David Jones

The genius of David Jones

The work of the great modernist poet remains as relevant as it has ever been

Artillery Row

David Jones (1895–1974) was the greatest of the British modernists. A visionary in the vein of William Blake, this poet and painter used the mythology of these shores to bring to light truths about art and man with a unique power and beauty. Why does he remain a largely underappreciated figure?

Jones was marked forever, mentally and artistically, by his experiences in the First World War. He fought at the Somme and Passchendaele with the Royal Welch Fusiliers. He was injured at Mametz Wood and later came close to dying of trench fever. The epic poem which emerged in 1937 from this horror, In Parenthesis, won the Hawthornden Prize.

Leading literary peers heaped praise on his work. T.S. Eliot considered In Parenthesis “a work of genius” and thought its author would become as well-known as James Joyce. The other great long poem Jones is chiefly known for, The Anathemata, was lauded by W.H. Auden as being “very probably the finest long poem written in English this century”.

Despite this, Jones (who received the CBE) has never been widely read. This shy depressive has been consigned to the shadows, whilst figures such as Philip Larkin are thought to represent the best of this nation’s modern poetry. Larkin has his highlights, there is no doubt about that, but he can’t hold a candle to Jones in terms of artistic depth and insight.

One frustratingly simple reason why Jones isn’t hailed as one of our great national poets is the esoteric nature of much of his work. Picking up a poem or essay by Jones means being confronted by complex, multi-layered and challenging writing that is heavy with allusions and symbolism.

Like his modernist contemporaries Eliot and Ezra Pound, Jones’ work moves rapidly between myth and the everyday world. His writing is full of references to Roman Britain and Arthurian legend, and it is shot through with heavy Celtic and Welsh influences. Biblical allusions are abundant.

Jones views the Mass as the locus point of existence and civilisation

In Parenthesis, which tells the tale of an infantry unit of Welsh and English soldiers from their setting off to war to the slaughter at Mametz Wood, takes the reader from Troy to Agincourt to the world of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. The work’s thematic ambiguity doesn’t make it an easy read for a British public, which prefers the straightforward moralism of Wilfrid Owen’s war poetry. It is achingly beautiful, though, as when the Queen of the Woods bestows gifts upon the slain soldiers at the end of the poem:

Some she gives white berries
some she gives brown
Emil has a curious crown it’s
made of golden saxifrage.
Fatty wears sweet-briar,
he will reign with her for a thousand years.

Of great importance in Jones’ story is his conversion to Catholicism in 1921, which came after he stumbled across a Catholic Mass in Ypres in a ruined barn. The Eucharist became for Jones the greatest artwork, a position firmly out of step with our contemporary artistic and cultural mores, and Christian symbolism suffused his work. He joined a group of Catholic artists in Sussex, where he worked with Eric Gill (it is unclear whether Jones became aware of Gill’s latterly revealed deviant behaviour). He was engaged to Gill’s daughter Petra, the subject of his painting The Garden Enclosed, but she broke this off in 1927.

Jones’ view of the Mass as the locus point of existence and civilisation is seen in his visual art — for he was a painter and an engraver before he was a poet — in works such as A Latere Dextro and Vexilla Regis. His wood engravings of the Biblical story of Jonah are masterpieces that remind one of Blake in their mysterious intensity.

The religious influence on Jones’ writings is fully apparent in The Anathemata, which he considered his greatest work. The poem, which has the idea of sacrament at its fragmented heart, uses the Mass to sketch out Western (and specifically British) history:

Upon all fore-times.
From before time
his perpetual light
shines upon them.
Upon all at once
upon each one
whom he invites, bids, us to recall
when we make the recalling of him
daily, at the Stone.

Like much of Jones’ corpus, this is not an overly accessible work. In terms of both theme and content, it is out of line with modern sensibilities. Like In Parenthesis, the poem is full of allusions. For the reader who can persevere, however, great beauty is available as we are taken deep into the heart of our culture through Celtic legend and ancient liturgy.

It shouldn’t be ignored that Jones has been criticised by some in the academy for his political views prior to the Second World War, another reason for the overlooking of his work. This anti-imperialist has been maligned as an active fascist sympathiser. This accusation is not borne out by the evidence, however — Jones is not at all like Pound in this regard.

Jones’ reference in an unpublished 1939 essay to the rise of fascist politics as “an heroic attempt to cope with certain admitted corruptions in our civilisation”, for example, stemmed from Spenglerian concerns about religious and cultural decline rather than sympathies for Hitlerism. When Jones became aware of what was actually going on in Germany, he was horrified.

Jones explores the difficulty with latching on to objective truth

Mentions of “plutocracy” and “the merchants” in his poetry have been taken wildly out of context to infer that Jones held dark views. As biographer Thomas Dilworth argued back in 2003, “no other poet in the past century comes close to him in consistently and thoroughly opposing totalitarianism”. Either way, unjustified concerns about Jones’ politics are no good reason to dismiss his work — just think of the dyed-in-the-wool communist sympathisers who have escaped from the conflicts of the 20th century with limited impacts on their artistic legacies.

Jones certainly deserves to be brought to greater attention for his poetic achievements. His theory of art, inspired by French philosopher Jacques Maritain, and his views on what he called “technocracy”, also gives us much to ponder.

His magisterial essay Art and Sacrament argues that man’s “art is sign-making”, a gratuitous act that is inherently sacramental in nature through its pointing to something other. For Jones, “man is unavoidably a sacramentalist” regardless of whether he is a Christian. Jones views Christ as a sign, which he makes clear by reference to a quote from Maurice de la Taille that Jesus “placed Himself in the order of signs”.

A key concern for Jones is the civilisational shift driven by modern technologies. This presents problems for our capacity to discover man-the-artist, with its eternal truths about man and art, in the ever-changing tides of modernity. This line of thinking bears similarities to the essays of contemporary writer Paul Kingsnorth, who has written on the threats the technological “machine” poses to the human soul.

The difficulty with latching on to objective truth in modernity is explored in Jones’ poem A, a, a, Domine Deus, where he notes that “it is easy to miss Him at the turn of a civilisation”. Our modern dilemmas, as we sink further into relativism, are evident in the poem’s conclusion that “my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible crystal a stage-paste … Eia, Domine Deus”.

More Brits should take the time to read Jones — it is extremely rewarding. This complicated character’s insights into the artist and the human soul speak to us ever more powerfully, in an age when we could do with rediscovering the sacramental.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover