Jones, David (Vol. 7)
Jones, David 1895–1974
Jones, a noted painter and engraver as well as a distinguished author, was English and Welsh and it is said that the "Celtic" aspect is central to his work. His writing, rich and profound, has not been easy to classify as poetry or prose. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 53-56.)
To those who know it, In Parenthesis seems an astonishingly successful combining of epic myth and actuality. The Tribune's Visitation achieves again so many of the qualities of that earlier work, it reads, in an odd way, like a sequel. Some thirty years of the writer's life divide the two works, as well as the writing of The Anathemata and the poems which appeared in the Agenda David Jones Special Issue, poems of a high order but which require an essentially different understanding. It might seem that "period," too, divides the two works. David Jones was careful to show that the events in In Parenthesis could only have taken place in the way that they do in 1916, not earlier or later in the war on the Western Front. Similarly, he sets the tribune's arrival in Jerusalem in "the first few decades of the First Century". But, perhaps in part because of his very refusal to place his epics in some more abstract past, David Jones has achieved in In Parenthesis and The Tribune's Visitation two rare examples of time regained in poetry. The idea of a sequel need not be abandoned when the poet and each of the protagonists carries in his mind a version of history both as continuing present and vivid immediacy.
The idea of the eternal present has been given powerful expression in prose, but I can think of few examples in poetry. Some of the rare attempts have been notable failures—I am thinking of Charles Williams's Taliesin in Logres. Christopher Logue's reworking of parts of The Iliad into contemporary poetry of great power and immediacy would be a better example, and one that is influencing other poets. The same process has been at work in the Cantos, of course, and elsewhere among those who could be called "translators from time past to time present". But for David Jones the literary reference points are far less important and less intrusive.
Rather, like the brother in Zbigniew Herbert's poem Rain, the warriors in David Jones's armies seem to have a confusion of battles occurring simultaneously in their heads. In In Parenthesis, they are their own ancestors…. (p. 103)
The Tribune's Visitation is about loyalties, loyalties to ourselves, our memories, our birthplace, our family—our "natural" loyalties; and about the allegiance we come to swear to regimental, national, institutional "gods"—the lares. We all agree to serve some imperium and are the instruments of it, but … [do] we become what Lenin expected his cadres to be, "dead men on furlough", for the sake of some world order? With what kind of an oath have we bound ourselves today and for all of time? (p. 104)
The Tribune's Visitation ends with the words, "Sergeant, that shall serve, for now." And the last question is, who serves what? (p. 105)
Michael Mott, in Poetry (© by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), May, 1971.
The excitement to be gained from David Jones is of a kind that comes from a strange hinterland where eccentric scholarship, exalted code-cracking and the visionary gleam meet and merge. (p. 9)
There are many contrasts in David Jones's poetry—between innocence and experience, between archaism and modernism, between a tenuous romantic mysticism and a hard precision of language. Underneath them all lies a preoccupation with the continuity of the Christian faith, seen in different guises and in different perspectives, sometimes underlying primitive ritual, sometimes shadowed in the Arthurian legends, often approached through its central mystery of the Mass. (pp. 9-10)
In a sense, Jones seems to be attempting an historical Christian counterpart to what Ezra Pound failed to achieve, in my opinion, in the Cantos—a view of the flood of the past and the way in which it forces itself into the dry channels of the present. Jones's conviction of a divine transfiguring unifies his fragments in a way impossible to Pound's secular notions of 'good government'. The achievement is puzzling and not always apparently coherent, but it is an impressive achievement all the same. (p. 10)
Anthony Thwaite, in his Poetry Today 1960–1973 (© Anthony Thwaite; Longman Group Ltd., for the British Council), British Council, 1973.
The Sleeping Lord is David Jones's fourth full length work, or "writing". It carries, as an addendum to the title, "and other fragments", but if the pieces included here are fragments, they have been dressed to a pattern that allows us to project the coherence and pressure of the structure where they belong. The book fits into that megalithic shape founded on In Parenthesis and raised through The Anathemata and Epoch and Artist. In fact, the last piece, from "The Book of Balaam's Ass", is meant to wedge what the author sees as a gapped joint between the first two works. Where Yeats hammered his thoughts into unity, David Jones is still engaged in "making a heap of all that he can find."…
He is literally an extraordinary writer, who has tackled, single-handed, the task of creating a British counter-culture…. Picking up where the Oxford Movement left off, his effort has been to graft a healing tissue over that wound in English consciousness inflicted by the Reformation and the Industrial Revolution. Roman Britain united and maintained within the wall of the Roman world by legionaries bound by their sacramentum or oath of enlistment, medieval catholic Britain bonded to Rome by the ministry of a sacramental ecclesia, these worlds centred round a divine purpose, round an urbs at once of earth and heaven, poled on the axis of the cross, afford a myth for his alternative society. And underlying both worlds, irrigating and embroidering the imperium from beyond the island, are the insular Celtic and British traditions. All this he has wrought into a shield to flourish in the face of the gorgon megalopolis.
His withdrawal of assent from the technocracy does not, however, take the form of a sentimental primitivism. We have only to place the earth-nostalgia of some current American poetry beside the historical and theological disciplines of Jones's imagination to recognise its adequacy and density. Where your mid-American is often an aesthetic opportunist, exploiting a Red Indian myth for its charming effect, this Welsh Cockney retrieves a tradition with great labour, affirms it by its authentic images and exposes its outline as a form of truth. He has, in Eliot's phrase, returned to the origin and brought something back, something to enrich not only the language but people's consciousness of who they have been and who they consequently are. History is, still, now and England.
As a convert, as a philologist, as a priest of the word, as a maker and breaker of metre and vocabulary, he is the direct heir of Hopkins. And as a poet of Christ's passion and incarnation, of sacramental nature, his lineage runs suddenly past Hopkins to the Anglo-Saxon Dream of the Rood. His world is certainly charged with the grandeur of God but God bleeds as a maimed god at the centre of the world, on the "tump" of Calvary, on a tree. He too celebrates "all things counter, original, spare", "all trades, their gear, tackle and trim" and laments the smear and blear that man's toil has left. And just as for Hopkins Christ was a "chevalier", and a "prince" in the Anglo-Saxon poem, Jones's "sleeping lord" is an incarnate, numinous presence….
What David Jones said about James Joyce can be applied to him when he is writing at his best, when the references and allusions are not cluttering rapturously: "The concrete, the exact dimensions, the contactual, the visual, the bodily, what the senses register, the assembled data first—then is the 'imagination' freed to get on with the job." (I presume the quotation marks for 'imagination' are a rebuke to the too human presumption of the Romantics.) He works from the known to the unknown, from the details of the soldiers who are instrumental to the purpose of the action in which they are involved….
David Jones's … name has been insistently brought up … because of his exclusion from The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century Verse, but it will increasingly figure not because of its exclusion but because of the inclusiveness of the vision it signifies. [The Sleeping Lord] is difficult, forbidding to those expecting bland felicities, but it has about it the gnarled riches of the oakwood and those who beat towards the centre will find poetry living in the dapple of the thickets.
Seamus Heaney, "Now and in England," in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), May 4, 1974, p. 547.
What is In Parenthesis? A book about the First World War? Yes, but much more than that—a book about how man, even in the most appalling circumstances, can still discern beneath the surface of experience an ultimate significance in life. At one level, therefore, In Parenthesis is an account of a certain period of the Great War; but, at another and deeper level, it is about a mode of vision—it is a first essay in perspective.
