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Dai Greatcoat

March 1, 2016

You probably haven’t noticed the dearth of posts over the last month. By way of explanation, I’m starting work on my dissertation, which means I’m trying to write academic prose every day; this leaves unfortunately little time/energy/space/matter to devote to posting here. I’ll probably keep it up, and perhaps start posting more dissertation-related things here (and more half-formed thoughts), but expect updates fewer than once a week.

Speaking of half-formed dissertation thoughts, here’s a thought about a passage from the last few pages of David Jones’ In Parenthesis.

First, the passage.

The Queen of the Woods has cut bright boughs of various flowering.
.   These knew her influential eyes. Her awarding hands can pluck for each their fragile prize.
.   She speaks to them according to precedence. She knows what’s due to this elect society. She can choose twelve gentle-men. She knows who is most lord between the high trees and on the open down.
.   Some she gives white berries
.                               some she gives brown
.   Emil has a curious crown it’s
.                               made of golden saxifrage.
.   Fatty wears sweet-briar,
he will reign with her for a thousand years.
.   For Balder she reaches high to fetch his.
.   Ulrich smiles for his myrtle wand.
.   That swine Lillywhite has daisies to his chain—you’d hardly credit it.
.   She plaits torques of equal splendor for Mr. Jenkins and Billy Crower.
.   Hansel with Gronwy share dog-violets for a palm, where they lie in serious embrace beneath the twisted tripod.
.   Siôn gets St. John’s Wort—that’s fair enough.
.   Dai Greatcoat, she can’t find him anywhere—she calls both high and low, she had a very special one for him.
.   Among this July noblesse she is mindful of December wood—when the trees of the forest beat against each other because of him. She carries to Aneirin-in-the-nullah a rowan sprig, for the glory of Guenedota. You couldn’t hear what she said to him, because she was careful for the Disciplines of the Wars.

Out of context, this all probably makes little sense. It helps to know, definitely, that this comes during a lull in the battle of the Somme, and that all of the characters mentioned (besides the mythological Queen of the Woods) are dead. But this factual knowledge alone isn’t too helpful; the passage gains immensely in power when you’ve read the book and know Mr. Jenkins, Dai Greatcoat, and Aneirin intimately, and several of the others by name.

My thought is this: the same applies to the imagery itself. White berries, brown berries, golden saxifrage, mistletoe, myrtle, daisies, dog-violets, St. John’s wort, rowan: if you don’t know what these flowers look like (and I didn’t, until I looked them up), the scene is difficult to imagine with any specificity. And if you don’t know the language of flowers, the exact significance of the scene is difficult to apprehend. The problem is, there’s not one such language; and how to know which one the Queen of the Woods speaks?

In a strange coincidence, my wife has gotten into floral arrangements. I tend to think she’s pretty good, but I also know nothing about flowers. Given this new development, and the importance of the passage quoted above to the book about which I’m writing part of my dissertation, this is perhaps something I should remedy.

A note about that passage. Dai Greatcoat, we hear, can’t be found anywhere. Dai is a Welsh version of David, and after In Parenthesis was published David Jones often went by Dai Greatcoat, but this passage isn’t about him, it’s about a soldier character who shows up midway through the book, or rather a sort of incarnation of Soldiery itself. Dai Greatcoat is certainly dead; why can’t she find him? That seems to me the central question of the book.

Incidentally, today is the Feast of St. David, who was, as David Jones well knew, the patron saint of Wales. We know next to nothing about him.

One Comment leave one →
  1. M.O.D permalink
    December 5, 2016 9:49 am

    Its worth noting that in part 4 of In parenthesis, just after Dai Greatcoat gives his speech as the sort of eternal soldier, the song is sung on how old soldiers never die – they fade away. I always reckoned that was the case with why the sort of queen of the woods couldn’t find Dai.

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