Biography

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 723

David Michael Jones was born of an English mother and a Welsh father; both their heritages would become rich sources for his work in words and pictures. In his youth, Jones trained to be an artist at the Camberwell School of Art, but in January, 1915, shortly after World War I broke out, he enlisted as a private in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. He was swept up into an ordeal that would permanently scar him, and his whole generation, psychologically as well as physically. By December he was fighting in the trenches in France. The following July he received a wound at Mametz Wood during the Battle of the Somme and was evacuated to Warwickshire, England. He would eventually base the narrative of his ambitious prose-poem or “writing” entitled In Parenthesis on this harrowing seven-month period. After three months’ convalescence he returned to the front to serve until the Armistice.

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A second turning point in Jones’s life and art occurred in 1921 when he met the Catholic sculptor Eric Gill and was himself received into the Roman Catholic Church. Shortly thereafter, he joined Gill and his community of craftsmen at Ditchling, Sussex, where he devoted his energies to his increasingly admired graphic work. It was not until 1928 that he began to work seriously in the medium of words and embarked on In Parenthesis. Jones’s method for this long modernist work was profoundly influenced by T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, not only in its juxtaposition of discontinuous fragments but also in its recourse to ancient myth as a source of inspiration and cohesion in an age of cultural fragmentation.The seven-part narrative centers on Private John Ball (who resembles Jones himself) and his company, but the work draws on Welsh epic, William Shakespeare, Sir Thomas Malory, the Bible, and an abundance of more recondite sources, to which footnotes offer the reader welcome guidance. The result is a richly textured, if difficult, work that makes one man’s experience of one war resonate with echoes from all the wars of history, and stand for the ordeal of the soul incarnate between the parentheses of birth and death. When in 1937 Jones at last offered the finished work to Eliot, then an editor at Faber and Faber, the great poet immediately recognized it as a major achievement, “a work of genius.” It won the Hawthornden Prize and remains one of the most impressive and original works in the literature of World War I.

Jones had suffered his first attack of neurasthenic depression in 1933, but a trip to Egypt and Palestine the following year, with Gill and their friend Tom Burns, did much to restore him. This pilgrimage left Jones with the first impulse for another major “writing,” one which he would not complete until 1952, The Anathemata. The title refers literally to offerings that are consecrated for destruction and thus “anathema” or accursed, and metaphorically to the disinherited deposits of a lost culture. Although unquestionably epic in length and scope, its only narrative thread is provided by sequential references to the Catholic Mass; otherwise it coheres solely by virtue of interrelations among fragments of tradition—British and Christian, literary and mythological. Awarded the Russell Loines Award, it remains a rich and forbidding work of high modernism that has been widely acclaimed but too seldom read.

After World War II, Jones lived almost continuously in residences and nursing homes in Harrow-on-the-Hill. Unable to hold a steady job because of his nervous condition, he frequently relied on the support of friends, but he showed no interest in winning broad public acclaim for his work as artist and writer. He underwent psychotherapy and was able to remain productive until the end of his life, reworking poems that would be published in the year of his death as The Sleeping Lord, and Other Fragments, and composing the essays that elaborate his thinking as maker and believer. Many of the poems in The Sleeping Lord draw on the historical moment of Jesus’ crucifixion during the reign of the Emperor Augustus, the foundational moment of the Roman Catholic Church. Jones’s essays, of which the most important were published in Epoch and Artist and The Dying Gaul, and Other Writings, show a remarkably discriminating and original mind with a powerful concern for the sacramental function of the arts in the modern age.

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Critical Essays