When David Jones forced himself to recall the horrors of the First World War it was partly because he believed, with the ancient Welsh poet Aneirin, that the dead deserve 'a brilliant spirited melody' to commemorate the deeds they have accomplished…. A case could be argued for considering In Parenthesis as a twentieth-century version of the old heroic elegy [The Gododdin]. (p. 255)
Faced with the disintegration brought about by the First World War, David Jones sought to recover roots, not just for an individual, but for a whole people. This he attempted by constantly emphasising the continuity of history, by showing that the present derives from the past and that both are part of the one process. Thus it is that at various times his Londoners and Welshmen may be assimilated to the three hundred who fought at Catraeth, or to the troops under Henry V at Agincourt, or even to the Roman legionaries. (p. 259)
David Jones has employed a vocabulary with a high incidence of religious terms. Some of these such as, 'transubstantiate', or, 'lend some grace to', are unmistakable in character; while others such as, 'filament of peace', though at a greater remove, belong nevertheless to the same sphere. This is no accidental feature of style, but is indicative of a whole cast of mind…. For him, the ability to perceive 'otherness' in the objective reality is essentially a religious experience. (p. 261)
In many ways the world of the 1914–18 War was a bankrupt one. The problem was how to discern some order in it. Starting from the particular, from the medley of soldiers in 'B' Company who for about seven months occupied a couple of short stretches of front-line trench, he proceeds to search for 'formal goodness in a life singularly inimical, hateful', to them. And he succeeds. If one is ready to perceive it, then there is order and beauty to be discovered even in the lice-ridden marshes of Flanders. The men around may seem insignificant and utterly divorced from the conventional idea of the warrior-hero, but they are in reality 'secret princes'. Their self-sacrifice as they 'walk lifted up, carried forward by an effective word', makes them a part of that divine sacrifice upon which all Christianity centres. The whole rhythm of their lives is spoken of in terms of the liturgy. The paradox of the situation, that beneath the brutal surface of reality there are hidden 'intimations of immortality', is summed up in David Jones's description of men as being 'dung-making Holy Ghost temples'….
The subject-matter of In Parenthesis is, indeed, the First World War; but the purpose informing the work is to demonstrate man's power to pierce through the mundane scene to catch the vision beyond. This vision is posited as being of equal validity with the objective fact. David Jones's artistic triumph is that he has succeeded in doing justice to both. The foreground is sharply realized; but, even as one gazes, a part of it may begin to shimmer, to reveal behind the presence of one of those archetypal figures whose influence pervades the whole of existence. (p. 262)
Atholl C. C. Murray, "In Perspective: A Study of David Jones's 'In Parenthesis'," in Critical Quarterly, Autumn, 1974, pp. 254-63.
Jones's poems, though firmly convinced that history is a process of renunciations and losses, convey nonetheless a great sense of peace and confidence. (p. 165)
[The] confidence that [his] poetry inspires … does not depend upon Jones's self-confidence. This is not self-assertive or self-dependent poetry…. What we feel assured by in Jones's work is precisely the outward grip of his nature. He places his confidence elsewhere, in the many others to whom his poetry likes to turn. (p. 166)
Nonetheless, though … much more could and should be said in praise of David Jones's poetry, he is a quirky writer with serious intellectual confusions. These are most apparent in his prose collection Epoch and Artist, and in particular in his manifesto-like essay "Art and Sacrament" (with its brief coda on "Utile"). For a poet of his strength, his prose can be shockingly bad when it takes up ideas (his descriptive and reportorial prose is, on the other hand, excellent). Arguments wander seemingly at will, and one receives the impression that Jones is a man with strong convictions, but relatively unexamined reasons. "Save us from the men that plan," Jones prays in "The Tutelar of the Place," and whereas the prayer can be useful for certain kinds of poetry, it is a disastrous one for intellectual prose. Yet such a prayer underlies Jones's poetry and prose alike, with certain bad results. By it he necessarily places himself at odds with an essential aspect of any civilized society, and not merely with world imperium. His code word for his enemy is "utility," as in this phrase: "The Ram's decree concerning the utility of the hidden things." Jones can see nothing valuable in technology or functionalism. This is unfortunate, for while technology has fathered many monsters, it is a fundamental precondition of modern history and culture, imperial or otherwise. It must, in other words, be understood and dealt with, not merely dismissed. Jones's dismissal is a serious retreat from the world—as serious, in its own way, as Kinnell's. Consequently, the reader is forced to meet Jones in his "hidden" places, take from him what is valuable, and accept the idiosyncrasies for the gifts they provide. This is easy enough to do, for Jones is a humble writer who does not like to pretend that his own confusions are anything more profound. His brief essay on "Utile" itself shows this, and so does his frank presentation of the "work in progress" as a series of "interrelated fragments." They will remain as fragments forever now, and admirers of Jones will have to give up the hope for anything more coherent. The fragments will remain what they are not merely because Jones is now dead, but because no more integral scheme for them was ever really possible. The order which Jones dreamt of has become, in these later times, merely a part of another order which is in process of its unfolding. (pp. 166-67)
Jerome McGann, in Chicago Review (reprinted by permission of Chicago Review; copyright © 1975 by Chicago Review), Volume 27, Number 1, 1975.
