The timeless poetry of a bedridden genius

The Welsh memorial at Mametz Wood, where David Jones was wounded (Getty)

David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet
By Thomas Dilworth, Jonathan Cape, £25

David Jones is the author of two of the greatest modern poems in English, In Parenthesis and The Anathemata. He was also a gifted painter and he revolutionised the art of painted inscriptions. Yet Jones has too long been neglected, despite praise from figures such as Dylan Thomas and TS Eliot.

This new biography gives us a full portrait of Jones – as man, artist and poet. Just as important as the well-researched and well-written text is that Thomas Dilworth has included many reproductions of Jones’s visual art, both paintings and inscriptions – an art he really made his own.

Jones (1895-1974) was born in Brockley, south London, of Welsh descent. He served in World War I and was wounded during the battle of Mametz Wood. Among other experiences, his sight of a Mass being celebrated on the battlefield struck him both for its beauty and its rootedness in the many layers of Western history. The experience of war was to have a lifelong effect and strongly influence his work.

Jones was sickly, often bedridden, and suffered from almost complete breakdowns throughout his life, rendering him unable to work for long stretches. And his relationships with women, while at times intense, were all unfulfilled.

Returning from the war, he spent the rest of his life as a (sometimes literally) starving artist, living on the generosity of friends and patrons who recognised the greatness of his work. He became a Catholic in 1921, partly under instruction from Fr John O’Connor, the model for Chesterton’s Father Brown.

Jones possessed a powerful imagination that expressed itself verbally and visually. In both the visual and the verbal arts, he was trying to do the same thing: to recover the deep layers of meaning in Western history.

In Jones’s case, this meant going back through modernity to English and Roman history, Welsh legend, and all the way back to Christ. In Parenthesis, which is simply the best poetic account of soldiering in the Great War, was published to great acclaim in 1937, though its greatness was overshadowed by the next great war.

Jones uses the experience of battle as a window to history. Dilworth says that In Parenthesis “makes vividly real the physicality of the Great War and imbues it with broad, rich cultural resonance” and calls it “one of the great aesthetic and existential achievements of 20th-century literature”.

Jones did not like war (and indeed was sour on British involvement in World War II because of the horrors he saw in the trenches), but nevertheless recognised its deep cultural and historical significance.

Moreover, he saw, theologically, that out of the evil of war could come, finally and fitfully, beauty and virtue. The language of In Parenthesis is strikingly modern, combining Arthurian legend, chanson de geste like The Song of Roland, with the speech of the Tommies and common slang.

But it is also timeless. Through the Welsh soldier Dai Greatcoat we hear echoes of all the soldiers down into the forgotten past. Compared with this great work, the other war poets can seem almost superficial and saccharine.

Jones’s more ambitious Anathemata (1952) rests on a series of complementarities – “culture and civilisation, country and city, love and greed, female and male”. The poem ranks with those of Virgil and Homer as a work that explains the founding mythos of Western civilisation.

Dilworth is also an astute interpreter of Jones’s visual work. Jones had drawn since he was a young boy and learned engraving while living with Eric Gill’s community at Ditchling. The challenge of his poetry is that the knowledge required to interpret the written work was slipping away.

Jones saw that the visual could serve the same purpose, but in a more immediate way. His work, especially engravings and inscriptions, which combine different typefaces, languages and spacing, was meant to be a sensory and not solely intellectual experience.

As the centenaries of World War I are remembered, it is time to recover Jones’s works of genius and historical imagination.

Gerald Russello is editor of The University Bookman

This article first appeared in the May 12 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here