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. Yeats sought out Jones at a party and dramatically bowed to him, saying, “I salute the author of In Parenthesis.” Critic and poet Herbert Read claimed that the poem exhibited “the noble ardour of the Chanson de Roland and the rich cadences of the Morte d’Arthur.” W. H. Auden was also an admirer.

Given this contemporary acclaim, how is it that David Jones is so little known today? His poetry is rarely taught, even at the college or graduate level; and then generally only within courses focused specifically on World War I literature, Catholic writing, or Welsh literature. (Jones’s father was born in Wales, and his works make great use of medieval Welsh epics.) Most academic accounts of literary modernism mention Jones’s achievement in passing, if at all, and even the most passionate lovers of twentieth-century verse have largely forgotten him. In 1961, Eliot predicted that In Parenthesis “will no doubt undergo the same sort of detective analysis and exegesis as the later work of James Joyce and the Cantos of Ezra Pound.” His confidence has proved unwarranted.

I suspect that there are several reasons for Jones’s neglect. First and most important is the densely allusive, gnarled, sometimes all but impenetrable nature of his verse. Rife with allusions to Welsh mythology, untranslated bits of Latin, ancient Celtic history, and military jargon, his work reads now like poetry, now like prose, and most often like some strange melding of the two. Such writing is not for the faint of heart: as one critic puts it, this is poetry “so clogged with footnotes as to defy all but the committed academic’s patience.” Second is the fact that Jones’s most important works, In Parenthesis and his subsequent epic poem, The Anathemata, aren’t just difficult, they’re also real-ly long. Unless you’re willing to slog through two-hundred pages of supremely challenging poetry—and most people, including most academics, are not—then you’re probably not going to read Jones.

Finally, though, I think Jones’s neglect has a lot to do with something altogether different: the extent to which his work is shaped by his Roman Catholicism. Jones converted to Catholicism in 1921, and all his work reveals this religious commitment. The Anathemata, for instance, opens with a vision of a Catholic priest intoning the Prayer of Consecration (“ADSCRIPTAM, RATAM, RATIONABILEM”) and lifting high the “efficacious sign” of the Eucharist. It ends with a triple vision of a priest consecrating the Eucharist (“He does what is done in many places”), Christ at the Last Supper (“recumbent at the garnished supper”), and Christ “riding the Axile Tree” at Calvary. Throughout the poem, Jones imagines Christ as an ancient Welsh hero who “girds himself” for battle on the Cross. Even the poem’s title, The Anathemata, refers to “the things set apart” or “made other,” which for Jones always refers to the two most important things that are made other: the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

Of course, other major literary figures of the day—Eliot and Auden, for instance—included religious themes in their works. Many read contemporary theology. The American poet Marianne Moore, for instance, recommended the theology of Karl Barth to Elizabeth Bishop, while Eliot solicited contributions to the Criterion from neo-Thomists like Jacques Maritain, Martin D’Arcy, and Etienne Gilson. The connections between interwar literature and theology ran deep: Auden became friends with Ursula and Reinhold Niebuhr after moving to the United States and wrote poems invoking the theology of Kierkegaard, Paul Tillich, and Charles Williams; Evelyn Waugh converted after D’Arcy convinced him of Catholicism’s intellectual coherence; Jean Cocteau was a close friend of Maritain’s.

But Jones’s engagement with religion was of a different kind—more overt, more consistent, and more integral to his overall achievement. If you don’t like the later, Anglo-Catholic Eliot, you still have “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Waste Land; if you find the Auden who name-dropped Niebuhr and Tillich in his poetry somewhat stuffy, you can go back to “Lay your sleeping head, my love” or “Spain.” Jones, on the other hand, is more like John Milton or Gerard Manley Hopkins: there is no separating the poet from the religion. It’s no accident that, in a preface to The Anathemata, Jones lists as his major intellectual influences Maritain, D’Arcy, and the French Jesuit Maurice de la Taille. In fact, the ending of The Anathamata, in which the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and the Eucharist are seen as three parts of one sanctifying action, puts into poetry the theological argument of de la Taille’s 1921 Mysterium Fidei. Without this theological context, the ending—and, indeed, much of the poem—is indecipherable.

