No twentieth-century poet in the English-speaking world has been more undeservedly neglected than David Jones. T. S. Eliot called him “one of the most distinguished writers of my generation.” Dylan Thomas declared, “I would like to have done anything as good as David Jones has done.” Hugh MacDiarmid called Jones “the greatest native British poet of the century.” Igor Stravinsky considered him “a writer of genius.” He is “one of the greatest twentieth-century poets in English,” said W. S. Merwin. And these men spoke to only a part of Jones’s portfolio. A visual artist and a poet in equal measure, Jones was “in the first rank of modern artists,” according to his friend and mentor Eric Gill, for his engravings, drawings, paintings (mostly watercolors), and inscriptions—the last almost unique in the history of twentieth-century visual art. For this range of achievement, encompassing both the literary and the fine arts, the most serviceable comparison is William Blake—and Jones’s philosophical penetration was considerably greater than Blake’s.
Nonetheless, Jones remains almost exclusively a footnote in accounts of better-known lives, when he appears at all.
Thomas Dilworth has striven heroically to change that. A literature professor at Ontario’s University of Windsor, Dilworth has devoted his career to Jones, publishing several book-length studies and bringing into print Jones’s never-collected poetry and essays, and some of his correspondence. Dilworth has now, finally, published a full-length biography of Jones, the product of several decades of research and a work unlikely ever to be surpassed for detail.David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet is an exhaustive chronicle of Jones’s life, and an attempt to contextualize his extraordinary artistic output. As an added bonus, it contains full-color reproductions of much of Jones’s artwork, including several pieces that have never previously been reproduced. It is an ideal introduction to the life and work of a major artist and thinker.
An ideal introduction to the life and work of a major artist and thinker.
Walter David Jones was born in 1895 in a London suburb, the third of three children to an artisan, lower-middle-class family. Sickly by nature (or perhaps hypochondriacal) and eccentric (he wore a greatcoat needlessly, a quirk memorialized by the autobiographical character “Dai Greatcoat” in Jones’s poem In Parenthesis), he was plagued by depression and anxiety throughout his adult life. A passionate personality, even erotic, he never married, and despite notoriety among Great Britain’s artistic elites (the Queen Mother, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, was a great admirer of his paintings), he was often poor, sometimes shockingly so, and relied throughout his life on the largesse of a wide circle of generous friends. He died in 1974, in a nursing home operated by an order of nuns on London’s Sudbury Hill.
Although Jones spent most of his life in and around England’s capital city, his imaginative life was expansive, both in space and time. Ancestrally Welsh on his father’s side, at the age of nine Jones visited Wales for the first time. Its “otherness,” he said, left “an indelible mark on the soul.” Identifying, for reasons he initially could not explain, with his father’s stock, he soon abandoned “Walter,” a Saxon name, for “David,” and took up although never mastered the Welsh language. Possessed of a capacious and agile mind, he read deeply in the history, mythology, and folklore of his native and adopted countries: Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, The Mabinogion, the tales of Arthur (for which he had a special and lifelong affection), and more. Allusions to these would appear and reappear in his artwork and poetry.
Jones’s imaginative acquisition of the cultural patrimony of Wales in addition to that of England was cause and effect of a distinctive historical consciousness. Jones saw certain figures being reiterated throughout history: for example, Eve, Aphrodite, Helen of Troy, and Guenevere (in Jones’s Welsh, Gwenhwyfar) are a particular feminine character recurring in different cultures and epochs; they are not identical, but they share certain, essential resonances. For Jones, these resonances had not dissipated. He saw present and past overlapping in day-to-day life: his Welsh grandfather was King Maelgwyn the Tall, the sixth-century descendant of Cunedda and benefactor of Christianity; his erstwhile fiancée, Petra Gill, in the painting Petra im Rosenhag (1931), is Greek Diana, Roman Flora, and Welsh Blodeuwedd; a pretty Irish girl he encounters in the countryside is “the daughter of the High King of Eire” and Helen. Jones’s attachment to the past was visceral: he felt his entire life a deep sorrow over the slaying of the Welsh prince Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, whose death on December 11, 1282, ended a thousand years of Welsh sovereignty.
