David Jones - "Very probably the finest long poem written in English this century," judged W.H.Auden. A complex, quasi-historical epic, it is nevertheless approachable and a pleasure to read


 

David Jones, Anathemata, Chilmark Press, 1963.

davidjonessociety.weebly.com/about.html

"The poem is a sinewy, inventive, sensitive, vigorous, devoted, not at all a crackpot or homiletic operation. (...) I will not call it parasitic, for it enjoys its own materials; but is it epiphytic ? Here is where criticism of the brilliant thing must begin." - John Berryman

"Though he has extracted extraordinarily diverse treasures from the ancestral burial-mound, his text bristles with too many arcane allusions for a reader to grasp the meaning within its magic without a great deal of that "mugging-up" which shatters the poetic illusion and which he rightly repudiates himself." - Times Literary Supplement


The Anathemata, forbiddingly titled, is a very, very fine poem indeed. "Very probably the finest long poem written in English this century," judged W.H.Auden. A complex, quasi-historical epic, it is nevertheless approachable and a pleasure to read.
       Jones' Preface, worth the price of the book itself, is an exemplary introduction. Jones' acknowledges that it is a work born out of his limited and insular experience, as "a Londoner, of Welsh and English parentage, of Protestant upbringing, of Catholic subscription." "I have made a heap of all that I could find," Jones quotes at the outset, but there is purpose and method behind his efforts. Paying careful heed to sound and language, using foreign words where only the foreign will do, Jones relates history -- and connects it, to itself as well as to the reader. It is a book that tries to locate the poet (and the reader), and Jones' transcends his limited locale and background in doing so.
       Beginning with Rite and Fore-time Jones leads through history, moving to Angle-land and, eventually Mabinog's Liturgy and Sherthursdaye and Venus Day. Carefully hewn, the dense but free-flowing poem is an artistic achievement of great merit. Man, nature, history: great themes are reduced and reconstituted and represented by a poet with a marvelous ear.
       Yes, much of the myth is English and Welsh (though he does reach much farther), much of the religion weighed down by Catholicism, but the sum is far greater than these parts.
       An obvious precursor to Geoffrey Hill's The Triumph of Love, Jones' achievement is a beautifully crafted, heavy, heady poem that should be known and read. The only qualms we had regarding the book were, surprisingly, the footnotes. Copiously annotated by the author, we found that, for once, they detracted from the text. (We are generally great fans and proponents of the foot and endnote. In this instance endnotes would certainly have been preferable -- what Jones points out and to is not of sufficient interest to warrant these intrusions in the text.)
       The Anathemata is highly recommended.  - www.complete-review.com/reviews/jonesd/anathema.htm


