Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3678
Jones, David 1895–
Jones is an Anglo-Welsh poet-novelist and watercolor painter. Interest in his complex and beautiful work is now being renewed. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
I do not think that David Jones is a Modern Master by Professor Kermode's standards, but I have a feeling that his poems and his paintings will continue to give delight long after anyone has ceased to worry whether he is "modern" or not. Perhaps I need not remind readers that T. S. Eliot considered his In Parenthesis a work of genius, while Auden has described The Anathemata as "very probably the finest long poem written in English in this century." The Tribune's Visitation … is a much shorter poem, and like some earlier pieces of his, such as The Wall or The Fatigue, is concerned with the troops of the Roman garrison in Palestine in the earlier decades of the First Century A.D. The poem testifies once again to its author's extraordinary gifts….
R, in Encounter, February, 1970, p. 33.
Few authors require explication as David Jones does, and he has recognized this and become his own best explicator. He has discussed his literary and visual work at some length and on many occasions, notably in the pieces brought together in Epoch and Artist, and has written generously and informatively to private inquirers. While, mercifully, there is still nothing like a David Jones industry, he has been the subject of a fair number of notes, impressions, lectures and articles, whose burden, rightly, is that he is among the most important creative artists of the past fifty years….
It is unlikely that David Jones can ever become a popular poet, even as author of In Parenthesis. Where can he fit into, much less belong to, the contemporary "poetry scene"? No man was ever less trendy, less with it. It is, of course, a triumph of impercipience to consider him as not interested in today's man and today's world because he assumes we have read the Gododdin and the Song of Roland, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Malory and the Mabinogion, and (almost worse) the Authorised Version and the Dies Irae. His work insistently provokes the questions: What are we? From what are we come? What shall become of us? But poetry, he tells us, must be rooted in a tradition and is not merely the creation of a private world. "I believe that there is, in the principle that informs the poetic art, a something which cannot be disengaged from the mythus, deposits, matière, ethos, whole res of which the poet is himself a product." He is a poet unparochial in time…. The "Celtic" aspect of David Jones's work is not eccentric but central. Without it, as without sign and sacrament, what would remain?
"A Poet Unparochial in Time," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), August 20, 1971, p. 986.
[The] genre [of The Anathémata] remains in question, as does that of In Parenthesis (1937), which has been called epic, novel, poetry, prose. Curious readers would do well to attend to Prufrock's "Do not ask 'What is it?'/Let us go and make our visit." The Anathémata is circular, like its epigraph's calcined wall before which, on a dark and stormy night, a tale-teller relates a story set on a dark and stormy night. Veins of light interrupt the darkness. Individual examples are not readily detachable because of the organic nature of Jones's work. Among the best is the passage wherein the two apostles, preparing for the first Eucharist, decorate "with the green of the year the crossbeams and the gleaming board." Another, showing the rapport between art and sacrament, a favorite tenet of David Jones, represents the cave-paintings in southern France which date from before 20,000 B.C.…
The uninitiate … may will wish away some of the Welshness of The Anathémata, but it is part of the cost. Those who value the sacred (and to Jones everything is so) will be willing to pay the price. Deemed an anachronism by some, a prophet by others, David Jones in his eighties stands forth in dignity as celebrant of Calvary's mysterium, for him "the supreme fact, not the supreme fiction."… Granted his donnée, this artist, more Merlin than the Virgil to whom he is often compared, offers himself as spokesman for a culture that may well be not only "past and passing" but "to come."
Sister Bernetta Quinn, O.S.F., "David Jones," in Contemporary Literature (© 1973 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 14, No. 2, Spring, 1973, pp. 267-70.
David Jones is not an essayist or literary critic by nature, nor is he a systematic thinker. His approach is intuitive and eclectic. He proceeds by association, and because he is widely read in non-literary matters, but not a conventional man of letters as regards English literature, what he has to say is often unexpectedly illuminating, especially where it glosses his own writing…. [He] can illustrate the relevance of the early periods of our own and other literatures more vividly and cogently than many readers and teachers of post-Renaissance literature seem able or willing to allow. His power to communicate stems from his intense curiosity about the precise details of innumerable things ranging over the whole of Western culture….
