‘Throbbing on taut ear-drum’: The Acoustics of David Jones’ In Parenthesis


German soldier dives for cover as shell explodes. Western Front, 1917. Reproduced courtesy of Rare Historical Photos

German soldier dives for cover as shell explodes. Western Front, 1917. Reproduced courtesy of Rare Historical Photos.

The experience of war is a deeply sensory one, and few senses are more heightened in battle than that of sound: the rattle of guns, shouts of command, the cries of the wounded all create a vivid soundscape. In this essay in our new issue of Postgraduate English, Suzannah Evans (University of York) demonstrates how one of the most significant poems about the First World War, David Jones’s In Parenthesis, invokes the acoustics of the battlefield in writing.

Often examined in relation to the landscape and realities of war, David Jones’ 1937 text In Parenthesis is also remarkable in its unwavering attention to the acoustics and sonic interfaces of battle. While previous studies have noted the thematic issues raised by the text, this paper will centre very much on its poetics, providing a detailed analysis of its phonic textures.

These textures are multiple and varied. Descriptions of noises encountered on the battlefield occur throughout, heightened by Jones’ use of onomatopoeia, alliteration, and anaphora. The repetitive tread of marching is captured in the alliteratative ‘feet following file friends’ (37), while the sound of gunfire is spoken of in relation to music: a ‘rising orchestration’ (38). These references to sound are self-conscious, and at numerous points in the work Jones depicts the act of hearing itself: ‘a sudden riot against your unsuspecting ear-drums’ (40), ‘you could lie, with exquisite contentment, and listen to the war’ (116).

In order to fully assess the text’s acoustics, an examination of the rhythms that underlie In Parenthesis is necessary. This paper will investigate the acoustic effects of merging prose narrative and poetic technique, and will also study the rhythms of everyday, colloquial speech as they are evident in the work. I argue that an understanding of the sonic textures of Jones’ modernist work is essential for a fulfilling and nuanced reading, and that above all the text is one that is ‘meant to be read aloud and listened to’ (Powers, 1971).

This article is available to download free in issue 31 of our open access Postgraduate English journal. For more articles from this issue, and the complete archive going back 15 years, find the journal online.

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