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…

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