In our society nowadays there is an increasing sense of alienation from first-hand experience…. In David Jones's writing this diminution of experience is keenly felt. His own preoccupation with the contactual reality of what is made rather than manufactured, with the particular artifact or poetic word or ritual act, is an attempt to keep the channels of communication open, however clogged they have become with the silt of forgetfulness and scholarship. In an age of fragmentation and specialization his work can be seen as an heroic attempt to piece some of the fragments together again.
David Blamires, in Critical Quarterly, Autumn, 1973, pp. 285-86.
Much poetry today is characterised by emotion without intellect and fancy without imagination. (Ted Hughes's Crow is an obvious illustration of what I mean.) It is David Jones's unique imagination which most distinguishes his work from that of his contemporaries. This esemplastic power, to use Coleridge's phrase, illumines every page of The Sleeping Lord & other Fragments bringing unity to seemingly diverse material. It is the same quality that closely knits together both his writing and painting, which is all one, from his earliest drawings and from In Parenthesis, to his most recent poems. This singleness of texture is present in the work of most major artists, but it is I think more marked in David Jones than in any other poet.
A second quality which sets David Jones's poetry apart from that of most poets now writing, from Robert Lowell to many lesser talents, is his realisation that the artist must be dead to himself if he is to create work of permanent value.
William Cookson, "Two Distinctions," in Agenda, Autumn-Winter, 1973–74, p. 31.
The writer's material, which is words, is continually renewing its resistance and there must be a continual alteration in balance between the degree of resistance that stimulates and that stultifies; but today language is undermined from a new direction and it must fight for its life. It is not resistance, still less renewal, but rejection that it faces, along with art and religion and myth. The first great feat of mankind, greater than the feat of fire or of artefact, was language. It is argued, probably correctly, that neither fire nor artefact would ever have come about without language. From crude beginnings it seemed capable of almost infinite refinement growing more exact and subtle; but now it is said that thought has gone too far for language and has evolved a new means of expression that is more elegant and more exact—mathematics. The simple calculations of the first mathematicians are, to present-day mathematics, as the cries and grunts of primitive man to the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
We may expect mathematics to develop much farther; it is at least as capable of development as the language of words, and may even become a vernacular necessary for the small change of daily intercourse, while language as we know it survives, a fossil without function, an intricate bony arabesque enclosed in the strata of an historical deposit. God willing that time is still a long way off; but there are enemies nearer home whose mode of attack lies in their attitude to words and their manipulation—words sapped and regimented in grey prison uniform answering by numbers to the command of the linguistics man, and those who feed the computers in the child-like faith that by some mysterious process, a trivial question can elicit a profound reply. My fear is that this pseudo-scientific paraphernalia will dazzle the understanding of ordinary people so that we grow strangers to our own imagination (imagination itself is almost a lost word these days) till we find outlandish and superfluous the poet's use of words.
It is against this, this short-term cheapening, and long-term rejection of language, that I see David Jones's work. "He guards the signa" like the cult-man at the beginning of The Anathemata; he guards, not by standing still, or raking back over the past, but by moving forward; for if his memory is ranging back to the folded strata, in his acts he is stepping out onto the new territory.
We have become numbed, anaesthetized to the power and purpose of words and require to be jolted awake, to feel their recessions and transformations. This is exactly what David Jones has done in The Anathemata, in the inscriptions, and again in The Sleeping Lord where juxtapositions of English, Welsh and Latin give, not only an incomparable richness of texture and of reference, but also give words the life of icons, "images not made with hands". Like James Joyce's Anna Livia he forces us to see all around words as though they were a three-dimensional object, a live animal, not the animated corpse of the linguistic manipulators.
N. K. Sandars, "Some Thoughts Arising From David Jones's Latest Published Works," in Agenda, Autumn-Winter, 1973–74, pp. 36-44.
David Jones shows the reality of our history, something we are not able otherwise to catch together into words….
David Jones has not interpreted history as choice, no one is more conscious of tempora pessima, hora novissima, but no one has illuminated so searchingly what it was to suffer the modern history of mankind. He drew light from a great distance, both in In Parenthesis and in The Anathemata, in such a way that one would wish to have been the suffering creature of his poems as one would wish to have been Hector in the Iliad. Tolstoy's solutions are personal and intellectual, even chauvinistic, but David Jones does in retrospect for our fathers what epic poetry might do; using terrible colours, scorning what is not genuine, he dignifies mankind.
