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The Last of the Modernists

The Dying Gaul and Other Writings

by David Jones, edited by Harman Grisewood
Faber & Faber (distributed by Merrimack Book Service), 230 pp., $23.50

Introducing David Jones

edited by John Matthias
Faber & Faber (distributed by Merrimack Book Service), 240 pp., $12.95 (paper)

It is unusual that a poet as considerable as those who know his work believe David Jones to be should remain so little known for so long. 1 It can hardly be mere chance, though chance may enter into it. The problem (itself one we are critically not quite at home with) is in part that the positions Jones held, the beliefs he lived and wrote from, are to many people now so remote as to be little more than nonsense. And yet you are probably not going to get far with his work, except for the formal interest of his technique, without taking his beliefs seriously and perhaps even allowing that he might just be right, at least some of the way.

Jones’s work is difficult, in the way that The Waste Land and Ulysses were once found difficult, and the Cantos and Finnegans Wake still are. Eliot and Joyce quickly found their explicators; Pound had to wait for over a generation, until Mr. Kenner turned up. Jones, arriving later on the scene, was less lucky, hence his principal text, The Anathemata, still stands before us in almost its first undoctored strangeness. It belongs to the great age of modernism, to what, at a time of diminished ambition when much verse is either costive neatness or self-expressive sprawl, looks like the giant race before the flood.

David Jones died on October 28, 1974, at the age of seventy-eight, leaving behind him two major works, In Parenthesis (1937) and The Anathemata (1952), and a thematically related book of shorter poems, The Sleeping Lord (1974). These are flanked by two collections of discursive, highly personal prose, Epoch and Artist (1959) and The Dying Gaul (1978), both bearing essentially on the poetry. For those who have caught a rumor of this poet’s quality but hesitate to take the plunge, a very good selection drawing on all three volumes of verse has now appeared, Introducing David Jones, with an admirably helpful essay by the editor, John Matthias. About Jones’s lifelong work as a plastic artist I shall not speak since I have seen nothing except reproductions and do not feel qualified to comment. My guess is that his reputation is going to depend primarily on his poetry. In Parenthesis is clearly the place to start.

Poetry,” because it is best to cut a few critical knots and call In Parenthesis a poem, even though many pages are typographically prose and Jones called it simply a “writing.” More on this later. The story-line is sufficiently clear, covering seven months of the First World War as Jones himself experienced it, a private in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, from December 1915 to July of the following year. It quickly comes clear that this is and isn’t a “war book.” There is a full, steady facing of the particular, a rendering of all that made this war perhaps more horrible than any before or since. Jones very exactly catches the feel of it, the trivia and boredom and appalling discomfort, the surrealist landscape known to us from so many sources, in the final section (the start of the battle of the Somme) the terror of an infantry assault against strongly held enemy positions.

But In Parenthesis gives us less than we expect, and more. What is largely missing is the note of protest, the sense of war as an aberration, something that must never be allowed to happen again. War is hell, certainly, but Jones never doubted that there is a good deal of hell around and this aspect of the matter did not greatly surprise him.

The stress falls elsewhere, on what we may at first take as formal devices of presentation. The familiar modernist juxtaposition of past and present, for example. (“Stetson! You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!”) Men falling in battle

sink limply to a heap
nourish a lesser category of being
like those other who fructify the land
like Tristram…
or all of them in shaft-shade
at strait Thermopylae.

Or there is Jones’s way of moving in and out of realism, again familiar enough. The fourth section records a single day in full realistic detail, from the moment when the troops stand-to just before daybreak to some time before midnight when a patrol goes out. This section, however, includes a long epic “boast” by one of the company, beginning

My fathers were with the Black Prinse of Wales
at the passion of
the blind Bohemian king.

At the battle of Crécy, that is, in 1346. The speaker, Dai de la Cote male taille (the imposing name is from Malory—his greatcoat doesn’t fit), goes on to claim blood-kinship with all the soldiers of all the wars legendary and historical of the past.

