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David Jones & the sacrament of art.

Shy, retiring, religious, and physically frail, David Jones (1895-1974) considered art a "sacrament," an act of co-creation that connects us to God. In a 1962 BBC address, Jones warned that "the nature of man demands the sacramental. If he's denied the deep and the real, he'll fall for the trivial, even for the ersatz." But Jones's reputation has not been as brilliant as his contemporaries thought it promised. Although In Parenthesis (1937), Jones's first major work, won the Hawthornden Prize in 1938, joining works by Robert Graves and Evelyn Waugh, this pitch-perfect poem about the infantryman's Great War came years after the war poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, and it recorded a war receding into the past when the world was busy preparing for the next. Almost twenty years after In Parenthesis, Jones published The Anathemata (1952), meant to serve as sort of a creation story for Britain and overlay Christian salvation history onto island mythology. Like his friend the historian Christopher Dawson, who used the then-emerging disciplines of anthropology and sociology to understand Western culture, Jones used modernist poetry to reinterpret Western myth. While a critical success in some quarters (Auden, for example, considered it one of the finest long poems in English), The Anathemata never achieved iconic status.

Both In Parenthesis and The Anathemata are dense, allusive, demotic experiments, written to reflect what Jones called the "nowness" of poetry. "The poet, of whatever century," he wrote in 1952, "is concerned only with how he can use a current notion to express a permanent mythos." The world emerging from the trenches of France had, to Jones, seemingly abandoned the traditional stories--the Grail Quest, Roland, not to mention the Good Samaritan and the Passion--which were becoming incomprehensible to modern man. Without a sure grounding in what Jones called the materia of the background culture, poetry becomes either a private joke or a vehicle for political or social activism. Jones called this the "objective problem" of the modern artist, who must work with images and signs after language has faded.

Jones was an established visual artist long before he was recognized as a poet. His paintings moved between the naturalistic and the allegorical, and avoided abstraction: "While the beauty of form and line can be appreciated without [a] common background ... if the allusions are outside the comprehension of the reader or listener, clearly a sense of what is said is immeasurably blunted." Here, too, Jones had his admirers, including Kenneth Clark.

Jones was born in Brockley, Kent, to parents split between the low and high wings of the Church of England. His Welsh father, James, an evangelical, worked as a primer. His English-Italian mother, Alice, preferred the Oxford Movement's Edward Pusey and High Church. Although his father did not speak Welsh, the young Jones took up the Welsh culture his father largely had left behind. At the early age of fourteen, so young that the tutors would not allow him to draw the model from life, Jones entered the Camberwell Art School in London. He was there for five years, during which he was exposed not only to the traditional art-schooling of the day, but also to the work of the pre-Raphaelites and Pierre Bonnard, whose influences (especially in some of Jones's interiors) reappear in his own work.

In January 1915, just shy of twenty, Jones enlisted in the London Welsh Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. This was the same regiment in which Graves and Sassoon served as officers. Jones fought on the Western Front and was wounded at Mametz Wood, experiences he called "a parenthesis" between his early training and later career.

After the war, Jones continued his studies at the Westminster Art School, where he discovered the Post-Impressionists, whom he believed did more than make representations: "what is implicit in the notion of abstract art is that men make things which exist in their own right and ... not 'impressions' of other things" The painting becomes a thing itself.

Jones had been on a religious quest even prior to his infantry service, and Christian symbols became Jones's materials after he returned from the war. As early as 1917, we see a crucifixion scene among Jones's sketches, though one that focuses not on Christ but on the Roman soldiers at the foot of the Cross, who are dressed like British tommies. After some period of hesitation, Jones converted to Roman Catholicism in 1921 under the direction of Father John O'Connor, the model for G. K. Chesterton's "Father Brown." His conversion fused his emerging sense of purpose as an artist with longing for a symbol-laden religion.

