The eternal goddesses of war

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Miss Melpomené enters not battle but the future of the wounded soldier, his recuperation. She was one of the figures from the poem whom Jones sketched in the manuscript—one of his many instantiations of an eternal goddess-figure, alluring, mythic, part Helen of Troy, part Diana of the Woods and part Virgin Mary. She prefigures the Ur-matriarchal divinity proposed in The White Goddess (1948) by that other Mametz Wood survivor, Robert Graves.66

In Parenthesis does lend war, although no sentimental, elegiac or tragic overtones, a metaphysical aspect in its relationship between the men who wage it and its abstraction as a mysterious, eternal feminine principle, simultaneously mother, lover and female genius loci.67 Dai Greatcoat’s speech had fused into one female ‘toast of the Rig’menf a woman called ‘Helen Camulodunum’ (at the Battle of Camulodunum, the British Iceni massacred the Roman Ninth Legion in 61 ce), the Virgin Mary under her Roman Catholic title ‘Mediatrix’, a figure from a popular rhyme, and the Welsh folktale heroine Elen Luyddawg, alias Saint Helen of Caernarfon:68

She’s the girl with the sparkling eyes, she’s the Bracelet Giver, she’s a regular draw with the labour companies, whereby the paved army-paths are hers that grid the island which is her dower. Elen Luyddawg she is—more she is than Helen Argive.

Jones’ eternally recurring feminine principle also appears in the form of Argive Helen’s sister Penelope, waiting at home with her dog: the ‘mademoiselle at

Croix Barbée’ waits for her man to return, one of the ‘green girls in broken keeps’ who ‘have only mastiff-guards’.69

Men have always offered themselves up to the feminine archetypal figure, half gentle nun and half lascivious whore:70

But sweet sister death has gone debauched today and stalks on this high ground with strumpet confidence, makes no coy veiling of her appetite but leers from you to me with all her parts discovered.

As a thoroughgoing Modernist poem on World War I, and by a non-officer combatant, the poem is unique. Robichaud has shown thatjones’ response to the Middle Agesis profoundly innovative;71 it marks a violent break with pre-Raphaelite medievalism by seeing the chivalric age through a Modernist lens. The same, as we have seen, can be said ofjones’ classicism. By 1937 his book collection included many on classical mythology and Roman Britain. There is also a large group of translations from and studies of classical authors: a Latin grammar, a Latin dictionary, a Greek grammar, a dictionary of New Testament Greek, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Augustine’s Confessions, Gilbert Murray’s translation of Euripides’ Trojan Women (1905), all of Caesar’s writings, the Aeneid, the Iliad, the Odyssey, Horace, Lucretius and a volume of Warmington’s Remains of Old Latin.12

Jones’ self-education, between fighting and publishing In Parenthesis, transformed its allusive depth and cultural complexity. He explained its title as indicating the way that war takes place between outbreak and peace treaty, and life takes place between the brackets constituted by birth and death.73 But the poem was also created in the parenthesis between the two world wars. The new order which emerged from the first created the circumstances which made the second inevitable. Old monarchies were replaced by shaky republics and governments with extended powers which became breeding grounds for ethnic nationalism and resentment about the national boundaries demarcated under the Versailles Treaty. The crumbling of the European world empires abroad seemed reflected in the financial ruin and demoralisation of the European continent at home. And in a picture which Jones completed just after the beginning of the Blitz in 1941, and which has powerful correspondences with the frontispiece to In Parenthesis, the connection between the two wars is crystallised.74 (Figure 24.2.) It depicts a full-bodied, Rubens-esque female nude of a type he had drawn before. But this one he entitled simply ‘Aphrodite’, after considering titles reflecting his belief in a universal type of the goddess ‘Aphrodite Pandemos: The Triple Goddess’, ‘Turan’ (the Etruscan love goddess) and ‘The Lady’.75 A friend suggested ‘Aphrodite in Aulis’ in 1949, and Jones embraced the implicit allusion to the sacrifice of Iphigenia enthusiastically.

Aphrodite is depicted with the crescent moon and stars belonging to the Madonna of Revelation 12, a figure in whom Jones wrote that he wanted to embrace ‘all female cult figures, all goddesses rolled into one, mother-figure and virgo inter virgines, the pierced woman and mother and all her foretypes’.76 She

‘Aphrodite at Aulis’ by David Jones (1940—1941), reproduced by courtesy of the Tate Modern

FIGURE 24.2 ‘Aphrodite at Aulis’ by David Jones (1940—1941), reproduced by courtesy of the Tate Modern.

is shackled to the sacrificial altar on which she stands, as the statue of Aphrodite was shackled in her temple at Sparta (Pausanias 3.15.22). Like the soldier in the frontispiece, she seems trapped within a chaotic frame crammed with disturbing detail. A crumbling edifice with four columns, in each of the classical orders, represents the disintegration of civilisation. The barrage balloon in the top left-hand corner signals the new technology of the new war, and there are soldiers and arms from many periods of history. But the most prominent, in the foreground, are the British and German soldiers with the uniform and equipment of World War I. This Aphrodite, a signifier of the transhistorical lust for war drawn from the ancient Greek world, occupies the parenthetic space on the canvas between the brackets constituted by the men in the trenches and the barrage balloon respectively. As in In Parenthesis, Jones employs artistic form and the diachronic depth offered by classical imagery to crystallise the acute turmoil undergone by soldiers across time.