In a letter written to Granta in 1953 but never published (it is collected in Jones’s first book of essays, Epoch and Artist, as “Past and Present”; a second essay collection, The Dying Gaul, was published posthumously), Jones asserted that “in so far as he has access to it, by however attenuated a strand of inheritance, the entire past is at the poet’s disposal.” Of special interest to him, though, was “in what sense and to what degree have the last few decades cut us off from the last few millenniums and so from the many millenniums before them? . . . A metamorphosis has occurred,” he declared, “affecting the liaisons with our past.” In “Art and Sacrament,” published two years later, he wrote: “No metamorphosis since pre-historic times is in any way comparable to the metamorphosis that we are now undergoing.”
This metamorphosis—what Jones called elsewhere “The Break,” something that had been “evident in various ways to various people for perhaps a century”—has to do with the position occupied by the artist (and we are all artists, in Jones’s view, inasmuch as we are makers of “signs”) with respect to society: “Man-the-artist, finds himself, willy-nilly, un-integrated with the present civilizational phase.” Jones contended that the modern West has been reduced to the “utile”—has become, as Burke put it, an age of “economists [and] calculators”—and that the representative man today is “man-the-mechanic or managerial man.” Because this “technocratic” paradigm fetishizes functionality and seeks to pare away anything “gratuitous,” it has contributed to a loss of “valid signs”—recognizable symbolizations of ordering experience. Something occurred such that contemporary man has lost access to the signs by which previous generations had captured and transmitted immediate experiences of transcendent reality.
It is in the context of this loss that Jones’s artwork must be considered, whether his visual art—from the intricate engravings he created to accompany The Chester Play of the Deluge (1927) and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1929) to the densely allusive paintings Vexilla Regis (1948) and Trystan ac Essyllt (1962)—or his poetry.
Like Homer, Jones chose for his literary medium the epic poem
Like Homer, Jones chose for his literary medium the epic poem, and, also like Homer, he composed two of them: In Parenthesis (1937) and The Anathemata (1952). (He wrote a handful of other, shorter poems, which are collected in The Sleeping Lord and Other Fragments  and the posthumous Wedding Poems ). In Parenthesis, an account of much that Jones himself experienced as a private in the Royal Welch Fusiliers during the First World War, follows a battalion—a mix of Cockneys, Londoners, and Welshmen—from England to Mametz Wood on the Somme, where the 38th Welsh Division took heavy losses clearing the forest of Germans in July 1916, and where Jones was shot through the leg. The poem draws heavily on period military terminology and Cockney slang, which was to the Army, Jones wrote in his preface, “as Latin is to the Church.” The poem is rich, too, with allusions to Welsh history and legend; the epigraph is a passage from The Mabinogion, and at the head of each chapter is a quote from Y Gododdin, a Welsh epic poem, probably of the sixth century, that commemorates an ill-fated Welsh raid on a nearby English kingdom and, Jones suggested in an endnote, “connects us with an ancient unity and mingling of races; with the Island as a corporate inheritance, with the remembrance of Rome as European unity.”
The interpenetration of past and present was, Jones insisted in his preface, not literary artifice but historical fact: “I suppose at no time [as during the war] did one so much live with a consciousness of the past.” Jones himself could testify. In the trenches one day and under fire, he called out to his friend Leslie Poulter to ask whether he had seen their comrade, Harry Cook. Poulter shouted back, “I saw young Harry with his beaver on!”—a line from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I.
Jones brings this experience of past and present intermingled most vividly to life in the “boast” of Dai Greatcoat, the spatial center of In Parenthesis, which begins,
I was with Abel when his brother found him,
under the green tree.
I built a shit-house for Artaxerxes.
I was the spear in Balin’s hand
that made waste King Pellam’s land.
and several pages later ends, pregnantly:
I am the Single Horn thrusting
by night-stream margin
In just the few lines quoted here are allusions to stories of Hebrew, Greek, and Welsh provenance, and the unicorn at Marah is a Christ-figure of sorts. Elsewhere in the boast one finds allusions to Plato’s Symposium, Caesar’s Gallic Wars, and much else. In other words, Jones’s verse mines all of the various deposits of culture upon which Dai Greatcoat, as a Welshman, stands.
