Words in Action

The Sacramental Poetry of David Jones

For the modernist poet and painter David Jones, the artist’s life always seemed a natural fit. Born in Kent in 1895, he was raised to value beautiful words and images: his father was a printer’s overseer, and his family, Jones wrote, “took the printed page and its illustration for granted.” Jones himself started drawing at the age of five and enrolled in art school at fourteen. In 1922, after serving with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers in the First World War, he joined an artist guild formed by the sculptor Eric Gill and began experimenting with wood and copper engraving. Jones worked in several media—painting, engraving, and illustrating—wedding a postimpressionist aesthetic to an interest in ancient Welsh and Celtic myth. His art is all but impossible to categorize, but “modernist medievalism” might be a good start.

Precocious as a visual artist, Jones proved even more talented as a poet. In 1928, a decade after being discharged from military service due to trench fever, he began writing about his experience at the front. In 1937 this effort to give the horrors he witnessed at the Somme “a shape in words” yielded In Parenthesis—a brilliant poem/novel, formally challenging and dizzyingly allusive, that immediately claimed a place in the pantheon of modernist literature. T. S. Eliot declared it “a work of genius.” W. B...

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About the Author

Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY.