Tag Archives: gregory dix

The Anathemata, a further experiment in reading

This was going to be the start of another part of the book project which was going to alternate with ‘Night Office’ and “The Triumph of Love”. Again it’s an attempt to encourage a wider readership by writing something that’s bit more personal and immediate, a work in progress….

You’re daunted, you’re aware of its reputation with regard to readability and obscurity but you’ve just read ‘In Parenthesis’ which is the most heartbreakingly magnificent war poem/novel that you’ve ever read and it wasn’t too difficult but you’ve got the Auden quip in your head (been living with it for 10 years and still didn’t understand it- he also thought it was the best long poem of the 20th century) and you know this will take time. You’re relieved to find that Jones has provided a longish introduction which sets out what he’s aiming for. This seems to be a description of the important aspects of his cultural landscape of the last two thousand years. Of course ‘landscape’ is your noun, he uses ‘mythus’ and ‘sign’ and deposit’ and it’s clear that the Catholic liturgy is going to be a central focal point. As with ‘In Parenthesis’ there’s notes but these re t the bottom of the relevant page. You know that their are many different recommended ways to read the poem and you decide on a middle path of using the notes (where possible) to establish the ‘sense’ of the text.

You find yourself thinking about liturgy and realise that this is stuff you should really know a little more about because it’s been an expression of belief for the majority of people in the West for the last two millennia – even though there isn’t a God.

You re-read the introduction and come across four paragraphs that might be Quite Important:

“Or, to leave analogy and to speak plain: I believe that there is, in the principle that informs the poetic art, a something which cannot be disengaged from the mythus, deposits, materiere, ethos, whole res. of which the poet is himself product.

My guess is that we cannot answer the question ‘What is poetry?’ (meaning, What is the nature of poetry? cannot be answered without some mention of these same deposits.

We know – it goes without saying – that the question ‘What is the material of poetry?’ cannot be answered without some mention of these same deposits..

We know also, and even more certainly that this applies to the question ‘By what means or agency is poetry?’ For one of the efficient causes of which the effect called poetry is a dependant involves the employment of particular language or languages, and involves the employment of a particular language or languages, and involves the employment of a particular language or languages, and involves that employment at an especially heightened tension. The means or agent is a veritable torcular, squeezing every drain of evocation from the word-forms of that language or languages. And that involves a bagful of mythus before you’ve said Jack Robinson – or immediately after.

Now, you’ve spent more than a few years thinking about poetry, you have fairly well-formed views about what poetry can and can’t do. In particular you are of the view that poetry takes itself far too seriously and isn’t, in fact, all that special or privileged. The above does however seem to offer a key to at least part of the underlying rationale of the work even though you may not agree with it. What is also an immense relief is that you understand it. You’re not familiar with ‘torcular’ so you check the OED and find that it means ‘tourniquet’ but is also Latin for a wine or oil press which makes additional sense given Jones’ interest in imperial Rome.

You are deeply suspicious of the idea that poetry somehow makes use of ‘heightened’ language primarily because you don’t understand how this heightening works and think it my be a way of avoiding the fact that poets make use of a bagful of tricks which is more about adaptation than refinement. Still there’s something satisfying about the notion of poetry giving expression to these deposits. You start to think about your own mythos and now feel less daunted because you might now have a point of entry and a vague template of what is intended.

You begin and are immediately relieved that the beginning is comprehensible and in line with the introduction:

“We already and first of all discern him making this thing other.
 His groping syntax, if we attend, already shapes:
application and for them, under modes and patterns altogether
 theirs, the holy and venerable hands lift up an efficacious sign.”

There is a note to the Latin:
“See the Roman Mass, the Prayer of Consecration, beginning ‘Which oblation do thou… ascribe to, ratify, make reasonable…’
and a further note to ‘venerable hands:
‘Cf. the same ‘… in sanctas ac venerabiles, manus suas…’

At which point you know that that re-reading Eamon Duffy isn’t going to be enough so you look at the Catholic Encyclopaedia and decide that this is probably too much so you turn to Wikipedia and find ‘Text and Rubrics of the Roman Canon’ which provides the relevant texts in full. The first is “Be pleased, O God, we pray, to bless, acknowledge, and approve this offering in every respect: make it spiritual and acceptable so that it may become for us the Body and Blood of your most beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.” You note that this seems to be radically different translation of the same Latin words but you know that Jones was a staunch traditionalist and continued to adhere to the Tridentine Mass after it was superseded. Wikipedia also tells you tht it is Christ’s hands that are referred to and not (as you had assumed) those of the priest. You take the ‘efficacious sign’ to be the sign of the cross as this is made by the priest at this point in the Tridentine Mass. You think about the adjective and wonder about its choice. A little further rummaging about finds that the sign of the cross is used to bless the bread and the wine 25 times during the Tridentine Mass which seems a little excessive.