In short, there are compelling reasons people don’t read Jones. Yet he is well worth the effort, both because of the beauty of his verse and because of the light his work sheds on the relationship between literary modernism and Catholic sacramentalism. A good starting point is his 1955 essay “Art and Sacrament.” The essay first appeared in a collection, Catholic Approaches to Modern Dilemmas and Eternal Truths, that sought to show how traditional faith could illuminate problems that seemed peculiar to modernity. (Representative essays included “Physics and Philosophy,” “The Church and Sex,” and “An Approach to Africa.”) “Art and Sacrament” makes a bold claim: that the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist serves as an apt analogy for modernist conceptions of aesthetic representation. For Jones, modernism in all its forms, from the novels of James Joyce to the paintings of Pablo Picasso, displays a Catholic inheritance. In his view, both aesthetic modernism and Catholicism are invested in what he calls “re-presentation”—the ability of a symbol not just to point toward something else (the artwork’s meaning or God’s grace) but actually to embody this something else, to make it present once again.

Jones begins this argument by carefully distinguishing between two concepts in traditional Catholic theology: art and prudence. Citing Thomas Aquinas and Jacques Maritain, he writes that prudence is “the tutelary genius who presides over the whole realm of faith, moral, religion, ethic; she is thought of as Holy Wisdom.” Prudence is the faculty by which we seek to make our conduct conform to other, higher ends; it is “concerned with oughts and ought nots.” Art, on the other hand, is concerned only with the end of the artwork itself, what Jones calls a “fitting together” of parts to form a unified whole. Art does not exist to serve a didactic function; questions of “ought and ought not” are simply irrelevant. (Of course, this doesn’t mean that art has no moral implications, just that these moral implications are not art’s raison d’etre.)

This contrast between prudence and art leads to Jones’s second, related claim: that art is defined by its gratuitousness. Jones stresses again and again that art sets itself against what he calls the “merely utile.” A warplane may possess striking beauty; but it is not, and never can be, a work of art, precisely because it exists for something else (in this case, war). Art, on the other hand, is an activity dedicated to creating something just for the sake of that something. This activity, Jones argues, uniquely defines humankind. Other creatures create beautiful objects—a spider’s web, for instance—but they create them for use. If for Aristotle man is a political animal, then for Jones man is an artistic animal.

Finally, “Art and Sacrament” takes up an issue dear to modern literary and visual art: the problem of representation. Although modernism is notoriously difficult to pin down, one trait that connects figures as diverse as Eliot, Joyce, and Picasso is the intensity with which they questioned traditional modes of representation. Much of what we identify as distinctively modernist—the distorted chronology of a novel by Virginia Woolf, for instance, or the fractured perspectives of a painting by Picasso—were attempts to re-think how, and indeed if, art could represent anything outside itself. Jones picks up on this general argument, claiming that art should not be understood as mimetic. We won’t find the meaning of a painting, for instance, by seeing if it looks like the tree outside our window. Rather, he argues, the artwork and the formal relations within it are itself the meaning. “A good painter must say, ‘This is not a representation of a mountain, it is “mountain” under the form of paint.’” The critic Cleanth Brooks coined a famous literary concept, the “heresy of paraphrase,” which says that we can’t extract and rephrase a poem’s meaning since the poem’s very form is its meaning. Jones is making a similar argument: the painting doesn’t refer to its subject; it “re-presents” it, enacting it formally and embodying it within the artwork itself.

So far, Jones’s essay is pretty standard modernist fare; Ezra Pound said many similar things, though in a far less temperate tone. But then, in the most original and provocative move of his argument, Jones explicitly links this modernist understanding of representation to the Catholic idea of transubstantiation. Just as, for Picasso, a painting doesn’t refer to a tree, but is the tree under the form of painting, so for the Catholic, the Eucharist doesn’t refer to Christ, but rather is Christ, under the form of bread and wine. In both, form and substance, the symbol and its meaning, are one. In a 1967 letter, Jones elaborates on this link, asserting that his religious conversion

had quite a lot to do with my seeing the sacraments of the church as fitting in perfectly with all human poiesis—nothing could be more “post-impressionist” [i.e., what we now call “modernist”] in that sense than what the church predicated of the Mass, where “sign” & “thing signified” are said to be one.

Consider what Jones is claiming here. It’s not just that he feels some vague consonance between the aesthetic beliefs of modernism and the religious beliefs of the Catholic Church. Rather, he is implying that his conversion was in part a result of this consonance. For Jones, the Catholic Mass is the most perfect distillation of modernist ideas of representation. Or, more accurately, art is modernist insofar as it embodies this Catholic, eucharistic mode of representation.

