Reckoning with David Jones

DJ-Books

The David Jones reckoning cannot be long postponed. I was reliably informed that, preparatory to a serious grappling with Jones’s second great long poem The Anathémata, there were tremendously useful essays, collected in The Dying Gaul, published in 1978 and long out of print. I no longer remember which essays they were: perhaps ‘Use and Sign’? Or ‘Art in Relation to War?’

I seem to recall a conversation with Dr Cornelius van Muchey (lately of Sumatra):

Have you read In Parenthesis?

I have, yes. Twice.

Okay with that?

I think. . . yes, pretty much.

Watched the films? Read the biography?

Yes. Yes.

And have you read The Anathémata?

Sort of.

What does that mean?

It means that In Parenthesis is like Ulysses while The Anathémata is more like Finnegans Wake.

Ah. Have you read Finnegans Wake?

Sort of.

Ah.

Dying-Gaul

I now have a copy of The Dying Gaul.*

‘It was a dark and stormy night, we sat by the calcined wall; it was said to the tale-teller, tell us a tale, and the tale ran thus: it was a dark and stormy night . . . ‘

* And I belatedly see that Faber, presumably taking advantage of the publication of Thomas Dilworth’s biography from Cape, have reprinted in paperback both The Dying Gaul and the wonderful Dai Greatcoat: a self-portrait of David Jones in his letters.

Hallowmas, ducks, poets

Hodder, Albert, 1845-1911; Bolling Mill near the Brewery, Bridport, Dorset

(Albert Hodder, Bolling Mill near the Brewery, Bridport, Dorset, 1900;
The Coach House: Photo credit: Bridport Museum Trust)

The first of November: All Saints’ Day, Allhallows Day, Hallowmas, Hollantide.

If ducks do slide at Hollantide,
at Christmas they will swim;
if ducks do swim at Hollantide,
at Christmas they will slide.[1]

Briefly: keep an eye on the ducks.

On Tuesday 1 November 1892, Olive Garnett reported to her diary: ‘To-day being All Saint’s Day Mamma called on Christina Rossetti with pink & white heath, her favourite flower. Miss Rossetti wishes nothing to be said about her state of health, life or anything else. She has heart disease & absolute quiet is indispensable. Practically she has left the world already.’[2]

(In fact, she lived another two years, dying on 29 December 1894, aged sixty-four.)

My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these
Because my love is come to me.[3]

Goblin Market, published in 1862, was an artistic and critical success of the kind dangerously liable to make everything that follows seem something of an anti-climax. The poem continues to provoke an astonishing range of interpretations, from Christian allegories of temptation and redemption through discussions of the marriage market and the constraints on talented and artistic women to debates about lesbian sexuality. There’s a wonderful collision between the way in which Rossetti is often seen—the ascetic  Christian poet who turned down suitors for religious reasons—and the lush and sensual language she uses in Goblin Market:

She cried “Laura,” up the garden,
“Did you miss me?
Come and kiss me.
Never mind my bruises,
Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
Squeezed from goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
Eat me, drink me, love me;
Laura, make much of me:
For your sake I have braved the glen
And had to do with goblin merchant men.”[4]

Christina-Rossetti
(Christina by brother Dante Gabriel, c.1866: ©Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)

1 November is also the birthday of two poets with strong connections to the First World War, though both lived on into the 1970s. David Jones was born on this date in 1895. He had begun writing In Parenthesis (though it wasn’t published until 1937) when Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War, another classic work about the war, appeared in 1928:

‘Fine days succeeded, and moonlit nights, temperate nights with their irresistible poetry creating a silver lake in the borders of Thiepval’s lunatical wood, a yellow harvest on the downs towards Mesnil the mortuary.’[5]

Blunden was born exactly one year after Jones, 1 November 1896. He was awarded the Military Cross in the same month twenty years later.