It is probably the Welsh materials (beginning with the Welsh words themselves) which will present the most immediate difficulties for most readers of The Sleeping Lord. The title poem especially is studded with words like "trefydd" and "pentan". In general, Jones would stress (he does so in his preface to The Anathemata) the impossibility of achieving in English an identity of content and evocation for the words he prints in Welsh before going on (as he does in a headnote to The Sleeping Lord) to consider the musical function of the words, or any desire for a rich and dense texture, or a craftsman's determination to use a word as a thing, as an object to be moved here or there, to be seen in relationship to this or that. But his willingness so often to think out his music in terms of the nominative, of the-word-as-a-noun, produces a texture which is wonderfully knitted with the stuff of otherness: We want to run our fingers over the page…. Which poet is it, we might ask Wallace Stevens, who "tries by a peculiar speech to speak / The peculiar potency of the general, / To compound the imagination's Latin with / The lingua franca et jocundissima"? If we substitute "the imagination's Welsh" the poet we get writes something very like the poems on Welsh themes by David Jones—though of course he uses the imagination's Latin too (not to mention the imagination's Anglo Saxon!) (pp. 238-39)
It is quite impossible to give a short and simple account of what is going on in the Welsh poems. They are full of wonders. The Tutelar of the Place anticipates The Hunt, and The Hunt is really the first part of The Sleeping Lord. The chief figure in these last two poems, the dominant and disquieting presence, is that of Arthur. Jones has been a devoted Arthurian from In Parenthesis onwards and his long essay on "The Myth of Arthur" is one of those pieces, like Charles Olson's Call Me Ishmael, that beat the academic competition by a mile. The Arthur of these poems is positively haunting—and, of course, given Jones' orientation, he is a complex and composite figure in whom the "holy diversities" find their unity in "blessed conjugations" and their embodiment in the hunter of the boar Trwyth and the Lord whose sleeping body is his land. Hero, King, and Lord, attended by his candle-bearer, his poet, and his priest, he is everything our megalopolitan technological society denies. Most of all he is other. He is not, as one critic has hopefully suggested, our imagination. He is the Sleeping Lord. The voice that issues from these poems, and particularly from the title poem, is, for one reader anyway, absolutely compelling. It is a voice that seems to speak simultaneously from the very depths of the abyss of time and from our own moment as well, from our precarious ledge—linguistic, cultural, and social—on the edge of that abyss. It is the voice of a visionary in an age when we seem to want our poetry to skate over the surface of our desperate urban lives and number the pigeon shits on the asphalt. Poetry, making, is for Jones a high calling—in fact it is the human calling, it is definitive…. Perhaps the gods have abandoned England. Evidently, they have moved back to Wales. (pp. 240-41)
John Matthias, "Sleeper," in Poetry (© 1975 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), January, 1975, pp. 233-41.
