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Jones, David 1895–1974

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Jones was an Anglo-Welsh poet, novelist, essayist, painter, and engraver. His heritage plays a profound part in Jones's work, especially in his epic In Parenthesis, a unique blending of poetry and prose which draws upon Welsh legend and captures in verse the cadence and melodic quality of ancient Welsh prose. The sacramental aspect of Christianity provides a focal concern for his work, especially in the sense of the signification of an object as symbol in religious ritual, and further, in a work of art. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 53-56.)

Peter Levi, S.J.

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[There] is no other modern English poet who raises such enthralling technical problems, or who (besides Eliot) seems to offer so deep an insight into what poetry is and can do [as David Jones]…. He is a unique, perhaps a difficult and certainly an original poet; the reward of his work is a gradual understanding of it which cannot be communicated. (pp. 80-1)

The special flavour of his poetry has continually become more intense, but it was already unmistakable in his long poem about the 1914 war. Since then his subject matter has ostensibly widened, he has become obsessed with the past, with prehistory, with human tradition and with local numina; the 1914 war, the Roman empire and mediaeval Wales have each of them furnished the raw material of his poetry; these themes have been important to him because they are the most present to his understanding of history and of modern life; his poetry is in a way a struggle to talk about the history of the world. (p. 81)

What is special to David Jones is the extraordinary variety and particularity of his language. It can be looked at in two ways: as an expression of all those local and historic diversities which his intelligence sets out to comprehend, and which his poetry does against every convention express, or simply as language, as the construction of a moral context as demanding, as multiple and as strong as that of Jonson's theatre, a concern with the texture of words and their effect on each other like that of figures and colours on a painting in progress, so that it has not been by chance that probably no writer since the time of Shakespeare has brought to bear so wide a range of the English language and such different levels of it inside a few pages. (pp. 81-2)

In Parenthesis opens with exact and comprehensive description: the language is deadpan and empirical, the effect is of gathering tension. The tension increases against the ominous notes of the poet's voice in propria persona, to which the darkest and most compassionate themes are reserved, but at the same time the unity of language is broken by phrases of common speech like Shakespeare's and by actual Shakespearen and epic references. There is a certain distancing into an epic and more religious world, in fact into another conception of life, but the perspectives are broken, the language is in tatters, you are startled by the reality and particularity of everything. The consolations of poetry and of religion diversify the levels of thought and language, but they are identical with the tragic foreground. In this connection it is important that the principal religious thoughts and feelings in David Jones' writings have to do with the Roman Mass, which is itself in a profound sense poetic and historical. The Anathemata in which this emerges is not so sharp and terrible a book as In Parenthesis but there is a certain epic bleakness in it, and even its triumphant passages, like the closing passages in In Parenthesis, are orchestral from a vocabulary of dark sounds. (p. 82)

David Jones' feeling for language of this sort is rather like his passion for the proper and popular names of things, which extends from military equipment to the technical language of geology and archaeology. Fragments of dead and dying languages sometimes seem to him somehow magical, and in his use of them they become so….

In his recent work the genuine snatches of remembered conversation which occur in In Parenthesis have given place to a compacted language, more economic but less urgently appealing, which is spoken by Roman soldiers and in which a mass of popular traditions is embedded…. Already in David Jones' poetry some of the common peoples' sentences are old-fashioned: like the diversities of place and cult that he so treasures, diversities of language are being ironed out. Of course such sentences as "Move them long York loins o'yorn" seem to be unkillable and are always cropping up, but we are committed to the end game of late capitalism, the progress of the world is irreversable, and the popular imagination and popular tradition that have guarded, nourished and recreated this diversity are perhaps beginning to dry up. This is at least a legitimate fear, and the fear conditions the way in which these beautiful scraps and tatters of speech are cherished and reused. (p. 83)

One of the lessons of David Jones' poetry is that with any less degree than his of fraternity and humanity, an epic impersonality becomes impossible. The strength of his poetry is its dealing directly with vast and serious themes; this poetry is very individual, but it should not be seen as eccentric; it was only through a fragmentation of language learnt from Joyce and intuitively applied to the ungovernable memory of the 1914 war, through obscure knowledge and extreme curiosity and particularity, that it was possible for him to speak of this kind of reality at all, to use this kind of word and phrase at all….

