Jones, David 1895–
Jones is an English poet-novelist of Welsh ancestry whose fame rests on In Parenthesis and The Anathemata. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
The process by which the enduring reputation of one writer emerges among many of (at the time) apparently equal merit is mysterious. We do not so much change our minds as discover them; no dramatic reversal is involved, but a gradual enlightenment makes it clear that they will survive. David Jones is such a figure. The supreme quality of his art—using the word in its inclusive sense, for it would be impossible, so closely related is the technique of his drawing to that of his use of words, to say that David Jones is an artist who also writes, or the reverse—has long been apparent to an inner circle of his friends, which included T. S. Eliot; but he has never at any time been a widely-read, still less a fashionable, writer, nor is he ever likely to become so, for his work is too subtle and learned for popular taste….
David Jones, more consistently traditional than any of his contemporaries save Joyce, has all along proclaimed that true art comes from the deep roots and the ancient springs. Time has justified him as an artist and clarified his affinities….
His learning is, within his chosen limits, extensive and exact; and yet it is always a poet's learning, for one has the sense always that he knows only what he loves. The learning of an artist differs from that of a scholar not in what he knows, but in how he knows. If the cordage of the ship and the position of the stars is, in a painting of Tristan and Yseult, in every minute particular as correctly given as the gear of the trench warfare [in In Parenthesis] in which David Jones himself took part, this is no mere knowledge of the memory but the enhanced perception of a devotion neither aesthetic nor academic….
There is a certain intellectual and temperamental affinity between David Jones and that earlier sensitive, solitary perfectionist Thomas Gray; who was likewise, his nervous retirement and his retrospective and archaeological passion notwithstanding, a poet who transformed the sensibility of his age and changed the direction of English poetry.
Kathleen Raine, "Solitary Perfectionist," in Sewanee Review (© 1967 by The University of the South), Autumn, 1967, pp. 740-46.
When as a student I first came across The Anathemata (the 'e' is short and has the stress on it), I was so captivated by it that I gave up everything else I was doing and spent the next few days simply browsing through it, puzzling over words and names that I had never heard of before, convinced that I had stumbled on something quite unique and extraordinarily powerful. I wasn't at all sure I knew what it was that I had found, but I felt it was important and made sense, even if I could only half guess what that sense was. I suppose that part of my pleasure came from having discovered something that few others knew anything about.
That is still very much the case today. Indeed, considering the early acclaim that The Anathemata received soon after its publication in 1952 from such perceptive critics as Edwin Muir, Kathleen Raine and W H Auden, the book is still largely unknown. It would be an interesting, if perhaps trivial, exercise to find out which lecturers in the English Departments of our universities and colleges had even heard of The Anathemata, let alone read it. Of course, it is not an easy work: that is part of its fascination. But one would expect nowadays, with the explosion of interest in poetry of all kinds and the growing awareness of archaeology, anthropology, ancient and medieval poetry, mythology and comparative religion, that The Anathemata would be beginning to find an appreciative readership. Part of the difficulty lies in the task of trying to say what sort of a book it is and what it is about. It isn't a straightforward kind of poem at all. It defies all attempts at categorisation. In this respect and others, it has marked affinities with Eliot's Waste Land, Pound's Cantos, Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, and (to move abroad) with St John Perse's Anabase. Like all these works, it is highly experimental. At the same time it attempts a poetic act of conservation, both deeply rooted and profoundly visionary. The very title, meaning 'devoted things' or 'things made over in whatever manner to the gods' is indicative of the poem's scope….
The poetry of The Anathemata does not belong to that pure strain of personal poetry for which English literature is well-known, but finds its place more naturally with the public poetry of classical and medieval times, where the individual identifies himself with the culture and values of the community of which he himself is part. The Anathemata is pre-eminently concerned with the continuities of time and place in relation to the Island of Britain….
David Jones says in his Preface that if his book has a shape, it is chiefly that it returns to its beginning. It has a kind of circular structure with an enormous amount of interlacing. In fact one might more aptly compare it with the elaborate asymmetrical patterns of a page from the Book of Kells. The Anathemata does not move in a direct line from a clear beginning to a clear end. There is no central focus, no narrative line, no conclusion or climax to be reached. At almost any point there may be a fascinating point to be made, some additional spiral or flourish, a realistic vignette embedded in a gratuitous ornament. That is why it is so hard to give a telling account of what the poem is really like to someone who hasn't even opened the book. In its allusiveness it takes in everything from nursery rhymes to the Odyssey….