Given this vision of art as a kind of sacramental re-presenting, how does Jones go about making his own poetry sacramental? The first and most obvious way is by regularly featuring sacramental scenes. As I mentioned earlier, The Anathemata opens with a representation of the eucharistic celebration:

We already and first of all discern him making this thing other. His groping syntax, if we attend, already shapes:
            ADSCRIPTAM, RATAM, RATIONABILEM...and by preapplication and for them, under modes and patterns altogether theirs, the holy and venerable hands lift up an efficacious sign.

The description of the priest’s task in consecrating the Eucharist can also be read as a description of the poet’s task in transmuting words into art. In both cases, language’s “groping syntax” allows one thing to “become other,” to be set apart or made sacred: words, by their formal arrangement, become verse; bread and wine, by their consecration, become signs of God’s divine grace. This conflation of artist and priest recurs throughout the poem, and indeed throughout Jones’s work. At one point, describing the origins of pottery in the age between the Paleolithic and Neolithic cultures, he writes:

Searching where the kitchen midden tells of the decline
which with the receding cold marked the recession of the
Magdalenian splendours.
Yet there he brights fragmented protomorphs
where lies the rudimentary bowl.

The passage moves away from a decimated culture, symbolized by the refuse of the kitchen midden, and toward the unexpected, unexplainable aesthetic impulse itself, symbolized by the simple, beautiful bowl. Jones signals this cultural shift by a formal shift, from prose to verse. Just as a utilitarian object becomes an artistic one through the process of “brighting,” so Jones’s language becomes more obviously “poetic” through formal line divisions. This act of brighting the “rudimentary bowl” leads Jones to a series of questions:

                                                                      How else
multifariam multisque modis

                              the splendour of forms yet to come?

How the dish
                              that holds no coward’s food?
How the calix
                              without which
                             how the re-calling?

Looking to Christian tradition, we can see the brighted bowl as a figura of the chalice: the bowl receives its ultimate meaning, its fulfillment, in the cup that symbolizes Christ’s new covenant with humanity. A straight line runs from the homely, pre-Neolithic bowl to the magical cup that King Arthur must rescue from Hades (“the dish / that holds no coward’s food”) to the Eucharist itself.

How the dish? How the calix? We might read these questions not rhetorically, as they seem to suggest, but literally: How does one get, causally, from the “rudimentary bowl” to the sacred “calix”? What process initiates the transformation of the purely utilitarian (an unadorned bowl) into the beautiful, salvific cup? The answer, it appears, is the gratuitous process of brighting. Just as the brighted cup is a figura of the sacred calix, the act of brighting is a figura for the celebration of the sacraments: we can only grasp the full meaning of the proto-artist making the bowl “other” when we see the priest making the bread and wine of the Eucharist “other.”

Yet in “Art and Sacrament” Jones wasn’t simply saying that art is sacramental when it represents the sacraments; he was saying that art was sacramental when it “re-pre-sents” anything—when it embodies the particular kind of re-presentation manifested in the Catholic Eucharist. To see exactly how Jones accomplishes this re-presentation in his own work, we need to look at how he deploys language in a sacramental manner even when the sacraments themselves are not being represented. We need to look at his style.

Jones is one of the most stylistically distinctive poets of the twentieth century; to read a page of his poetry is to know, almost immediately, who wrote it. His most distinctive formal trait is the frequency with which he forces words into new functions, taking, for instance, a noun and using it instead as verb or adjective. Consider a passage from The Anathemata describing an ancient ship as it sails past islands off the coast of Cornwall:

                              And did Morgana’s fay-light
abb the warp of mist
                             that diaphanes the creeping ebb, or worse
                                                                                the rapid flow
off Scylla’s cisted West-site
                             screening her felspar’d war
with the skerry-mill?