You then think about what it means to bless something and you recognise that things are blessed in order to endow them with some sort of spiritual or holy quality and you also remember something from ‘O’ level history about transubstantiation and the belief that the bread and wine became the flesh and blood of Christ and you think that this might be to do with the efficacy of the sign(s) of the cross.

There’s another couple of oddnesses: why should our discerning have already have occurred if this was ‘first of all’ and does this somehow tie in with ;pre-application in the second paragraph? Both of these seem to imply something that happened before the scene that is being described, then again Jones could be implying that the rituals and signs of the Mass have been with us since the Last Supper or he could be referring to the eternal presence of Christ amongst us. You decide to read on:

“These, at the sagging end and chapter.s close, standing
 humbly before the tables spread, in the apsidal houses, who
  intend life:
                   between the sterile ornaments
        under the paste-board baldachins
        as, in the young-time, in the sap-years
                   between the loving floriations
        under the leaping arches.
(Ossific, trussed with ferric rods, the failing numina
 of column and entablature, the genii of spire and triforium, 
like great rivals met when all is done, nod recognition across 
the cramped repeats of their dead selves.)”

This is a relief, we’re still in church and there’s kind of elegy for the early years of Christianity (young-time, sap-years) which are contrasted with today’s elderly congregations and it’s fake features. Then there is this remarkable bracketed paragraph which you have to read a few times before you understand what might be going on. The church is ossified and held together with iron trusses. The inspirational spirits behind (within?) the architectural features and flourishes acknowledge each other and what they once were.

You really are quite pleased with this, you know that things will get denser and more obdurate as you proceed but this is quite a gentle beginning. Because of your complete ignorance in these matters, you check out the less obvious architectural terms and note that ‘triforium’ has a slightly misleading background in that before the 19th century the term was only ever applied to features of Canterbury cathedral but has since become more general in application. You love little nuggets of obscurity like this and consider delving further but the rest of the poem awaits.

A little way in there’s a lengthy description / account of the Last Supper, you’re surprised by how poignant you find this passage to be even though you don’t believe that any of these events occurred. Not only does Jones believe this story, he also holds it to be the central event of human history- one that continues to exercise its power two thousand years later. You re-read and discover that it’s the understated that has this effect, the words that do no more than ‘point’ to what might be going on:

     “In a low voice
                as one who speaks
where a few are, gathered in high-room
     and one, gone out.”

You’re taking it that the one that has gone out is Judas Iscariot on his way to betray Jesus and you haven’t actually felt anything at all about this event until now, you’ve understood its significance in terms of Christianity and Western culture and you know the endless debates about what this final meal signifies.but all of this has been without emotion, you haven’t been moved by these events because you don’t think that they occurred. These four lines have evoked something in you – the only other religious verse to achieve this response is the middle bit of George Herbert’s ‘Love III’ which is in part about worthiness. The initial ‘low voice’ is that of the priest which then becomes (or is likened to) the voice of Christ. You wonder why ‘the’ or ‘a’ have been dropped from the place of this speaking and why there’s a hyphen. You’ve never fully understood the blame heaped on Judas Iscariot, if we are to understand that Christ’s execution was pre-ordained then it was Judas’ pre-ordained role to betray him. You don’t want to tax your brain too much but it would appear likely that Jones held to the ‘traditional’ view of free will or some variation of it, which may mean that Christ’s self-sacrifice was inevitable and that Judas was one of the instruments by which this was achieved. You don’t hold to the view that Judas was a political extremist who wanted Christ to be arrested so that He could reveal his identity and wreak havoc on his enemies. You then realise that you haven’t thought about any of this for many, many years and begin to see how much of ‘gap’ there is between those with faith and those without.

There is then a description of preparations for the meal which is heavy with sea faring phrases: “They set the thwart boards / and along”; “furbish with the green of the year the cross beams and the / gleaming board”; “The make all shipshape / for she must be trim / dressed and gaudeous / all Bristol fashion here / for: / Who d’you think is Master of her?” You’re aware that there is a strong nautical / seafaring strand to ‘The Anathemata” but you are surprised to find it given such emphasis here- you aren’t struck by the oddness of it but you do find it startling and recall something that Prynne wrote about modernist poetry seeking to surprise and thereby take your breath away. You also need to check on some of the terms, the OED gives this for ‘thwart’ as a noun: “a seat across a boat on which the rower sits, a rower’s bench” which makes sense but it also gives this etymology “ apparently a noun use (which came in after 1725) of thwart adv., thwart adj., having reference to the position of the rowing benches or seats athwart or across the boat. Whether its use was partly due to similarity of sound to thaught , thawt , or thought , previously applied to the same thing, is uncertain. Our latest contemporary instance of ‘thaught or thought ’ is of 1721, of thoat 1697, of thout 1725, while our first of ‘thaughts or thwarts ’ is of 1736, so that the appellations were continuous in use, as if the one had passed into the other. But, for the full determination of the relations between thoft , thought or thaught , and thwart , fuller evidence between 1500 and 1700 is needed” which strikes you as wonderful especially as it’s from the first edition and hasn’t suffered the inevitable update yet. In terms of meaning, you recall that some big ships were propelled by oarsmen who sat on benches that didn’t go all the way athwart the boat but you do like the idea of these boards going across the general run of things (bow-stern) being used as seats at the Last Supper because their purpose was to enable the ship to move forward. You now feel very pleased with yourself and decide to tell very many people about the ‘thaught – thwart’ conundrum and hope it is never resolved.