[David Jones' poetry] is marked by an extreme, even a difficult precision. The Anathemata certainly needs several readings, and one can grasp the precise relations of words only after mastering the material in the notes. Fortunately the notes are most interesting even if there were no text, so this is not a painful process. Any poet who needs to be precise and particular over an enormous range of language as well as facts must necessarily make such a demand. (p. 85)

There are parts of In Parenthesis which I personally find it unbearable to read often and which I cannot read without tears. The context that is built up operates in the way of all poetry, resting its prolonged force on what had seemed simple phrases. A sentence that in its context takes on a frightful power is the ordinary military order 'And don't bunch on the left for Christ's sake.' It comes as a sudden and therefore startling piece of direct speech at a moment of tight tension, and the oath breaks the surface of the language in both a very dramatic and another way. (pp. 86-7)

There is an instructive contrast between David Jones and a very different writer, but one of the few certainly great modern poets, Constantine Cavafy. Cavafy's language is individual, and although he is a thousand miles from Joyce and had not, I suppose read Laforgue, he does (for different reasons) write on more than one level of language at a time. Also he writes about the late Roman world, his principal source being Gibbon's Decline and Fall. A seminal book for David Jones must I think have been Spengler's Decline of the West, which he has certainly not followed at a theoretic level, but the disturbed visions of which have perhaps haunted him. Cavafy writes with economy, and a rumbling, very strong irony, through which he breaks with direct and startling personal speech, and a sensuous power which in its way is without parallel. Each of these elements can exist only because of the others, and they strengthen and sharpen each other…. David Jones' Romans are old soldiers of the Boer War or 1914; their language is strong and strange; things are lightened or darkened not by the heroic past but by what is numinous, local and sweet, a reminiscence of a Welsh or British hill-cult; what they do is as terrible as what is done to them; it is the difference between Alexandria and North Wales: the contrast is not one of merit. (p. 87)

Peter Levi, S.J., "The Poetry of David Jones," in Agenda, Spring-Summer, 1967, pp. 80-9.

David Blamires

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[The Anathemata] is an attempt to create a kind of summa of poetic experience ranging through the world and time and has much in common with Pound's Cantos. The Weltanschauung of The Anathemata is one of a magnificent diversity, fundamentally optimistic and beautifully ordered. It is a coherent vision and one which—in contrast to much modern poetry—sees integration rather than disintegration as the chief characteristic of life.

The Anathemata is a work which defies attempts at classification. 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. The poet himself defected in his own description of it as 'fragments of an attempted writing', and yet this does contain a necessary truth. He is right to call it an attempt—an attempt at a vision of Britain…. What distinguishes 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. Wittgenstein said of philosophy that 'the problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known', and David Jones's 'attempted writing' can also be seen in these terms. He uses the data of history, the ever-accumulating fund of knowledge, and arranges them in such a way as to make them point to the dignity of labour in the diverse service of man and God. This last sentence puts brusquely and crudely one vital aspect of the poet's work, not only in The Anathemata, but also expressed in various essays, especially 'Art and Sacrament' and 'The Utile'. Nevertheless, it is important to be aware of this from the beginning, since the vision with which we are confronted is both strikingly positive and through and through Christian, two exceedingly unfashionable qualities for the mid-twentieth century. Perhaps only one firmly and deeply rooted in the Catholic tradition and with a keen awareness of what human creation demands could mould 'what we have always known' into a work of such subtle dimensions as David Jones has achieved. (pp. 101-02)