Within a mere six lines, Jones coins two verbs (“abb” and “diaphanes”) and one adjective (“felspar’d”); uses two other words in an uncommon manner (“worse” as a verb, and the noun “cist” as the participle “cisted”); and employs three hyphenated phrases—“fay-light,” “West-site,” and “skerry-mill”— in which two nouns create a single compound. Throughout Jones’s work one finds nouns yoked together to form new compounds, or turned into participles, or both. In Parenthesis describes World War I’s trenches this way: “Under-earth shorn-up, seeled and propt. Substantial matter guttered and dissolved, sprawled to glaucous insecurity. All sureness metamorphosed.” Stripping his language of verbs of being—there is not an “is” or an “are” to be found—enables Jones not just to describe the devastation of the battlefield, but to enact it. The form of the language, its clipped and broken music, embodies the brokenness of the scene itself; the devastation of a war-torn landscape is made present again, through the poem’s fragmented language and syntax.

Jones most frequently accomplishes this enactment by forcing nouns into past participles, a technique that he picked up from Gerard Manley Hopkins. In The Anathemata, for instance, a martyr is described as “tunicled”; hail is “cataracted”; breath is “clovered”; fabric is “fine-abb’d.” Here—also from The Anathemata—is the poet’s description of a ship’s keel:

Planked or
            boarded and above
or floored, from bilge to bilge.
Carlings or athwart her
horizontaled or an-end
                              tabernacled and stepped
or stanchioned and ’tween decks.

What is Jones accomplishing by so forcefully wrenching words into new functions? What is the effect of saying “Substantial matter guttered and dissolved” instead of “substantial matter was guttered and dissolved?” I would argue that it is precisely in this grammatical tic that we see Jones creating a poetry of re-presentation, moving away from predication and description—x was like y—toward enactment and action. Describing a ship as “tabernacled” rather than “like a tabernacle” is to turn a thing into an action. Describing a war not as “fought with felspar” but as “felspar’d” animates the mineral, transforming it from an inert object into a process. Jones’s favorite theologian, Maurice de la Taille, described sacraments as “words in action,” efficacious signs that actually make things happen in this world. In creating his strange participles—tunicled, cataracted, tabernacled—Jones was similarly hoping to create “words in action,” words that, like the sacraments, described by enacting.

A different modernist, writing slightly earlier, also noted the connections between modernist representation and Catholic understandings of the Eucharist. In a 1914 essay on the Imagist poetry of Ezra Pound and H. D., the novelist and poet May Sinclair argued that, for these poets, the image is not “pure form. It is form and substance.” She went on: “The image is not a substitute; it does not stand for anything but itself”; “in no case is the image a symbol of reality (the object); it is reality (the object) itself.” After hinting at the sacramental valences of the image, Sinclair drew them into the open in her conclusion:

For all poets, old and new, the poetic act is a sacramental act with its rubric and ritual. The Victorian poets are Protestant. For them the bread and wine are symbols of reality, the body and blood. They are given “in remembrance.” The sacrament is incomplete. The Imagists are Catholic; they believe in transubstantiation. For them the bread and wine are the body and blood. They are given. The thing is done. Ita missa est.

While I wouldn’t embrace Sinclair’s easy division between Victorian and modernist, Protestant and Catholic, I agree that there is something sacramental about Imagism’s notion of representation, just as there is something sacramental about modernist aesthetics more generally. David Jones knew this, and his poetry and prose are the best arguments that I know for the intertwining of religion and literature in the modernist period.

Writing in the New York Review of Books, W. H. Auden admitted that convincing others to read Jones could be a tough sell. “It is certainly true,” Auden wrote,

that no reader is going to be able to make Mr. Jones’s “nowness” his own without taking a great deal of trouble and many rereadings of Anathemata, and, if he says: “I’m sorry, Mr. Jones is asking too much. I have neither the time nor the patience which he seems to expect me to bring to his poem,” I do not know what argument one could use to convince him otherwise. I can only state my personal experience, namely, that I have found the time and trouble that I have taken with Anathemata infinitely rewarding.

Unlike Auden, I do find convincing arguments for reading Jones—arguments based on his literary-historical importance, his critical intelligence, and his formal inventiveness. But, in the end, Auden is right to say that the most convincing argument is personal witness. For me, reading Jones has been a delight and a pleasure. His work has enriched my sense of poetic possibility, of what language can achieve and how it can achieve it. Jones’s poetry offers us the challenge of all great art—to open ourselves up to strangeness, to work through the difficulty so that we can hear the music.


Funding for this essay was provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

Related: Out of the Trenches, by Edward T. Wheeler

Published in the 2013-01-11 issue: 

Anthony Domestico is Chair of the Literature Department at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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