And there is another man in this Anglo-Welsh regiment, Corporal Lewis, who “had somewhere in his Welsh depths a remembrance of the nature of man….” His head is full of what Jones likes to call the deposits, and beneath the present military action he sees the shapes of many earlier actions. He thinks of one soldier who “will not come again from his reconnaissance—they’ve searched his breeches well, they’ve given him an ivy crown—ein llyw olaf2—whose wounds they do bleed by day and by night in December wood.” He is thinking of that December day in 1282 when Llywelyn, princeps Galliae, the last of a line of native Welsh princes going back 900 years to the Romano-British period, fell in a border skirmish. His head was taken to London, derisively crowned, and henceforth Wales came under English rule. “Lance-Corporal Lewis fed on these things,” we are told, and so did David Jones.

Since the history and legends of preconquest Wales are hardly part of our common stock of knowledge, the temptation to dismiss this sort of thing as idle antiquarianism is strong. Not to do so demands an initial act of faith, faith sustained by nothing except the fact that Jones can obviously write, and that his writing is everywhere marked by what he called “now-ness.” Nobody writes in this way unless he has something to write about.

I suppose at no time did one live so much with a consciousness of the past,” Jones said of the First World War. Not everyone’s reaction, but this is how Jones experienced the war and a lot of past has found its way into In Parenthesis. It is full of the immediate English past, military and domestic, and beyond that of Shakespeare and Plantagenet warfare in France, of Arthurian warfare out of Malory, and beyond that of the heroic age of Wales (each section has a quotation from the seventh-century epic lyric Y Gododdin), and beyond that of the “loricated legions” of Rome and the foundational trouble at Troy. Jones came in retrospect to see the first of our “great” modern wars (at least up to the battle of the Somme) as the last action of an older world, the last time that the ancient usages still just held, hence it represented what he and his friends called the Break, the point at which man stepped clear of his past and turned his back on all the previous history of the race. “The whole of the past, as far as I can make out,” he wrote later in The Dying Gaul, “is down the drain.”

The poet’s task, at such a time, is to remember, to keep open the lines of communication. He must, that is, continue to do his old bardic job. For the poet is a maker and as such he knows something about human making that has been forgotten or confused. All men are makers and they make two kinds of things. They make the utile things on which the maintenance of the human artifice depends; and extra-utile, gratuitous things. Things that partake of the extra-utile signify something other than and beyond themselves; they are signs. It is our ancient and perhaps ineradicable habit to lift up these signthings (anathemata) and dedicate them to the gods.

The supreme expression of this sacramental habit was for Jones the priest’s consecration of the bread and wine when celebrating Mass. Paleolithic man, juxtaposing “marks on surfaces with not merely utile, but with significant intent,” was already and no less validly a sacramental being. The artist’s making is of this kind. So also, Jones wrote, is the act of “sending by Interflora a bunch of special flowers on some special day to [one’s] beloved.” Such usages are however no more than sentimental survivals with little meaning in a world given over to the utile. Art too survives, but it has been denatured by being regarded as self-expression, as a “cultural activity” which some find psychologically helpful, culture here conceived as an extra or sweetener laid over a reality that would otherwise be too sour to bear.

And something else has gone wrong. All our makings are (were—before the Break) local and bear witness to place, to “the ancient numina of place.” But in the world civilization we now suffer, “the placeless cosmopolis of the technocrats,” the sense of place has failed. This damages the artist’s work; the latest poet from Peru can be transplanted to Chicago or Paris and little of his savor lost in transit. It is even worse in the field of the utile (a culture’s quality is shown more revealingly in its lamps or spoons than in pictures and paintings) where the old indigenous makings of men’s hands have given way before the undifferentiated products of the international market, the countless merely utile things constructed only to be sold and everywhere the same.

So Jones, neither passing judgment nor offering remedies for what is beyond remedy (he did not deny that these changes may be inevitable, only insisted that loss be recognized as loss), held firm to what he knew his place to be, the island of Britain and its many-layered historical deposits. He described himself, at a time when the sense of cultural finitude and belonging is fragile or actively resisted, as “a person whose perceptions are totally conditioned and limited by and dependent upon his being indigenous to this island.” He made his stand on the Celtic bedrock over which the Roman, Saxon, Danish, Norman, and successive European waves broke so richly. In pre-conquest Wales he found what he was looking for, “the tradition of the conceptual unity of the Island.”