[In] his long preface to the book the poet quotes as shedding light on his own work a remark from the introduction to Nennius' Historia Brittonum: 'I have made a heap of all that I could find.' As regards the subject-matter, this is probably the most accurate summary, but St. Irenaeus provides the best antiphon—if I may use that ecclesiastical metaphor—on the techniques of organization of the subject-matter: 'Nihil vacuum neque sine signo apud Deum'. This dictum of a second century saint marks above everything the continuity of the tradition in which David Jones stands. In the Christian scheme the signs are, of course, related to God and Christ but the Correspondances of Baudelaire in substituting nature shows the continuing attractiveness of the idea apart from its specifically Christian use. It needs no special insight to point out that the sign, under the more usual name of 'image', is the most widely known and used device of poetic technique, but there are few writers who have explored and almost systematized its use with such telling effects as the author, who would probably prefer to be called the maker, of The Anathemata. The very word chosen as the title, glossed with such loving care and at such length in the preface … is indicative of the many strands of thought running through the fabric of the poet's vision…. (p. 103)

There is no clearly conceived centre to the work, or rather … the poem is a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. For the important substance of the poem is to be found at every point in it. The direction and intention of the words are apparent from the start. The act of creation, the 'efficacious sign', is hymned in the very first words …:

We already and first of all discern him making this thing other. His groping syntax, if we attend, already shapes:

ADSCRIPTAM, RATAM, RATIONABILEM … and by pre-application and for them, under modes and patterns altogether theirs, the holy and venerable hands lift up an efficacious sign.

There is thus an extreme fluidity in the poem's structure of ideas. It is more like the sea with rivers running into it and islands than any building no matter how complicated; it is like the 'riverrun' of Finnegans Wake. And yet there are principles of construction about the work, as the division into eight named sections most clearly shows. (p. 107)

The Anathemata is concerned with both diversity and order, and it is intensely preoccupied with the particular. There is a precision and deliberateness about its language that exactly merits being called 'chiselled'. The details of observation, juxtaposition and association are, however, not there merely for themselves, but express beyond that an intuitive, even mystical knowledge of the oneness of life. The described object, the fragmentary quotation, the liturgical mood point beyond themselves; they are the signs and symbols of a fundamental harmony and unity. (p. 111)

David Blamires, "The Ordered World: 'The Anathemata' of David Jones," in Agenda, (Spring-Summer, 1967, pp. 101-11.

Samuel Rees

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[David Jones's conversion to Catholicism in 1921] seems to have come about not through deep psychic struggle, not through pangs of conscience or intense sense of personal need, but through aesthetic theory. It was deep intellectual curiosity and critical investigation of the origins and continuing meaning of the arts, rather than concern for the soul or eternity, which brought Jones to his decision…. [His] Catholicism is secondary to his Welshness, though the two are mutually complementary and integrated wholly in his art. All of Jones's life and work was to be directed to the fulfilling of his vision of Catholic ideas in art; his poetry, particularly that following In Parenthesis, is a tenacious and dedicated affirmation of his Catholic subscription. (pp. 19-20)

[The essay "The Myth of Arthur" is a major piece] and displays erudition and scholarship of a uniquely imaginative variety. That is, Jones is concerned not merely to trace in chronological fashion the origins and various renditions of the story of Arthur, but more importantly to weave among those sources of "historical mythus" to see what significance the myth has had in Western history and if and how it can be seen to retain significance for moderns. He touches upon or reviews, as it were, the varied theories in scholarship as to the origins of Arthur, but his own contribution is not to quarrel with or quibble over details of "fact" or chronology or influence or literary "borrowing"; rather it is to enquire and attempt to answer just "how came this ruling-class Romano-Briton … to be the focal point of medieval romance in Britain, France, Germany, indeed all the West?"…

Jones is concerned not to elevate Arthur in a narrow nationalistic way, but to see him in his many shapes…. (p. 37)

The Arthurian material is not for Jones of mere academic interest; it is one of his most important background sources and referents. But beyond even that it is central to his whole vision of man in twentieth-century civilization…. Jones proposes that in the figure of Arthur-Christ, "from the machine age the strayed machine-men may create a myth patient of baptism."… It is at least his hope. He does not consciously promote himself as a modern Malory or as the poet best qualified by ancestry or history to revitalize Arthur for his time, but the qualities he perceived in Malory are the standards he set for himself…. (p. 40)

