Classical banter in the trenches

A similar point can be made by about the poem’s classical presences, which sit alongside the presentation of John Ball and his companions as the Arthurian heroes of knightly legend. In the first part, the only certain invocation of Classics comes when Ball and his comrades are on parade before embarkation. The band plays. ‘Broken catches on the wind-gust came shrilly back: Of Hector and Lysander and such great names as these—the march proper to them’.37 This well-known line belongs to ‘The British Grenadiers’, the traditional 18th-century marching song of all British fusilier companies, following ‘Some talk of Alexander, and some of Hercules’. The proper names Hector and Alexander later crop up in banter between the men: ‘When did they pass you out Hector-boy’. ‘They get warmed to it—they’re well away in tactics and strategy and the disciplines of the wars— like so many Alexanders’.38These classical warriors are part both of the realistic fragmentary soundscape Jones evokes and of his diachronic vision of World War I as an unavoidable, ritualised confrontation replaying an atavistic human urge going back to antiquity. The evocations of the past generations of warriors are fundamental to the poem’s objective humanism, even if that humanism is fused, in Jones’ unique manner, with sacramental mystery.

Some classical allusions are deployed in a comic vein, absurdly appearing in passages where the sentiment and language are bathetically unheroic: when Jones lists men resented by because they offload some of the contents of their kit bags onto the officers’ transport vehicles, a reference to Julius Caesar’s favoured bodyguards jostles with army slang and 20th-century nicknames:

there’s a whole lot of them that work it: the Pox-Doctor’s Clerk, for one, the chitties, and types of scullion bummers up, specialist details, all of Caesar’s household, chlorination Daniel, Private Miles who warms the Old Man’s water.39

But the classical material also emphasises the tragic dimensions of army life. Trench runners in action were in mortal danger, and in Part 5 ‘hairy’ Runner Herne is ominously summoned by a peremptory officer when dozing in the sunshine. Jones accumulates quasi-Homeric epithets in—unusually—verse-like colometry to describe the sleepy youth’s sudden awakening:

Runner Herne,

where he lay sunned outside

where he lay like Romany krai

reposing and rook-hair disordered

like fleet-foot messengers would sleep

on windy plains

who waked rosy-cheek

remembering those deep-bosomed—to worry eyes with screwed fists.40

In pitched combat, Homerically calling the signallers ‘clear-voiced heralds’, who ‘leg it to a safe distance’, fuses the eternal procedures and personnel of combat with demotic slang.41

As the men wait tensely for orders, the wind ruffles the dust ‘like Punic sands’,42 evoking the foul Libyan sandstorm in Lucan’s epic on the Roman civil war (Pharsalia 9.411—.510). Calling the routes out of the dugouts into no-man’s land parodoi creates a spatial sense of this ancient, distorted theatre of war; the ‘unfathomed passion’ of trench life contorts ‘the comic mask of these tragic jap-ers’ and the ‘masked face’ of a dying soldier in Mametz Wood.43 When Jones differentiates an unusually educated lance-corporal, Aneirin Lewis, from humble private Watcyn, we hear that Watcyn knew nothing of epic lays, ‘was innocent of his descent from Aeneas, was unaware of Geoffrey Arthur and his cooked histories, or Twm Shon Catti for the matter of that—which pained his lance-corporal friend, for whom Troy still burned, and sleeping kings return’. At the climactic conclusion of Part 2, Jones is being reprimanded for failing to address his superior officer correctly, when he experiences his first exploding shell. The notion of the weapon as ‘Pandoran’ adds a mythic resonance: ‘Out of the vortex, rifling the air it came—bright, brass-shod, Pandoran; with all-feeling screaming the howling crescendo’s up-piling snapped’.44 Latterly, he muses on the terrible injuries suffered by survivors, and compares the march-pasts of war veterans with the military processions of ancient Rome: ‘Give them glass eyes to see and synthetic spare parts to walk in the Triumphs, without anyone feeling awkward and O, O, O, it’s a lovely war with poppies on the up-platform for a perpetual memorial of his body’.45

In the third section, Jones describes the way that the ‘rat of no-man’s-land’ and birds ‘whose proud eyes watched the broken emblems droop and drag dust’ join the soldiers in a process of Ovidian physical transformation as they acclimatise to the distorted world of the trenches and ‘suffer with us this metamorphosis’.46 The richest classical allusions of In Parenthesis are delayed until the section which is also the most formally ‘poetic’, with abbreviated colometry and sustained rhetorical flow. This is the boast of Dai Greatcoat, Jones’ homage to the ‘flyting’ speech of Diomedes to Glaucus in Iliad VI.119-43 as well as an ironic salute to David Lloyd George. Dai proclaims his qualifications for the status of warrior, citing the participation of himself and his forefathers in the entire history of biblical and European warfare, mingling his Hebrew, classical and Welsh historical narratives with dizzying abandon. His fathers, he tells us, fought with the Black Prince of Wales, with Abel against Cain. Dai himself ‘built a shithouse for Artaxerxes’, the Persian King from 404 until 358 bce who vanquished his brother in Xenophon’s Anabasis and was famous for initiating architectural projects at Susa and Ecbatana.47 Dai fought with the biblical Saul, who was armed like Saint Derfel of Wales; he fought ‘in the standing wheat in Cantium’ (Kent, where Julius Caesar landed in 55 bce).48 A passage mostly consisting of a list of Arthurian battles at places with Latin names (e.g. in regione Linnuis), drawn from the 9th-century Historia Brittonum, opens with a reference to Socrates, barefoot at Potidaea. Dai associates himself with the Trojan exile Brutus who ‘digged the outer vallum’ at ‘Troy Novaunt’, and with the giant-king Bran of Welsh mythology. He fought with the Archangel Michael in the war described in Revelation 12:7-13 but he also ‘served Longinus that Dux bat-blind and bent; the Dandy Xth are my regiment’.49 Longinus was the blind soldier who, according to Roman Catholic tradition, pierced the crucified Jesus’ side with a spear; the Tenth Legion were favoured by Julius Caesar during the Gallic War.

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