David Jones and the art of history

This is my weak Xmas attempt at a clever title. David Jones, better known as an artist and designer than as a poet, who wrote a long poem about a range of historical events and who also made a poetic record of his experiences in the trenches in 1916. He also has some things to say in ‘The Anathemata’ about signs, symbols and images together with the role of the poet in speaking some kind of truth to power.

I remain of the view that both of Jones’ long poems are amongst the very best of the 20th century and this is for two reasons- his ability to do new and startling things with language and form and the humanity of his work. Eliot, in his introduction to ‘In Parenthesis’ places Jones alongside Joyce rather than Pound or himself but I don’t think that this is useful because it misses the unique quality of the work and what it sets out to achieve.

I think I need a brief digression here about the nature of my interest in history. I’m a lifelong reader of history and I like to think that I’m reasonably discerning in that I try to avoid anything that’s overly simplistic or intellectually weak. I started off by wanting to read the stories and then by using those stories to ‘explain’ the present. I think I’m now at the stage where I want history to show me aspects of how things have functioned in the past in terms of processes and how people thought about those processes. For most periods I have a preference for primary sources but I do read some historians because I like the way that they think- Bayly, Walsham and Wickham are historians that I read and re-read because of their perspective and the fact that they write eminently readable prose.

Jones is doing different types of history (used here in the broadest sense)- ‘In Parenthesis’ deals with a specific process that occurred during the first world war and this is set out in his preface-

“This writing has to do with some things I saw, felt and was part of. The period covered begins early in December 1915 and ends early in July 1916. The first date corresponds to my going to France. The second roughly marks a change in the character of our lives in the Infantry on the West Front. From then onward things hardened into a more relentless, mechanical affair, took on a more sinister aspect. The wholesale slaughter of the later years, the conscripted levies filling the gaps in every file of four, knocked the bottom out of the intimate, continuing domestic life of small contingents of men, within whose structure Roland could find and, for a reasonable while, enjoy, his Oliver. In the earlier months there was a certain attractive amateurishness, end elbow room for idiosyncrasy that connected with a less exacting past.”

These are the opening sentences from the preface and here Jones starts by stating his credential as witness before going on to outline his theme. In terms of the narrative, this concerns a group of soldiers who move up to the Front and take part in the Somme offensive in July 1916. The poem ends in the carnage in Mametz Wood on July 11th which is transposed by the visitation of the Queen of the Woods who attends to the dead and the dying.

The poem is utterly compelling and gives a clear impression of how Jones experienced this period and of the camaraderie and fears of those men around him.. Most of the poem is in prose but I’ve chosen a piece of verse to try and demonstrate the very high quality of the work-

Racked out to another turn of the screw
the acceleration heightens;
the sensibility of these instruments to register,
fails; needle dithers disorientate.
The responsive mercury plays laggard to such fevers - you
simply can't take any more in.
And the surface of fear steadies to dumb incognition, so that
when they give the order to move upward to align with 'A'
hugged already just under the lip of the acclivity inches below
where his traversing machine guns perforate to powder
white creature of chalk pounded
and the world crumbled away
and get ready to advance
you have not the capacity for added fear only the limbs are leaden
to negotiate the slope and rifles all out of balance, clumsied
with long auxiliary steel
seem five times the regulation weight-
it bitches the aim as well,
and we ourselves as those small
cherubs who trail awkwardly the weapons of the God in
Fine Art works.

I have no idea what it was like for both my grandfathers to rise out of those trenches in the face of sustained machine gun fire but I now have a very clear idea of what it was like for David Jones and for that I’m very grateful. The Somme offensive is one of those defining events in the national psyche remembered both for its wholesale carnage and for the mindset that led to it but Jones succeeds in presenting his own perspective on the process of mechanisation which he saw as heightening the barbarity on both sides.

So, the poet as witness to major event, as one who saw, felt and was part of things and felt the need to mark this particular point in with his own voice and in his own distinctive way.

Both poems have extended footnotes which are useful in providing additional context and the first edition of ‘In Parenthesis’ (and John Matthias’ ‘Introduction to David Jones’) contained Jones’ sketch map of the part of the front that he describes. This is unaccountably missing from the current Faber edition which was published last year.

‘The Anathemata’ was described by Auden as the greatest long poem long poem written in the twentieth century and I would certainly go along with this. Auden also remarked that he had been reading it for ten years and still didn’t fully understand it- I’ve been reading it for a mere eighteen months and feel that I am only beginning to scratch the surface.

It is a historical poem in that it describes different periods in the past and pays particular attention to what Jones’ describes as the signs or symbols of those times. Jones converted to Catholicism in 1921 which informs much of ‘The Anathemata’- especially the Catholic liturgy and what it may signify or represent. The other key fact is that Jones was born in Kent but his father was Welsh and the poem contains lots of Welsh history, legend and phrases- it’s reasonable to assert that Jones on part Welshness is vastly superior to Geoffrey Hill on the same subject.

I have recently quoted from Jones’ Preface to this poem where he speaks of the role of the poet with regard to those in power but here I want to quote him on signs and the passing of time-

“The times are late and get later, not by decades but by years and months. The tempo of change, which in the world of affairs and in the physical sciences makes schemes and data outmoded and irrelevant overnight, presents peculiar and phenomenal difficulties to the making of works and almost insuperable difficulties to the making of certain kinds of works; as when, for one reason or another, the making of those works has been spread over a number of years. The reason is not far to seek. 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. 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. These and kindred problems have presented themselves to me with a particular clarity and increasing acuteness. 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.”

I’m neither Welsh nor Catholic and I wasn’t born in 1895 but I still feel/know that the signs contained in ‘The Anathemata’ continue to resonate with a pronounces ‘now-ness’ that we would all do well to take greater notice of. I’d like to finish by quoting from ‘The Lady of the Pool’ which primarily deals with London, this is part of the speech of the water maids-

                              If we furnish to the part
maybe we'll play it as St Aristotle would 'a' said.
Our shift must drape so -no, a trifle off, but not indecorous!
No helm? no matter,
we've mantling! From over the chapman-booths of level
Southwark does the stiffing breeze that freshes our Thames
play out our tresses - how this Maudlin gilt streamers
a tangled order
and sweet Loy!
how it do become us.

The reference to Southwark is glossed as “cf. ‘Some of the war-host held booths in level Southwark’ The Heimskringla, Section VIII, the Saga of Olaf the Saint”. Both ‘The Anathemata’ and ‘In Parenthesis’ are available in lots of places on the web at £18.00 each.


4 responses to “David Jones and the art of history

  1. What books would you most recommend from the historians (Bayly, Walsham and Wickham) you mention?

    • Bayly’s ‘Empire and Information’ demonstrates what serious grown-up history is about whilst Walsham’s ‘Providence in Early Modern England’ comprehensively and cogently unpicks a way of thinking about the world that many of us thought we knew about. Wickham’s ‘The Inheritance of Rome’ says what we know and can say about the early medieval period rather than what we’d like to know and say- he’s consistently good on a huge area stretching from Baghdad to north west Europe with a consistent focus on the evidence.
      None of these has written a bad book, Walsham’s latest on the mystical thread running through the early modern period and beyond as it is embodied in the landscape is a wonderfully contrarian delight. I’ve only just started on Bayly’s new account of Indian liberalism but it’s clear (again) that nobody can match the strength of what he does- he is one of those very few historians that can show us how the world works without getting out the soapbox.

  2. Here’s a new(ish) film about David Jones:


  3. Pingback: David Jones reads from In Parenthesis | Bebrowed's Blog

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