The same is true of Jones’s second epic, The Anathemata, although it takes a very different form. Set at a contemporary celebration of the Mass, the poem is an extravagant meditation on the Eucharist (in concert with the sacrifice at Calvary) as the pivot point of history. Unlike In Parenthesis, which despite its fragmented, modernist style is still a narrative that proceeds in more or less linear fashion, The Anathemata is associative, intended to reflect the rapid, expansive movement of the mind; Jones’s subtitle is “fragments of an attempted writing,” and he quotes approvingly the historian Nennius’s description of his Historia Brittonum: “I have made a heap of all that I could find.” The entirety of the poem is supposed to take place in about seven seconds: a few unoccupied moments in the Mass during which the mind of the penitent-poet wanders.
Where his mind wanders is to Europe “twenty millennia (and what millennia more?)” prior, to the homo faber who sculpted the Willendorf Venus and painted the walls at Lascaux, and earlier still, to the geomorphic upheavals of antediluvian epochs that constituted their own form of preparation for the divine sacrifice (Book I: “Rite and Fore-time”); to the Phoenicians, Phocaeans, Greeks, and Romans sailing across the Mediterranean in millennia past and, eventually, into the North Atlantic (Book II: “Middle-sea and Lear-sea”), where they discovered “Angle-Land” (Book III). He finds himself recalling the great shipbuilding operations of the British Empire (Book IV: “Redriff”)—Will the work be merely “utile,” or something more?—and overhearing the long conversation, in fifteenth-century London, between a foreign captain docked on the Thames and “the Lady of the Pool” (Book V), a garrulous Cockney tart who incarnates the spirit of the great city. In Book VI (“Keel, Ram, Stauros”), the sailing ships of the previous sections metamorphose into the great World Ship, steered by Christ, whose birthday is celebrated in Book VII (“Mabinog’s Liturgy”) by another woman, this one a silent Marian Gwenhwyfar. Finally, Christ’s gift of “himself to himself” and his institution of the Eucharistic rite is brought to pass in Book VIII (“Sherthursdaye and Venus Day”), synchronizing the poem’s beginning and end, joining the Mass-goer to the Upper Room and the present age to ages past and future.
Although the poems take different subject matter, Jones saw them as working on the same problem: how to resolve the “dichotomy” introduced by “our present civilizational pattern” into the sign-making practice and restore access to the ordering experiences of previous generations. The formal ingenuity, the word choice (exacting but multivalent), the layers of allusion—taking his cue from Hopkins and Joyce (Jones adored the “Anna Livia Plurabelle” section of Finnegans Wake), Jones sought to stretch the language in order to refresh it. His aim is to do, under his own forms, what is also the task of the priest in The Anathemata’s opening lines: “to lift up an efficacious sign.”
Jones’s oeuvre is an extraordinary, fertile achievement.
Did he succeed? Summary judgment would be unfair to the scope of the material. Suffice it to say that his oeuvre is an extraordinary, fertile achievement. In Parenthesis succeeds in situating the experience of soldiers in the Great War in the ennobling tradition of triumph and defeat represented by the great romances and the chansons de geste. The experiences of the infantrymen, trudging through countryside, making camp, holed up in the trenches, become part of the mythic cultural deposit of the Isles. Likewise, The Anathemata reveals a different continuity: the participation of all history in the central mystery of the Eucharist, the ultimate sign- making, in which the sign makes present in fact the thing signified. The Mass, then, is the supreme artwork that shows forth the eternal. Other sacrifices prefigured this sacrifice; other festivals prefigured this festival. This is the central ordering experience of man, which gives meaning to any of his other making. Jones is, as he writes in In Parenthesis, “redeem[ing] the time of our uncharity.”
David Jones’s poetry, to say nothing of his visual art, is a singular accomplishment in the creative life of the twentieth century. T. S. Eliot, who ushered In Parenthesis to print and wrote the introduction, called it “a work of genius.” To Graham Greene, it was “one of the great poems of the century” and to Herbert Read “one of the most remarkable literary achievements of our time.” W. H. Auden called The Anathemata “very probably the finest long poem written in English in this century.”
We are once again casting about for order. Perhaps Jones’s singular work can prove a help in the twenty-first.
1David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet, by Thomas Dilworth; Counterpoint, 432 pages, $39.50.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 9, on page 28
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