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 adamant in asserting the sacred nature of the sign-making that was the fundamental direction of his art. Born in 1895, the Anglo-Welsh Jones was a poet, painter, and engraver, and an extraordinary artist who deserves to be more widely known. The rewards of reading him come for many at the expense of considerable effort, but I should like to make the case that Jones’s particular cast of mind is inherently welcoming, no matter how he seems at first to resist comprehension.

A convert to Catholicism in the years following traumatic experiences during the First World War, Jones possessed an artistic vision shaped both by his soldiering at the Battle of the Somme and by his Catholic faith. His theory of art, as he expressed it in the 1959 essay “Art and Sacrament,” has deep theological and liturgical roots and demands a familiarity with both sacred and secular traditions. His two most important works—In Parenthesis (1937), a prose poem focused on the First World War, and The Anathemata (1952), a mythic vision of a voyage as salvation history—place Jones among the High Modernists. T. S. Eliot wrote an introduction to In Parenthesis, and Auden saw The Anathemata as “probably the finest long poem” of the twentieth century. Jones is not easy to read, however, and his visual works—his engravings in particular—offer a mysterious and often highly allegorical challenge. When he combines image and text, he rivals the William Blake of the illuminated books. For example, the following appears in the first section of The Anathemata where the speaker, worshiping at Mass, regards the priest surrounded by the mock gothic architecture of the church.

These, at the sagging end and chapter’s close, standing humbly before the tables spread, in the apsidal houses, who intend life:

         between the sterile ornaments

        under the pasteboard baldachins

        as in the young time, in the sap-years:

         between the living floriations

        under the leaping arches.

(Ossific, trussed with ferric rods, the failing numina of column and entablature, the genii of spire and triforium, like great rivals met when all is done nod recognition across the cramped repeats of their dead selves.)

Ever conscious of the form of the sign, in this case the church’s architecture, Jones’s speaker locates the present in terms of a living past.

As the preceding makes clear, entry to Jones’s highly allusive verse is formidable, guarded as it is by multilingual epigraphs, beautifully formed calligraphy of Latin, English, and Welsh texts, and extensive notes that might easily deter even a cursory reading. Reflecting on his letter to me, and on the catena form of commentary on Scripture, I wondered if perhaps some of the challenges and rewards of reading Jones could be suggested by the way in which Jones himself read other poets. Looking at Jones’s mind playing out in interpretation might just remove the obstacles presented by his own remarkable opus.

In 1928, the same year he began composing In Parenthesis, Jones was commissioned to engrave illustrations for a fine-book edition of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. He labored over them, extending his control of the intaglio technique of engraving, and received much critical acclaim (but little income) from the published work. Another fine-book edition was reissued in the 1960s, for which Jones wrote an introduction that exemplifies his characteristic vision. Revisiting his earlier designs decades later, he seems to summon mature hindsight. He reflects on the design of his engravings and states unequivocally that “we stand within the Christian tradition and so did Coleridge...[and that] belays us (and him) to that tradition.” He refers to the “shriving” that the Mariner seeks from the hermit, and asserts that nothing in the poem can be read without reference to the Judeo-Christian heritage. Then, in an explication of the symbolic force of the Mariner’s ship, Jones presents his reactions in a passage that extends over a quarter of the essay’s twenty-nine pages. “It is evident,” he begins,

that this great poem, taken as a whole...belongs to the tradition of the wonder-voyages and is evocative of the argosy of mankind and hence cannot avoid evoking the Redeemer, our Odysseus, who in Homer is, at his own command, made fast to the stepped mast.

Seven pages later Jones offers this:

It will no doubt be felt that all this stuff concerning early Christian images of the ship, the mast, the ordeals, the Christ-Ulysses concept, the references to Chaucer or to Milton have little or no bearing on Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner.