The Anathemata is one of those rare books that vastly enlarge the reader's consciousness. We each of us start with some knowledge of our heritage, fragmentary and half-remembered though it may be. But after even a few pages of the poem we begin to discern how those fragments can be pieced together and how one thing illuminates another…. Man is a sacramental animal, and through the signs that he discovers to possess numinosity he gains access to a world that transcends the limitations of his own personal life. He begins to live in a larger present that includes the whole of history and extends over the whole earth.
David Blamires, "Making the Past Present," in Books and Bookmen, September, 1971, pp. 28-31.
What little reputation [David] Jones has in America seems to be chiefly as Welsh or Roman Catholic cult hero. But Jones has none of that passion for exclusiveness that has marred his church at her worst. In calling his most ambitious work The Anathemata, Jones surely means to redeem the word from its association with the medieval formulas. For Jones, though his devotion to the Church is plain enough, participates in no excommunications: instead, his central effort is to restore communion, to include rather than exclude, to share memories, devotions, pieties….
In Parenthesis varies in medium from straightforward prose to prose that is highly elliptical, condensed, dislocated, and discontinuous and to verse with a rhythm that is sometimes very strong—allusive, liturgical, or incantatory—but that never employs rhyme or any regular pattern. The story is basically that of Private John Ball and his company, from training in England in December 1915, to participation in the Somme offensive, July 1916. But though Ball is usually present as protagonist-spectator, the poem expresses not his thoughts alone but, most of the time, a kind of collective consciousness; and hence many different forms and levels are necessary. All the details of speech and everything else are vivid, precise, and evocative; but literal realism is immediately transcended….
Though Jones has been praised highly by many of our most distinguished poets and critics, one suspects that his audience is extremely small. The most obvious reason is that the appreciation of his poetry requires an enormous investment of time and effort; the only appropriate comparison is with Finnegans Wake. But there is a second difficulty that even Joyce did not have to contend with, and this is that readers who are attracted by one aspect of his work are likely to be repulsed by another. To put it crudely, readers who like the traditional, culturally reactionary content of Jones's work are likely to find the very "modern" form unsympathetic, and vice versa. But Jones's relation to his times and his readers is a curious and interesting one. His work … is both very much of its time and detached from and parallel to it from the beginning…. Jones's work is uncompromising, but at the same time inviting, since Jones is so plainly eager to supply information and "unshared background" in the notes and to do everything possible (short of compromise) to help the reader. One feels that his books are permanently there, like mountains, self-sufficient and independent (though not scornful or defiant) of one's reactions. Hence readers are encouraged to return to explore them further and gradually to accustom themselves to this strange but fascinating world.
Monroe K. Spears, "Shapes and Surfaces: David Jones, with a Glance at Charles Tomlinson," in Contemporary Literature (© 1971 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 12, No. 4, Autumn, 1971, pp. 402-19.
A cult hero whom Auden has magisterially elevated to the ranks of the immortals, [David] Jones seems to me to have done his best work by far in parts of In Parenthesis, a long poem that derives from his experience in the first World War. Rather than confuse or condemn, I say only that if that is the kind of thing you like, you'll like that kind of thing.
Louis Coxe, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1971 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), October 16, 1971, p. 28.
