On Tuesday the 18th of October Susan Southall gave an introductory paper on the poet, artist, and calligrapher David Jones, as part of the Carmelite Library’s regular Spiritual Reading Group. Here is her paper, with some images relevant to the text.
David Jones never described himself as a scholar. An artist, a craftsman, even a writer, but in spite of evident erudition he never called himself a scholar. I begin with this because of the average half page of footnotes on each page of his long poems, In Parenthesis and The Anathemata, as well as everything else he ever wrote.
W.H. Auden called The Anathemata the greatest long poem in English of the 20th century. In Parenthesis is the greatest poem to come out of World War One. Yet Jones considered himself primarily an artist, and he is among the greats, although unique, of English painting.
David Jones himself was an Englishman, although he felt closer to his Welsh roots. His father was a Welsh-speaking Welshman, while his mother was from London. He was born in 1895 which made him the perfect age for the army in the World War One. His early studies were at the Camberwell Art School, but the work available would have been illustration, which didn’t interest him, or teaching: he refused to take the qualifying exams to teach. Joining the army as a private solved his career problems. He was wounded in 1916 at Mametz Wood, where the 38th (Welsh) Division was sited during the Battle of the Somme. In Parenthesis deals with the events of this battle as a figure of the nature and fate of man.
After the war, he resumed his studies and in 1921 he joined Eric Gill at his community of artists and craftsmen at Ditchling in Sussex. He became an extraordinary painter in watercolour, creating pictures of mystical depth, rich in history and mythology. For a while he was engaged to Gill’s daughter Petra, a weaver, but she felt he would never want a family: the engagement, which had been blessed in the Ditchling community chapel, was broken off, and Petra married another of the artists, had six children, and lived to the age of 92.
The Ditchling community were Roman Catholics, and most of them were Dominican tertiaries. 1921 was the moment of truth in the life of David Jones, when he was received into the Roman Catholic Church. The whole of his life and work from that time hence is coloured by this event. In Parenthesis, begun in 1927, was published in 1937 and won the Hawthornden Prize in 1938. It sees the war as an extended sacrifice, and thus a metaphor of the Mass, which Jones had witnessed, after the Somme, in a little hut near the front lines while gathering wood.
“What I saw through the small gap in the wall was not the dim emptiness I had expected but the back of a sacerdos in a gilt-hued planeta, two points of flickering candlelight no doubt lent an extra sense of goldness to the vestment and a golden warmth seemed, by the same agency, to lend the white altar cloths and the white linen of the celebrant’s alb and amice and maniple… You can imagine what a great marvel it was for me to see through that chink in the wall, and kneeling the in hay beneath the improvised mensa were a few huddled figures in khaki.
…a big-bodied Irishman and an Italian naturalised Englishman, represented under the forms of Bomber Mulligan and Runner Meotti in In Parenthesis … and one or two others. I can’t recall at what part of the Mass it was as I looked through that squint-hole and I didn’t think I ought to stay long as it seemed rather like an uninitiated bloke prying on the Mysteries of a Cult. But it made a big impression on me. For one thing I was astonished to see how close to the Front Line the priest had decided to make the Oblation and I was also impressed to see Old Sweat Mulligan, a somewhat fearsome figure, a real pugilistic, hard-drinking Goidelic Celt, kneeling there in that smoky candlelight. …at that Mass in Flanders I felt immediately that oneness between the Offerant and those toughs that clustered round him in the dim-lit byre --- a thing I had never felt remotely as a Protestant at the Office of Holy Communion in spite of the insistence of Protestant theology on the ‘priesthood of the laity.’
'Flora in Calix Light' (1950) Pencil and watercolour
David Jones became utterly committed to the Latin Mass and all his work reflects this.
He describes his attitude on one level in a letter: “The parson came to tea. Says I do not see you in church – do you ever go – says no sir I’m R.C. What a mistake! He says to me before a crowded tea-table, ‘What in your opinion is the essential difference between the C. of E. and yourselves?’ What a question. I fair stumbled and spluttered and waved my pawkles – says hold up – what a question.’
His friends thought one reason he didn’t marry was undoubtedly the demands of his work. Another was his increasingly poor mental health. His first breakdown occurred in 1933, while working on In Parenthesis. He never blames the war for these depressive lethargies that leave him unable to work or almost to live. He calls this visitor ‘Rosy.’ Rosy comes to call, and David is hospitalised. During World War Two a medical board finds him incapable of any kind of work at all. Although he himself doesn’t blame the war, he has survived the Somme and spends ten years writing about it.
The main symptom was being frightened. ‘The Bible often mentions men’s knees knocking together; it was really like that; it was worse when I was at home…’ David often quoted Blake’s remark, to the effect, ‘Do you, sir, paint in fear and trembling?’
The Anathemata was published in 1951 and the remainder of Jones’ work formed part of a prospective longer work of which The Anathemata was intended to form a part. A number of shorter volumes were published. David Jones died in a nursing home in 1974, having received prizes, awards, and a C.B.E. His paintings hang in the Tate, and Dylan Thomas was one of the readers (along with a young Richard Burton) in the BBC radio broadcasts of In Parenthesis.
