Recent books of Catholic interest – I – March 20 2017
David Jones was one of the most important poets and artists of the 20th century, and yet he rarely appears as more than a footnote in histories of Modernism. There are complex reasons for this. Jones wrote very little short poetry of a sort that might appear in anthologies, which is how most poetry is popularised. He was also as much visual artist as writer, working as an engraver (in opposition to his teacher Eric Gill’s artisan approach) and as a painter, which has meant that he falls between two schools, rather than stools; literary scholars tend to leave him to the art critics and art critics to the literary scholars. More casual readers find his two great poems In Parenthesis and The Anathemata dauntingly difficult to read. Neither is in conventional poetic form. Both draw heavily on Welsh myth, European romance, Shakespeare’s plays and scripture.
The earlier poem, published in 1937, is largely based on Jones’s experience on the Western Front in the First World War, where he served longer than any other of the “war poets”. His central character Dai Greatcoat, who utters a grand monologue at the poem’s heart, is one of the forgotten heroes of 20th century literature, carved out of Jones’s obsession with his own Welsh heritage. The Anathemata published in 1952, was inspired by a visit to Palestine and by what Jones thought of as strong parallels between the then British occupation and the earlier Roman occupation. It was always intended to be part of a much longer poem, further excerpts of which were eventually published as “The Sleeping Lord”.
A final reason for Jones’s neglect is his Catholicism, which put him against the current of most modernist writing. He grew up as the youngest child of an Anglican (but not passionately so) mother and a fiery Evangelical father. Even before the war, Jones was drawn to Catholic ritual, which was deplored by his parents. He was once punished for carrying a home-made cross round the family garden on Easter Sunday. While serving at the front, he was deeply moved to observe Mass being celebrated in a ruined building behind Ypres. After being wounded and sent home, and subsequently discharged, Jones studied under the very culture Fr John O’Connor, who is said to be the prototype of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown.
He declared himself to be a Thomist (though evidence for this is inconsistent) and was drawn to the then much-discussed ideas of Jacques Maritain, who thought of art as an objective “sign” for something in the real world. Jones considered taking holy orders but was dissuaded by his advisers who believed that his attraction to Catholicism was largely aesthetic. Jones considered the Mass to be the ultimate work of art and borrowed from an unconventional French priest the idea of a unity between Last Supper, Crucifixion and Mass of unbloody oblation, bloody immolation and unbloody re-enactment, deemed heretical by his advisers. When he contemplated becoming a monk after a visit to St Hugh’s Charterhouse in Parkminster, the prior Peter Pepin advised him to “find a good Catholic girl” and start a family.
Jones nearly married the daughter of Eric Gill, with whom he had worked and studied (unsuccessfully) at Ditchling, but he seemed unable to form a mature relationship and Petra eventually married another friend. Jones lived his life in a curious mixture of vulnerability and exaltation. When, as an 18 year old, I briefly met him in 1972, he seemed impossibly frail but also impossibly joyous; he visibly flinched when a door banged, a memory, no doubt of the fearsome bombardments he suffered hourly in 1916.
Jones has been the particular study of Thomas Dilworth for many years. A new biography is already the fourth book on the subject Dilworth has published. And yet David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet (Jonathan Cape, £25) can’t be considered his final word on the subject, since an even fuller version will be made available to scholars online. Often when an author knows too much about a subject, a biographical account can be knotted with detail and hard to read. Dilworth’s biography is a model, though, and brings to life an extraordinary personality and a body of creative work that has no parallel in recent times. The only question remaining is why Dilworth’s subtitle does not include the word Catholic. At a guess, the publishers might have advised against it as unlikely to market the book beyond what they would consider a niche market.
Jones didn’t die in the trenches, and so was denied the spurious charisma of a fallen “war poet”. And yet he carried that experience, and the faith it brought him, through the next troubled half century, trying to understand how the First World War, which was widely regarded as unprecedented, sat alongside earlier European struggles and against the struggle between faith and unbelief. It might be argued that one can understand more about Jones by looking at one of his paintings than by reading In Parenthesis, but it is a work that is long overdue for reassessment and fresh reading. His fellow poets thought it was the finest work in English of its time. Even T. S. Eliot, who was only British by adoption, thought it represented British poetry at its height. Reading it again, right after reading Dilworth, it’s hard to argue with that.