[Even] among those who reckon themselves usually well-informed David Jones is not very well known, and this despite the fact that The Anathemata, for example, has been hailed by one critic as one of the five 'major poetic efforts of our era' in English (the others being Eliot's Waste Land, Pound's Cantos, Hugh MacDiarmid's In Memoriam James Joyce, and William Carlos Williams's Paterson). (p. 2)
The concern for tradition in its many forms provided much of the motive forces for David Jones's second book, The Anathemata, published fifteen years after In Parenthesis. It has a lot in common with the earlier work, particularly in its mixture of prose and verse and its allusive, polyglot technique, but it is a more ambitious and a finer work. Unlike In Parenthesis it has no plot, but attempts to distil the essence of civilization as manifested in the historical, cultural and spiritual deposits of the British Isles. In scope and accomplishment it is the most impressive of all David Jones's work. I do not think there is anyone else who has interpreted the diversity of tradition in Britain so unerringly or who has expressed the significance of the Welsh tradition for England with such illumination. (pp. 9-10)
His material, indeed his whole concern as a poet, is non-subjective. If this is true of his attempt to show the essence of a tradition in The Anathemata, it is equally so when one considers In Parenthesis. Most of the enduring literature of the First World War consists of autobiographical prose or lyric poetry of a deeply emotional, strongly subjective nature. But although In Parenthesis could only be based on personal experience, it lacks any simple autobiographical character. It is not about 'I'. It distils a common objective experience, and one of the means whereby this is achieved is the constant reference to an objective tradition of the poetry of war, exemplified superlatively in such works as Henry V, Malory's Morte d'Arthur, The Song of Roland, The Battle of Brunanburh, and the Old Welsh poem Y Gododdin. No one else, in writing about the War, sought to relate his personal woes, his anger and insights, to his common literary heritage. (p. 12)
In Parenthesis … [in] length and overall structure … may be said to be a novel, but in its use of language it is more akin to poetry.
What the book is 'about' is less open to discussion. As a narrative of war it presents a simple enough plot, centred on the personal experiences and reactions of Private John Ball as he moves off from the parade ground of his infantry camp to the port of embarkation for France and thus ever further into the front-line of the War. As the scene changes from day to night and from camp to trenches, the events and preparations lead slowly to the final battle, in which the platoon is destroyed and John Ball himself wounded. Such is the bald outline of what happens over a period of some seven months of the War from December 1915 to July 1916. Within this framework we are given as concentrated a picture of the feel of the War from the viewpoint of a private as can be found anywhere, a picture built up from a mass of fine details and precisely observed minutiae. Nowhere are the perceptions of the five senses more piercingly recorded than in In Parenthesis. This attention to the physical sensations of the soldier's life in a certain preference to purely emotional responses is highly characteristic of David Jones's method and links up with his emphasis on the concrete and the particular in his paintings and engravings. The meaning of things is discovered through physical manifestations and their inter-relationships. (p. 77)
It was not until nine years after the War that he even began to write his book, and the detachment of these years enabled him to treat his material with less subjectivity. The lyrics of the War period itself sometimes suffer from a lack of emotional control, from an excess of passion. In Parenthesis, however, manages to fuse an extraordinarily vivid objectivity with a degree of emotional concentration that is rare anywhere. Nine years had not dulled the memory or the perceptions of the writer, but had allowed him a sovereign control over his subject-matter. (p. 80)
In many ways In Parenthesis is not an easy book: it is one that almost invites the attention of scholars and critics. And yet this has not happened to the extent that it deserves, probably because it is a book which eludes ordinary definitions and appreciations. It is the kind of work which forces the critic, when he has made his attempt at judgement, to admit how tentative and inadequate his remarks are in face of the book itself. In Parenthesis has many levels at which it can be read so that the reader will discover new things and new relationships in it each time that he dips into its pages. It is a book that can give the ordinary reader as well as the literary critic much direct, simple enjoyment. It is a work that communicates even before it is understood. (p. 112)
The Anathemata is more obviously a poem than In Parenthesis, though parts of it are printed as continuous prose. But apart from this it similarly defies attempts at easy classification in terms of genre. It shares the qualities of chronicle, epic, drama, incantation and lyric and is at the same time none of these and more than all put together. It is thus very difficult to answer the enquirer who wants to know what sort of a work it is and what it is 'about'. The poet himself defected in his own description of it as 'fragments of an attempted writing', and yet this does contain a necessary truth, precious though the description might seem. He is right to call it an attempt—an attempt at a vision of Britain, not just as these islands appear now in the mid twentieth century, but as they appear through the deposits of many cultures over aeons of time. And the fragments are inevitable, since the knowledge of one man must be fragmentary….