His sense for what is genuine is not simply an artist's integrity or an innocent eye, though he does have these qualities as well. It is rather a sense of what is irreducibly real. At the moment of development of ancient religion in which the gods become united and consciously responsible for every story, which is also the moment of the unification of plot, the gods are immediately in the dock to be judged by mankind. A poem, that is an emotionally charged intelligible unity of language, whose subject is war and which is monotheistic, must inevitably be terrible. Indeed it is likely enough that its unity and its religion are inseparable. At a passionate level there must be a God invented in such a story, otherwise the blackness would not be enough. The same is true in the whole range of prehistory in The Anathemata. In that poem David Jones's sense of realities is so striking that he has become the greatest archaeological poet, he has shown the reality of the origins of mankind in a poem that has the breadth and coldness of real dawn. He is more specific and less fragmentary than St. John Perse, he is more passionate and articulate about geology than Auden. The mighty achievement of this poem depends as much as his war writings on the irreducible reality of what he talks about.
The trappings and the dimensions of these poems, the Welsh and the liturgical elements and the many strange and moving references to his repertory of knowledge, are always to show something real. When his poems are understood they are naked in the way a wood of trees might be. There are few poets so rich and so underdecorated….
He uses the whole backward and abyss of time. He is not dictated to by conventional historical time, but things are present or not to him in a single densely woven tapestry…. David Jones's poetry is too serious to be called pessimistic. Its time-range is too vast for it to be afflicted by its own darkness. His visions of the green world and the mountainous world are not everlasting but do propose courage. It is interesting that he takes courage more for granted than most writers today, whether in his great lords, his Romans or his infantrymen. As a poet and as a historian he proposes an instinctive virtue. What is everlasting in his poems is the decent riff-raff of Britain, of modern war, and of the Roman Empire. They speak and they suffer the same fate. "But for all the rest there was no help on that open plain."…
There are many subjects he has not dealt with, probably because of the primacy in his imagination of the first world war, later of its reflections in Welsh, British and Roman history, and of their reflections back on it. His singular and admirable attitude to the Catholic church is part of the same searching glance. It is also something more, since he has believed that at this point history is directly penetrable and has a single meaning. His appeals to myth and to ritual language are always made on the assumption that here also is an area of reality, indeed the master-meaning of many signs. Words like allegory and symbol are inadequate to his usage, and to use words like sacrament may be obscurum per obscurius. There is evidently a strong element of realism in his religious views. They may be close to what in him created his poetry, or they may be its precondition.
Peter Levi, "History and Reality in David Jones," in Agenda, Autumn-Winter, 1973–74, pp. 56-9.
The past of man is something continuous, and one can never be certain that it is really past, and not present or even more disconcertingly, future. Part of the excitement communicated by David Jones's poetry is the ambiguous position in which he puts his readers, disturbing their neat and safe chronological proprieties and the pedants' division of culture and creed….
Perhaps it is not for nothing that "deposits" is a favourite word of his, both in poetry and in prose. "Deposits" are an essential part of his poetry…. It is a significant and revealing word. Deposits may imply a slow historical process of accretion, stealthily forming silts, slow strata, the layers of a pearl; or again, they are the man-made caches and hoards—hidden treasures; votive, ritual and foundation deposits, and the last great deposit of all, the body in burial….
To words themselves he applies a process of inspired nuclear fission. As you read, the simple-seeming syllables, in the context of their deposits, explode in a radiant and beneficent blast of highly charged meanings, associations and what the seventeenth century liked to call "correspondences". As a bard should, he displays his word-hoard, but the words are radio-active with history. Some of the scintillations may miss us, but enough hit their target to start up in ourselves a chain reaction of generated excitement. The words themselves will never be the same to us; they have been enriched historically until each is a piece of history itself.
Stuart Piggott, "David Jones and the Past of Man," in Agenda, Autumn-Winter, 1973–74, pp. 60-3.
At the centre of David Jones's concerns lies his belief in a break in the Western cultural tradition, which, becoming obvious first towards the beginning of this century, has ever since threatened the power of the community to provide for its members that spiritual sustenance to which Simone Weil adverts, and the primary object of his writings is to attempt to restore some of the tradition's continuities.