Jones can be described as neither literary critic nor historian, though the prose writing in Epoch and Artist include a great deal of history, political and literary, and he does occasionally make judgments of the writings of other artists. He was not a social critic, nor was he a professional theologian or philosopher of aesthetics. He was a practicing artist, a practicing Roman Catholic; and while he enlisted the language of one subscription in support of the other and applied the language of both to the outer world, the war, specifically, and his "civilizational situation" in the world of technocracy, he did not invoke them on behalf of capitalized High Culture or political morality or action. He was both Welsh and British without being intense and chauvinist. Art for him is not to be seen as a trickle-down system; it is the one great equalizer, the one possession common to all men, the sole valid mediator between God and man. (p. 48)

In many places In Parenthesis reads like a traditional prose novel. That is, characters act and react in normal, realistic ways; they speak and are spoken to, command and obey; think of past, present, or future; muse, daydream, have the requisite bodies, souls, and spirits. Time passes apace as directed by the author; conventions of grammar and syntax prevail; and the controlling hand of an omniscient narrator is firmly in evidence…. There is, however, another style much in evidence: rapid-fire, idiomatic, unidentified by speaker, a confusion of voices all clamoring for attention. This, too, is a kind of "realism"….

And again there is a highly allusive, esoteric, and "scholastic" poetry, far removed (by the test of realism) from the idiom of private soldiers' speech in the trenches but carrying a special burden of mythic reference and meaning…. (p. 53)

[In Parenthesis] in some senses can be described in familiar, conventional terms. That is, it has purposeful movement in time and action, recognizable human characters and landscape, and a definable subject of man at war. It is arranged broadly in a linear, chronological sequence, and details the movement of a group of men in arms of all ranks from the staging grounds in England (Part 1) to their destiny seven months later in the trenches at the Somme (Part 7)…. Jones uses, and uses with careful artistry, all the devices available to the modern poet and novelist: flashback and ahead, the "free association" of stream-of-consciousness writing, shifting point of view, abrupt juxtaposition and interpolations of speech, image, character, and scenes, which is to say nothing of his allusions to centuries distant persons and events and use of words and phrases from Latin, Welsh, French, and German.

Private 25201 Ball standing in, as it were, for Private David Jones in memory, is the central figure, but "protagonist" is too strong a word to describe his role, and he is certainly not a "hero" in any traditional sense of the word…. The point, and it is an important distinction, must be made that the relative "importance" of the characters lies not in their perceived relationships and dealings with each other but in the attention David Jones pays to them, the use he makes of them, as voices or recording sensibilities. They are made to bear a heavy load of referential mythic weight, and the problem Jones has posed for himself is to see that their immediate, recognizable humanity is not diminished or obscured by their other, more "poetic" uses. In Parenthesis bears no resemblance to a "fox-hole" novel in which characters learn to live, love, hate, fight, and perhaps die together and in which the reader is given characteristic or stereotypical "specimens."… "Archetypal" serves better to describe Jones's semifictional creations; the racial or mythic ancestry that Jones provides for them places them in the whole history of recorded time; they share the human psyche of the soldiers at Catraeth, at the Crucifixion, at Malplaquet, at Harfleur, wherever man has organized war against his own kind.

In Parenthesis is a poetic enactment of tradition and the individual in war in which today's action modifies our concepts and understanding of history and its wars, in which the actions and thoughts of David Jones's Private Ball modify our understanding of all the Privates Ball of the past, even as they of the recoverable past exert an inexorable influence on behavior today. David Jones is not a reporter, an admiring spectator, not a public-relations man for pacifism or for militarism. In chronicling the action of which he was a part, he does not seek to be an epic poet singing hymns of battle in which new heroes reenact the earth-shaking deeds of their ancestors. Without apology or special pleading, he details from intimate firsthand acquaintance with the present—and from affectionate intimacy with historical man—the minds and actions of those compelled, for whatever reason, whatever "accidents" of history and geography, to go "once more into the breach." In Parenthesis is not a poem either to provoke or to end a war … except as it adds to the accumulation of testimony to the stupidities and brutality of history that each age must learn from or, more likely, ignore. (pp. 54-6)

