Out of the Trenches

The Difficult Genius of David Jones

Almost forty years ago, while doing graduate studies in England, I wrote to the poet and painter David Jones to inquire about the influence on his work of Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ. Jones, who was suffering from the cancer that would take his life three years later, answered in a remarkable way. The handwritten letter offered his reply more or less centered on the page, surrounded by his own commentary in two colors of ink.

The whole arrangement called to mind the catena (Latin for “chain”) of ancient sources, a codex that presents short passages of Scripture centered on the page and surrounded by patristic comment. In the catena, the effect is in some ways beautiful, impossible to follow linearly and almost yearning in its attempt to offer a summation of meaning. The visual elaboration seems to confess failure to do the words justice, despite the number of commentaries, for this is the inexhaustible Logos. Jones’s letter revealed a similar impulse—a determination to pursue meanings, to extend the original utterance in necessary ways.

While I imagine that Jones was familiar with such codices from his own reading and research, he surely would have retreated with horror at the blasphemy of suggesting that his writing had the authority of Scripture. And yet he was...

To read the rest of this article please login or become a subscriber.

About the Author

Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.