After a time at Ditchling Common, a community of craftsmen and artisans in Sussex founded by the woodworker and writer Eric Gill, Jones lived the life of a (sometimes almost literally) starving artist, largely relying on his network of friends for support, and moving constantly between his parents' home in Brockley, the Gills' various camps, and Rock Hall, the home of his long-time patron, Helen Sutherland. He also became involved with the interwar London literary scene, meeting Eliot in the late 1920s and congregating around a group of young Catholic artists, writers, and publishers. These relationships reinforced ideas about art Jones had developed in Ditchling. Jones was much taken with the French Thomist Jacques Maritain, whose Art and Scholasticism Jones read in 1923, and his conviction that art is a sacramental discipline devoted to representing the real.

In the 1920S and early 1930S, Jones provided woodcuts for editions of Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" Aesop's fables, and other works for the Golden Cockerel Press. And he began exhibiting in London with the 7&5 Society of painters and sculptors formed by Ben Nicholson, with whom Jones later broke because of their devotion to abstract painting. But overwork from efforts to express the Thomistic representation of reality in art resulted in a mental collapse in 1932, which did not lift until 1936; for the rest of his life, Jones struggled with depression, which led to the inability to work for long periods.

Jones completed In Parenthesis, which Eliot deemed a "work of genius" in 1932, but was unable to fine tune it for publication until his recovery four years later. Jones wrote snatches of the poem while on a painting trip to Brighton, and then was encouraged by friends to expand it into a poem. Keith Alldritt, a recent biographer, identifies the poem as one of a handful of works that define British modernism, along with The Waste Land and Ulysses. The text, a mixture of poetry and prose, recounts the fate of a British infantry unit, whose members come "from Islington and Hackney/ and the purlieus of Walworth/flashers from Surbiton/ men of the stock of Abraham/ from Bromley-by-Bow." The poem follows them through training to an attack on the German lines somewhere in France, combining the banality of military life (soldiers "sucked Mackintosh's toffee where they lay/ and littered the narrow burrow with tiny grease-proofpaper twists") with the terror of infantry warfare ("When the shivered rowan fell/you couldn't hear the fall of it./Barrage and counter-barrage shockt/ deprive all several sounds of their identity").

A tone of Celtic wildness gives this work a distinctive, bardic tincture. Merlin and Guinevere seem to hover just beyond the trenches. Here is the Welsh soldier Dai Great Coat proclaiming his ancestry, in the manner of traditional Celtic boasts:
 My fathers were with the Black Prince of Wales
 At the passion of the blind Bohemian king.

 I was the spear in Balin's hand
 That made waste King Pellam's land.
 I took the smooth stones of the brook,
 I was with Saul
 playing before him.
 I saw him armed like Derfel Gatheren.


Jones thought that only when the war was placed in a literary context, beginning with the Welsh epic Y Goddodin, could it make any sense at all. Jones was not, as we now use the terms, "pro-" or "anti-" war; combat for him was a basic fact of human existence, and for him a searing experience, to be understood and explained in the context of tradition. The historian Paul Fussell, who nevertheless called Jones an "unclassifiable genius" in his Great War and Modern Memory, thought this strategy a failure. The Great War was so completely new and "other," Fussell argued, that Jones's attempts to link it with the soldiers of Western cultural memory were misguided.

After the publication of In Parenthesis, Jones returned to painting, for which he achieved increasing recognition. He was included as one of "Nine British Contemporaries" in a November 1945 exhibition on the Champs-Elysees, and his sales were steady through the 1940s. But Jones continued to work on what he called an "uncompleted writing" which became The Anathemata, subtitled "fragments of an attempted writing" Its subject is the Christianization of the West in general and Britain in particular. Jones starts twenty millennia before Christ, in the Paleolithic age, and mixes anthropology and geology with his reinterpretation of Welsh myth and Roman history. The poem is heavily annotated, covering Bronze Age archeology to obscure points of theology, and its diction veers from Old Welsh, Latin, and Greek, to various specialized vocabularies of shipbuilding and soldiering.

Jones sets the stage in the first few lines of the poem:
 the cult-man stands alone in Pellam's land:
 more precariously than he
 knows he guards the signa: the pontifex
 among his house
 treasures (the twin-urbes his house is) he can
 fetch things new
 and old ... the things come down
 from heaven together with the
 kept memorials, the things lifted up and
 the venerated trinkets.


