David Antrobus, co-librettist of WNO’s In Parenthesis, here explains his passion and understanding of one of the greatest of all war poems.
In Parenthesis by David Jones has a reputation for being a ‘difficult’ work. Admired by luminaries such as Auden, Yeats and Eliot, (the last of whom was responsible for its publication and hailed it as ‘a work of genius’), it is regarded by many as unapproachable because of its complicated interleaving of mythical reference and arcane allusion. It is undoubtedly a very challenging piece of writing.
But the key to understanding the sensibility at work in the poem is to remember that the ‘maker’ who created it was (at the outset of its composition) first and foremost a visual artist. After returning from his wartime service in 1918 David Jones continued his studies and career as a painter and printmaker, becoming particularly influenced by Eric Gill and his artistic communities at Ditchling and Capel-Y-Ffin. He had no intention or inclination to become a writer. A decade elapsed between his wartime experiences and the start of his work on In Parenthesis in 1928, and it is illuminating to know that the process began as a series of sketches and drawings. Snippets of text crept in beside the drawings from the outset, and then over the long process of composition, taking nearly a decade, the text took over and the drawings dropped away. In 1933 David Jones suffered a serious breakdown and was advised by his doctor to stop all visual art as the stress of painting appeared to trigger his illness, and this meant that all of his pent-up visual imagination was poured into the writing of the poetry. For a crucial period he was literally painting pictures with words.
The readings collected here represent a cross-section of the original poem. When tasked to write a libretto of 6,000 words from an original text of 170 pages my co-librettist (Emma Jenkins) and myself realised we faced a considerable task of editing! We focussed on what appealed to us as the clearest and most interesting narrative line through the original poem, and selected as our source material incidents and sections of text that best illustrated this. Many of these key moments are reflected in these readings : the description of the dawn parade ground that opens the poem, the unexpected explosion of the shell at the end of Part 2 that brutally welcomes John Ball and his companions to the reality of the warfare they are approaching, the beginning of the platoon’s first ever night-time journey to the Front Line, the debauchery of ‘sweet sister death’ as the men attack Mametz Wood over open ground, the dispensation of flowers by the Queen Of The Woods to the dead soldiers at the end of the poem.
I hope that these readings open a window onto the poem. David Jones’ work as a visual artist and poet is all about ‘seeing through’, looking attentively at reality and allowing layers of meaning, association and allusion to cohere and reveal themselves slowly over time. To attempt to understand the full complexity of In Parenthesis upon a first reading is a recipe for frustration, and is perhaps why it is all too easily dismissed as ‘difficult’. Instead, in his Introduction to the poem, T S Eliot offers the wonderful advice that we shouldn’t become too quickly entangled in meaning and interpretation, but that we should instead allow ourselves to be ‘excited by the text…even without understanding it’. He concludes by urging us to,
‘get used to the book, to live with it and make it familiar to us. Understanding begins in the sensibility ; we must have the experience before we attempt to explore the sources of the work itself.’
Wonderful advice for the appreciation of any work of art…