But my view is...like the Celtic tales of the wonder-voyages mentioned earlier, all these various images of whatever provenance have a bearing on Coleridge’s poem, because, as I’ve already said, the poem cannot escape evoking the whole argosy of man.

Perhaps my analogy to the catena fails. After all, Jones is responsible for all the commentaries here, except when his notes cite other authors, and his introduction scarcely surrounds the text of the poem. It does, however, circle meditatively on the theme, establishing an interpretive community as broad as the “whole argosy of man” and as particular as the anecdote in which Jones recalls a great-grandfather who smoothed pine trunks for masts in a shipyard near his childhood home. He invokes the patristic legacy by using secular texts (The Odyssey in particular) as types of the Divine Sea Journey of the Redeemer and Church. Jones gives an overview of his explication—iconography, wonder-voyage tales, Chaucer, Milton, and Celtic myth—but he also touches on an Isaac Watts hymn, and by dint of association refers to emendations to that hymn and then to the battle of Trafalgar and the message sent by the admiral to his fleet. Intermingled with all this are references to the Old English poem “The Dream of the Rood,” and to Jones’s own The Anathemata, in which Admiral Nelson is a type of Christ figure. There are further quotations and allusions to the medieval mystery plays, Latin hymns, Arabic derivations of English words—the list could continue in an apparently endless chain of thought.

So what are we to make of pages of text gored by superscript printer’s ornaments and weighted by notes below? The off-putting sign of the pedantic academic? My sense is that only through reading the whole of the “Introduction” can one hope to understand the play of Jones’s mind. It is a profoundly earnest play. Jones’s fluid prose is scarcely academic in the conventional sense. He is a raconteur in print, but a deeply informed one, eccentric in reference and wholly saturated in the tradition of the church and its liturgy. His analysis of the wonders that the Mariner undergoes is itself a wonder.

Hear him on Milton—and attend to the retraction of his own elaboration:

With all this wealth of allusion to anabases, and far wanderings in time and space, to odysseys and argosies of one sort or another, to various nautical images, one might have expected from him a recognition, possibly even a kind of anamnesis [remembrance] of the ship: the tree-nailed strakes of the clinker-built hulls, the hidden keel-elm on which all timbers else depend, the great-girthed, cross yarded mast amidships, the image which those early Christian writers had been quick to recognize, the visible image of the Wood, to which had been made fast the voyaging Pantocrator.

But whatever we may have expected with regard to such recognition, let alone anything that could, by analogy, be regarded as an anmnesis of sorts, we do not find. [Emphasis mine.]

What Jones expects and does not encounter in his reading of Milton, he supplies by way of Blakean correction of the great precursor poem, and for reasons similar to Blake’s. Jones must see in Milton a writer of a Christian epic with whom he stands in comparison. That this admission should occur by way of a commentary on Coleridge’s poem is as startling as it is characteristic. But we hear also the poetic movement of Jones’s own prose line, especially when he focuses on the ship itself, the very sign that carries so much sacred freight in The Anathemata.

It is this complex sensibility, surprising in its off-center focus, that we encounter in all of Jones’s work, and that makes him so appealing. He teases, overawes, and ultimately yields in humility before a tradition in which he finds himself by necessity an artist. Readers, as Auden asserted in a review of The Anathemata, must yield in a similar fashion to the humility of attending in multiple readings to Jones’s great artistry; only in doing so, in taking “the time and trouble,” as Auden put it, will they stand the chance of finding Jones—as Auden did—“infinitely rewarding.” Divine digressions, the sensibilities one might associate with those who illuminated the Lindesfarne Gospels or the Book of Kells, swirls and bends, elaborate, strong-lined, beautiful in intricacy, are nearly everywhere in Jones’s work, both verbal and visual. The mystery and the beauty of Jones’s work should in itself entice further exploration. One could wish only for continued correspondence with a man so deeply immersed in the sea of faith.

Related: Words in Action, by Anthony Domestico

Published in the 2011-10-21 issue: 

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

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