[In addition to the military chain of command, there is] another parallel institution, coexistent, and ultimately of a higher order, that is introduced in Part 1, and it is one which, by repeated reference throughout the poem, is to become unmistakable, all-pervasive. This is the liturgical or religious order of things, and is to be discerned first in the identification of "the silence peculiar to parade grounds and refectories" and in such language as "the liturgy of a regiment departing." (p. 57)

In Parenthesis is, as Jones intended, a "shape in words," the color, agony, humour, irony, tedium, violence, sacrament, the experience of the war "re-presented." Familiar, unfortunately, in its subject, it is unique in its telling. The art is grounded firmly in Jones's personal experience, and in language has that "necessary liaison with the concrete" that Jones so admired in Malory. The result abides quibblings and demurrers about technique or "difficulty"; it is one of the most important pieces of writings to have come from the 1914–1918 War. (pp. 72-3)

The Anathemata does not have the confined narrative structure or the clear identification with classical epic of In Parenthesis; more ambitious, certainly, than that work, it attempts something approaching the whole cultural history of the British Isles. "What I have written has no plan, or at least is not planned," Jones writes; "if it has a shape it is chiefly that it returns to its beginning."… To read it is to engage, in a rare, esoteric way, from a most learned and demanding tutor, in a course in Western Civilization, which is something other than learning the sites of famous battles in Greece and being able to recite, in order, the rulers of Rome and the kings and queens of England. Ideally, it is to discover via surviving art and artifact and written word, and with application of all the modern insights and methods of literary study, anthropology, comparative religion, and linguistics, the essential human heritage that is ours…. The whole gesture of the poem, its whole rhetoric, is in the way of a question, or the putting, as it were, of a proposition, It lacks, deliberately, that purposeful grounding in experience, that kind of "necessary liaison with the concrete" that so informed In Parenthesis; in The Anathemata the intimate bodily apprehension of the trench experiences gives way to intellectual and spiritual musings and probings of the "Real Presence," as it were, of the Roman Mass.

Even with the aid of the preface and the "apparatus," The Anathemata remains for most a difficult poem…. Footnotes are lavish; they are prominently (if conveniently) displayed at the bottom of the page, where possible; in other instances they run to occupy a page and more in their own right. The thirty-four-page preface appears a little foreboding; seven of the nine illustrations are inscriptions in Latin. There is a total of 244 pages, which is a forbidding number for most twentieth-century readers of poetry. And there is the appearance of the poem on the page, seemingly the freest of free verse, with odd, irregular line length, and some prose narrative interspersed. The language is always demanding; not only are there words taken intact from Latin, Greek, German, Anglo-Saxon, and Welsh, but there are also words in English that are hardly commonplace…. The allusions, even when elucidated by footnote, are rare and esoteric….

The poem is partially autobiographical in that it is composed of the meandering thoughts, the persistent, groping questions of a mind very much like and to be identified with David Jones's…. The progress of [the Mass] provides one of the poem's unities; each prescribed gesture and act performed by the priest stirs thoughts in both the conscious, and all levels of subconscious, states of the silent observer-worshiper. Another unity is provided by the chronology of events covered by this quasi-free associative method, the history of the world from the farthest reaches of pre-history to the local history of Britain—Wales, in particular—and the promise of a redeemed future first made possible for Britain by the coming of Christianity. These larger outlines enclose, define, and carry the poem, though there are other themes and subthemes which persist throughout. (p. 75)

The preface to The Anathemata is one of Jones's most important essays in its own right, to be included with "Art and Sacrament" and "The Myth of Arthur" as central to an understanding of his mind and work. Its importance lies far beyond its worth as an introduction to the poem, the "fragments of an attempted writing" that make up The Anathemata. For in the preface Jones gathers his crucial ideas … concerning the nature of all art and of his own intentions and practice as a poet. (pp. 76-7)