All these--memorials and trinkets--are part of what Jones referred to as the "deposit" of myth and artifacts that constitutes the Western tradition. Jones mixes the iconography of England and Christianity through images that render the two together. A ship, for example, is not only a symbol of England, but, being made of wood, also a symbol of the Cross. When Jones writes of the domestication of the dog as man's companion, he brings in Cerberus, the dog of the New Testament who comforted Lazarus, Odysseus's dog Argos, and the myriad hounds in Welsh and Arthurian myth. The extensive notes that accompany The Anathemata refer to multiple meanings of particular words, as if Jones was afraid to let any resonance pass unnoticed.

The second section, "Middle-Sea and Lear-Sea" places Christ's birth in the sweep of Western history, as Christianity spread from the Mediterranean to England, a theme that returns in the penultimate section, "Mabinog's Liturgy" which refers to the "seven hundred and eighty-third year," since the founding of Rome, and the thirty-fourth since "his Leda/ said to his messenger/ (his bright talaria on)/fiat mihi." This is the story of the Nativity, which Jones will bring forward to the Resurrection. Jones again invokes the Celtic boast, this time that of Christ:
 Alpha es et O
 That which the whole world cannot hold.
 Atheling to the heaven-king.
 Shepherd of Greekland
 Harrower of Annwn
 Freer of the Waters
 Chief Physician, and
 Dux et pontifex.


Jones closes the poem at the altar of the Mass, where the priest performs the sacrifice "after the mode/ of what has always been done.... What did he do yet other/riding the Axile Tree?" The mode Jones used-highly idiosyncratic, non-chronological, and mixing common speech with profound reflections on the divine in history--was meant to express the "nowness" that he deemed essential to poetry. As Jones wrote in a fragment first published in 1967, "I have been on my guard/not to condemn the unfamiliar. For it is easy to miss Him/ at the turn of a civilization." Civilization had turned, but The Anathemata was to serve as a kind of guidebook for those who could no longer see the past straight behind them.

At first blush, all this may be, and sometimes is, too much. Jones himself thought the poem "damned obscure" and he complained that it had "barely registered" with its intended audience. Most of the early reviews concentrated on the sources of Jones's allusions, and few on his poetic attempt to recreate a new source-text that incorporates all that went before. Around the time of the poem's publication, Jones became even more despondent about the success of his type of poetry:
 I'm becoming more and more doubtful as to
 the validity of this way of carrying on. It's not
 just names or being able to pronounce them:
 it involves a whole complex of associations. So
 far classical allusions and biblical ones and (in
 my case) liturgical ones still more or less work,
 but only more or less, because the whole of
 the past, as far as I can make out, is down the
 drain.


His paintings during this period reflect the same compression of symbols. A 1947 watercolor, Vexilla Regis, for example, is crowded with a checklist of Roman and Christian symbols and does not quite work to convey any living symbolic heritage.

Beginning in the 1940s and 1950s, Jones focused more on inscriptions, which allowed him to construct word-pictures that themselves act as symbols. Since Ditchling, Jones had experimented with inscriptions, but they were clearly secondary to painting and poetry. After a second bout with depression in the 1940s, for which he was treated with drugs and electroshock therapy, he came back to this form. His 1956 watercolor inscription, Arbor Decora, mixes Greek, Roman, and Anglo-Saxon lettering in various colors. Similarly, his brilliant 1958 inscription nam Sibyllam replaces Anglo-Saxon with Welsh, and adds Middle French and a passage from The Waste Land running vertically along the side.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Jones began to enjoy some level of literary celebrity, receiving the CBE in 1955 and the Bollingen Prize in 1959, but his cultural influence remains opaque. Today there are no Jones disciples, and he is eclipsed by the other British modernists. It is perhaps tempting to see, especially in the inscriptions, a connection with our hyperlinked world--words and images fused together in one multimedia spectacle. But this comparison misses a crucial distinction. Contrary to too many ironic-hip critics, Jones believed that words have meaning, that symbols point the way, and that the artist should direct them to uncovering an ultimate unity.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Reconsiderations
Author:Russello, Gerald J.
Publication:New Criterion
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Nov 1, 2006
Words:2367
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