Tag Archives: Davd Jones

David Jones: Christian Modernist (?) and the shape of the Poem.

I gave a paper last week at the David Jones, Christian Modernist conference in Oxford last week and what follows are the main thoughts that the proceedings kicked off for me butnI’d like to start by thanking all those who were so welcoming and gracious to this self-taught interloper. I also want to express my gratitude for the personal support and encouragement given to me by Tom Dilworth, Tom Goldpaugh and Brad Haas.

I also have to report that my contribution was very well received which is odd because I was gently pointing out that they were talking about the wrong things in the wrong way and should instead focus on the work itself (poem as poem) rather than these external flummeries (technical term). Having said that, the papers that were given were full of thought-provoking material once your humble servant had waded through some of the bigger words.

unsurprisingly, given the title of the conference, there was an emphasis on Jones’ faith and I’m exceptionally grateful to Fr John David Ramsay who took time to explain to me (a non-Dawkins atheist) the relationship between the making of art and the Passion which Jones emphasises in his notes to The Anathemata.

However, the stand-out events for me were those papers given by Tom Goldpaugh and Francesca Brooks, both of which set off a whole train of thought in my head that is still running. Whilst preparing the talk I came across Jones’ indication that he had made a shape from words and I’d been wondering since then about what kind of shape this might be. Francesca talked about the way the ‘look’ of the text (including the notes), the inscriptions and the sounds of the words combined to make something multi-dimensional, in the physical sense, and gloriously complicated. Tom then went into some detail about how various parts of The Anathemata were put together, he used carpentry analogies to describe these splitting and joining processes.

What was particularly intriguing for me was to what extent Jones was trying to make a three-dimensional ‘thing’ and whether or not he succeeded. I started with the inscriptions included in the work because I know little about these and because Paul Hills had given me a gentle push into thinking about the violences and energies involved in both engraving and inscribing. The first and most obvious thing to state is that you can’t place a stone inscription into a book, you have to make do with an image of one. The problem with an image is that it is two-dimensional whereas a real inscription has three, the letters are cut into the stone which is in itself a tangible object. I think I also need to point out that this kind of incising, digging out can also bring forth blood. The idea/impulse to make this shape with words leads me to think again about the complex relationship between prose and verse especially as this appears in The Anathemata which I’m now thinking about visually as well as lingually.

I’m now going to use the joys of the pre tag to try and illustrate what I might be getting at. This is a randomly selected section of The Lady of The Pool:


       And does serene Astronomy carry the tonic Ave to the
created spheres, does old Averroes show a leg?2 -for what's
the song b'seine and Isis determines toons in caelian consis-
tories - or so this cock-clerk3 once said.
             Do all in aula rise
and cede him his hypothesis: 
             Mother is requisite to son?
Or would they have none
                  of his theosis?
He were a one for what's due her, captain.
Being ever a one for what's due us, captain.
He knew his Austin!4
                                                   But he were ever
at his distinctions, captain.
They come - and they go, captain.



1 Cf. the division of the Seven Liberal Arts into the Trivium: Grammar Dialectic, Rhetoric; and the Quadrivium: Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy, Music. 2 He held matter to be uncreate and from all eternity. 3 Pronounced to rhyme with 'lurk'. 4Cf. Augustine. 'God created man that man might become God'.

(If you are reading this on bebrowed then I apologise for the grey colouring above- wordpress can be obstinate, it also fails to render some html special characters- the long dash in this instance. Arduity is a better copy with consistent colouring but the dashes are still too short. Sorry.)

I now have several questions:

  • Is there a deliberate visual relationship between the poem and its notes?
  • Should we consider the notes as part of the poem?;
  • Is part of the reason that the notes don’t work that this concern with shape took precedence over utility?
  • Might this explain the odd punctuation in note 1 and ‘uncreate’ instead of ‘uncreated’ in note 2?
  • Does the Faber edition preserve the line breaks in the prose or do I need to go back to the original?

Of course, all of this is the most tentative and provisional guesswork and. I’d also like to throw in the aural dimension and ask if ‘fitting’ how the poem sounds into how it looks was one of the reasons that Jones had so much trouble constructing his work.

On a final note, Jasmine Hunter-Evans deserves the gratitude of all us Jones completists by discovering and persuading the BBC to digitise a 1965 television interview of Jones by his friend Sinclair Lewis. It is a revelation, the transcript has been published by the New Welsh Review.

David Jones Week: The Book of Balaam’s Ass

I’m mindful that the week is drawing to a close and, as with Prynne, there are so many things that I need / want to write about but I’ve just paid some attention to the version of the above which closes The Sleeping Lord which was published by Faber in 1974.

Thanks to the input of John Matthias and Tom Goldpaugh I’m now aware that there are three extant versions of The Book but I’m confining myself to this one for the moment primarily because of what Jones says about it in his introduction:

Anyway, for good or ill, these few pages from one section of the abandoned ‘Book of Balaam’s Ass’ were chosen as seeming to afford a link of sorts between the two widely separated books: ‘In Parenthesis’ and ‘The Anathemata’.

