David Jones and the shape of the Anathemata

I’m re-reading the above poem in conjunction with Rene Hague’s commentary and this has (together with a re-reading of Jones’ preface) added a bit more perspective on the rationale of this remarkable poem. Many months ago I wrote something speculating about why some parts of poems are in prose and others are in verse, with specific reference to Jones, Olson and Sutherland, I don’t think I made too much progress then but what Jones has to say about ‘shape’ does begin to clarfy things a little.

Hague quotes Jones as saying “I have tried to make a shape in words” and it is both the verb and the noun that strike me as important. In his preface Jones talks about the appearance of the poem in these terms:

I intend what I have written to be said. While, marks of punctuation, breaks of line, lengths of line, grouping of words or sentences and variations of spacing are visual contrivances they have here an aural and oral intention. You can’t get the intention unless you hear the sound and you observe the score; and pause-marks on a score are of particular importance.

This seems reasonable but these visual patterns are also the components of the poem’s shape and in this regard Hague has drawn my attention to Gregory Dix’ ‘The Shape of the Liturgy’ which Jones admired and gives this definition of liturgical shape:

If the whole eucharist is essentially one action, the service must have a logical development of one whole, a thrust towards that particular action’s fulfilment, and not merely a general purpose of edification. It must express clearly by the order and connection of its parts what the action is which it is about and where the service as a whole is ‘going’. It is this logical sequence of parts coherently fulfilling one complete action which I call the ‘Shape’ of the Liturgy.

We now come to the question of emphasis and the difference between what Jones and Hague have to say about schemes and themes. Hague is of the view that Maurice de la Taille’s interpretation of the Last Supper and Calvary forms the ‘very scheme upon which ‘The Anathemata’ is built. Jones, on the other hand says “What I have written has no plan or at least is not planned. If it has a shape it is chiefly that it returns to its beginning. It has themes and a theme even if it wanders far.” These would appear to be contradictory because there’ isn’t that much difference between ‘scheme’ and ‘plan’. I may be missing huge chunks of Hague’s reasoning but his claim doesn’t seem to hold up in various parts of the poem. Let’s start with de la Taille. I’m going to paraphrase the quote that Hague uses because it runs for two pages even though I may be accused of ripping material from its context.

The first point to be made is that the Last Supper and Crucifixion can be thought of as a ‘twofold immolation’. Before we go any further in this, I do need to say that I know that ‘immolation’ is a loaded term with a number of different connotations but that I’m going to take it on this occasion to stand for ‘sacrifice’. The second point is that these two acts should be thought of as one ‘complete sacrifice’. There then follows quite a bit about the role of the priest as victim but then Hague explains that all of this was important for Jones because it ‘insisted on the significant act contained in the Last Supper where the sign (the breaking of the bread, the drinking of the wine) made inevitable, in a sense created, what took place on Calvary.’

My initial, readerly response is that this deeply felt belief, doctrinal view, isn’t the overriding concern of the work and I would point to the most accessible section, ‘The Lady of the Pool’ for my evidence. I also need to acknowledge that Hague has far greater insight and personal knowledge about this material than I ever will so what follows should be seen as a tentative suggestion rather than an outright refutation. ‘The Lady of the Pool’ is mostly the soliloquy of a London lavender seller in the 15th or 16th centuries. It makes extensive use of John Stow’s late (ish) Tudor account of the city and its wards. It also mentions a number of dates in terms of feast days but there’s much more emphasis on place and on love / romance / relationships than there is on liturgy.

I’ll concede that the section begins and ends with references to masses for the Passion but even here these do not seem to reflect the ‘two foldedness’ referred to above.

                               In all the white chapels
in Lud's town of megara
when we put up rejoicing candles bright
when we pay latria
to the Saving Wood.
About the turn of the year, captain, when he sings out loud
from his proper in ligno quoque vinceretur
twisting his cock's egg tongue round
the Vulgar lingua like any Trojan licentious of divinity.

Neither Jones’ notes nor Hague’s gloss make mention of the de la Taille interpretation as above, Jones is at pains to stress what the cross stands for and why paying ‘latria’ to it isn’t idolatrous whereas Hague glosses ‘he’, ‘cock’s egg tongue’ and the ‘Vlugar Lingua’.

When I first read ‘The Anathemata’, I grasped and held on to the notion that it was a representation (a making) of Jones’ personal cultural clutter or ‘res’. I therefore struggle a bit with Hague’s view of de la Taille forming the basis upon which the poem is structured because I think that there is much more going on than theology. I’m not suggesting that the liturgy isn’t important, I just think that it isn’t the only important / structuring element.

I’m not entirely sure that Jones’ musical score analogy is the only thing that is going on with the way that the poem looks, the above extract would also seem to draw the eye towards ‘the Saving Wood’ as being central in terms of Jones’ faith rather than the ‘sense’ of this part of the poem. What I do think is clear is that I need to pay more attention to the various shapes that Jones makes both on the page and the way in which the sections are structured and relate to each other. ‘The Lady of the Pool’, for example has a structuring device, a ‘frame’ and uses the layout of the London wards, at or about the time of John Stow, to tell a story. I’m also intrigued by the possibility that Dix’ notion of ‘shape’ as a sequence is reflected in how the whole poem ‘fits’ together.

Of course, Hague is probably correct but his is not the way that I read the poem – a range of emphases is better than no range at all. I also wonder if I’d read this poem differently if I had some kind of religious belief.

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7 responses to “David Jones and the shape of the Anathemata

  1. This is a superb edition of the blog. When you are at your best, there’s no better tonic for the mind-numbness induced by literary chatter. i salute you. I also suggest that NOT “believing” is BOUND to keep Jone’s work at some remove. One title I have discovered that may shorten the distance is Catherine Pickstock’s meditation on modernity and the Mass, After Writing.

    • Thank you for the salute, I can only say that I consider myself fortunate to have this stuff read by such an intelligent and attentive group of readers and I’m not terribly keen on the ‘chatter’ either. After Writing is now on order.

  2. nathaniel drake carlson

    I still highly recommend Dilworth’s Shape of Meaning in the Poetry of David Jones. I know I’ve mentioned that a couple times already but if you can get hold of a copy somehow I sincerely encourage you to do so. I think it will add immeasurably to your experience of engaging with this text.

    • It has been on the ‘list’ since you first mentioned it but it is a very long list and I do get distracted, should I read it after Hague/Dix or alongside?

      • nathaniel drake carlson

        I think after would be just fine. In fact, in some ways it’s probably preferable as Hague/Dix sort of introduces a number of elements which Dilworth builds from or assumes as established.

  3. I would also strongly recommend Tom Dilworth’s book. I just came back from the National Library of Wales where I was working on the manuscripts to The Ana, specifically the compositional and insertional order of the fragments Jones employed in building the work, and they pretty much confirm Tom Dilworth’s analysis of the shape of the text. Incidentally, I just wanted to say how much I enjoy reading your blog.

    • First of all, I’m really pleased that you enjoy this stuff. Secondly, I know that I should and I do intend to read Dilworth once I’ve finished Hague and Dix because I don’t want to get too distracted by trying to read three things on the same subject at once.

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