I’ve read only a little of The Anathemata and understood less, even though Jones provides a commentary that explains a good chunk of the allusions in the text. W.H. Auden’s article on it gives an idea of the scope involved. It also quotes Jones’s eloquent rationale for the many languages and references that he uses: 
The poet may feel something with regard to Penda the Mercian and nothing with regard to Darius the Mede. In itself that is a limitation, it might be regarded as a disproportion; no matter, there is no help—he must work within the limits of his love. There must be no mugging-up, no “ought to know” or “try to feel”; for only what is actually loved and known can be seen sub specie aeternitati. The nurse herself is adamant about this: she is indifferent to what the poet may wish to feel, she cares only for what he in fact feels.
The words “May they rest in peace” and the words “Whosoever will” might by some feat of artistry, be so juxtaposed within a context as not only to translate the words “Requiescat in pace” and “Quicunque vult,” but to evoke the exact historic over-tones and under-tones of those Latin words. But should some writer find himself unable by whatever ingenuity of formal arrangement or of contextual allusion to achieve this identity of content and identity of evocation, while changing the language, then he would have no alternative but to use the original form…. It is not a question of “translation” or even of “finding an equivalent word.” It is something much more complex. “Tsar” will mean one thing and “Caesar” another to the end of time.
The artist deals wholly in signs. His signs must be valid, that is, valid for him and, normally, for the culture that has made him. But there is a time factor affecting these signs. If a requisite now-ness is not present, the sign, valid in itself, is apt to suffer a kind of invalidation. This presents most complicated problems to the artist working outside a reasonably static culture-phase…. It may be that the kind of thing I have been trying to make is no longer makeable in the kind of way in which I have tried to make it.
Jones’s self-consciousness here is surprising, given the monk-like description that he usually merits. He seems to presuppose a reasonably objective and specific set of “historic over-tones and under-tones,” then admits that the objectivity is a product of a “static culture.” He wants access to the signs of multiple static cultures of the past, but says, I think, that he is not certain that he can recontextualize them because he does not feel he himself exists in a culture with enough constant (static) signs. It’s debatable whether this dislocation is the product of his own willful alienation from contemporary culture, or whether his aims are fundamentally incompatible because culture is truly losing the reference points that he needs for his work. (I intuitively lean towards the former, but I haven’t read the whole book….)
But if he’s right that his book is not actually “makeable”, if The Anathemata is not only anachronistic but pointless, the result is trivia of the sort that fills the books of Marguerite Young, William Gaddis, and so many modern poets. Very high-quality trivia, but, in Jones’s view, devoid of the required resonance with the static signs, because they don’t exist in the necessary quality and quantity. Trivia of the type satirized by Stanislaw Lem in “Gigamesh”, a fake review of a Joycean monster of a book containing its own commentary twice the length of the novel:
Hostile reviewers say that Hannahan [the author] has produced the largest logogriph in literature, a semantic monster rebus, a truly infernal charade or crossword puzzle. They say that the cramming of those million or billion allusions into a work of belles-lettres, that the flaunting play with etymological, phraseological, and hermeneutic complications, that the piling up of layers of never-ending, perversely antinomial meanings, is not literary creativity, but the composing of brain teasers for peculiarly paranoiac hobbyists, for enthusiasts and collectors fanatically given to bibliographical digging. That this is, in a word, utter perversion, the pathology of a culture and not its healthy development.
Excuse me, gentlemen–but where exactly is one to draw the line between the multiplicity of meaning that marks the integration of a genius, and the sort of enriching of a work with meanings that represents the pure schizophrenia of a culture? I suspect that the anti-Hannahan group of literary experts fears being put out of work
. - David Auerbach

Anathemata might be described as an epic about the two Adams. Perhaps it may help the reader to approach what is, frankly, a very difficult poem, if he will imagine, as he reads it, that he is sitting in a Roman Catholic church while Mass is being celebrated. What is going on at the altar starts a train of thoughts and memories, his mind goes wool-gathering, and he forgets where he is, until some sound or sight recalls him to a consciousness of where he is; this in its turn starts a new train of thought, and so on. What the priest is doing in the middle of the twentieth century—he does it every day in exactly the same manner, and for many centuries it has always and everywhere been repeated thus—he does in anamnesis of something which only happened once, and will never happen again.
during the reign of the Emperor
Tiberius Claudius Nero Caesar
voted the tribune’s powers for the
first time twenty-five years since; his fourth term consul
nine years gone.