Jones insisted in 1962 that no critic had ever yet understood

the altogether different point of departure of my stuff “from the writing or poetry” or “prose” as conceived by “writers”, whether good or bad, from blokes like Rupert Brooke right on through Sassoon and even Owen ... It is next to impossible for me to indicate what the difference is.77

If we listen hard to In Parenthesis we can hear that difference at work in its class perspective, use of Classics and the innovative Modernism required to distinguish that perspective from the War Poets of the officer class. It is a painstaking, Herculean, craftsmanlike attempt to use words to evoke authentically the sustained extremes of trench warfare as experienced by its lowest-ranking combatants, and find in that act of authentic evocation a poetics—even a metaphysics—of human courage. These working-class men are worthy of an intelligent song despite the stupidity of the contest.


  • 1
  • 2 Root (2006) n.p.
  • 3 See Root (2006). The term was in use in Britain by 1916, when Dawson (1916), a book of letters, was published by the War Department under the title A ‘Temporary Gentleman' in France.
  • 4 See Westminster Abbey (2017). The problematic category ‘War Poetry’ is usually said to have been established in 1931 with the publication of Edmund Blunden’s edition of Wilfrid Owen (Owen [1931]): see Bergonzi (1965) 5.
  • 5 Another version of this chapter is also published as Hall (2018h).
  • 6 Jones (2014 [1937] 89. For this sense of the Latin noun limes, limitis see e.g. Tacitus, Agricola 2.7 and Germania 29.
  • 7 Jones (2014 [1937]) 183. The layout of the text throughout this chapter reproduces that specified by Jones in this edition; as an engraver, he saw the look of the printed page as contributing to its meaning. See Hills (1997).
  • 8 Aldritt (2003) 9-13.
  • 9 Hyne (1995) 11.
  • 10 The authoritative study ofjones’ military experiences is now Dilworth (2012).
  • 11 Graves (1929) 175.
  • 12 First published in Graves (1917).
  • 13 See Hyne (1995) 12.
  • 14 Hirst (2007) 53.
  • 15 Cohen (1982) 47.
  • 16 David Jones (1978) 132.
  • 17 Jones (2014 [1937]) xii.
  • 18 Jones (2014 [1937]) 123.
  • 19 Jones (2014 [1937]) 150.
  • 20 Jones (2014 [1937]) 185-6.
  • 21 See Moore (1987).
  • 22 Hyne (1995) 13. On the implementation of chemical weapons in World War I see Moore (1987).

Jones (2014 [1937]) xiv.

Not published until after his death, in David Jones (1978).

Jones (2014 [1937]) xiv.

Jones (2014 [1937]) 90.

Yeats praised it in a conversation reported in Dilworth (2012) 217; Eliot pronounced it *a work of genius’ in David Jones (2014 [1937]) vii; Auden (1962); Greene (1980) 28; Levi (1967). '

Murray (1997) 3. On the classical figures in Jones’ other major poem Anathemata, see chapters 8 and 9 of Miles (1990).

Jones (2014 [1937]) 155.

See the letter of 15th—19th July 1973 to René Hague, quoted in Hague (1975) 9.

Jones (2014 [1937]) 179.

See especially Robert Blv’s essay ‘The Prose Poem as an Evolving Form’ in Bly (1986).

Jones 2014 [1937]) 179.

Dudley (2013) 107.

Jones (2014 [1937] 135.

Jones (2014 [1937]) 179. Eleftherios Venizelos was at that time Prime Minister of Greece.

Jones (2014 [1937]) 6.

Jones (2014 [1937]) 7.

Jones (2014 [1937]) 118.

Jones (2014 [1937]) 127-8.

Jones (2014 [1937]) 160.

Jones (2014 [1937]) 120.

Jones (2014 [1937]) 91, 167, 60, 166.

Jones (2014 [1937]) 88, 24.

Jones (2014 [1937]) 176.

Jones (2014 [1937]) 54.

Jones (2014 [1937]) 78-9.

Jones (2014 [1937]) 80.

Jones (2014 [1937|) 81, 82, 83-4.

Jones (2014 [1937]) x.

See Hall (2013a) 135-42.

Jones (2014 [1937]) 66-7.

Jones (2014 [1937]) 67.

Jones (2014 [1937]) 44; Jackson Knight (1956) VI.606ff.

Smith (2001) 7. See Hall (2008) chapter 15 passim.

The Waste Land 3.220-1, with the note on 3.228; Eliot (1974) 71, 82.

Pound (1971) 274, quoted in Kenner (1971) 147.

Falconer (2005) 27.

Jones (2014 [1937]) 114.

Jones (2014 [1937]) 165.

See further Query (2013).

Jones (2014 [1937]) 65.

Jones (2014 [1937]) 88-9.

Dilworth (1988) 42.

Jones (2014 [1937]) 186.

Dilworth (1988) 140—1.

Dilworth (1988) 149—52.

Jones (2014 [1937|) 80-1.

Jones (2014 [1937]) 35.

Jones (2014 [1937]) 162-3.

Robichaud (2007).

  • 72 H.C. Jones (1995).
  • 73 David Jones (2014 [1937]) xv.
  • 74 Tate Gallery T02036.
  • 75 Tate Gallery T02037. This information is derived from the article ‘Aphrodite in Aulis 1941* on the Tate Gallery website,, last accessed 24th June 2017.
  • 76 A letter quoted in Hague (1975) 38.
  • 77 Letter of 22nd May 1962, in David Jones (2015). See Murray (1997).
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