First World War Poetry Digital Archive

In Parenthesis

In 1928 David Jones began In Parenthesis (see fragments of the first draft), which has its climax at Mametz Wood during the Battle of the Somme. He worked on it for nearly ten years, and was helped into publication by T.S. Eliot who hailed it as a work of genius. In Parenthesis is a 187 page poem of seven parts. On one level it is an unsentimental, closely-observed story of the fortunes of Private John Ball (David Jones) and his companions from December 1915 to July 1916. Ball and his unit cross to France, move up and occupy trenches. Ball does sentry duty and takes part in the dawn stand-to preparing to defend against a German attack, and finally participates in the Battle of the Somme, where he is wounded in the climactic battle scene. On another level it features frequent, sometimes baffling, allusions to the remote past intended to connect the experiences of modern trench warfare with those of earlier wars, drawing, for example on literary influences from the Welsh epic poem Y Gododdin and Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur to Shakespeare's Henry V. While reading the poem, there is a further complex religious context which might be obscure to many of today's readers.

It was published in 1937 and won the 1938 Hawthornden prize. In his note to the introduction (1961) T.S. Eliot praised the poem's modernist flourishes and called In Parenthesis 'a work of literary art which uses the language in a new way... Here is a book about the experiences of one soldier in the War of 1914-18. It is also a book about War'.

In Parenthesis was adapted for the wireless by Douglas Cleverdon and rehearsed for broadcast in November 1939 and later in November 1942. Both broadcasts were cancelled due to events during the Second World War. The play was finally performed in November 1946 when it made a profound impact on many of those listening, not least Jones himself who had always intended it as a vocal piece. The original cast included Dylan Thomas, with Richard Burton in a minor role. Further performances followed in 1948, 1955, 1964 and 1968 in which Richard Burton took the lead - he considered In Parenthesis the finest work he ever performed.

Go to the David Jones Collection