During the recent unpleasantness in Iraq, bloggers have been quoting from all manner of poets, but unless I’ve missed something, they’ve all ignored two of the great English-language war poets of the last century, and I’m here to remedy the omission. I’ll start with the virtually forgotten David Jones, who fought in World War One with the Royal Welch Fusiliers and never got over the experience, using it as the backbone for his two great book-length poems, In Parenthesis (1937) and The Anathemata (1952). I shouldn’t call In Parenthesis a poem, actually; it’s a unique melding of poem and novel, with some passages in prose:

That one went up at an unexpected nearness. The faraway dancing barrier surprisingly much nearer; you even hear the dull report quickly upon the uprising light; and now, right where they walked, at sudden riot against your unsuspecting ear-drums, a Vicker’s team discovers its position, by low builded walls of sacks; and men worked with muffled hammerings of wood on wood; and the front files pause again.

and others in verse:

  Wipers again.
  He can’t keep off it—like a bloke with a pimple.
  What’s the use of the place anyway—where’s the sense in it.
  Don’t talk wet.
  Who’s talking wet.
  You’re talking wet.
  They get warmed to it—they’re well away in
tactics and strategy and
the disciplines of the wars—
like so many Alexanders—are perfect in the great comman-
ders names—they use match-ends
to represent
the dispositions of
forces and countermure.
  Who’s bin reading Land and Water.
  Don’t nobble Chinese Gordon.
  When did they pass you out Hector-boy.
  Sheer waste of intelligence—notorious
example of
the man with the missed vocation.

The only thing I know remotely like it is Odysseus Elytis’s The Axion Esti.
The Anathemata has a wider scope, embracing the whole sweep of history:

Twelve hundred years
        close on
since of the Seven grouped Shiners
        one doused her light.
Since Troy fired
        since they dragged him
without the wall.
When they regarded him:
his beauties made squalid, his combed gilt
        a matted mop
his bruised feet thonged
        under his own wall.
Why did they regard him
the decorous leader, neque decor . . .
volneraque illa gerens . . . many of them
under his dear walls?
What centuries less
    since the formative epochs, the sign-years in Saturn’s
tellus, in the middle lands of it? For even for the men with
the groma, even for the men of rule, whose religio is rule
           for the world-orderers
           for the world-syndicate
even for us
whose robbery is conterminous with empire?

It still has something to say to us, no? But Jones isn’t all trenches and squalor; the one quote from him that I’ve seen blogged (in the German-language Credo ut intelligam) is this lovely ode to spring from The Anathemata:

           On the ste’lyard on the Hill
weighed against our man-geld
           between March and April
when bough begins to yield
           and West-wood springs new.
Such was his counting-house
           whose queen was in her silent parlour
on that same hill of dolour
           about the virid month of Averil
that the poet will call cruel.
           Such was her bread and honey
when with his darling Body (of her body)
           he won Tartary.
Then was the droughts of March moisted to the root by that shower that does all fruit engender—and do constitute what they hallow an’ chrism these clerks to minister that kings and queens may eat therof and all poor men besides.


  1. When they regarded him:
    his beauties made squalid, his combed gilt
    a matted mop
    his bruised feet thonged
    under his own wall.

    Wow. (And how did you get the formatting to come out so nicely??)
    David Jones, David Jones….I’m racking my brains to see if he knew Robert Graves. He must’ve — Graves was also in the Fusiliers — I just can’t remember right now, and all my brain wants to give up re Graves and other war poets is Siegfried Sassoon and Alun Lewis (I think that was his last name). I’ll have to look in my Graves/Graves biographies again, which is always pleasant.

  2. Certainly Siegfried Sassoon wouldn’t qualify (at least I hope not) as forgotten, but there’s one poem of his which always slams me right back:
    Soldiers are citizens of death’s grey land, Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows.
    In the great hour of destiny they stand,
    Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.
    Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives.Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin They think of firelit homes, clean beds, and wives.
    I see them in foul dugouts, gnawed by rats, And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain. Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats, And mocked by hopeless longing to regain Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats, And going to the office in the train.

