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Why you should read David Jones

November 28, 2011

A few months ago I mentioned here David Jones, the Welsh poet, and said I was interested in reading him but skeptical that he would live up to his reputation.

I’ve now read his In Parenthesis, and my conclusion is, he has. Anyone who has talked to me recently has probably had me recommend him to them, but it may have seemed unclear why I was so enthusiastic.

Really, though, I’m astounded that I’d never even heard of him until a few months ago. It has something to do, I think, with how particular his work can seem; one could describe In Parenthesis as a Catholic WWI-inspired Welsh High Modernist half-prose half-poetry epic, and that’s a lot of adjectives, many of which were out of fashion by 1938, when he published In Parenthesis, his first book.

But one could also just call In Parenthesis “Catholic” and “epic.” It’s WWI-inspired because that’s the war Jones fought in, but it’s more importantly about sin and suffering, and it’s Welsh because Jones identified with his Welsh heritage, but it’s more importantly about Tradition and archetypal patterns. It’s High Modernist because Jones can clearly be placed in the Eliot-Pound school, but he transcends both High and Modernist: he is high only in ambition, not pretension, and modernist only in difficulty, not obscurity. It’s both prose and poetry because sometimes it’s in lines and sometimes in paragraphs, but since all of it has both the evocative power of poetry and the narrative drive of prose, it’s really pointless to force it into rigid genre classifications, and Jones just called it a “writing.” So, in content it’s Catholic, that is, universal, and in form epic, that is, universal.

So is Jones a niche figure? I conclude from the above that he is not. At least, if he is a niche figure, it is only because his subject matter is too large for some people’s comfort.

So does Jones deserve to be more widely read than he is? That depends on if the “writing” is itself any good. It turns out, it is, both in “form” and “content” (insofar as the two can be separated). Unfortunately it’s difficult to demonstrate this. In Parenthesis is 187 pages long (not including endnotes or prefatory material, none of which can be ignored), and lends itself easily neither to plot summary, as one gives for a novel when reviewing it, since the plot matters less than the development of imagery; nor to excerpts, as one gives for poetry, since every part ties in to every other part. It would be like summarizing or excerpting The Waste Land; but that poem is only 17 pages long, not 187+. For works like this it sometimes seems like all the advocate can do is gesture. Eliot says as much in the introduction to In Parenthesis, which he regards as “a work of genius.”

Still, if one is telling people they absolutely must go read a work 225 pages long and extremely dense, one ought to at least give some idea of why they should bother, and a list of adjectives centering on “Catholic” and “epic” can only go so far. I’ll try, instead, to gesture at what in particular I find impressive, and including a few quotations, which even out of context convey something of their greatness.

On the literal level, the work has a rather simple narrative. A battalion is sent to the trenches; the soldiers witness there the horror of trench-life and chemical warfare; six months later they fight in the battle of the Somme and almost all die. But that captures neither the importance of the individual experience portrayed; nor how meaning comes in through allusion; nor the way different images and themes are taken up and transformed over the course of the work. The most important of these, I think, is the image of the scape-goat, and of the soldier as a strange Christ-figure, being both sinner and sacrifice, as Jones seeks for a way to make sense of the evil of the world, to achieve a theodicy of some sort. In a typical passage the common soldiers, vs. the officers, are said to

sit in the wilderness, pent like lousy rodents all the day long; appointed scape-beasts come to the waste-lands, to grope; to stumble at the margins of unfamiliar things–at the place of separation. (70)

And during the “Celt’s boast,” a mythic description of all of soldiery, the archetypal soldier proclaims:

I served Longinus that Dux bat-blind and bent;
the dandy Xth are my regiment;
who diced
Crown and Mud-hook
under the Tree,
whose Five Sufficient Blossoms
yield for us.
I kept the boding raven
from the Dish.
With my long pilum
I beat the crow
from that heavy bough.
But I held the tunic of these–
I watched them work the terrible embroidery that He put on.
I heard there, sighing for the Feed so shod.
I saw cock-robin gain
his rosy breast.
I heard Him cry:
Apples ben rype in my gardayne
I saw Him die. (83)

But that is just one example of how Jones attempts to reconcile opposites. Another is in his portrayal of the soldiers, as he seeks to find chivalric virtue in the modern soldier:

Temporary unpaid Lance-Corporal Aneirin Merddyn Lewis had somewhere in his Welsh depths a remembrance of the nature of man, of how a lance-corporal’s stripe is but held vicariously and from on high, is of one texture with an eternal economy. He brings in a manner, baptism, and metaphysical order to the bankrupcy of the occasion. (1-2)

And in the officer who leads them (but fears he cannot):

[…] the profile of Mr. Jenkins and the elegant cut of his war-time rig and his flax head held front; like San Romano’s foreground squire, unhelmeted; but we don’t have lances now nor banners nor trumpets. It pains the lips to think of bugles–and did they blow Defaulters on the Uccello horns. (2)

Then there’s the more ecstatically lyric passages describing the violence of the explosion of bombshells, which are almost Hopkinsian in their language (and intentionally so, I think; there are also many explicit references to G.M. Hopkins’ poetry throughout the work):

He stood alone on the stones, his mess-tin spilled at his feet. Out of the vortex, rifling the air it came–bright, brass-shod, Pandoran; with all-filling screaming the howling crescendo’s up-piling snapt. The universal world, breath held, one half-second, a bludgeoned stillness. Then the pent violence released a consummation of all burstings-out; all sudden up-rendings and rivings-through–all taking-out of vents–all barrier-breaking–all unmaking. Pernitric begetting–the dissolving and splitting of solid things. (24)

Later, Jones tries to reconcile this destruction with the divine order:

Where a white shining waned between its hanging rents, another rises and another; high, unhurrying higher, clear, pale, light-ribbons; very still-bright and bright-showered descent.
Spangled tapestry swayed between the uprights; camouflage-net, meshed with plunging star-drought.
Bobbing night-walkers go against the tossing night-flares.
Intermittent dancing lights betray each salient twist and turn; tiny flickers very low to the south–their meandering world-edge prickt out bright.
Rotary steel hair spit and lashed in sharp spasms along the vibrating line; great solemn guns leisurely manipulated their expensive discharges at rare intervals, bringing weight and full recession to the rising orchestration. (38)

I also find impressive Jones’ ability for mundane physical description. For example:

On the wide pavé road they took their position behind ‘A’, moved left in fours, facing a futile chill sun; strong wind shivered their left sides, and blued the bent knuckles about the cold iron of their sloped rifles clasped. So that they anticipated the order which would permit them to march more freely, with irritable mutterings. (17)

Now, I’ve only read In Parenthesis; his other long work, The Anathemata, is considered by some to be even better, and he also has a single collection of shorter lyrics called The Sleeping Lord. I plan to read both, eventually. I’ve read portions of his essay collections Epoch and Artist and The Dying Gaul, and found many parts fascinating, though I would say Eliot is a more bold essayist (and more arrogant) and that much of what Jones writes will not surprise anyone familiar with both the Eliotic school of literary theory and the Chestertonian school of cultural criticism–though it is still interesting to see them combined.

One last point. I do not mean, by the high praise I gave Jones above, to say that I think everything he writes is perfect. His work has certain flaws, and they are worth pointing out; and it’s also worth digging into his work to see what exactly is going on–it’s complex enough to require some amount of excavation. Those would both be forms of criticism, and I may do some in the future. But I first want to establish why Jones deserves our attention at all. So the above isn’t criticism, but it is, unfortunately, necessary, in a way it is perhaps not with some of the other writers I’ve talked about here.

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