David Jones, his notes as strata.

I’ve been re-reading Tom Goldpaugh and Jamie Collison’s brilliant and essential edition of Jones’ The Grail Mass and Other Works. I was going to pick out a few of the notes and talk about Jones’ views on both the Roman Empire and All Things Welsh. Something in the editors’ introduction, however, caught my eye before I had the chance to dive in;

These notes are best understood not as didactic attempts to limit the meaning of the lines to which they refer, but rather in terms of Jones oft-used geological metaphors of ‘strata’ or ‘deposits’ to describe the way in which meaning builds up over time within a culture. He was particularly concerned with layers of meaning, and argued that to appreciate the textures on the surface one must know what lies beneath. A page of Jones’ poetry with footnotes running along the bottom and the verse printed above instantiates this understanding. The footnotes do not explain away the verse, they uncover a lower stratum of meaning upon which the poetry above is built. From this perspective, they endeavour not to draw the text down to a fixed meaning, but rather point upward, opening out possibilities of association that would have been otherwise inaccessible and which Jones hopes will subsequently inform the reader’s engagement with the verbal play of the poem itself. The visual impact of Jones’ footnoted poetry is one of the reasons the editors have confined commentary to extended endnotes.

As a self-opinionated Jones obsessive, this detailed explication provides a lot to think about. I’ve been of the view that the notes to The Anathemata don’t ‘work’ in that they often explain things that don’t always need an explanation glide over in silence the things that are Very Obscure Indeed. Self-annotation always seems to me to be fraught with hazard. Some poets manage it reasonably well but others seem much more concerned with self-justification rather than providing assistance. Of course, different readers require different kinds of help but Jones’ later work is so obdurate that I feel that we could all benefit from more consistent ‘cover’. The editors describe these notes as providing a ‘lower stratum of meaning’ that is somehow foundational to that particular part of the poem. If this is the case then I’m not sure that it’s something that I need, I’d much rather have some idea of context which provides broader information rather than these foundations. If this is the case then I don’t mind if more information is provided than I need as long as it gives me that cognitive breadth.

I’m nevertheless intrigued by this geological aspect and have now paid some attention as to where this might apply in the Grail Mass. I want to start with a couple of lines from The Third Celtic Insertion;

or circumambulate the world of
Mother Mona to wheat her furrows
for Camber's mess.........

Mother Mona gets this lengthy note;

Anglesey was known as Mon fam Cymru, ‘Mona the Mother of Wales’, on account, it is supposed, of the corn grown on the island. We have already noted the association of the sea god Manawyddan with the soil, The great fabulist, Geoffrey of Monmouth, in order to provide suitable founders for England, Scotland and Wales respectively names as the sons of Brute: Locrine, Ambarnact and Camber. Camber, no more than the other two, has any place in the earlier mythology. He is, I suppose, a literary invention of the Angevin age. Geoffrey was trying to provide an Aenid for Henry of Anjou’s empire. We can, however, at this date afford to utilise his inventions, for he himself has become part of our deposits. (Incidentally what a tragedy it was for Britain as a whole that the Angevin hegemony ever disintegrated. For had it continued the unity between these islands and French civilisation would have been assured).

The above would appear to be a bit at variance with our editors’ observation. It’s more of a justification for making use of an erroneous reference than ‘a deposit’ in itself. The two elements which may require explanation (‘Mother Mona’ and ‘Camber’) are dealt with first and this provides all the information that I need. As a reader, the observation about Geoffrey’s work having become ‘part of our deposits’ strikes me as extraneous to my engagement with the work. As Jones ackowledges, the last observation is also extraneous (and incorrect).

I also want to have a think about this;

Here in Kemais, igneous and adamant, 
and high - there in Penfro, the high trees
are low under Manannan's tide
where the Deisi foray who converse with incubi.

Does the tufted coverlet drape the shifting
or do we tread the paleozoic
                Where, hard strata lean on leaning strata
harder yer, and with each greater hardness
the slow gradient falls, slowly falls to where
the basalts dark gull's side beyond the fretted
knuckles of Pebidiog
                 Where the brittle rim of the lithosphere
hangs and jutties between water-cloud
and water
                  where the last grey tokens are.

All the names, except ‘Mannanan’ from the fist stanza are directly defined in the notes and that omission is clarified by the explanation of the reference to the ‘high trees’ lying low under the tide.

The rest of this extract however has no notes at all so I’ve had to use the interweb to elucidate both ‘Pebidiog’ and ‘lithosphere’ and to look up ‘jutty’ as a verb. This is what I mean with regards to the notes not ‘working’ in any of the later poems but especially this and The Anathemata. It may be argued that The Grail Mass is an incomplete draft an and Jones may have been intending to do this at a later stage before publication. All the same, this seems unlikely given the similar gaps in The Anathemata. Jones’ introduction to that work has;

I have a last point that I wish to get clear. Although in the notes to the text and in this apology I refer to or cite various authorities and sources that does not mean that this book has any pretensions whatever of a didactic nature. I refer to those sources only to elucidate a background.

This seems to me to be reasonably clear, I think that Jones could have done more elucidating but feel that thinking of the notes as some kind of strata just serves to complicate things that are already complex.


6 responses to “David Jones, his notes as strata.