In Jerusalem
Under the fifth procurator of Judea
in the third or fourth severe April
of the ten, sharp Aprils of his office.
On Ariel mountain
The “creatures” of the rite are bread and wine, the existence of which presuppose both a nonhuman nature which produces wheat and grapes, and a human culture which by thought and labor is able to convert these natural products into human artifacts. With these symbolic signs he reenacts or represents the sacrifice on the cross of Christ, the Second Adam, for the redemption of the First Adam, that is to say, all mankind, whether dead, living or unborn. As a person who can say “I,” every human being, however he may be classifiable biologically and culturally, is unique—no one like him has ever existed before or will again—and, in consequence, every human being is Adam, an incarnation of all mankind. This unique “I” can never be the topic of speech; we can only communicate with each other about objects and events of this or that class. Yet, whenever a man’s speech is authentic, the way in which he speaks of such objects and events is uniquely his so that, in order to understand him, we have to translate what he says into our own unique speech, which, like his, consists, one might say, exclusively of Proper Nouns.
The difficulty of such translation which is implicit in all personal communication, above all in poetry, is manifest in Anathemata in an unusually severe way. It would be interesting to make a critical comparison of Mr. David Jones and M. St. John Perse, whose poems are also epics about the First Adam (though not about the Second). If, and this is a big If, the reader has an absolute command of the French language, M. St. John Perse’s poetry seems much easier to grasp because it contains no Proper Nouns. Particularity and concreteness are there in plenty, but it is largely a particularity of action and function; one thinks of the long catalogs of curious human occupations, prefaced by the rubric “he who.” But these human actions do not occur in any particular place or time; in M. St. John Perse’s poetic universe there are neither calendars nor atlases. In Mr. Jones’ poetic universe, on the other hand, Proper Nouns (all foreign words partake of the nature of Proper Nouns), calendars, and atlases are the most conspicuous features, and one must admit that without the copious notes which Mr. Jones provides, it is unlikely that anyone except the author would be able fully to understand the poem. I myself have read it many times since it first appeared ten years ago and there are still many passages which I do not “get.” In his defense, however, one must point out that M. St. John Perse’s picture of humanity is necessarily, by its timelessness and placelessness, lacking in a sense of human motive and purpose; his Adam has no history, and it is Adam’s history in which Mr. Jones is most interested.
The Adam of Anathemata is a man old enough to have fought in the First World War, a Catholic convert, interested in the arts (Mr. Jones is a painter as well as a writer), archaeology, mythology, and liturgics, to whom as a child Malory and the Mabinogian obviously meant much, and on whose writing the most clearly distinguished influence has been James Joyce. The self he has inherited from his parents and ancestors is a member of a number of concentric and overlapping classes, to each of which the various sections of his poem are, roughly speaking, dedicated.
Thus the Opening section, “Rite and Fore-Time,” is mainly concerned with himself as a member of the human species, Earth’s “adaptable, rational, elect and plucked-out otherling” who probably first appeared during the Tertiary Period:
Before the drift was over the lime-face.
Sometime between the final and the penultimate débâcle. (Already Arcturus deploys his reconnoitering
chills in greater strength: soon his last Putsch on any scale.)
Before this all but proto-historic transmogrification of the
land-face.
Just before they rigged the half-lit stage for dim-eyed Clio to step
with some small confidence the measures of her brief and lachrymal pavan.
and can be distinguished from his nearest co-laterals by certain characteristics such as speech, the use of tools, and sacred cults.
Middle-Sea and Lear-sea” is concerned with himself as a Western European who is what he is because of certain historical events peculiar to Western Europe, such as the civilization of Crete and the Doric Invasions,
One thousand two hundred years since the Dorian jarls
rolled up the map of Arcady and the transmontane storm- groups
fractured the archaic pattern   From the tomb of the strife-years the
new-born shapes begin already to look uncommonly like the brats of
mother Europa.We begin already to discern our own.
Are the proto-forms already ours?
Is that the West-wind on our cheek-bones?