Although they do not link up as narrative or argument, these dense, brilliant poems [The Sleeping Lord and Other Fragments] in which every third word carries a tail of overtones and implications, do hold together as an analysis of human activities. The late David Jones was concerned with the opposition between vast, impersonal powers and the value of personal identity, examining the conflict in terms of Imperial Rome, modern Europe, and Dark Age Britain. He saw all these societies simultaneously, projected, as it were, on the same screen at the same moment. The result is difficult but indubitably important poetry. (p. 123)
Phoebe Adams, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1975 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), February, 1975.
It would be a monstrous contradiction were there any permanent obscurity in the work of David Jones. He lived in the sharply defined frame of a religious life, one, that is, which was governed by order, clarity, and direction; and in exercising the peculiarly human faculty of making within a coherent, bound cosmos, he was concerned that the artefact should not do something, nor give an impression of something, nor produce a certain effect, but be a real thing. This is what he had in mind in his continual insistence on the gratuitous in the arts as opposed to the utile, man's creation being as gratuitous as that of the Creator, and man's incarnation of his own logos in the flesh of the artefact echoing the incarnation of the divine Logos. When, again, David said that the artist makes a sign which shows forth some other reality, he was not contradicting his assertion of the gratuitousness of the arts, for that showing forth is not a doing but a being; it is an illumination, a splendour (splendor formae) through which shines another splendour. This is argued at length in the essay Art and Sacrament…. (p. 109)
No man absorbed more fully or made more peculiarly his own the shaped matter he read; and of the many phrases, poems, snatches of song, sequences of plainsong, which he retained and used again and again, ever with a new and artful twist or emphasis, few appeared more frequently than the Christmas 'Nova mentis nostrae oculis lux tuae claritatis infulsit', with 'lux fulgebit hodie', and the corresponding symbol that brings together, through resurrection, the unique flash of light in the Bethlehem of here and now, in one particular place, and the 'lux perpetua' of Paradise: the New Light of Easter. It is early in The Anathemata that Easter, and so fire, and so the knowledge and skill to make 'according to right reason' are introduced. The very opening words refer to the gratuitous making by man, and by God made man, of 'this thing other', and the first emergence of man master of plastics' is associated with light again: when 'New Fire wormed / at the Easter of Technics'. Most aptly did Fr. Peter Levi say of David, when he spoke at the requiem mass in Westminster Cathedral on December 13th last year, 'He turned his face to the light'.
The light implies more than illumination; it means position, too, direction, course and destination. So we find the recurrent star, the lighthouse, the pole, the land-mark ('Up she looms! / three points on the starboard bow. / There's where her spear-flukes / pharos for you / day-star for the sea.')—but above all it means the ship and the haven. Small wonder, then, that David seized on that early symbol scratched on the wall of the catacomb, the ship with rowers, mast and anchor, with the fish, too, and used it as the main support for the structure of The Anathemata. It is this passion, again, for the correctly ordered and directed that accounts for David's extreme concern with accuracy of detail. He has in mind always the individual, the local and particular; he focusses on one precise spot in time and place, and will go to endless pains to define it with sufficient nicety. Five voyages are described in The Anathemata—four of them in some detail—and map and chart will show the accuracy with which they are plotted. (pp. 112-13)
In connection with accuracy, not so much of detail as of general background …, we should note that the accuracy is such as properly belongs to this particular poem, made by a certain sort of person at a certain time, with such material, derived from the sciences and history, as are available to him at the time. Whether our culture, or essential parts of our culture, came to us by sea or whether they did not, is of no account. What does matter is that the poet use the material with the care and artistry that is necessary to the precision of the writing. David had anticipated objections that might be raised on the ground that he was using material that had become out of date, when he wrote one of the most important notes in the whole book, the 'General Note to Section I'. 'The layman', he says there, 'can but employ for his own purposes the pattern available during his lifetime'…. (pp. 113-14)
