David Jones Jones, David (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jones, David 1895–1974

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.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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David Blamires

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Samuel Rees

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Stephen Spender

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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