The Welsh poet David Jones (1895-1974) wrote two of this century’s outstanding literary works, and yet neither a single line of his writing nor any mention of his name is included in so recent a collection as The Harper Anthology of Poetry (1981), an otherwise excellent volume of English and American verse edited by the poet-translator John Frederick Nims. Anthologies of poetry, like the social register, are useful chiefly as practical guides of who may be currently “in” or “out” of favor among the suitors of the Muse. No matter how excellent, on the whole, we may admit the critical discretion of the compiler to be, we are sure to be more irritated by a certain and unaccountable omission than one or two questionable inclusions.
In the case of David Jones and The Harper Anthology, one is left muttering for what we have failed to see in it—the prominent inclusion of the man and artist who wrote In Parenthesis (1937) and The Anathemata (1952), both well-known in Great Britain, but hardly taken note of in this country and remaining unpublished here until many years later. T.S. Eliot wrote the introduction for the American edition of In Parenthesis (1961) and called it a work of genius which “uses the language in a new way”; while Kathleen Raine considered it “one of the enduring works that came out of the First World War.” W.H. Auden thought The Anathemata “very probably the finest long poem written in English in this century.” It was one of the achievements of Dame Edith Sitwell’s much earlier anthology, The Atlantic Book of British and American Poetry (1958), that it almost single-handedly brought to the attention of at least some American readers the name and work of David Jones, an Eric Gill sort of Christian artist, skilled in painting, copper engraving, calligraphy, and of course the superlative writing of poetry and prose.
Why, then, the unaccountable lapse in the Nims anthology? Did the anthologist simply determine, in the interests of competitive space, that Jones’s poetry demands too much of its own context? But the editors of The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (1973), Richard Ellman and Robert O’Clair, included generous representations of his poetry, with all its necessary footnotes to assist the uninitiated in this very ancient and perhaps timeless world from which the vision of David Jones emerges. Another perception of the worth of David Jones was that of the American poet Winfield Townley Scott, who thanked Edith Sitwell for bringing to us a freshly rewarding feature, “a selection from something called The Anathemata by David Jones,” which indeed would prove to be the poet’s masterpiece.
As for In Parenthesis, it is necessary at this point to put that work into some kind of brief perspective. It is too much not a novel to be compared with any of the war fiction by Hemingway or even by Ford Madox Ford. It is too unlike short poems, on the other hand, to be compared with anything by Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen. But it is narrative and epic poetry at the same time and all that a work of art has to know about the human catastrophe that was World War I. It is written in a language which seems carved on the faces of rocks blasted by shellfire and which we read like the fragments of letters from the recent dead.
Some critics have insisted on the influence that James Joyce must have had on Jones; but the poet denied this, pointing out that it was not until the 1930’s, after he had written In Parenthesis in 1927-28, that a friend read to him the Anna Livia portions from Finnegans Wake. To that point, Jones considered his ignorance of both Pound and Joyce to be “disgraceful.” In an age of questionable heroes. In Parenthesis is written in an epic style which Jones had mastered—or, more likely, which was natural to him as a given mode of expression. Even his many essays have a gnarled and rough-grained honesty about them.
In any case, not Hemingway nor Norman Mailer nor any other of the so-called war novelists have described more truly the explosion of the first shell, the water-filled shell holes in the dark, the talk of ordinary things among the fatigued, the faint skittering of the rats in no-man’s-land, the aloneness of one’s thoughts even in “following file friends,” and always the rain and the searchlights:
At intervals lights elegantly curved above his lines, but the sheet-rain made little of their radiance. He heard, his ears incredulous, the nostalgic puffing of a locomotive, far off, across forbidden fields; and once upon the wind, from over his left shoulder, the nearer clank of trucks. . . .
The sound of the train is especially poignant as an audioimage, across those always forbidden fields, which anyone has experienced who has lain awake in military camps on long summer nights.
In addition to the Arthurian Song of Roland and other Christian references throughout In Parenthesis, there is finally the incredibly beautiful closing section in which the Queen of the Woods (more Blessed Virgin, perhaps, than White Goddess), or she who “has cut bright boughs of various flowering,” summons those who are about to die in the ultimate decimation of the platoon, except for the mysterious Welsh private called Dai Great-Coat (no doubt Jones himself), for “she can’t find him anywhere.”