[In any passage, chosen at random,] each complexity becomes part of a larger complexity, and yet can be broken down phrase by phrase and word by word into sharp points of light. And at the same time every phrase is both digressive and expansive, leading down paths and building up new structures…. One result, I fear, of this constant 'bringing forth new things and old' which is David's normal method of composition is that the man who reads him, and still more the man who writes about him, cannot resist the temptation to open one more door and look down one more long perspective. (pp. 115-16)
The central points of all his thinking and feeling are concrete facts in history…. The reality of those facts over-shadowed, for David—for they belonged to a higher order of truth—the historicity of much that provided the material of his poetry, these merely historical facts the accuracy of which, or the interpretation of which, may be modified by discovery or scholarship. You may demolish the whole of David's presentation of the diffusion of culture, you may re-write his romanticised history of Wales, and leave his poetry unaffected. But you cannot demolish the cave of Bethlehem or the hill of Calvary, or the upper room, without sinking the ship: that, in fact, is the meaning of the tremendous hymn to the massive timbers contained in 'Keel, Ram, Stauros'. It is the absoluteness of fact which gives complete force to the 'How else' argument presented in the opening section, 'Rite and Fore-time'. It is only by looking forward as we stand in fore-time that we can say, 'How else we / [the ultimate assertion of reality] or he, himself / whose name is called He-with-us / because he did not abhor the uterus / [non horruisti virginis uterum] … How else her icongraphy'—the argument which is all-inclusive: 'How else / multifariam multisque modis / the splendour of forms yet to come … How else Argos / the friend of Odysseus … How Spot, now Cerberus', culminating in 'How else … should his barlies grow / who said / I am your bread'—the argument with which the whole poem both begins and ends: 'How else be coupled of this Wanderer / whose viatic bread shows forth a life', which brings together again the journeying ('viatic bread') and the ultimate artefacture of divine incarnation. This is a most delicate point to explain for, central though it may be to a poet's existence, it is not a matter of 'acceptance' in the sense in which a creed of confession is 'accepted' or 'rejected', but one that concerns his whole make-up, psychological, intellectual, spiritual, of a habitus, one might say with the schoolmen.
Hand in hand with this local and temporal accuracy, goes a passion for precise craftsmanship, particularly in wood. There are a number of references to cut and dressed stone, to stone-carving and incision, but the correct fitting and joining of timber had a peculiar fascination for David…. [You] may be sure that David has studied every detail and that every joint and timber is correctly named and disposed. (pp. 118-20)
If David, then, is so preoccupied with the exact and clear, how does it come about (for of this there can be little doubt) that he is regarded as a obscure writer?… However ingenuous the inquirer, we must assume that he has had the intelligence and industry to read the Preface to The Anathemata, and some of the essays in Epoch and Artist, in particular 'Art and Sacrament' and 'The Myth of Arthur' and 'Art and Democracy': that he is familiar, accordingly, with David's views on the almost untenable position of man-the-maker in a super-technological age (this, indeed, he can read very succinctly in the opening Jeremiah-inspired poem in The Sleeping Lord), on the artist's sad estate as an Ishmael in the modern pandemonium: and he will understand that the poet is therefore forced, in his use of words, to look outside the general utility-pattern. It becomes impossible for him to speak out in plain language, en clair; he is driven to construct his own code, to approach obliquely, to sap and undermine, to look within himself for the logic which will determine the 'shape in words' he is struggling to make. And this is bound to impose a certain obscurity or difficulty. It is here that the use of symbol operates and provides a key. (pp. 120-21)
['Symbol's] original meaning—and this is simply Liddell & Scott—is a putting together (sym-ballein), the matching one with another, of two halves of a token or tally which has been divided between two parties—so that each part can be used for recognition. For bringing out the clarity of David's work and for obtaining the consequent delight, it is essential that the reader have his half of the token…. In Parenthesis or the pieces that make up The Sleeping Lord … provide their own [answers] without any difficulty…. This is not true of so highly 'artificial' a poem as The Anathemata…. Fortunately, David himself has shown where the necessary tokens or tallies for recognition are to be found, when he gives the list in his Preface of 'living or recently living' (the date, one should remember, is 1951) 'authors to whom I stand indebted'. There is nothing recondite or out of the way about these writers: most of them are very well known and very widely read—mostly historians or writers on subjects closely allied, theologians, writers on the liturgy, on mythology, on the imaginative in poetry…. What David does not mention is the great number of poets to whom he is indebted: no-one but Vergil used so freely, adapted and modified and refashioned, so many of his predecessors. And it is apparent from his notes that he generally assumed that his reader would recognise his source. (pp. 121-23)