You decide to move on to ‘Bristol fashion’ even though you know what the phrase means and you come across the excellent Phrasefinder site which tells you that the term may have been derived from the fact that ships docking at Bristol had to be sturdy and in good condition because they would be beached when moored at low tide. The site adds that this is circumstantial reasoning but you do prefer it to the OED quote from the Sailor’s Word Book of 1867 which just equates it to Bristol’s commercial prime when all its shipping was in good order.

Everything is being prepared for Christ, the ‘Master’ but we are not told this but instead are asked this rhetorical question. You are reasonably certain that reams and reams have been written on the use of rhetoric in Big Poems and you may even have read some on Spenser and/or Milton in the past but you’ve forgotten all of it even though you think that rhetoric should still be taught in schools. So, you take note of the fact that this is the first time that you, the reader, are addressed and that the use of ‘her’ might suggest a parallel between the upper room and a ship.

Things then take a deeper turn:

“In the prepared high-room
he implements time inside time and late in time under forms in-
delibly marked by locale and incidence, deliberations made
out of time, before all oreogenesis

                 on this hill
    at a time’s turn
                 not on any hill
   but on this hill.”

You are about to make number of rash leaps in the dark but you need to get ‘oreogenesis’ out of the way first. It turns out that this isn’t in the OED but ‘orogenesis’ is. You then turn to google and come across this from “Pen and the Cross: Catholicism and English Literature 1850 – 2000” by Richard Griffiths:

“And now we come back to the priest, who, though imprisoned in time, is also performing a timeless act, an act that had been decided by the Word before the beginning of time, before the crearion of the earliest creatures (oreogenesis) and before the creation of time itself; and the timelessness of Christ’s sacrifice is shown by the fact that, ‘before all oreogenesis’, it was decided ‘on this hill’ (a clear reference to Calvary):”

He then quotes the above passage. You then have a brief run of the auto-didact panics before deciding that he’s both wrong and inept even though he’s written a book and it’s been published (this kind of anxiety is never far from the surface). It is fair to say that this remarkable passage only makes sense if we don’t go ‘back to the priest’ but recognise that it is Christ who is implementing inside time and if we don’t look for meaning the creation of time and we avoid cliches like ‘the timelessness of Christ’s sacrifice” becuase that’s the kind of thing that people say when they have nothing to say.

You, of course, want this passage to be (at least) a nod towards Whitehead’s “Process and Reality” and this needs to be kep in check. You’re also more than a little sceptical about stuff that sounds like it might be mystical mumbo-jumbo. You therefore go back to basics. The Catholic Mass is a re-enactment of the Last Supper and it is this ‘deposit’ that has persisted and endured in a very real form. ‘Implements’ will be a deliberate verb, in the sense of to make something happen or to put something into effect but also to provide with implements which may refer to the chalice and other paraphenalia but might also be the bread and wine.

You then notice (whilst looking for something else) that Jones expands on this in his introduction:

“So that, leaving aside much else, we could not have the bear and absolute essentials wherewith to bear the command ‘Do this for a recalling of me’, without artefacture. nd where artefacture is there is the muse and those cannot escape her presence who with whatever intention employ the signs of wine and bread. Something has to be made by us before it can become his sign who made us,. This point he settled in the upper room. No artefacture no Christian religion.”

Jones provides a note to ‘recalling’ which points to this from “The Shape of the Mass” by Gregory Dix:

“But in the scriptures of both the Old and New Testament anamnesis and the cognate verb have a sense of “recalling” or “re-presenting” before God an event in the past so that it becomes here and now operative by its effects”.

In spite of yourself you try to have another think at this, you find a copy of the Dix book on the interweb and read the relevant pages and are immediately disappointed- the underpinning argument does not even nod towards Whitehead but is a rather confused and ill-founded model built on the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament. You could resolve the problem by allowing yourself to think that Jones would have agreed with Whitehead on the primacy of the event but the sad fact is that he wouldn’t.


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.

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;

application and for them, under modes and patterns altogether
theirs, the holy and venerable hands, lift up an efficacious

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.