But it’s early—very grey and early in our morning and most
irradiance is yet reflected from far-side Our sea, the Nile
moon still shines on the Hittite creatures and Crete still
shows the Argives how.
and, of course, the establishment of the Roman Empire, which brought the whole Mediterranean area under one rule.
at the intersected place he caused our sacred commerce to be. Why yes—west he took himself off, on the base-line he traced and named when he traced it: decumanus. West-turn from his kardo I saw him go, over his right transversus. From to rear of him I discerned his marcher’s lurch—I’d breath to see that.
West-star, hers and all!
  brighting the hooped turn of his scapular-plates enough to show his pelvic sway and the hunch on his robber’s
shoulders. Though he was of the Clarissimi his aquila over me was robbery
  ‘T’s a great robbery
  —is empire.
Then he is an inhabitant of the British Isles and a Londoner of Welsh stock whose culture and language would not be what they are but for the peculiar history of Britain, which was not Romanised until after the beginning of the Christian era and then never completely, and where the original Celtic population was driven into the Welsh mountains or submerged under successive waves of Teutonic invaders, the Saxons, the Vikings, the Normans.
From the fora
to the forests.
Out from gens
Romulum
    into the Weal-kin
dinas-man gone aethwlad
cives gone wold-men
…from Lindum to London
bridges broken down.
There is a great deal of imagery in the poem derived from ships and seafaring. It was seafaring merchants in search of tin who first brought the remote island of Britain to the attention of the civilized Mediterranean. Britain was destined to become a great maritime power and London one of the great ports of the world. It is only natural, therefore, that such a seafaring people should use nautical imagery as symbols for the historical adventure of mankind. As Mr. Jones says in one of his notes: 
What is pleaded in the Mass is precisely the argosy or voyage of the Redeemer, consisting of his entire sufferings and his death, his conquest of hades, his resurrection and his return in triumph to heaven. It is this that is offered to the Trinity on behalf of us argonauts and of the whole argosy of mankind, and, in some sense, of all sentient being, and, perhaps, of insentient too.
Of the communication problems which this kind of poetry presents, Mr. Jones is very well aware and he has stated them in his preface much better than I could. 
The poet may feel something with regard to Penda the Mercian and nothing with regard to Darius the Mede. In itself that is a limitation, it might be regarded as a disproportion; no matter, there is no help—he must work within the limits of his love. There must be no mugging-up, no “ought to know” or “try to feel”; for only what is actually loved and known can be seen sub specie aeternitati. The nurse herself is adamant about this: she is indifferent to what the poet may wish to feel, she cares only for what he in fact feels.
The words “May they rest in peace” and the words “Whosoever will” might by some feat of artistry, be so juxtaposed within a context as not only to translate the words “Requiescat in pace” and “Quicunque vult,” but to evoke the exact historic over-tones and under-tones of those Latin words. But should some writer find himself unable by whatever ingenuity of formal arrangement or of contextual allusion to achieve this identity of content and identity of evocation, while changing the language, then he would have no alternative but to use the original form…. It is not a question of “translation” or even of “finding an equivalent word.” It is something much more complex. “Tsar” will mean one thing and “Caesar” another to the end of time.
The artist deals wholly in signs. His signs must be valid, that is, valid for him and, normally, for the culture that has made him. But there is a time factor affecting these signs. If a requisite now-ness is not present, the sign, valid in itself, is apt to suffer a kind of invalidation. This presents most complicated problems to the artist working outside a reasonably static culture-phase…. It may be that the kind of thing I have been trying to make is no longer makeable in the kind of way in which I have tried to make it.
It is certainly true that no reader is going to be able to make Mr. Jones’s “now-ness” his own without taking a great deal of trouble and many rereadings of Anathemata, and, if he says: “I’m sorry, Mr. Jones is asking too much. I have neither the time nor the patience which he seems to expect me to bring to his poem,” I do not know what argument one could use to convince him otherwise. I can only state my personal experience, namely, that I have found the time and trouble I have taken with Anathemata infinitely rewarding. - W.H. Auden
 
