Rene Hague on ‘The Anathemata’

I have said this before but I will carry on saying until the current situation changes, David Jones is one of the five best modernist poets of the 20th century and ‘The Anathemata’ is his finest work. It is unfathomable to me that he should continue to be neglected when so many mediocre nonentities receive ardent critical attention. Anybody who affects to have an interest in what language can do must pay attention to this man’s work. I should go on but I’v just bought Rene Hague’s “A Commentary on the Anathemata” and it is a revelation.

I don’t normally read commentaries on modernist poems but Hague was Jones’ best friend and this particular commentary is clearly put together with enormous respect for the man and the work and I think I’m reading it more for context rather than for what things might ‘mean’.

For those who don’t know, Jones was an artist who served in the first world war and converted to Catholicism in his late twenties. His main poetic subjects are his faith and the Catholic liturgy, Welsh history and culture and the Roman Empire. ‘The Anathemata’ is a long poem (243 pages in the current Faber edition) and is accompanied by a preface and extensive footnotes provided by the poet. Auden described as the century’s best long poem and confessed that he had been reading it for ten years and still hadn’t got to grips with its meaning.

In his preface, Jones talks about the role of the poet in relation to power and of poems as a kind of gathering together of ‘signs’ or cultural artefacts and I have been reading ‘The Anathemata’ as a drawing-together of Jones’ personal and entirely subjective collection of Important Stuff. I can still make a case for this but Hague makes it clear that this Important Stuff is linked and underpinned in quite complex ways.

Before providing some examples of why the commentary is so effective, I think I need to address the Catholic and the Spengler Problems. Both Jones and Hague were ardent and traditional Catholics who deplored the introduction of the vernacular Mass after the Second Vatican Council. This is no longer as big an issue as it was in the sixties but I’m just about old enough to remember the storm it created at the time. The poem isn’t a Catholic Poem in that conservative (or any other kind) doctrine isn’t rammed down the readers’ throat but there is an emphasis on the ritual and liturgical aspects of the mass, as we shall see. Jones was a fan of Spengler’s analysis of how civilisations function, Spengler was ideologically Deeply Suspect (fascist) and all of his ideas have been discredited but, whilst the poem does deal with civilisations at different times and different places, it is not a blueprint nor an espousal of all things Spenglerian.

The other thing to note is that this is a commentary written out of friendship, out of the respect Hague clearly felt for the work and for the man, it doesn’t vaunt its erudition in the quest for academic prestige but tackles the areas that need clarification with warmth and respect.

‘The Anathemata’ starts with this piece of prose:

We already and first of all discern him making this thing
other. His groping syntax, if we attend, already shapes;

ADSCRIPTAM, RATAM, RATIONABLEM....... and by pre-
application and for them, under modes and patterns altogether
theirs, the holy and venerable hands, lift up an efficacious
sign.

Hague’s commentary on the first paragraph begins-

D. frequently, particularly when beginning a passage, uses ‘he’, ‘him’ or ‘his’ etc, to indicate that, while he has an individual in mind, that individual is to be regarded as typical. Only two of the eight sections of The Anathemata’ do not begin in this way, ‘Middle-Sea and Lear Sea’ and ‘Mabinog’s Liturgy’ – and the first of these is quick to introduce a named person as ‘him’.

The ‘him’ whom we discern in line 1 is (however far back we are looking into pre-history) a priest – or, if that is putting it too strongly, he is at least sacredotal in his intention; he is performing a ritual act and thereby making this thing ‘other’. The repetition of the verb ‘discern’ at the very end of the poem (p243, ‘discern the Child’, ‘discern a lord’s body) shows that here, too, it carries more than the meaning of ‘distinguish’, for it contains the Pauline sense of ‘recognise the true nature of’. We could paraphrase the poet’s words in this paragraph by saying that so soon as man makes that which is significant, which is a sign of something other and greater, we can already see that his act is of the same nature as the transubstantiation effected in the Mass by a representation of what was done at the Last Supper.

I’ve quoted this at length in order to show how Hague adds depth and context rather than simply elucidating meaning. It is entirely possible for the reader who has read Jones’ preface to work out what is meant in this paragraph but it is less likely that the ‘Pauline’ sense of ‘discern’ would have been grasped, nor is it clear that such a reader would have made all the connections involved in ‘making this thing other’- it certainly took Hague’s insight / knowledge for me to work out how all these elements (poem, sign, shape, Mass, Eucharist) function together.

There are also times when Hague disagrees with Jones’ notes. The first of these occurs with ‘Adscriptam’ which Jones glosses as ‘ascribe to’ and Hague comments- “The translation given is not very satisfactory, for God is not being asked to ‘ascribe to’ but to make it ‘ascribed’, i.e. enrolled as his own, made his own.” Hague then goes on to give the full Latin text of the prayer and indicates the points where the priest makes the sign of the cross in order to further explicate the further connotations involved in Jones’ use of ‘groping syntax’ before quoting an English translation which translates the word as ‘consecrated to thyself’ which seems (to this atheist) to be half-way between the two. There is then an extensive passage from a letter from Jones which gives more context, describes liturgy as ‘pure poesis’ as well as bemoaning “the awful havoc inflicted upon us by these blasted apostles of change”.

I hope I haven’t frightened too many people off by the above, I have tried to demonstrate how Hague enables a wider and more ‘complete’ reading even for those of us who are reasonably familiar with the poem and Jones’ rationale. Certainly it has prodded me into acquiring ‘The Shape of the Liturgy’ by Gregory Dix which Jones apparently admired. This isn’t because I’m on the verge of conversion (there still isn’t any kind of God) but it is because I’m intrigued by this link between verse and ritual and by how each inform the other.

‘The Anathemata’ isn’t just about faith, it has exceptional passages on the Roman Empire, London, seafaring and Wales as well as musings on the prehistoric. Next time I’ll discuss the Hague view of Jones’ London- his home town.

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