There must, however, remain a few things to which only David himself can provide the clue. Sometimes it may be found in another passage or another poem, sometimes in his correspondence or in memories of his conversation. What is important, however, is that there is a clew and that when the reader holds it he can see with absolute clarity the precise meaning or group of meanings…. The answers are already in the reader's mind, provided he be reasonably well-read. The poet himself was constantly struggling to produce from material common to himself and his reader an intelligible splendid (as … in splendor formae) form: and almost the very last words of his to be printed (in his last year's special issue of Agenda) contained what was for him the highest praise he could give to the shaped word, 'the straight, exact, rational and true'. (pp. 124-25)
René Hague, "The Clarity of David Jones," in Agenda, Winter-Spring, 1975, pp. 109-25.
Most of the poems which constitute The Sleeping Lord have been published at various times before this collection. As epic, they share the same rhetoric, based on the poet's broad scholasticism, the trauma of his war experiences, and his belief in Man's dignity, as In Parenthesis and The Anathemata, and, like those poems, are open to the charge of being esoteric. However, it seems to me that the elaborate series of allusion and cross-reference is what gives the new book its coherence as a continuous work.
At the centre lies the notion of supreme sacrifice, usually symbolized for Mr. Jones in the image of Christ crucified, as explained in his essay Wales and the Crown …
"In the course of writing The Anathemata I had occasion to consider the Tree of the Cross as the axial beam round which all things move …"
But this does not preclude references to Balder, or the obvious link between the "maimed king", and Arthur, wounded by Twryth. Inexorably bound to this is the relationship between Man and God, symbolized in the Roman poems by the Sacramentum, or soldiers' oath of allegiance to the Roman empire, being superceded at that very moment by the establishment of Christ's empire, hence the irony in the double entendre of the soldier who stands on "the walls that contain the world". (p. 54)
The Sleeping Lord is no haphazard collection; from A.a.a. Domine Deus, we know the poet has
"… felt for his Wounds in nozzles and containers …"
and, having failed to find "The Living God projected from the Machine", he tries to come nearer to the mystery by exploring different perspectives of the Roman experience, and then, in The Hunt and The Sleeping Lord, has used the Arthurian myth. The piece from The Book of Balaam's Ass is most like In Parenthesis, and the influence of Y Gododdin is apparent with the three survivors at the end; (Clitus, too, like Aneirin, must "bear immemorial witness"); perhaps it is appropriate that in the poem which ends the collection, the nearest the poet can come to his mystery is by fulfilling the bardic function. (pp. 54-5)
It is not surprising, then, that while the poems contain a personal drama for the poet, he often speaks in a sometimes self-conscious public voice.
In the note to The Sleeping Lord, he mentions the importance of pronunciation, and, when the poems are read aloud, one becomes conscious of the tricks of intonation, and the subtle rhymes that emerge: in The Fatigue, the repetition becomes a throbbing liturgy as the crucifixion ritual is described, until it halts suddenly with what appears to be a deliberate anti-climax, but serves to heighten the pathos…. The reader, or listener, must be sensitive to the craft of the bard, and the much-abused use of non-English words is part of this; in The Fatigue, Romans, Celts and Gauls are brought together for reasons indifferent to historical accuracy, and the use of a Latin, or Welsh, word serves to reinforce the authenticity of a poem's atmosphere. Words are moulded lovingly, whether in the riddle at the end of The Sleeping Lord, or the magnificent lunar transfiguration of the carved relief of the Terra Mater in The Dream of Private Clitus. The poems are dramatic entities in themselves, and fragments only inasmuch as they form part of a larger scheme which makes itself apparent in the overall structure of this book, a book which has great significance in the poet's own development, and in the larger context of English religious poetry. (p. 55)
Carolyn Thomas, "The Final Pleading: David Jones," in Stand (copyright © by Stand), Vol. 16, No. 3, 1975, pp. 54-5.
