Anathemata might be described as an epic about the two Adams. Perhaps it may help the reader to approach what is, frankly, a very difficult poem, if he will imagine, as he reads it, that he is sitting in a Roman Catholic church while Mass is being celebrated. What is going on at the altar starts a train of thoughts and memories, his mind goes wool-gathering, and he forgets where he is, until some sound or sight recalls him to a consciousness of where he is; this in its turn starts a new train of thought, and so on. What the priest is doing in the middle of the twentieth century—he does it every day in exactly the same manner, and for many centuries it has always and everywhere been repeated thus—he does in anamnesis of something which only happened once, and will never happen again.
during the reign of the Emperor
Tiberius Claudius Nero Caesar
voted the tribune’s powers for the
first time twenty-five years since; his fourth term consul
nine years gone.
Under the fifth procurator of Judea
in the third or fourth severe April
of the ten, sharp Aprils of his office.
On Ariel mountain
The “creatures” of the rite are bread and wine, the existence of which presuppose both a nonhuman nature which produces wheat and grapes, and a human culture which by thought and labor is able to convert these natural products into human artifacts. With these symbolic signs he reenacts or represents the sacrifice on the cross of Christ, the Second Adam, for the redemption of the First Adam, that is to say, all mankind, whether dead, living or unborn. As a person who can say “I,” every human being, however he may be classifiable biologically and culturally, is unique—no one like him has ever existed before or will again—and, in consequence, every human being is Adam, an incarnation of all mankind. This unique “I” can never be the topic of speech; we can only communicate with each other about objects and events of this or that class. Yet, whenever a man’s speech is authentic, the way in which he speaks of such objects and events is uniquely his so that, in order to understand him, we have to translate what he says into our own unique speech, which, like his, consists, one might say, exclusively of Proper Nouns.
The difficulty of such translation which is implicit in all personal communication, above all in poetry, is manifest in Anathemata in an unusually severe way. It would be interesting to make a critical comparison of Mr. David Jones and M. St. John Perse, whose poems are also epics about the First Adam (though not about the Second). If, and this is a big If, the reader has an absolute command of the French language, M. St. John Perse’s poetry seems much easier to grasp because it contains no Proper Nouns. Particularity and concreteness are there in plenty, but it is largely a particularity of action and function; one thinks of the long catalogs of curious human occupations, prefaced by the rubric “he who.” But these human actions do not occur in any particular place or time; in M. St. John Perse’s poetic universe there are neither calendars nor atlases. In Mr. Jones’ poetic universe, on the other hand, Proper Nouns (all foreign words partake of the nature of Proper Nouns), calendars, and atlases are the most conspicuous features, and one must admit that without the copious notes which Mr. Jones provides, it is unlikely that anyone except the author would be able fully to understand the poem. I myself have read it many times since it first appeared ten years ago and there are still many passages which I do not “get.” In his defense, however, one must point out that M. St. John Perse’s picture of humanity is necessarily, by its timelessness and placelessness, lacking in a sense of human motive and purpose; his Adam has no history, and it is Adam’s history in which Mr. Jones is most interested.
The Adam of Anathemata is a man old enough to have fought in the First World War, a Catholic convert, interested in the arts (Mr. Jones is a painter as well as a writer), archaeology, mythology, and liturgics, to whom as a child Malory and the Mabinogian obviously meant much, and on whose writing the most clearly distinguished influence has been James Joyce. The self he has inherited from his parents and ancestors is a member of a number of concentric and overlapping classes, to each of which the various sections of his poem are, roughly speaking, dedicated.
Thus the Opening section, “Rite and Fore-Time,” is mainly concerned with himself as a member of the human species, Earth’s “adaptable, rational, elect and plucked-out otherling” who probably first appeared during the Tertiary Period:
Before the drift was over the lime-face.
Sometime between the final and the penultimate débâcle. (Already Arcturus deploys his reconnoitering
chills in greater strength: soon his last Putsch on any scale.)
Before this all but proto-historic transmogrification of the
Just before they rigged the half-lit stage for dim-eyed Clio to step
with some small confidence the measures of her brief and lachrymal pavan.
and can be distinguished from his nearest co-laterals by certain characteristics such as speech, the use of tools, and sacred cults.
