Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 907
David Jones’s poetry is difficult to categorize, apart from saying that it is modernist and long. In some ways, it is not even poetry, as large sections are written in poetic prose and can be read more like a novel. Jones was inspired to use such a mix by medieval sources, in which the division between prose and poetry was more fluid than in the twentieth century. Like Eliot and Ezra Pound, he draws on whatever sources inspire him and quotes them, regardless of whether they are in English. Like Eliot, he relies on notes to explain the more private associations.
What is different is that Jones’s poetry is much more grounded in his personal experiences as soldier and artist and in his identity as a Londoner, Welshman, and Catholic. His speech makes his poetry dramatic, and like other modernists, he writes much of his work as dramatic monologue. The voices are typically those of London Cockneys or Welsh bards. The matter is epic and mythic, his imagination having been grounded as much in Celtic and Germanic mythology as in Roman or Greek. Though never having been taught Latin, Greek, or Welsh, Jones is prepared to write in them. His knowledge of the traditional Latin rites of the Roman Catholic Church pervades all of his writing, and his is profoundly religious and spiritual poetry.
It could be claimed that In Parenthesis is the greatest war poem to have come out of World War I, but it is long, difficult, and appeared well after the other war poets had published their poetry. In addition, it is not quotable, though it is eminently readable, demanding to be read out loud, hence its success as a radio poem.
In Parenthesis is divided into seven parts, covering a period from December, 1915, to the Battle of the Somme in the summer of 1916, which becomes its climax. At all stages, it seems autobiographical. At first, the poet’s persona is Private John Ball, named after a rebel priest who led an uprising against Richard II. At the end of the poem, Ball appears to be dying of wounds. The poet at times stands back from Ball and seems closer to some of the Welsh soldiers. The poet’s stance is thus made more ambiguous.
Part 1, “The Many Men So Beautiful,” follows a battalion of soldiers from their base camp in England to their embarkation. Parts 2 to 4 follow their journey through France to the front lines, showing how they accustom themselves to their conditions and survive through the winter. Jones’s minutely detailed descriptions of the front lines is akin to Robert Graves’s war memoir Goodbye to All That: An Autobiography (1929).
Part 5, “Squat Garlands for White Knights,” details the battalion’s removal from winter quarters southward to an unknown destination. Parts 6 and 7 deal with their new deployment and the ensuing battle, in which most of the battalion are massacred. Ball survives with a few others but is critically wounded. The poem ends with his waiting to be carried off the battlefield by stretcher-bearers.
By contrast, The Anathemata is not specific as to time or place. Its ambition is to trace the rise and nature of western civilization from a Christian, and especially Catholic, point of view. Its focus is on “the matter of Britain” and the Mass. However, it incorporates other spiritual traditions and sees Britain not as an amalgam of Celtic and Saxon traditions. It is a more difficult work than In Parenthesis because of its historical circularity, and it demands a great deal of work from its readers. They need to grasp some quite obscure Welsh mythology, for example, and to be able to converse in several languages.
However, Jones’s own control and grasp of what he is doing is profound. Once the sense of the speaking voice is internalized, it creates a momentum that carries the reader through the difficult and obscure passages into an experience that is singularly rare in modern poetry: a sense of being involved with the past and the present as a continuity.
The name of the poem means “things devoted to a deity,” and it is one of the most profoundly moving religious poems of the modernist movement, comparable to Eliot’s Four Quartets (1943). It is divided into eight parts, from “Rite and Foretime,” dealing with the Greeks’ first discovery of Britain, to “Sherthursdaye and Venus Day,” which deals with the crucifixion of Christ. Section 5, “The Lady of the Pool,” is set in London’s docklands and at times echoes Jones’s grandfather, the Thames barge builder.
The Sleeping Lord, and Other Fragments
The Sleeping Lord, and Other Fragments is a collection that gathers most of Jones’s other poems, some of which are unfinished. The title poem, written 1966-1967, deals with a Welsh version of the Arthurian legend and shows how deeply immersed Jones became in Welsh myth and prehistory and how he was able to detect traces of its spirituality in Catholicism. Normally Welsh Christianity is seen as ineluctably Protestant, so Jones is revealing new insights.
“The Tribune’s Visitation” is set in Roman Palestine at the time of Christ. Jones developed a great sense of the continuity of the Roman world, and the Roman soldiers are shown as similar to those of World War I. Other poems included are “The Tutelar of the Place” and “The Hunt,” the latter a reworking of another Welsh legend.
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