For Jones the word ["anathemata"] is nearly synonymous with the Welsh "anoeth" or the "deposits" of one's culture, which are not necessarily, though the term might include, archaeological findings or artifacts. In the larger sense, man's "anathemata" define all that legacy of man that is his, that is he. (p. 77)

The Anathemata is a devoutly religious poem, and the preface is intended finally as prologue to that poem and, by extension, to all of Jones's works, his artifacts, his deposits remade into things sacra, gathered and offered as the poet's Mass—not for the remission of sins but for art's sake, which is to say, for man's sake. (p. 81)

Clearly, it is the whole of human history and prehistory as perceived and experienced by Western man that is Jones's province in The Anathemata. In intention and performance the poem will withstand criticism's severest, most demanding tests of high seriousness and moral exactitude. In intention and performance it is governed, however, by the restrictions of its religious and national bias or authorial predispositions. To say this is not to use the word "restrictions" pejoratively; it is to isolate for further examination the conditioning forces working on, in, and through the poem that Jones, before anyone, would acknowledge. What makes The Anathemata significant, and significantly different, are two determining factors: first, it is informed and defined throughout by a Christian, or, more exclusively, a Roman Catholic point of view; and second, Jones is writing as a Welshman, a London Welshman.

The cross and the unnamed priest at the altar occupy the sacramental center of the poem; the island of Britain and the poet, David Jones himself, occupy the geographical center. Standing, as it were, with one foot in Wales, one in London, is the poet, who is celebrant, or at least silent and attentive observer, at the Mass….

The Anathemata is a verse rendering of, a demonstration of, both a theory of poetry and a body of belief about the nature of man…. At its widest scope [its story] is the story of mankind on earth, his emergence from the reaches of prehistory, from rocks and caves that he decorated, as at Lascaux, adorning burial sites gratuitously, creating objects that are beautiful to an extrautile degree, and continuing, still an artmaker, to the wasted present, "at the sagging end and chapter's close." For David Jones, inextricably bound up with man's persistence as an art-making creature is the smaller story, that is potentially of infinitely wide, eternal scope, which is the "one tale to tell" of man's redemption by the gratuitous intercession of Christ on the Cross. At the center of The Anathemata is that cross, the "Axile Tree."… [Christ] validated the cross as man's artwork; Christ being lifted up made an efficacious sign, made "anathemata" of his own body. (pp. 95-6)

Jones's concern is to go beyond, if it is possible, the Mass as "merely" celebratory of the body and blood of Christ, and to see it as signifying the whole odyssey of the human experience on earth. Whether one believes that the events recorded in the Christian gospel actually happened or not, or whether or not he believes that Christ was the Son of God, as He claimed to be, really matters little, for Western man's whole being, his history, his ancestry, his "res," is wholly bound up in the myth. Jones establishes in The Anathemata that the art of the first Eucharist at the Last Supper redefines all preceding art, even as it was an act that with all its reverberations and implications transformed succeeding events and imparted a unique and new order to Western myth, legend, and history. The poem's last lines lead us from this present time … back again to the Creation, to the oreogenesis of foretime. While the final event referred to is the Crucifixion, that act is to be seen as the confirmed and eternally valid lifting up of a sign that actually resignifies events that preceded it. (pp. 96-7)

[If] man is distinguished from the angels and the beasts by his ability to create art, he is distinguished further by his lone passion for organized mass violence. In Parenthesis tested the military and liturgical forms of order and found them lacking, with neither efficacy for salvation nor effectiveness for survival. The Queen of the Woods, the great earth-goddess, the eternal female principle venerated by myth throughout the centuries, alone could restore order—but post mortem. In The Anathemata Jones renominates and celebrates the liturgy as the redemptive order for the living, as an art form. (p. 97)

In intention and scope Jones's poem is truly epic and might be said to rival in ambition Milton's attempt to "justify the ways of God to Men" for an age which urges art to be at the service of the ego, the State, or itself. In Jones's scheme of divine and universal things, "art for art's sake," were he to endorse Wilde's phrase, would reverberate with the utmost seriousness. In the Eucharist is central order, the ordering principle of art…. (pp. 97-8)