When David Jones's major poem, The Anathemata, was published in 1952, W H Auden declared it "very probably the finest long poem written in English this century". T S Eliot, who had already described Jones's first book - In Parenthesis - as "a work of genius", believed that The Anathemata put Jones on a par with James Joyce, Ezra Pound and Eliot himself as the key modernist masters.
When Stravinsky made his last visit to England, he declared that it was largely a pilgrimage to visit David Jones. Among contemporary poets, many still regard him as a great 20th-century genius. Even those who don't follow his modernist aesthetic admire his rhythmic power and mastery of the patterns of sound.
Despite all this acclaim, Jones was a humble man who never sought fame, which is probably just as well. Fifty years on from the publication of The Anathemata, Jones is practically invisible in British literature. As a painter, his work is held by major collections, including the Tate, and his watercolours and inscriptions have shot up in value. As a poet, his books are not studied in schools or universities. He is little known and little read.
So if Jones was so good, why isn't he better known?
One obvious answer could be his sheer difficulty. If it were possible to answer the question "what is The Anathemata about?", the answer would have to be something like "the nature and history of man in the universe, the decline of Western civilisation and the centrality of the Crucifixion".
Certainly, complexity can be off-putting. The critic Robert Potts recently wrote an impassioned defence of another "difficult" poet, Geoffrey Hill. Hill shares many of Jones's concerns - history, modernity, the Christian condition - and writes densely allusive poems. But Potts argues that a growing unwillingness to struggle with complex texts is blinding us to a major contemporary writer.
The same can be said of David Jones. The surface difficulty of his writing is not a parade of learning, or a conscious attempt to make "high" art. As the critic Rene Hague said of The Anathemata: "Every rocky passage can be made smooth, every allusion traced." It just takes time, and patience.
If difficulty is only a partial explanation of David Jones's invisibility, what else could explain it? Born and raised in London, Jones always felt he belonged to his father's Welsh-speaking people. He left art college at 20 to join the Royal Welch Fusiliers; he fought, and was wounded, in the terrible Somme battle of Mametz Wood, which became the basis of In Parenthesis.
Has he suffered - unfairly - from association with Eric Gill? On his return from the First World War, Jones joined a Catholic community in Ditchling, Surrey, dominated by the artist and sculptor. At one stage, he was engaged to Gill's daughter, Petra.
Gill's reputation has been damaged since Fiona MacCarthy's biography revealed the extent of his sexual experimentation, and the theological hoops he jumped through to justify it. Jones was a very different character from the authoritarian, didactic Gill. He shared Gill's sense of the artist as a "maker", but his theology was poles apart from Gill's, and he was a better, subtler artist.
In Parenthesis - Jones's first book, published in 1937 - raises other questions. We have come to expect war poets to be absolute in their condemnation, but Jones is more complex. A vivid account of his experiences on the front, the poem is among the most powerful pieces of war literature. The horrors of battle are there, but he also strikes notes of courage, sacrifice and camaraderie in the trenches.
Jones links his war to all wars, his fellow soldiers to those of the Roman Empire or to ancient Welsh warriors. At times, he elevates those soldiers to sacred or archetypal figures. Jones believed that the acceptance of suffering was not only necessary, it could be a profound religious duty.
If he's not the kind of war poet we expect, he's not the kind of religious poet we expect either. He converted to Catholicism soon after the War, and for the rest of his life Jones regarded his artistic and poetic vocation as a kind of priesthood, living and working very simply and alone. For his last 20 years, until his death in 1974, he inhabited a single room in Harrow, welcoming visitors but otherwise pursuing his work in isolation. He called that room his "dug-out", but in truth it was a monastic cell.
The great religious poetry of the last century has been written at the cutting edge of faith and doubt, wrestling with the absence of God. But for Jones, religious convictions form the backbone of all his work.
Writing 50 years ago, in the preface to The Anathemata, Jones sensed the risk inherent in his kind of poetry. Lamenting the fact that words such as "wood" or "water" no longer carry for many readers the resonance of "cross" or "baptism", Jones worried that in what he regarded as the wasteland of our technological age, our language was filling up with dead symbols. For a poet who saw his job as the renewal of religious symbols, this was a recognition that his work may connect with a diminishing audience.
If Eliot, Auden et al were right about Jones, then this neglected maker has left a remarkable legacy. Apart from his paintings, engravings, inscriptions and drawings, In Parenthesis, The Anathemata and The Sleeping Lord are among the most important poems of the 20th century. His work is uncompromising. It is either major poetry, or pretentious nonsense. Its sheer seriousness will not allow us to regard it as merely "interesting".
In his religious certainties, his range of historical and literary allusions, and his shunning of the personal, he is about as unfashionable as a poet can get. Yet he passionately wanted his poems to resonate with British readers. In the painted Latin inscription to The Anathemata, Jones dedicated the poem "To my parents, and all their forebears, and to all the people of the bright island of Britain".
The phrase "a poet's poet" often implies "but nobody else's". David Jones is too great a poet to be consigned to that particular ghetto. -

David Jones: the Poet’s Place and the Sleeping Lord by Brad N. Haas
 
David Jones, In Parenthesis, 1937.
 