  3. Oh crap, that got messed up. Here’s the poem proper.

  4. On formatting,   is your friend (between angle brackets, of course); copy half a dozen of those suckers in a row and paste ’em in before a line you want seriously indented. I couldn’t get some of the lines to break properly until I inserted the br tag; I’m still getting used to this MT stuff.
    Sassoon is amazing, but (fortunately) he hasn’t been forgotten, and I see him quoted when the topic of war comes up; Jones has dropped into a black hole. I think it’s the whole “difficult” thing, plus he basically only wrote book-length poems (I think there are a few shorter ones). Sort of as if Pound had written only the Cantos, and hadn’t played such a huge role in literary history that he couldn’t be ignored.

  5. Goddammit! I mean & nbsp ; is your friend, with angle brackets and all crammed together, but if I write it that way MT thinks its a nonbreaking space and all you see is nothing!

  6. thanks to both of you for expanding my WWI poetry horizons…is Wilfred Owen next? I was thinking it is high time.

  7. Hi Beth! Did you get the e-mail I tried to send you the other day complimenting you on your book list and the Damascus picture? I used the MS Outlook program on my home computer, which I think isn’t connected to my new e-mail address. Let me know and I’ll do it again.

  8. Oh, and the next War Poet is not Wilfred Owen! He’s great, but (like Sassoon) hardly unknown.

  9. I think Wilfred Owen is one of the more famous WWI poets, if only for “Dulce et Decorum Est,” which I think is in generations of high-school poetry anthologies. Rupert Brooke was at one time the WWI poet, but I think he’s faded from favor.
    basically only wrote book-length poems
    Ah, I think that definitely has something to do with it. Modern narrative poems, book-length and even shorter than that, don’t tend to do as well (there is Vikram Seth’s Golden Gate, a “novel in sonnets,” but that’s not quite what I would think of as narrative poetry) which is odd when you think of how famed epic poems like the Iliad, the Odyssey, Dante’s Divina Commedia, the Canterbury Tales, Paradise Lost, &c., are….I mean there’s stuff like The Changing Light at Sandover but how many people actually read it?

  10. Mmmmm, I need to get MT-literate, obviously. (“I want my MT!”)

  11. re: Jones and Graves. I think Graves was an officer, and the Royal Welch is a biggish regiment, so their paths may never have crossed.
    Jones hasn’t been forgotten in Wales. He even gets blogged about occasionally. 😉
    There needs to be more Jones on the web. An annotated Anathemata would make a wonderful project for someone.

  12. Rupert Brooke was the most famous Great War poet until sometime in the last half of the century, when Wilfrid Owen took over. Brooke was all about just being doomed youth who was too romantic and handsome to exist in this modern world, while Owen has the more 21st-century attraction of being naturalistic about the violence and extremely anti-war in general.
    My favorite Great War poet is Isaac Rosenberg actually.
    His collected poems comprise a more than 200-page book, and are varied and entertaining.

  13. Re formatting and HTML elements:
    To get a regular ampersand, just use &. So what you wanted would be written:
    There are ways to do nice indentation and stuff using CSS, but that may be more work than you want to mess with.

  14. OK, let’s try it:  
    On preview: Cool — thanks!

  15. I think what happened to Rupert Brooke has a lot to do with what Hemingway writes about words like courage and glory and honor losing all their meaning and the only meaning remains in the names of the places where battle was fought. I think it’s very difficult for modern readeres to read Brooke “straight” now.

  16. You’re right, and I think it’s a bigger problem than that—I think it’s very difficult for modern readers to read anything straight. Too much irony, too much postmodernism, too little experience with the kinds of things that shaped those earlier books. It’s all very well to interrogate texts, to celebrate their textuality, to problematize their authorship, but once you lose touch with what made them important to their writers and early readers, you’ve lost the ball game. Or so it seems to this grumpy prepostmodernist relic.

  17. I think it’s more basic than that, even: Jones was never made part of the canon, and so, like any other great writer who’s not part of the canon, he gets lost. Trying to write about him would confuse the narrative too much.
    “Postmodernism” is just one of the newer ways of securing a canon and making it unnecessary to deal with the real complexities of artifacts in history. I’m sad to say that postmodernist backlash often turns out to be just another one.

  18. I woke up last night thinking “angle brackets!? what do angle brackets have to do with it??” I don’t know what I was thinking when I wrote those first two comments, but just ignore the stuff about angle brackets.   is your friend. Sometimes I think my brain is leaking.

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