It is very difficult with David Jones to speak of sequential "progress" or "development" in his work…. Jones was past forty when his first written work was published, and he was by that time a mature artist, thinker, Catholic, man. Clearly there was a major step forward in The Anathemata (1952), but the fragments of The Sleeping Lord volume, variously dated from 1937 to the time of his death in 1974, do not submit to chronological discovery or ordering. The poems published in the twenty post-Anathemata years represent less an advance of theme or perspective than a backing and filling in of detail; each fragment has its place in the tapestry that is Jones's life-work…. [The] poetry is in the detail, often surprising, always precise in its concrete sign and evocation. The best of these fragments—"The Tutelar of the Place," "The Tribune's Visitation," "The Hunt" (happily one each from the mythic, Roman, and Arthurian groups)—succeed in that precision of frame, action, language, and perspective; it is not just that they are shorter or simpler than the epics…. [The] fragments of The Sleeping Lord point to, open up, and provide an access to The Anathemata. (p. 120)

Jones shares with Eliot and Pound a verse style characterized by its eschewal of clear narrative continuity, and by its use of esoteric allusions, abrupt juxtapositions, relative freedom in language(s), idioms, syntax, and verse forms. But with Pound the comparison stops quickly. "Cantos" is a term far more elevated than "fragments," and there is no shortage of them. In total conception they are perhaps a far more ambitious undertaking, though to what end they point or what solution they propose is far from clear. More documentary than doctrinal, Pound has no patience to try to rescue Western civilization,… and there is a world of difference between the poet who idealized Mussolini and David Jones, whose vision is of a resurrected King Arthur cum Christ. (p. 136)

Jones might well have admired Pound's techniques, though he did not read Pound until after publishing The Anathemata and did not write on him. He shares with Pound the practice of yoking violently together the idiom of the common man and the highly allusive esoterica of the scholar; but Jones's "low" idiom is never as low as Pound's, nor does he reach out to such diverse connections as [Pound's] …; nor does he parade himself as did Pound…. The fundamental difference between Jones and Pound lies, I think, in their vision, which might start from the observation that the civilization lies in ruins but proceeds in radically different ways to establish what must be preserved. For Jones, the "answer" lies wholly within the Western tradition—of monarchy, Celtic matriarchy, deep-rootedness, and Christianity; and in that context his immediate mentor is T. S. Eliot. (pp. 136-37)

The "I" that might be the poetic voice of David Jones is scarcely ever discernible at all [in contrast with Eliot's voice throughout his poetry]; and there is scarcely a discernible public "I" of David Jones that would contend with or even be acknowledged in the same context as Eliot's—the voice of the editor, reviewer, essayist, and critical sage of the century. The interrogative voice and voices of The Waste Land have their equivalents in The Anathemata, but Jones's verse does not "testify" as does Eliot's to his conversion and its efficacy…. Jones is not concerned to exercise aloud the question, "What must I do to be saved?"… The Four Quartets are simultaneously personal and confessional and allusive and "historic," whereas Jones rigidly eschewed the personal pronoun "I."… [Surely] the "I" has a mediating function. It appears in Jones only in his prefaces and notes and occasional essays; Eliot learned to integrate it with his meditations on the past in the poetry. This is to point out the differences between the poets, in their most mature, sustained works, not to insist that Jones should have "imitated" Eliot; perhaps finally it is not the autobiographical "I" so much as a firm narrative stance or voice which serves as other than a masked exhibitor of historical deposits that is lacking in much of Jones's work. (pp. 137-38)

Joyce was both Catholic and Celtic, like Jones; also like Jones, his medium had to be English…. [For] Jones the perceived greatness of Joyce lay in his "proper understanding of the Catholic mind …"…. (p. 139)

Jones was by contrast far more self-critical and diffident, as the whole publishing history of his "fragments" in various stages of noncompletion testifies. Having once marked out the plot of ground he was to explore for further excavation and refining, Jones was the most patient and fastidious "propspector." He was that kind of loner or exile from the workaday concerns of the civilization he wished to reclaim. Both poets (the distinctions between poetry and prose being as blurred in Jones as in Joyce) were the products of those historical "accidents" which made them occupy "as it were junctional or terminal positions" in their time. (p. 140)