There is a solid enough theme for an epic here (not a word Jones used of The Anathemata, perhaps wisely), resembling that of the Aeneid and to some extent the Cantos. All three poems take civilization as their subject, rather than the self; all three are foundational. But while Pound’s subject is the founding of the (that is, any) city and finally a city in the mind, Jones is concerned with a particular, historical founding, whatever the admixture of myth and legend, as Virgil was. Virgil’s poem points forward to a founding-that, when he wrote, had in one sense occurred long ago and in another was already, if rather desperately, under way. Jones begins at “the sagging end and chapter’s close,” the apparent collapse of everything whose creation his poem celebrates. Not that the tone is tragic or embittered. His Welsh tradition taught him to be steadfast in defeat.

The simplest account of The Anathemata is that it is about the matter of Britain, the buried deposits that make it what it has been and is; and the coming there of the “Mediterranean thing” (thing, res, is another key Jonesian word). This is Roman, pagan and imperial Rome and also Christian Rome. But Rome did not spring into existence ex nihilo and the poem takes proper care of Rome’s relation to Greece and the ancient Near East. This only takes us back a few thousand years, though, and Jones, who has an incomparable imaginative reach over vast temporal spans, finds recorded history (Clio’s “brief and lachrymal pavan”) too cramped a stage to move on. Searching for the earliest evidence of man’s inveterate need to lift up the gratuitous sign-things and “make this thing other” (the first sentence in the poem), he pauses to celebrate “the Master of the Venus”

whose man-hands god-handled the Willendorf stone before they unbound the last glaciation.

This is more like it but still gives us only twenty millennia or so, and Jones reaches back still further to wonder “at what precise phase, or from what floriate green-room, The Master of Harlequinade” (the creator of the drama of life on this planet)

called us from our co-laterals out, to dance the Funeral Games of the Great Mammalia, as, long, long, long, long before, these danced out the Dinosaur?

This, briefly, is the matter of the first section, “Rite and Fore-time.” The story it has to tell, overlaid—dappled, to use Jones’s word—with much intricate detail, is nothing less than “the evolution of sacramental man within the geo-physical development of the earth” (René Hague). It begins with the “cultman” standing alone in Pellam’s land (Malory’s Waste Lands) as he lifts up the bread and wine at Mass. However, the bread available today is bread that has been “emptied of its creatureliness…and is alien to ‘sign.’ ” To function in the rite, it must first be recharged. So, with one of Jones’s great reaches, this first section ends by circling back to that which makes the beginning possible, to the toil of “the essential and laboring worm” spreading the dark humus over the bare bones of our planet, but for which there would be no bread to lift up. How else

should his barlies grow
who said
I am your Bread?

As always in Jones, the meaning is specifically Christian, but there is something here that to an outsider feels larger than Christianity, a sense of natural piety that speaks to all those who are affronted by a world where the sacred has no place. Jones the Christian poet here joins hands with Pound the religious poet, who also has much to tell us about bread. Both in their different ways struggled to recover the sense and substance of our primary creations and both wanted to make the earth habitable once again.

It has to be admitted that the interests at work in Jones’s poetry are of this large order. Like Pound he took civilization as his theme, but unlike Pound he wrote no Pisan Cantos, nothing that can at least pass as personal poetry. Nor is there any hope of understanding The Anathemata in the way the later Eliot allowed us to approach The Waste Land. We cannot, that is, take cultural themes as an imposing front masking some private anguish. His themes really are, or were, public property.

This, I suppose, may put some people off. Others are likely to feel that to have to mug up enough of Jones’s out-of-the-way lore to make sense of his poetry is more than can decently be asked of them, particularly when they have so little assurance that he addresses our present condition. Perhaps the best course, should one decide to take a few soundings, is to approach him as a craftsman. His mind was in some ways a simple one but his hand was very cunning, capable of strong large-scale design and an intricate joinery of words.