In Parenthesis deals with things David Jones "saw, felt, & was part of" between December 1915 and the summer of 1916. It tells of World War I, following a group of British troops from England to France and then facing the Germans. Jones does not go into the "wholesale slaughter of the later years", presenting only this introductory slice of the war, one out which he could still make some art (as opposed to the "relentless, mechanical affair" things hardened into).
       Jones' book -- which could be called a poem or a novel or a word-painting -- is a remarkable work. T.S.Eliot, who was "proud to share the responsibility" for the first publication of In Parenthesis, calls it "a work of genius" in his introduction.
       In seven parts Jones describes the preparations and then the first experiences of war The title of each part refer to Coleridge, Shakespeare, Mallory, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Lewis Carroll, and there are quotes from Y Gododdin, an early Welsh epic. Jones also explains the title of the work in his introduction, suggesting the parenthetical nature of the writing of the text, of the war, and of our existence itself.
       John Ball is the main character, but in fact the work depicts many different soldiers and officers in their various roles. From rote training to chaotic battle the work offers glimpses of all aspects of that particular war. From "the unnamable nostalgia of depots" to the point where "solid things dissolve, and vapours ape substantiality" in the nightmare of the battle Jones beautifully conveys the atmosphere of the time and feel of that experience.
       Jones is a poet, and much of In Parenthesis is poetry, from the carefully hewn narrative to the descriptions:
   You can hear the silence of it:
you can hear the rat of no-man's-land
rut out intricacies,
weasel-out his patient workings
scrut, scrut, scrut,
harrow-out earthly, trowel his cunning paw
       In other passages "he reverts to the discipline of prose."
       It was a different kind of war from contemporary conflicts. The first modern war, but still unlike any recent one. However, the many similarities found in all armed conflicts are also captured well. Jones conveys the experience -- baffling, stultifying, terrifying -- exceptionally well. "Each variously averts his perceptions, masks the inward abysm".
       Most remarkable is Jones' use of language. The work is unlike most any other one can find, balanced between poetry and prose. It is as close to painting (or even sculpting) a work out words that one will find. Jones, a talented artist, shows equal facility with words.
       It is a complex work, with over thirty pages of well-meaning notes by the author. In his introduction Eliot writes:
 
When In Parenthesis is widely enough known --as it will be in time -- it will no doubt undergo the same sort of detective analysis and exegesis as the later work of James Joyce and the Cantos of Ezra Pound.        Some such exegetic and analytic works already exist, but In Parenthesis can be enjoyed without them as well. It is a true work of art, standing solidly, convincingly, and triumphantly on its own.
       Eliot believed the work would eventually be widely known, but given that he wrote his introduction in the early 1960s and the poem had not even been published in the United States until that time he might have known that popularity would be a while in coming. It is a well-known work, but it is not easy to find (once again it is essentially out of print), and it has not had the impact it should have had. This is, undoubtedly, one of the great war-books of the 20th century. It will, eventually, be recognized as a true classic, certain to survive the centuries. Certainly in these times of continued armed conflict it deserves a far greater readership than it currently has.
       Highly recommended.- The Complete Review
 
"This work of a poet-painter has its every word chiseled out of experience, and it is probably the World War I monument most likely to survive." - Stephen Spender
 
"This is an epic of war (.....) But it is like no other war-book because for the first time that experience has been reduced to "a shape in words." (...) (T)he impression still remains that this book is one of the most remarkable literary achievements of our time." - Times Literary Supplemen 

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