Jones lacks perhaps that truly radical energy that is so characteristic of Joyce's writings; he recognizes full well the authentic signa of the past, presents and re-presents them, justifies them, pleads for them. The remaining critical question is whether or not he succeeded in reinvigorating them and charging them anew with "instress." There have been few writers of this or any age so resolutely uninterested in matters of public reputation or recognition. David Jones's life work is finally his testimony to this central credo: "We were then homo faber, homo sapiens before Lascaux and we shall be homo faber, homo sapiens after the last atomic bomb has fallen."… (pp. 140-41)

Samuel Rees, in his David Jones (copyright © 1978 by G. K. Hall & Co.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, A Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1978.

Stephen Spender

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 689

David Jones, the author of "In Parenthesis," the most monumental work of poetic genius to come out of World War I, and of the greatly admired "Anathemata," left behind a mass of papers when he died in 1974. Collected here under the title "The Dying Gaul," they supplement the essays he published during his lifetime, "Epoch and Artist." His essays, like his poems and paintings, are the works of a visionary who seemed so rooted in his own life—separate from other lives yet inseparable from his work—that he did not belong to the literary world of his time….

If Jones's geographical habitat is Celtic, his historical habitat is Wales before the Christian era and some centuries after it, the times of early Christianity. His connection with the past is neither nostalgic nor literary and antiquarian. It is archeological—established through contact with things….

The very special charm of this book lies in the fascination of following an independent, original, utterly sincere, inquiring, erudite mind meditating on objects that attract him by their concentration of remote history and densely complex myth. Reading Jones on Wales, war, the Roland epic and "The Ancient Mariner," one feels oneself in contact with a highly personal, fanatically convinced (yet modest, courteous and unbullying) man and artist. Despite his deep seriousness, there is a childlike side of David Jones that makes him fun to read.

Running through all the essays (and indeed all his books) is an obsessive idea—a theme, if not a thesis—that civilization always threatens and often destroys cultures. Culture is local: the relationship of the people living in a given place to the religion they believe in, to the objects that surround them and to one another. Civilization is urban, central and centralizing, and much human history consists of the urban centralizing forces imposing themselves on the local ones and overwhelming them. David Jones thought that people living in a culture are able to unite the materialist and spiritual sides of their natures within creative, ritualistic, ceremonious acts and behavior—"making." This capacity, in his view, distinguishes the human from other forms of existence: "Man is the only maker, neither beast nor angel share this dignity with him."

The modern world is characterized by its worldwide civilization, whose values are "utile" and thus destructive of cultures….

In the modern world, someone who feels as Jones did is an outcast from the culture of the past, consciously a member of a modern diaspora composed of those whose role is to remember what has been and is lost for good. The most he can attempt is to be a bridge between past and present…. (p. 9)

In various ways many writers, from the Romantics through the Victorians onward, have been saying this…. What is interesting about David Jones is that he did not speak merely from the standpoint of the artist—though he did believe that in a culture that unites the two sides of man's nature everyone is a "maker," an artist, and therefore the division between the artist and "the rest" does not, and should never, occur. (pp. 9, 26)

One must not expect consistency or lack of self-contradiction in a writer such as David Jones. He admired Virgil immensely, and the lettering on Roman monuments: Yet what was Rome except "civilizational" and thus the arch-destroyer of all local cultures. Jones was also perhaps a bit of a Baudelairean invalid, jaundiced by what he saw of the modern world. And as with every poet (perhaps everyone) who went through World War I, there is a sense in his work of some lesion from which he never recovered. All that is of little account beside the fact that he had something damning and terrible to say which admitted of no consolation, and that he said it persistently, disinterestedly and clearly. Like Thoreau, Melville and Hopkins, he was one of literature's saints who speak with an authority that comes more from religion than from the world of letters. (pp. 26-7)

Stephen Spender, "Civilization vs. Culture," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 18, 1979, pp. 9, 26-7.

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