Tag Archives: history poems

Soldiering with David Jones, the Grail Mass and In Parenthseis.

One of the more prominent aspects of Jones’ work in things military, especially when applied to the Roman Army at the time of the crucifixion and to the British troops at the Somme. In Parenthesis, his first long work, is an account of the experiences of British troops from the parade ground in England to the Somme offensive and the trenches at Mametz Wood in 1916. The Grail Mass has to do in large part with the Passion and the views of rank and file Roman troops are brought into focus.

David Jones was one of the finest poets in any language of the 20th century and this is in part because of what I can only think of as his exceptional humanity. What I think I mean by this is his clear compassion and sense of solidarity for and with others. In Jones’ case this is given voice in vibrant lines of verse. Jones deals with very big themes and these passages where the voice of ordinary people (us) is heard are remarkable for their strength and impact. I don’t subscribe to either Jones’ views or his beliefs but I am awed by his ability to give a clear voice to humanity.

What follows is a strictly non-technical but readerly working through of a couple of examples primarily so I can begin to work out how this is achieved from specific examples. The extracts I’ve chosen are lengthy but it does seem that it is the accumulation of words and phrases rather than short but pithy bursts that leave the biggest impression.

This is from In Parenthesis in the period just before the Somme offensive begins;

Well you couldn’t go far afield because of the stand-by but blokes came across from ‘A’ and the other companies to see their friends and people talked a good bit about what the Show was going to be like and were all agog but no-one seemed to know anything much as to anything and you got the same served up again garnished with a different twist and emphasis maybe and some would say such and such and others would say the matter stood quite otherwise and there would be a division among them and lily-livered blokes looked awfully unhappy, people you would never expect it of and the same the other way the oddest types seemed itching for a set-to quite genuine it would appear but after all who can read or search out the secret places you get a real eye-opener now and then and any subsequent revealing seldom conforms and you misconstrue his apparent noble bearing and grope about in continued misapprehension or can it by any manner of means be that everyone is as interiorly in as great misery and unstably set as you are and is the essential unity of mankind chiefly monstrated in this faint-heartness and breeze-right-up aptitude.

This is a couple of days before the ‘Show’, the start of the Somme offensive which took many, many thousands of British lives, the first few days being particularly murderous. Because both my grandparents were injured in this wholesale butchery, I’ve read many accounts and this one is by far the most impressive. It captures the apprehensions and fears of those about to be sacrificed without over-dramatising their fate. In such circumstances it’s entirely normal to compare your mix of feelings with those around you and the tour-de-force for me is the contradictions in terms of expectations, especially with regard to the ‘oddest one’ and their apparent eagerness for conflict. This and the following paragraph are without punctuation and this Joycean ‘feel’ is used brilliantly to convey these differing reactions economically and with great affection. As a reader I feel that I’m with these men, I find myself thinking how I would feel and present myself in such a horrific plight. I wouldn’t want to appear scared even though I would be terrified and I would be observing comparing the others around me. The conclusion that is reached as to collective great misery and instability rather than fear and panic is especially real.

In his preface to In Parenthesis, Jones describes how this sense of togetherness and solidarity amongst the conscripts made the battlefield into “a place of enchantment. It is perhaps best described in Malory, book iv, chapter 15 -‘that landscape spoke with a grimly voice’.” The working through of this observation in the poem makes it one of the great achievements of the Modernist movement in any genre.

The Grail Mass, thanks to the exceptionally skillful philological work of Tom Goldpaugh and Jamie Callison contains an extended section to do with soldiers on the walls of Jerusalem on the night of Christ’s arrest. This theme was published in fragments in 1974 as part of the The Sleeping Lord but is here presented in a much more complete and coherent form, even though one of Jones’ manuscript sheets is still missing.

This is from On the traverse of the Wall I (The wall) and Private Oenomaus is ruminating thus:

      Fourteen more years of nights to
watch with skinned eyes, rigid along the staked
mound, until you think it's him whatever
small thing shifts outside the wire. To watch
from this dressed wall, but this arse-ways, kicking
onager, torsioned at the ready, & aligned
on Christ knows what- unless they reckon
keeping of new moons at the transit of
the god, the barley cakes, the mingled
sop, the libations, the lamb's flesh given
and the recitation of the Praise, can turn, twixt dusk
and dusk, these fellaheen that weep for
their dead baals, or sing their fabulous
deliverances at the vernal turn, into
something to be reckoned with - as tough
a proposition as the Belgae, or those
flax-headed bastards at the West Wall.
Not on your life. But still - they're right
enough to take no chances - plumb right.
That's what the old hands used to say - back
at me first station - I can hear 'em yet
puttin it over on the rookies:
         "remember, the army never takes any chances
the active ad-ministration - we won't speak of
'Q' department - seldom underestimates the
requirements. The gen'ral always first considers
if he be able with 15 maniples, or as they
say now, five cohorts, to meet him who with
half that personnel but with unknown
fire potential, comes against him - always
remember that - the big heads aren't such
greenhorns as you'ld suppose - it's not
out of love of yer body remember - if a 
balls up was advantageous - well they'd
arrange a balls-up - but they're not stiffs
not by a long journey and they know the
job - always remember that and thank your
stars you're in the Roman Army">

I’ve chosen this section not just because of its quality but also its blend of the personal and the public perspective of the ordinary soldier. Oenomaus is six years in to his 20 year stint in the Roman army and the first part is his consideration of the Passover and the people that participate in it. Jones’ first note on this tells us that an ‘onager’ was a small military catapult used by the Romans although Wikipedia gives its first recorded use being in 353 CE. our private speculates on the elements of the various local spring rituals and whether these will transform the ‘fellaheen’ (a much later Ottoman term for villagers and farmworkers) into a force that the may present a threat to the Roman occupation. When read aloud, this passage acquires a particularly lyrical feel with the contrast between the rituals and the strength of any Roman response to trouble. I’m taking ‘arse-ways’ to indicate that the catapult is aimed towards the city inside the walls rather than outwards, at ‘Christ knows what’. Given that this is the night of Christ’s arrest, it may well be that the Romans expected some protests from his followers.

The tone given is of a man who is weary of his lot and especially tired of night duty with ‘skinned’ eyes keeping a look out for anything that moves in the dark. Most soldiers throughout the ages have found the monotony of guard duty, especially at night, one of their most arduous and disagreeable tasks. The opening lines here cleverly convey that sense or torpor and ennui. I’m therefore convinced by this created mood and drawn into the detail of what’s being said. Putting myself in Oenomaus’ place, I don’t think I would be overly concerned with which particular sects and cults used which rites but I would be aware that these and others were practiced when winter turns to spring.

As a reader, then, I have some sympathy for this foot-soldier and his plight and am happily led on to the old hand’s monologue which is a fascinating demonstration of imperial strategy and confidence.

At this time (about 30 CE), the empire was still expanding but already controlled all of the Mediterranean and what is now France. There were skirmishes on the borders but no other power strong enough to threaten Roman Hegemony. The old hand’s remarks are an indication of an absolute confidence that springs from centuries of military and political expansion. He gives a specific example of the way in which Roman commanders ensured success on the battlefield by trying to ensure that the enemy was always outnumbered in manpower and armaments. His monologue is ostensibly to instill confidence into new recruits but there’s also a barb within. If it serves the purpose of a wider strategy that some men will be sacrificed then the required ‘balls-up’ will be arranged because the army prioritises victory and strength over the welfare of its troops.

I’ll return to the ‘place’ of both Romes in The Grail Mass in the near future but here I wanted to lay down a framework for the role of soldiery in Jones work as a whole.