Tag Archives: the sleeping lord

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.

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David Jones Week: Reading The Fatigue.

First of all,I need to than the generosity of Nathaniel Drake Carlson and Dylan Lloyd for their generosity in providing me with these recordings which have been an absolute revelation for me. This one is from Nathaniel and it is the longest (23 mins) and it jumps around a lot at about 19 mins, I’ve decided to leave this in rather than edit it out because it is how it is, if that makes sense.

Secondly, because of these recordings, I’ve realised that I haven’t paid enough attention to the shorter work and this has done Jones a great disservice because this material is staggeringly good and I’m very, very impressed by The Fatigue because of its elegance and deep humanity.

This oversight is even more heinous because I’ve had a copy of The Sleeping Lord collection for more than three years and have failed to give it the attention that it deserves. This is made worse by the fact that these ‘fragments’ are probably the best entry points for most new readers. Although Jones’ intro here is good, I want to quote something from the print intro where Jones describes an incised stone marking the site of a legion’s cook-house that he saw on a trip to Jerusalem in 1934:

The incised stone they showed to me was set up more than half a century after the Passion, for the tenth Fretensis was not I understand posted to Judea until the days of Trajan. None the less the sight of it brought the ordinary serving soldiers of First Century Roman Judea very close to one especially owing to its alleged domestic-regimental use. And at the same time it brought back vividly to my mind those ill-scrawled inscriptions of the Forward Zone. equally domestic and regimental, marking at the turn of a duck-board track, the flimsy shelter that served as the cook-house of B Coy, nth Batt. R.W.F. or the painted board, set askew, and pock-marked by stray bullet-holes, which read nth Field Coy. R.E. To gum-boot store. No loitering by day. But what a fall in the calligraphy.

Given that In Parenthesis was published two years later, I don’t think it takes too much imagination to suggest that this neatly expresses the shifting complexities of that long poem about life in the trenches. I don’t want to over-read (again) but this fascination with his personal cultural clutter talks to me of a strong notion of the past living and breathing in the apparent immediacy of the present.

This will take less than twenty five minutes of your life and hopefully will demonstrate to you just how important a poet Jones is to all of us.

David Jones reads The Hunt

Thanks again to the generosity of Nathaniel Drake Carlson, below is a remarkable recording of Jones reading the above which was published in the Sleeping Lord, in 1974 but first appeared in Agenda in 1965. I’m of the view that it gives a clearer idea of Jones’ ‘range’ and additional exposure of his lesser known verse is never a bad thing.

I continue to feel the need to point out that Jones is one of the great poets of the twentieth century and one of the most ignored which obviously says more about us than it does about him. Some of his work isn’t the easiest to engage with but the effort is always repaid many times over.

This particular poem, as Jones says in his introduction, narrates a hunt for a great boar through the Welsh forests but it’s also a quite moving and profound meditation on kingship. There’s also a brief commentary on the feudal system and its many inequalities. I’d also like to draw attention to the occasional use of alliteration and of the repetition of ‘ride’ which brilliantly conveys the violent surge of these men through the trees.

With regard to kingship, we have this:


                       the speckled lord of Prydain
in his twice-embroidered coat
                       the bleeding man in the green
and if through the trellis of green
                       and between the trellis of the needlework
the whiteness of his body shone
                       so did his dark wounds glisten.

There’s also “(indeed was it he riding the forest-ride / or was the tangled forest riding?)” which is a much better line once you start to think about it.

David Jones’ “The Fatigue”

The above poem was published in 1974 in the Faber collection “The Sleeping Lord and other fragments” and deals with the crucifixion, the working party of the title is the Roman soldiers detailed to accompany Christ to the cross. Before we go any further I need to make a plea from the Sadly Neglected Poets section of this blog.

I can just about understand the neglect suffered by Hoccleve, Skelton and Drayton, I can even appreciate that some may want to overlook/ignore the work of R S Thomas but I cannot understand why a poet of Jones’ talent and originality should be known more for his work as an artist than as one of the great modernist poets of the last century. The really odd thing is that he was recognised as such by both Eliot and Auden but now seems to be relegated to the third or fourth division. I accept that “The Anathemata” is very difficult but it’s also wonderfully difficult and “In Parenthesis” is by far the best poem from the trenches that we have.

Moving on to “The Working Party”, the good news is that it is nowhere near as tricky as “The Anathemata” and comes with an introduction and lots of footnotes. The even better news is that it’s very good indeed because it takes an unusual perspective and tells the ‘story’ in a way that is soaked through with compassion and humanity.

Jones converted to Catholicism in the early twenties and the Catholic faith and liturgical practice are major themes as are the Roman Empire, Welshness and the experience of ‘ordinary’ soldiers. All of these are present here. In his introduction Jones says:

I have (as in each other the other fragments) made the personnel of the Jerusalem garrison to be of mixed recruitment. Thus the NCO is from the urbs itself, while some of his men are Celts from Gaul or Britain.

and:

But if I may have falsified some of the historical accidents I have done so with deliberation in order toconvey a far more important historical truth: the heterogeneous composition of the forces of a world-imperium.

Jones’ attitude towards the Roman empire is ambiguous in that he saw it as both brutal and ruthless but he describes its inner workings with a kind of appalled and awed fascination. He was born inLondon but his father was Welsh and all of his work is littered with signs and tokens from the culture of that broken land (I have been reading R S Thomas…).