What distinguishes such works as the Cantos or Finnegans Wake or Ulysses and The Anathemata is the fact that they are attempts to depict a universum; they represent a totality including the whole of history. This historical perspective, if the word is not too external in its connotations, is the animating force of The Anathemata, but it needs to be analysed before it can be properly understood. (pp. 114-15)
The Anathemata is more abstract and general. Its subject-matter cannot be as easily defined and circumscribed as that of In Parenthesis, where the reader is immediately aware of the primary object of the poet's attention, even if he does not straight away recognize the source of the allusions which give it depth and meaning. In The Anathemata one may not see so quickly or so clearly exactly what is being talked about, as the poet seems to define his subject as he goes along. The difference between the two books reminds one very much of cinematic technique with the earlier book showing a constant precise definition of outline and detail, while the later work exhibits numerous changes of focus, more degrees of clarity and blurring, more daring juxtapositions. (p. 125)
It is evident that In Parenthesis is a much more popular work than The Anathemata. The later book in this respect suffers from a number of drawbacks: its theme (or one of its themes) is religious awareness at a time when regard for religious values is at a very low ebb; it places a premium on consciousness of the whole of man's history in an age that lives for the present and the future; it views the data of experience by the light of analogies and symbols that the mid twentieth century appears to have lost the capacity for using in its emphasis on the literally true; it is a hymn to order and meaning in a period which experiences more keenly the forces of chaos and randomness. (p. 127)
When it comes to vocabulary David Jones is liable to tax his readers to the uttermost. This is, of course, part and parcel of his substantival style, for there are more things and abstractions in the universe than actions and processes, each having its proper name and each name being capable of modification by an illimitable range of adjectives. David Jones is an inveterate user of the less familiar strata of English words derived from Latin and Greek, but even this does not always give him sufficient scope for the precise nuance that he wishes to capture. In this position he resorts to other languages for a particular word, especially to Welsh, Latin and Greek, but also to French and German. This use of language cannot, however, be discussed apart from the actual subject-matter of the poem, for the choosing of a word is not a question so much of style or level of discourse, but rather of the precise object that has to be named and the associations that have to be evoked in that particular context. The language is thus not obscure (which implies a profundity of theme plumbable only by initiates or a failure on the part of the writer to make himself understood), but technical. (p. 141)
Vernon Watkins is the Welsh poet with whom he has the closest affinity; St. John Perse he explicitly recognizes as a kindred spirit; and Pound, together with the Eliot of The Waste Land, is the person whose technique of poetic collage most nearly resembles his own. Hugh MacDiarmid seems to me to possess a similar toughness and exactitude of language, a delight in particularity, and an even greater range of literary and cultural continuities, while Edith Sitwell expresses in much of her later poetry a kind of mystical numinosity, a sense of involvement with the obscure sufferings of the world, and an incantational element that derives ultimately, in the West, from the rites and insights of Catholicism. It is possible, however, that the most important of all these literary affiliations or correspondences is to be found in Joyce. Not so much the Joyce of Ulysses as the Joyce of Finnegans Wake. David Jones doesn't go in for the Joycean pun (or at least not on the same, bewildering scale), nor does he share the negative side of Joyce's obsession with Catholicism, but his use of language is motivated by a similar kind of philological delight and he employs its cross-fertilizing powers. Moreover, what he has to say is based on a comparable perception of the permanence of mythological structures. (pp. 193-94)
I think we can see David Jones's poetry—more especially The Anathemata—as the creation of a museum. Not the sort of museum, I might add, that is housed in a fusty, old building with bad lighting, indiscriminately lumped together, and poorly explained, but one that provokes unexpected enthusiasms in both the casual visitor and the informed expert, a museum in effect that is true to its etymology and is a real mouseion, a 'sanctuary of the Muses'. This is the kind of thing that David Jones has tried to make in the form of a poem. Not all the Muses are equally invoked, but Calliope, Clio, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, and Thalia certainly receive their due measure of devotion from In Parenthesis onwards. The 'devoted objects' are collected and arranged with care that is more than careful of their mere beauty: they are set to some purpose, to illustrate the 'inward continuities' of man's life as a 'maker' and as a spiritual being. (p. 195)
David Blamires, in his David Jones: Artist and Writer (© 1971 by David Blamires; reprinted with the permission of Manchester University Press and University of Toronto Press), Manchester University Press, 1971 (University of Toronto Press, 1972).