But there seems a greater sadness in all this than the dulling shock we had nightly come to know from the dreadful body-counts in Vietnam. The sword of Arthur and the horn of Roland can no longer suffice. They are not enough. Men in arms have been so steadily diminished that even their comradeship, which is all they have, may not be enough in the end. The “beautiful” men in In Parenthesis are not much different from the Pennsylvania steel-mill workers in The Deer Hunter who, having become entrapped in mere morbidity at home, attempt to sing a patriotic ditty for the recovery of spirit. In Jones’s great epic, they also sang “Old Soldiers Never Die”; and, as the poet concludes, “The man who does not know this has not understood anything.”
If, then, Jones had made a work of epic sadness from history itself, in The Anathemata history in turn has made an epic sadness of his greatest and most unified poetic vision—that is to say, the liturgical vision of the Mass as the basis for Western civilization. Ironically enough, the sacred artifacts and rituals of the Mass have been steadily diminished by fiat of official “renewal.” The Anathemata, or offerings, is so complex a poem that it can hardly be delineated, let alone interpreted, in this space. In the end, however, it is no more difficult than was The Waste Land to readers in the first years of the present century. Jones’s poetry of worship is not only cosmic, in the Teilhardian sense, but it is also as personal and concrete as Teilhard de Chardin’s “Mass on the World,” which he celebrated alone in the enormous wastelands of Asia. Jones, on the other hand, celebrates The Anathemata in the very dawn of prehistory, as localized in Great Britain, and as witnessed in the emergence of human consciousness itself The Anathemata is like an extraordinary scripture, compelling and original, but in its cumulative effects stunningly singular and clear.
To say that David Jones was a liturgical poet is also to say that he was arguably the only one we have had. There are Christian poets whose various poems may be liturgically arranged—most usually, of course, according to seasons and feast days—but these in fact may be simply the occasional verses of a religious disposition. In this regard, one thinks immediately of Hopkins, St. John of the Cross, Edwin Muir, and the late Thomas Merton. They were primarily sacramentalists, and very good ones at that, but they were not as wholly conscious—as was Jones—of that act of simultaneity which, for him, is coterminous in worship as poetry and in poetry as worship.
It is solely in realization of this that we can even partially understand, in view of the liturgical discontinuity of recent years, that David Jones was indeed the once and future poet of a Mass (the Tridentine) which survives now only by virtue of a kind of cultural accommodation. We know from recent critical studies of him that Jones was shattered by the liturgical reforms of Vatican Council II. The issue had nothing to do, however, with liberal or conservative notions of religious politics. In 1971, he was involved in an appeal to the Vatican which was also signed by such variously aligned public figures as Vladimir Ashkenazy, Agatha Christie, Cyril Connolly, Colin Davis, Robert Craves, Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch, Sean O’Faolain, Philip Toynbee, E.I. Watkins, and R.C. Zaehner, among many others. Something other than politics was considered here to have been of inestimable value.
Nowhere is David Jones’s state of mind on this whole question more clearly revealed than in William Blissett’s The Long Conversation (Oxford University Press, 1981), a memoir of the author’s talks with Jones in the poet’s last years. Jones sensed disarray in the Church and scored its prelates for the “overnight abandonment of doctrines and practices they should have understood and loved—and suffered some discomfort to maintain.” Blissett says that David spoke bitterly and even profanely about this, “like a man who has been robbed and beaten and left for dead.” He wanted to know why they had replaced the Mass that was already known and loved and then set up instead “an unbridgeable discontinuity,” as he called it, and worse, “Why must every one of the new experiments be so thin and truncated and incapable of making any lasting impression?”
It is certainly in this sense, if in no other, that David Jones must be seen as the last liturgical poet. There is probably no other instance in modern literary history which so clearly represents the untoward abandonment by special religious interests of a major religious poet. No liturgical context now remains that can possibly inspire or inform the level of poetry achieved in our lifetime by David Jones. Still, like Einstein’s theory of relativity returning a point in space back upon itself, a sense of history vaster than the one we know will eventually redeem the vision of David Jones. As he says in his notes for the Argo (London) recording of a selection of his marvelous readings, “That is why The Anathemata is cyclic in character and however wide the circles the action of the Mass is central to it and insofar as a circle can be said to have a ‘beginning’ or an ‘end,’ it begins and ends with the Mass.” For Jones, then, all nature was in itself the gift of incarnation, “capable of being loved and known,” and which the poet most fully realizes in the making of sacred objects.