  1. If only ‘The Grail Mass’ wasn’t priced at around £100! That being so, I’m glad to read even the excerpts inclided in your (very engaging) post…

  2. I have to admit that in principle I would really prefer to find in poetry strictly optional annotation. Authors annotate where the ‘new’ or discrepant material leads away from an appreciation of the poem as a kind of first layer of commentary. Scholarly commentary, whether here or on the likes of Olson or The Odyssey can accumulate into a parallel treatise. Some parallels perhaps also with prose as an alternative to verse translation. Or becoming lost in digressions like Tristram Shandy. Better still, perhaps, annotation as pointing the way to another poem.

    • Dear Clark Allison,I just had the opportunity to read your thoughtful review of our edition of The Grail Mass in the March 2020 Stride Magazine. You are spot on that he was unable to integrate the Celtic material ( one of the reasons we distinguished them as we did so that one could read it either way – straight dramatic narrative or layer by layer). As priced ( and really as it is set up now with apparatus,) it is for the specialist as you and others aptly note ( it is part of the Modernist Archive Series). Jaimie Callison and I are hoping that we can convince Bloomsbury to come out with a paperback, reasonably priced edition for a wider audience ( without much of the apparatus and one with more general reader cues – our is very genetically organized. Same order of parts – it was Jones’s – different/ modified reader cues). One minor quibble, which might be my misreading of what you said ( or my lack of clarity in our edition). This material did not come from what folks call The Anathemata: fragments of and attempted writing so much as The Anathemata: fragments. . .came out of this material which was completed as a whole before 1946-47 when he started the reconstruction. The Grail Mass, in turn, was that same material reorganized as his “continuation,” a continuation completed but not organized as such until 1949-52. In a way, the “continuation” was done before the work it “continued.” Again, this is a minor point, and I really appreciate the time you gave to your review. I would have responded privately, but I don’t have your email. Stay safe in these troubled times.

      • Clark Allison

        I thought this work, besides being scholarly, was a very welcome addition to the not too voluminous Jones corpus. It’s in the Bloomsbury ‘Modernist Archives’ series. I have the inclination to think that it could otherwise become presentable for the wider reader if questions of narrative, particularly, could be clarified, where one work ends and the other begins. As I recall you said somewhere in the supporting text that Jones own record keeping regards his own papers was rather haphazard and disorganised. So of course it would help to be clearer about what belongs in the ‘Anathemata’, ‘The Sleeping Lord’ and in this text. Actually a benefit of this work is to give recourse back to the Anathemata and indeed ‘Epoch and Artist’. I could add, though I did not say this in this review, that Jones’ mythologising had relevance to the renowned Inklings (Tolkien, Lewis and Williams) without being altogether closely aligned with them. I’m tempted to think that Jones has his adherents and that his reputation is fairly secure, even be it that he may mostly remain a ‘poet’s poet’. Plainly there has been and will probably be an amount to do in contextualising his work. I’m particularly concerned about reception to ‘The Anathemata’. Thank you for noticing my slightly fleeting review; Jones has his followers among British poets. And stay safe!

  3. Dear John, thank you for this superb post. One of the reasons Jaimie and I restricted our commentary to the end was to open up the text to what Jones was, as we saw it, doing in terms of his footnotes. It is a pretty wide open issue, and one that, I think, is important into how we, as individual readers, view his work. For example, Tom D and I disagree on the footnotes, or at least Jones’s attitude toward his use of them. Tom feels he regretted including them. I have suggested DJ regretted having to use them, and the distinction, i think, is important ( obviously, not between Tom and myself but how we see the footnotes). As to the strata concept and DJ’s inclusion of something that was “erroneous,” I think it speaks to the issues you raise ( don’t know if I can clearly articulate on the fly what i have been trying to figure out for a long time, but here goes). Jones recognized two kinds of erroneous material in his citations. There were those that came from scholarship that was supplanted by better scholarship ( the drafts have quite a bit of these where an early draft gets something wrong and he amends and others where he didn’t get to it); and then there were those, such as the Geoffrey you cited, where someone in the past “got it wrong” or made it up, but then, insofar as that “error” worked its way into the collective experience, we as the inheritors of the whole past ( rather than simply a specific deposit) read the poem through the collective recalling. I have felt that DJ in his footnotes was not so much elucidating his particular work as presenting the deposits that formed him, that he felt actually formed the consciousness of the culture ( whether individuals knew them or not) and by referencing them was inviting the reader to recover that past for themselves. Well, whatever DJ in fact was doing, thank you so much for opening up what i have always seen as one of the key issues of discussion. And in response to landloper – absolutely. The price is absurd. And stay safe. Stay well. December of culture.

    • Tom, I’m very grateful for your thoughtful and considered response which adds further value to Jones’ scholarship in general and this important area in particular. In writing this I chose not to include Tom Dilworth’s view because I feel that Jone’s subsequent regret about the notes doesn’t help us with his original intention. I also take your point which, I know springs ,from many years spent with this material. My own weakly argued position is an honest response as a very unscholarly reader who takes delight in the work. From that personal and, as ever, subjective perspective I hang on to what Jones says in his introduction to The Anathemata and to the ‘traveller’ metaphor with it’s emphasis on “the how or why of the relevant text”. In responding in this way I’m not intending to detract from either your or Tome’s view but to supplement them both, if that makes sense. Thank you again. Take care, you are very much needed in these dark times.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s