Poet, artist, and essayist David Jones (1895-1974 ) belongs to a recognisable group of British visionaries that includes William Blake and Mervyn Peake, whose work eludes categorisation.
David Jones was a quieter revolutionary, but a revolutionary he was, as recognised by his publisher and friend, TS Eliot, who wrote the preface to his first major work, In Parenthesis (1937 ), and WH Auden, who said that his second book, The Anathemata (1952 ) was the best long poem written in English in the 20th century. His last work, The Sleeping Lord and Other Fragments, was published posthumously in 1974, as was The Roman Quarry, unfinished work intended for The Sleeping Lord.
Three things were decisive for David Jones. Though born not far from London, his background was Welsh, and, though discouraged by his father from speaking Welsh, as soon as he discovered his vocation as an artist, he immersed himself in Welsh history, myth and legend, especially as contained in the great Welsh epic, The Mabinogion.
When World War I broke out, Jones enlisted in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, serving on the Western Front until the end of the war. His experiences of that bloody conflict influenced everything he was to paint and write in the years following. Jones, latterly, has been recognised as one of the major Great War poets and his name features on a wall plaque in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.
The other aspect of Jones’s life is his Catholicism. In 1921 he was received into the Church by Fr John O’Connor (who was GK Chesterton’s model for Father Brown ), who introduced him to the Catholic artist Eric Gill, a gifted eccentric who ran the artist’s Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic in Sussex. Jones joined the guild where he learned wood and copper engraving. Just as Gill was to design a very distinctive and still-used typeface, so in later years, Jones was to do the same, illustrating The Anathemata with Latin inscriptions that acted as a kind of visual counterpoint to the text.
Jones was a fine and original essayist and in those collected in Epoch and Artist and The Dying Gaul, he outlined his view of the artist as ‘maker’, stating that we are the only creatures that create ‘gratutious’ works, for the sheer pleasure of the act, which Jones said showed our resemblance to the creator God. And he argued for the transcendent nature of what the artist makes: “Unless man is of his essential nature a poet, one who makes things that are the signs of something, then the central act of the Christian religion is without meaning.”
In Parenthesis is a powerful and intensely moving narrative of soldiers travelling to and fighting at the front in World War I, concluding with an account of a confused and devastating battle fought in a wood, largely based on his participation in a similar battle. Here what Wilfred Owen wrote is apposite: “My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.”
The Anathemata is an extraordinary account of Welsh history during the time of the Roman occupation of Britain, drawing on The Mabinogion and other early Welsh literary works. It is a work of great beauty, and it introduces one of Jones’s deeply-held beliefs: the necessity of small cultures to resist the crushing and levelling influence of Empire, whether that of Rome or, as he came to see it, the destructive power of megalopolitan technological society and its dire effects on what he called the “holy diversities”, including the environment.
The Sleeping Lord was to have explored this theme further, contrasting the might and power of Rome with the smaller, more personalised cultures Rome set out to destroy. Part of his inspiration came from a visit he made to Palestine under the Mandate where he was struck by the parallels between the British and Roman occupations of the region.
One of the completed sections of The Sleeping Lord is ‘The Tutular of the Place’, which was to have been spoken by a Celtic solider serving in the Roman army in Jerusalem, telling his non-Celtic mate about his homeland on the edge of Empire, in Wales.
“She that loves place, time, demarcation, hearth, kin, enclosure, site, differentiated cult, though she is but one mother of us all: one earth brings us all forth, one womb receives us all, yet to each she is other, named of some name other ...”
This initial passage, addressing the Goddess of the land, encapsulates Jones’s love for the intimate, the personal, the homely and dearly loved, against the large, destructive, impersonal forces that are as much with us today as ever.