“Middle-Sea and Lear-sea” is concerned with himself as a Western European who is what he is because of certain historical events peculiar to Western Europe, such as the civilization of Crete and the Doric Invasions,
One thousand two hundred years since the Dorian jarls
rolled up the map of Arcady and the transmontane storm- groups
fractured the archaic pattern From the tomb of the strife-years the
new-born shapes begin already to look uncommonly like the brats of
mother Europa.We begin already to discern our own.
Are the proto-forms already ours?
Is that the West-wind on our cheek-bones?
But it’s early—very grey and early in our morning and most
irradiance is yet reflected from far-side Our sea, the Nile
moon still shines on the Hittite creatures and Crete still
shows the Argives how.
and, of course, the establishment of the Roman Empire, which brought the whole Mediterranean area under one rule.
… at the intersected place he caused our sacred commerce to be. Why yes—west he took himself off, on the base-line he traced and named when he traced it: decumanus. West-turn from his kardo I saw him go, over his right transversus. From to rear of him I discerned his marcher’s lurch—I’d breath to see that.
West-star, hers and all!
brighting the hooped turn of his scapular-plates enough to show his pelvic sway and the hunch on his robber’s
shoulders. Though he was of the Clarissimi his aquila over me was robbery
‘T’s a great robbery
Then he is an inhabitant of the British Isles and a Londoner of Welsh stock whose culture and language would not be what they are but for the peculiar history of Britain, which was not Romanised until after the beginning of the Christian era and then never completely, and where the original Celtic population was driven into the Welsh mountains or submerged under successive waves of Teutonic invaders, the Saxons, the Vikings, the Normans.
From the fora
to the forests.
Out from gens Romulum
into the Weal-kin
dinas-man gone aethwlad
cives gone wold-men
…from Lindum to London
bridges broken down.
There is a great deal of imagery in the poem derived from ships and seafaring. It was seafaring merchants in search of tin who first brought the remote island of Britain to the attention of the civilized Mediterranean. Britain was destined to become a great maritime power and London one of the great ports of the world. It is only natural, therefore, that such a seafaring people should use nautical imagery as symbols for the historical adventure of mankind. As Mr. Jones says in one of his notes:
What is pleaded in the Mass is precisely the argosy or voyage of the Redeemer, consisting of his entire sufferings and his death, his conquest of hades, his resurrection and his return in triumph to heaven. It is this that is offered to the Trinity on behalf of us argonauts and of the whole argosy of mankind, and, in some sense, of all sentient being, and, perhaps, of insentient too.
Of the communication problems which this kind of poetry presents, Mr. Jones is very well aware and he has stated them in his preface much better than I could.
The poet may feel something with regard to Penda the Mercian and nothing with regard to Darius the Mede. In itself that is a limitation, it might be regarded as a disproportion; no matter, there is no help—he must work within the limits of his love. There must be no mugging-up, no “ought to know” or “try to feel”; for only what is actually loved and known can be seen sub specie aeternitati. The nurse herself is adamant about this: she is indifferent to what the poet may wish to feel, she cares only for what he in fact feels.
The words “May they rest in peace” and the words “Whosoever will” might by some feat of artistry, be so juxtaposed within a context as not only to translate the words “Requiescat in pace” and “Quicunque vult,” but to evoke the exact historic over-tones and under-tones of those Latin words. But should some writer find himself unable by whatever ingenuity of formal arrangement or of contextual allusion to achieve this identity of content and identity of evocation, while changing the language, then he would have no alternative but to use the original form…. It is not a question of “translation” or even of “finding an equivalent word.” It is something much more complex. “Tsar” will mean one thing and “Caesar” another to the end of time.
The artist deals wholly in signs. His signs must be valid, that is, valid for him and, normally, for the culture that has made him. But there is a time factor affecting these signs. If a requisite now-ness is not present, the sign, valid in itself, is apt to suffer a kind of invalidation. This presents most complicated problems to the artist working outside a reasonably static culture-phase…. It may be that the kind of thing I have been trying to make is no longer makeable in the kind of way in which I have tried to make it.
It is certainly true that no reader is going to be able to make Mr. Jones’s “now-ness” his own without taking a great deal of trouble and many rereadings of Anathemata, and, if he says: “I’m sorry, Mr. Jones is asking too much. I have neither the time nor the patience which he seems to expect me to bring to his poem,” I do not know what argument one could use to convince him otherwise. I can only state my personal experience, namely, that I have found the time and trouble I have taken with Anathemata infinitely rewarding.