With [David Jones's] death in October, 1974, the last English writer of genius who wrote from within European Christendom has taken his place in history. No false hope of revival or recovery of the great living cultural unity of which he was himself a part lessened for him the sorrow of the passing; but neither did his clear recognition that there is no going back cause him to renounce the passing values, or to come to terms with invading barbarism. In the death and beauty of his own statement of the terminal experience of a civilization, there is no despair: only an affirmation of the enduring value of that which is about to be lost. (pp. 96-7)
One might say that his theme was Christendom itself, historic act and fact seen in the light of sacred meaning. David Jones, a devout (though latterly disillusioned) Catholic convert, was in no way a mystic. To him the divine Incarnation stands firmly in its historic setting. He relates that Event to the Roman world as it then was, and, by implication, to our world also, within the circumference of Christendom of which the Crucifixion is the center. (p. 97)
His treatment of the theme, historically meticulous as it is, cannot, however, be described as realistic; for no detail is without its inner resonance, its network of associations in literature or liturgy. Man, for David Jones, is a sign-making animal. He finds meaning in, or rather imparts meaning to, those things he touches and uses and sees about him. He thus creates an interior dimension of significance, of sacrament, in the uniquely human relationship with the world. (pp. 97-8)
In his celebration of the particular, of all that is "counter, original, spare, strange," David Jones turns always to his own roots: to Wales, her places and her flowers, historic site and heroic legend, her language (a little confusing this, excellent footnotes notwithstanding), her history made "sacred" by association and memory of individual and race…. The Welsh race preserves, for reasons both historic and linguistic, what is in fact the sacred history of the whole English nation. The Welsh are the "ancient Britons," as Blake also had recognized in a phrase David Jones liked to quote: "The deeds of Arthur are the deeds of Albion." (pp. 98-9)
Yet on the whole he was not in sympathy with Blake's somewhat loud tones, greatly preferring Coleridge's artistry. The New Age of which Blake felt himself to be a prophet, David Jones bitterly hated as the dark age beyond civilization. (p. 99)
If David Jones disliked the modern world he was none the less very much of the present he so powerfully criticized. To be of the avant-garde is one thing; to understand a contemporary situation quite another…. To David Jones the Caesars and the saints, Dante and Malory, Coleridge and Taliessin, are contemporaneous.
It is one of the powers of the written word to make the thoughts of Bronze Age Achilles as accessible to us as those of Mohammed Ali. Yet I wonder if this experience of living within a unity of culture, unbroken from Homer to ourselves, will be known to future generations? Overnight a church may become a museum, not by any act of government, but by some change in ourselves, through which the rites, in which we had as children participated in a living way, become folklore. Nor can mere education restore life to a lost culture: knowledge is not, as such, participation. David Jones announced the advent of the new Dark Age his friend T. S. Eliot only foresaw.
Yet he valued that quality of "nowness" (his own word) which he shares with Joyce, whom he greatly admired, and with Eliot. Every word is wrought, chosen, and placed with consummate artistry…. For David Jones's hero is, after all, the "common man" of his century, and especially the common soldier, who, willingly and with dignity, has born the burden of war. (p. 100)
Kathleen Raine, "The Sign-Making of David Jones," in The Iowa Review (copyright © 1975, by Kathleen Raine), Summer-Fall, 1975, pp. 96-100.