On a reasonably attentive reading of all 14 pages, I think I can see more than a few elements that may provide a closer understanding of the relationship (for the want of a better term) between the two longer poems and how the apparently wide gap between them isn’t as wide as I’ve thought. The subject matter is focused on the First World War but there is greater emphasis on myth and ritual together with the kind of incantation that is prominent in The Anathemata’. What I think strikes me most however is the elements which don’t appear to be part of this linkage. The first of these is a different kind of abstraction which seems out of place in Jones’ work. This is, of course a purely subjective response on my part and I haven’t been through the two longer poems to see if I’ve missed anything, no have I looked at either of the other versions to see if this particular tone/mode was extended there. I was however genuinely startled because what I was reading did not in any way tally with the David Jones that lives in my head. This is first part of the second paragraph with the same line breaks as the Sleeping Lord version:


     I know it bores you Cicily, and you too, Pamela/born/
between/the/sirens, but Bertie will corroborate what I'm saying,
and you ask poor Clayton. Willy and Captain Varley never
used any other analogies, and Belle Varley takes it like a lamb,
and even asks intelligent questions between her dropped stitches
-about all kinds of details about what the 5th did when Theodore
Vaughan-Herbert - ('Taffy' for short) caught a nasty one in the
abortive raid, east of Hulluch - O yes I was, I was with Taffy for
a while, only we differed in glory, but I expect he's know me.

In his brief introduction Jones describes The Book as “a harking back to conversations of the immediately post- 1914-18 period and to the later phases of the conflict itself”. The first few lines give an almost impressionist report of a kind of dialogue centring on three women who don’t make any further appearance in this particular fragment. It is not the presence of Cicily, Pamela and Belle that I find surprising but the tone of these few lines. I am aware that ‘ordinary’ real life conversation is often cryptic and haphazard but this ‘feels’ deliberately mannered, as though Jones had stepped outside his own cadences to make a particular point whilst leaving it more than a little mysterious.

This is all the order because I shouldn’t be this surprised, it’s to be expected that a modernist hailed by both Eliot and Auden should experiment with this particular idiom and I didn’t notice this on my first reading of the Book. It then occurs to me that I may be experiencing an example of the ‘dirty eyes’ syndrome that, as social workers, we were supposed to be wary of. This consists of having a fairly rigid and world-weary set of expectations as to how things will work out. Boys born into the underclass will truant, become involved in petty crime, receive a number of custodial sentences and ‘work’ in the black economy with only a few being ‘saved’ at the age of 23 or so by the love of a good woman. Girls who have experienced any kind of abuse will self-harm, develop eating disorders and seek out destructive relationships.

All of this points to a kind of poetry complacency, ‘David Jones writes long poems in his own distinctive voice without any of the more mannered modernist fripperies’ seems to have buried its way into the skin when I wasn’t looking, along with the view that Jones didn’t write anything of significance other than IP and TA. My only excuse for the second of these has been the initial shock of being introduced these two works and finding enough in both to occupy me for more than a few years. However the placing of Jones in this particular cognitive ‘box’ does nothing for the open-minded, eclectic and generally unprejudiced reader that I thought I was. Enough of the morbid introspection, on with the second surprising element.

There exists throughout human history the myth of the soldier who can’t be killed, the one who is always left standing when everyone else is dead. Jones introduces this into the latter part of The Book after an account of a disastrous raid on a windmill:


.......................................................And three
men only returned from this diversion, and they were called:
Private Lucifer
Private Shenkin
Private Austin
and the reason for there vulnerability was this:................

This is followed by a description of Pte. Lucifer’s “agility, subtlety and lightness’ in avoiding enemy fire that the Gremans considered him to be invulnerable to their efforts: “That Tommy, sir, is but an Anointed Cherub’. At the other end of the spectrum, Pte. Shenkin is said to be awkward and clumsy and stumbles into a shell hole about half over no-man’s land. Lying prone there he gets tangled up in his kit and lies there until nightfall. There is a beautiful and compelling account of the voices of the dying and the dead that he hears from his protected position before crwaling back to the safety of the assembly trench.

Following this piece of heartbreaking brilliance, we come to Pte. Austin:

The invulnerability of Pte. Austin was by reason of the suff-
rages of his mother who served God hidden in a suburb, and
because of her the sons of the women in that suburb were believed
to be spared bodily death at that time, because she was believed
to be appointed mediatrix there. And it was urged by some that
Mrs Austin conditioned and made acceptable in some round-
about way the tomfoolery of the G.O.C. in C. Anyway it was
by reason of her suffrages that Private Austin was called one of
the three who escaped from the diversion before the Mill.

This is surprising because, to my ear, it doesn’t work and it fails on more than one level. Both the previous survivors are given characters and attributes that convey their humanity and the accounts of their escape are vividly told in ways that I can envisage. Here we are given nothing of Pte. Austin and only a little bit more about his mum. I fully appreciate the sincerity and depth of Jones’ faith and I acknowledge the purported strength of intercessory prayers but surely every mother would be making such prayers at the time. In addition I don’t understand the equivocation in ‘were believed’ and ‘was believed’ unless it is ham-fistedly making a point about the power of faith This paragraph seems weak and not well thought through which is astonishing given the description of the Queen of the Woods in IP.

The fragment closes with Mrs Austen which is a pity because it’s by far the least satisfactory bit. I guess the section for me that most clearly marks for me a link between to two long poems is the description of the voices heard by Private Shenkin in his place of shelter. This obviously retains the setting of IP but takes the density of allusion and reference much further.

I was on the verge of forgiving my ignoring of the fragments because life may be too short and then I realised that I ‘like’ Jones’ work more than that of Sir Geoffrey Hill and I have most of Hill’s material in duplicate and his collection of essays. Will now go and order The Roman Quarry.