Jones identifies the three main sections of the poem as:

  • ninety lines of a dialogue between a Roman NCO and two privates of Celtic origin;
  • about a hundred lines of “soliloquy or reflection made in the context of Catholic Xtian tradition and theology” on the crucifixion;
  • over seventy lines devoted to the administration of the empire from Rome before ending with a description of the “location and allocation of the men detailed”.

I want to deal with each of these in turn but need to point out that you don’t need to believe in God to appreciate what Jones does nor do need to be Welsh or have an enthusiastic interest in the Roman empire. I don’t fall into any of these categories and yet am almost overwhelmed by the strength and beauty of the work.

Jones is particularly adept in the demotic, his characters are believable and contain more than a little humanity. This is the NCO:

  D'you reckon you're tutelar deity of the whole of Salem city,
Upper and Lower and extra-mural perimeter as well? Not
Water Gate nor Fish Gate neither, but somewhat left of
Old Gate to the right of Arx, Birket Post West inclusive, with
y'r centre on Skull Hill, that's you bit of frontage
Skull Hill's your lode
the tump without the wall.
Project an imagined line from that tump, cutting Cheese
Gully back to this same block of silex where you now stand
and you've got y'r median point of vision - now hold it.
That's how we keep
the walls of the world
sector by sub-sector
maniple by maniple
man by man,
each man as mans the wall
is as squared, dressed stone fronting the wall but one way
according to the run of the wall.
It's whoresons like you as can't keep those swivel eyes to front
one short vigilia through as are diriment to our unific and expand-
ing order.

So, we have the Roman equivalent of a platoon watch complaining because one of his guards has reported something occuring outside the area he’s supposed to be watching- which happens to be the site of the crucifixion. This has the effect of placing the reader on those walls too and into the mindset of the lower echelons of the army. The middle section in verse is a refrain about the extent and strength of empire that recurs at the end of the poem and is one of the ‘points’ that Jones wants to make. ‘Cheese Gully’ is the only part of this that is glossed – “Cf. the Tyropoeon Valley which ran north-south through the Upper and Lower divisions of the city and means the valley of the cheese-makers.” I confess that I had to look up ‘silex’ and ‘diriment’ and am now of the view that we ought to make much more use of the latter.

The above records a banal, everyday event in the first century but Jones manages to situate it within the context of empire/imperialism and also, with the reference to Skull Hill as ‘your lode’, to anticipate what is to follow. None of this is overstated and the tone of the speech accurately echoes the voice and attitude of thousands of contemporary NCOs even though ‘whoresons’ does come as a bit of a shock.

I’ve said this before but if poetry is in part about bearing witness then there are very few who fulfil this function better than David Jones who manages in a very short space of time to involve (in its widest sense) the reader in what is being described.

This is from the second section:

   And others of you to be detailed
(not on other fatigues)
for the spectacle
at the sixth hour
in Supplementary Orders
not yet drafted
for the speculatores

those who handle the instruments
who are the instruments
to hang the gleaming Trophy
on the Dreaming tree
and to see
on the leaning lignum
the spolia-bloom
where shine the Five Phalerae
that till the hard war
and for his racked-out limbs
(extensis manibus...)
the dark-bright armillae
Quis est vir qui babet coronam?
for the spined-dark wreath
squalentam barbam
without the circuit-wall
of his own patria.
Where the Spoil of Spoils
hangs to Iuppiter
and the trophies
are the Conqueror
...himself to himself
on the Windy Tree.

Most of the Latin is glossed and the rest can be looked up quite quickly. The ‘speculatores’ are glossed as “a special branch of the service directly responsible to the provincial governor for the carrying out of executions”. As well as the Latin, there are references to Anglo-Saxon, Welsh and Norse traditions all of which are explained but the Point that I want to make is that this is incredibly beautiful in capturing the poignancy of the scene perhaps because of the wide range of references that are used. What also shines through is the humanity of Jones as witness. I’ll accept that there’s a degree of obscurity going on- “Quis est vir qui babet coronam?” is glossed as “a translation of a line in poem by the 14th century Welsh Poet Gruffud Grygg, reading: Pwy yw’r gwr piau’r goron, ‘who is that man that owns the crown?'”. The overall effect however is still stunning, in contrast to the routine tones of the first part and building up to the magnificent last two lines- which are glossed as being from the Nordic ‘Havamal’.

The last section is a complete contrast again for now we are observing the processes and structures of empire:

By how an inner cabinet plot the mappa mundi when key
officials and security agents forward their overlapping but dis-
crepant graphs
by whether the session
is called for after
or before, noon
by whether a hypocaust has fouled its flues
by how long the amphora is off the ice
be whether the wind
blows moderate from trans-Tiber
or with a nasty edge
straight up the Tirbutina

As can hopefully be seen, none of this matches the level of difficulty found in ‘The Anathemata’ even though it addresses many of the same themes. As Jones notes in his introduction, ‘The Fatigue’ is interrelated with two other poems (‘The Wall’ and ‘The Tribune’s Visitation’) which are also set in Jerusalem at the time of the Passion and all of these give greater voice to Jones’ faith and his view of empire. The other two are both accomplished poems of a very high standard but ‘The Fatigue’ stands out for me because of the switch in focus and perspective that re-frames this pivotal act removing from it the conventional narrative and enabling us to see it with a fresh pair of eyes.