s task.

The other supporting point is Jones’ sketch map of the relevant front lines that was included in the first Faber edition of 1937 but criminally excluded from the recent reprint. I only know about this object because I have a copy of John Matthias’ Selected Works of David Jones. I would reproduce it here but my scanning skills are less than brilliant and some of the names are faint and barely legible. However, there are two dates, ‘24.12.’15’ and ‘9.9.16’ , a scale (‘1.10000’) and no man’s land clearly marked out, together with the complex of trenches behind the front line.

I accept that these are by no means conclusive and that I may be making this argument because I want IP to be documentary. I’m less convinced by the argument that we shouldn’t take Jones’ Preface at face value. IP was 20 ye4ars in the making and our poet will have been fully aware of how an attentive of this frame would inform and perhaps direct readers’ approach- it certainly did for me.

In conclusion, I’m writing this on the morning of July 1st 2016, exactly a century since these men walked (walked) into that place of unnecessary slaughter. I’m not usually a fan of military commemoration for all sorts of reasons but I’d like to end with the fate of Mr. Jenkins, the 21 year old officer in charge of John Ball’s platoon:

Mr Jenkins half inclined his head to them - he walked just
barely in advance of his platoon and immediately to the left of 
Private Ball.
   He makes the conventional sign
and there is the deeply inw3ard effort of spent me who would
make response for him,
and take it at the double.
He sinks on one knee
and now on the other,
his upper body tilts in rigid inclination
this way and back;
weighted lanyard runs out to full tether,
                 swings like a pendulum
                 and the clock run down.
Lurched over, jerked iron saucer over tilted brow,
clamps unkindly over lip and chin
nor no ventaille to this darkening
         and marked face lifts to grope the air
and so disconsolate;
enfeebled fingering as a paltry strap - 
buckle holds,
holds him blind against the morning.
  Then stretch still where weeds pattern the chalk predella
-where it rises to his wire- and Sergeant T.Quilter takes
over.

This remarkable work is available second hand from Amazon at a mere 7 quid which is laughably cheap. There is no excuse not to get it and place yourself in the presence of greatness.