In explaining his method of work, Jones returns to the concepts of sign, making, and thing. He says: ‘…the Sacraments of the Church are a total impossibility, wholly unacceptable unless man is essentially a creature of sign and signa-making, a ‘sacramentalist’ to the core…the sacraments…absolutely central and inevitable and inescapable to us as creatures with bodies, whose nature it is to do this, or that, rather than think it’
He says, “..the insistence that a painting must be a thing and not the impression of something has an affinity with what the Church said of the Mass, that what was oblated under the species of Bread and Wine at the Supper was the same thing as what was bloodily immolated on Calvary.” Of his own work: ‘Chaps refer to the ‘mystery’ or ‘subtlety or ‘illusiveness or ‘fragility’ or ‘waywardness’ or ‘complexity’ or ‘fancifulness’ etc.etc. – Well, Christ Almighty! What else is there in a bunch of flowers or a tree or a landscape or a girl or a sky, but these qualities…The bugger of it is how to ‘transubstantiate these qualities to whatever medium one is using, whether paint or words or whatever.”
For Jones, the poet’s mission is both a private and a public worship. The task of the artist is ‘somehow or other to lift up valid signs.’ In the Preface to In Parenthesis he says, ‘It would be interesting to know how we shall ennoble our new media as we have already ennobled and made significant our old – candlelight, fire-light, Cups, Wands, and Swords, to choose at random.’
Time, is in fact a fluid medium both in painting and in words. The time of In Parenthesis is about seven months, but… like the time of the psyche, almost infinitely recessive…The Anathemata is a long meditation of a man attending Mass sometime during the Second World War, but is not confined to a specific temporal or spatial dimension. There is in Jones’ work a conjunction of sacred, historical and mythological time. We may be at once on the Somme and at the battles of heroic Welsh legend, or on the walls of Troy (or often the walls of Jerusalem, with the Romans at the time of the Crucifixion), or with King Arthur.
Jones explains the meaning of Anathemata: ‘(Eliot) thought Anathemata was the accurate title for my thing in more ways than one, because, part from the two meanings – ana –thema, and ana the ma – both of which are meant to be conveyed by the subject matter, he thought the meaning ‘things laid up to the Gods’ also would mean, in the case of this stuff of mine, the stuff laid up in the mind of the author, -- put aside and brought out, so that in a sort of way any writing of this sort could be called the anathemata of the person concerned.’
For an example of the dense theological engagement of this poet who is not a scholar, take this note in The Anathemata:
‘Things as signs occasion the kind and degree of honour due to what they signify. The cross, considered purely as a sign, happens to be the specific and unique sign of God the Son the Redeemer of the World, and, as such, occasions divine honour, latria. To offer latria to the cross, crucifix, or relic of the cross, qua sacred object, image, or relic, would be to offer something less than latria to what is signified (namely the Redeemer) which would be insufficient, or rather, an impossibility. For which reason, using the inexact language of everyday speech, we say we pay latria to ‘the Wood’, because the word ‘wood’ or ‘tree’ here signifies the stauros, and the stauros the singular sign of the Redemption.’
One of his finest paintings is titled Vexilla Regis from the sixth century hymn written for the reception of a fragment of the True cross sent by Emperor Justinian II from Constantinople to Queen Radegund, abbess of the Convent of the Holy Cross at Potiers, translated something like this:
The Royal Banner forward goes,
The mystic Cross refulgent glows,
Where He, in Flesh, flesh who made,
Upon the Tree of Pain is laid.
Fulget crucis mysterium: this goldenness that David Jones observed in the hut near the Front with the tiny congregation of sacrificial men, (at once types of Christ who will be slaughtered, and heirs of Cain who will kill others), the priest, the valid signs of the Mass as a thing that is made, became the inspiration for all his works. He says although the evensong at King’s College, Cambridge is fine, very beautiful, it’s not the same as to hear Fr. John O’Connor, his mentor, pronouncing the first two words of the Mass. It’s more than aesthetic.
The answer to the Parson’s question, according to Jones, is that ‘the essence of Protestantism is that the Christian religion is a matter of an inclination of the heart and soul, an interior disposition resulting in virtuous works… The crucial difference is that certain manual cult-actions and verbal formulae are of the essence of the Christian religion … because such is the nature of man.’
In the Anathemata Preface, already in 1951, Jones states the difficulties of the way he pursues.
“The times are late and getting later, not by decades but by years and months. This tempo of change, which in the world of affairs and in the physical sciences makes schemes and data outmoded and irrelevant overnight, presents peculiar and phenomenal difficulties to the making of works; and almost insuperable difficulties in the making of certain kinds of works; as when, for one reason or another, the making of those works has been spread over a number of years…The artist deals wholly in signs. His sign 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…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.’
 David Jones, Dai Greatcoat: A Self-Portrait of David Jones in his Letters, ed. Rene Hague (London: Faber and Faber, 1980), p. 249.
 Ibid., p. 79.
Ibid. p. 131.
 Ibid. p. 232.
 Ibid. p. 232.
 David Jones, In Parenthesis (London: Faber and Faber, 1961) p. 30.
 Dai Greatcoat. P. 130
 David Jones, The Anathemata.(London: Faber and Faber, 1952) Footnote 2 on page 165.
 Rene Hague, ‘Myth and Mystery in the Poetry of David Jones’ in The Agenda vol 15, nos. 2-3. P. 46.
 Anathemata. P. 15.