The cultural tradition which David Jones has been trying throughout his work to recreate is that of the Island of Britain as a whole, whose various origins, Celtic, Imperial Roman, Western Christian and Saxon, appear there in the form in which the poet himself, by birth, upbringing and conversion a product of the composite tradition, experiences them. Whereas in In Parenthesis Jones uses a single major theme, the ideal of comradeship in arms from Aneirin through Malory to Shakespeare, in an attempt to give sense and meaning to the terrible waste of the Western Front, in The Anathemata he is concerned much more to recall and celebrate a whole tradition which threatens to slip through his fingers: "one is trying to make a shape out of the very things of which oneself is made"—by a re-presentation or anamnesis in imaginative form of what the traditions mean to "a Londoner, of Welsh and English parentage, of Protestant upbringing, of Catholic subscription". But although readers from different backgrounds can respond in general terms to his vision of a tradition under siege from the forces of megalopolitan anonymity, it is less easy to see the world of The Anathemata as embodying a real cultural tradition through which contemporary man might experience his identity. This is in part because, fortunately or unfortunately according to your point of view, the political unit Britain is not a cultural unity, but in part also because David Jones's Island of Britain is a projection of his imagination, a vehicle for his views on art, sacrament, history and the nature of man—much as the Arthurian world is for Malory's ideals of chivalry and loyalty—and in part because the impersonality of the writing withdraws the poem from the immediate world of experience and sensation. The idea of a tradition is there, but there is little explicit sense of either the context or the effect of the loss of tradition, still less of how the loss may be made good.
Nicolas Jacobs, "David Jones and the Politics of Identity," in Agenda, Autumn-Winter, 1973–74, pp. 68-75.
David Jones, whose first drawings were exhibited when he was a child in 1903–4, speaks, whether in words, water-colours, or inscriptions in opaque water-colour, with an authority and beauty which run counter to our habitual modes of perception. His major writings, In Parenthesis and The Anathemata, share with the water-colours the paradoxical qualities of a crowded airiness, a nervous linear structure overlaying a rich wilderness. His concern with idea and belief is matched to an equal care for the words that must define the particularities of the world's creatures, and so In Parenthesis, a palimpsest where the Great War is fought in a dimension which includes all the wars that prefigured it, gives too the most exact picture we have of the actual conditions on the Western Front.
In his collected essays, Epoch and Artist, Jones has recorded his belief that man's nature is to make signs to 'give otherness to the particular'. Man is the 'sole inhabitant of a tract of country where matter marches with spirit', and art in the widest sense, that of a gratuitous making over and above the utilitarian need, is his 'distinguishing dignity'. Our language of signs, whether expressed in the making of a birthday cake or the wearing of a rose in the buttonhole, links us together in a web of past and future commemorations and celebrations….
Although Jones may call his works variously a 'fragment', a 'writing', or an 'attempted writing', such terms are not confessions of failure; they describe accurately those things which provisionally satisfy him as parts of his personal, cultural or racial inheritance that he has objectified, tentative parts of a unity whose whole will always elude him. None of his makings are discrete; they must be seen in their relationships to each other. The formative personal experiences, the Catholicism, war service, months in Palestine, make for individuality but never egocentricity. The inclusiveness of his imagination and the singularity of his word-choice may daunt the reader, but the works bear reading and re-reading as the poet is followed on his long quest through 'vast, densely-wooded, inherited and entailed domains'.
The Sleeping Lord gathers together poems which have appeared in magazines over the last 20 years, but which have been worked on for longer still. The central concern is with Rome and her hegemony in the first century AD, but the scholarship and exactitude with which Jones explores this world serves neither a nostalgic nor archaicising imagination. Through the heightened, demotic voices of the soldiers, their idioms recalling those of the war Jones served in, implicit correspondences are made between that historic period and our own. Rome, 'the flat palm that disciplines the world', the bringer of peace and order to her subject peoples, is a symbol uniting timeless contrarieties….
The Sleeping Lord is perhaps the best introductory volume to Jones's work; the contours can be seen most clearly here, and the textures, though rich, are less elaborate than in The Anathemata, since there is an open, dramatic quality running through the book. The richness of his vocabulary is not, as can seem with Auden, material for an erudite flirtation with the reader. His poetry builds by accretion, not by reduction to synonyms. A 'father' is not the exact equivalent of a 'pater familias'; a 'tump' is not the exact equivalent of 'hill'. David Jones is not content to see language beaten to the world-floor; he both takes words back to their origins and sets them glowing in new contexts.
Peter Scupham, "Textures and Contours," in New Statesman, May 24, 1974, pp. 734-35.
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