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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry



In Parenthesis

by
David Jones


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase In Parenthesis



Title: In Parenthesis
Author: David Jones
Genre: Poetry
Written: 1937
Length: 196 pages
Availability: In Parenthesis - US
In Parenthesis - UK
In Parenthesis - Canada
  • With an Introduction by T.S.Eliot
  • The New York Review Books Classics edition has an Introduction by W.S.Merwin
  • With a Preface by the author

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Our Assessment:

A : a unique war classic

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. A 15/4/1962 Stephen Spender
TLS A+ 19/6/1937 .


  From the Reviews:
  • "This work of a poet-painter has its every word chiseled out of experience, and it is probably the World War I monument most likely to survive." - Stephen Spender, The New York Times Book Review

  • "This is an epic of war (.....) But it is like no other war-book because for the first time that experience has been reduced to "a shape in words." (...) (T)he impression still remains that this book is one of the most remarkable literary achievements of our time." - Times Literary Supplement

  Quotes:
  • "But for all its difficulties, the pain and poetry come from his own experience, not literature, and no one else has written about the poor bewildered bloody infantry in at all the same way." - Julian Mitchell, The Spectator (21/6/2003)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In Parenthesis deals with things David Jones "saw, felt, & was part of" between December 1915 and the summer of 1916. It tells of World War I, following a group of British troops from England to France and then facing the Germans. Jones does not go into the "wholesale slaughter of the later years", presenting only this introductory slice of the war, one out which he could still make some art (as opposed to the "relentless, mechanical affair" things hardened into).
       Jones' book -- which could be called a poem or a novel or a word-painting -- is a remarkable work. T.S.Eliot, who was "proud to share the responsibility" for the first publication of In Parenthesis, calls it "a work of genius" in his introduction.
       In seven parts Jones describes the preparations and then the first experiences of war The title of each part refer to Coleridge, Shakespeare, Mallory, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Lewis Carroll, and there are quotes from Y Gododdin, an early Welsh epic. Jones also explains the title of the work in his introduction, suggesting the parenthetical nature of the writing of the text, of the war, and of our existence itself.
       John Ball is the main character, but in fact the work depicts many different soldiers and officers in their various roles. From rote training to chaotic battle the work offers glimpses of all aspects of that particular war. From "the unnamable nostalgia of depots" to the point where "solid things dissolve, and vapours ape substantiality" in the nightmare of the battle Jones beautifully conveys the atmosphere of the time and feel of that experience.
       Jones is a poet, and much of In Parenthesis is poetry, from the carefully hewn narrative to the descriptions:

   You can hear the silence of it:
you can hear the rat of no-man's-land
rut out intricacies,
weasel-out his patient workings
scrut, scrut, scrut,
harrow-out earthly, trowel his cunning paw
       In other passages "he reverts to the discipline of prose."
       It was a different kind of war from contemporary conflicts. The first modern war, but still unlike any recent one. However, the many similarities found in all armed conflicts are also captured well. Jones conveys the experience -- baffling, stultifying, terrifying -- exceptionally well. "Each variously averts his perceptions, masks the inward abysm".
       Most remarkable is Jones' use of language. The work is unlike most any other one can find, balanced between poetry and prose. It is as close to painting (or even sculpting) a work out words that one will find. Jones, a talented artist, shows equal facility with words.
       It is a complex work, with over thirty pages of well-meaning notes by the author. In his introduction Eliot writes:
When In Parenthesis is widely enough known --as it will be in time -- it will no doubt undergo the same sort of detective analysis and exegesis as the later work of James Joyce and the Cantos of Ezra Pound.
       Some such exegetic and analytic works already exist, but In Parenthesis can be enjoyed without them as well. It is a true work of art, standing solidly, convincingly, and triumphantly on its own.
       Eliot believed the work would eventually be widely known, but given that he wrote his introduction in the early 1960s and the poem had not even been published in the United States until that time he might have known that popularity would be a while in coming. It is a well-known work, but it is not easy to find (once again it is essentially out of print), and it has not had the impact it should have had. This is, undoubtedly, one of the great war-books of the 20th century. It will, eventually, be recognized as a true classic, certain to survive the centuries. Certainly in these times of continued armed conflict it deserves a far greater readership than it currently has.
       Highly recommended.

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Links:

In Parenthesis: David Jones: Other books by David Jones under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • Iain Sinclair's Landor's Tower, in which Jones figures
  • Wyndham Lewis' One-Way Song, another 1930s collection, reprinted, with a foreword by T.S.Eliot, in the 1960s

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About the Author:

       British poet David Jones (1895-1974) is best known for his book on World War I, In Parenthesis. Other major works include his great poem, The Anathemata, as well as The Sleeping Lord.

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