From his principal formal master, Joyce, he learned that the traditional distinction between verse and prose had been dislocated, perhaps fatally, and he set about creating a medium which includes both. (As Celtic saga narrative, both Welsh and Irish, did.) The prose of In Parenthesis ranges from everyday colloquialism to great artifice of syntax, cadence, and diction. Kunstprosa, that is, often deliberately poetic and highly mannerist (“virid-bright illuminings,” “the word of command…mischiefed of the opaque air”). This is combined with brief indented speech units which can but need not always be called verse. They may simply be snatches of dialogue. The “verse” is used for such elevated passages as Dai’s boast or the mounting terror and tragedy of the final section on the battle of the Somme. The “prose,” however, is often no less elevated and intense. In other words, the distinction between the two mediums is not the usual one. It may also be that they are not yet sufficiently distinguished.

The Anathemata shows a clear formal advance. The prose is composed in the long flowing rhythms, arias, sometimes, singing their way through whole periods, which will henceforth characterize Jones’s use of this medium. The verse is now far more distinctly verse and the rhythms that in prose can flow so lyrically are here sharply checked. The unit is the brief metrical phrase or colon, very deliberately accented, the movement sometimes almost that of prose:

Six centuries
and the second Spring
and a new wonder under heaven:

man-limb stirs

in the god-stones
and the kouroi are gay and stepping it
but stanced solemn.

The metrical phrases are usually paired, half-lines balanced against each other on the principle of parallelism. Jones’s prosodic model, it has been convincingly argued, is the “antiphonal structure…of versicles and responses in the Catholic liturgy and the antiphonal singing of the Psalms.”3

There is a still further development in his last book, notably in the latest poem there, “The Sleeping Lord,” a magnificent treatment of one of Jones’s most persistent themes. (The sleeping lord is an Arthur figure who will one day return to his people and whose great outstretched body is in some sense the land itself, now wasted but eventually to be restored.) We find here the same combination of paired phrases or half-lines, mostly of two, three, or four stresses, with or without weak or unstressed syllables. (Jones learned from Hopkins, of course, but the movement of his verse is very different.) Phrases with the same number of stresses are now often balanced against each other, giving effects as formal as

Is the túmp by Hónddu his lífted bólster? does a grítstone oútcrop
íncommóde him?

Within this regularity there is however room for great variety, since falling rhythm can be balanced against rising, phrases very deliberately accented may be combined with others whose movement is that of ordinary speech, and units as different in rhythm and syllable-count as “they shóvelled asíde the shárds & bréccia” and “of wárm-félled greát faúna” are metrically equivalent.

Within his mixed medium or prosimetrum, Jones created what amounts to a new principle of verse composition. This I take it is or isn’t exciting news, depending on one’s literary politics. To those who believe that verse must always possess or imply form, and that when it moves away from forms that seem exhausted it is in order to move toward fresh ones; who hold that the creative experiments of the great modernists have not been followed through and that much remains to be done; who are exceedingly bored both by the relapse into traditional meters and by verse that is verse merely by courtesy of an irregular right-hand margin: to such people Jones’s formal innovations are of the highest interest. Taken as a whole his work in fact constitutes a large unexplored territory in modern poetry. One has to assume that in this country too it will find the right readers in time.

  1. 1

    I refer, here and throughout, to what I take to be the situation in this country. In Britain serious work on Jones is now under way and a good deal has been published since 1976 when the David Jones Society Newsletter first appeared (honorary secretary David Blamires, Department of German, The University, Manchester, M13 9PL). Most notably, A Commentary on The Anathemata of David Jones by René Hague (Toronto, 1977).

  2. 2

    Our last ruler.” Jones regularly uses Welsh phrases, believing that the original words—even if only half understood or not understood at all—evoke or as he said incant the reality of an occasion or place in a way nothing else can.

  3. 3

    David Blamires, David Jones: Artist and Writer (Manchester, 1978, 2nd ed.), p. 137, the fullest study yet to appear.

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