At the noon of the dreadful day
Our trench and death’s is on a sudden stormed
With huge and shattering salvoes, the clay dances
In founts of clods around the concrete sties
Where still the brain devises some last armour
To live out the poor limbs.[6]

Siegfried Sassoon told David Jones, when they met and talked in 1964, that, however hard he tried, he couldn’t get the Great War out of his system; and that this was also true of Blunden. Jones said it was true for him too. He told his friend Harman Grisewood he was glad that Sassoon thought highly of Undertones of War, ‘which I’ve felt to be one of the very best of those various accounts of that infantry war.’[7]

Jones, David, 1895-1974; Portrait of a Maker
David Jones, Portrait of a Maker [Harman Grisewood], 1932 © trustees of the David Jones estate. Photo credit: Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

Born within a year of one another, dying in the same year (1974) and both largely shaped by their experiences in the Great War, they yet remained very different writers: Blunden with his devotion to English literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to the pastoral tradition, to Englishness in its many forms and guises, whether villages, prose or cricket; Jones emerging as one of the major modernists, in both literature and the visual arts, often drawing on materials less familiar to the general reader: Welsh myth, Arthurian romance, the experiences of Roman legionaries in Britain, details of Catholic ritual.

‘It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for us to see the wood in which we find ourselves for the trees against which we break our heads and in the tangle of which we break our hearts.’[8] 

References

[1] Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 440.

[2] Barry C. Johnson, editor, Tea and Anarchy! The Bloomsbury Diary of Olive Garnett, 1890-1893 (London: Bartletts Press, 1989), 132-133.

[3] Christina Rossetti, ‘A Birthday’, Poems and Prose, edited by Jan Marsh (London: Everyman, 1994), 60.

[4] Rossetti, Poems and Prose, 174.

[5] Blunden, Undertones of War (1928; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982), 116.

[6] Blunden, ‘Third Ypres: A Reminiscence’, Selected Poems, edited by Robyn Marsack (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1993), 50.

[7] Thomas Dilworth, David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet (London: Jonathan Cape, 2017), 328; René Hague, editor, Dai Greatcoat: A self-portrait of David Jones in his letters (London: Faber and Faber, 1980), 210.

[8] David Jones, ‘Art and Democracy’, in Epoch and Artist (1959; London: Faber, 1973), 96.

 

 

Dylan, Dai Greatcoat and Welshness

Dylan-Caitlin-via-Telegraph

(Dylan Thomas and his wife Caitlin via The Telegraph)

Dylan Thomas (born 27 October 1914) was probably my first poetic crush or obsession or, let’s say, preoccupation. No doubt I had others of a non-poetic kind and it was not solely as a spectator that I approached Thomas: I myself was to be a poet in the Thomas mode – a lord of language but also comedian, raconteur, champion drinker, roaring boy. I can see now that I actually read relatively few of Thomas’s poems: I just read them a lot. They were, for the most part, the ones that remain the best known and most often cited: ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower’, ‘Light breaks where no sun shines’, ‘I see the boys of summer’, ‘After the funeral’, ‘When all my five and country senses see’, ‘The hunchback in the park’, ‘A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London’, ‘Fern Hill’, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’, and perhaps especially then, ‘Poem in October’ (I won’t worry too much about the indented lines, which will vanish when I post this):

It was my thirtieth year to heaven
Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
And the mussel pooled and the heron
Priested shore
The morning beckon
With water praying and call of seagull and rook
And the knock of sailing boats on the net webbed wall
Myself to set forth
That second
In the still sleeping town and set forth.[1]

When I became aware of the scheme in ‘Prologue’, written especially for the 1952 Collected Poems—the two central lines rhyme, then the lines on either side of those and so back to the first and last lines—I admired that excessively for a time. (Then thought it a gimmick, mere ‘technique’ – and now simply like the poem.)

We tend to grow wary of youthful enthusiasms; we may encounter contrary or negative views of their objects; we may hug them protectively to ourselves and try to sustain them; but often other things crowd in to absorb our attention and the early enthusiasms—or infatuations or passions—are deprived of air and light and can’t always be resuscitated. Yet they’re not always gone for good. Sometimes we come back to them, years later, perhaps on quite other terms, and establish different but often surprisingly strong relations.

DJ-outside-Faber

(David Jones outside the Faber offices: http://www.david-jones-society.org/david-jones.html )

My most recent poetic preoccupation, still current in fact, is with David Jones. It’s a point of interest that, while Dylan Thomas was actually Welsh, born in Swansea—though much of his material is not substantially or conspicuously Welsh—David Jones, though he had a Welsh father, was born in Brockley, south-east London, spent very little time actually in Wales, but was hugely interested in Welsh history and literature. A great deal of his work, concerned with ‘the matter of Britain’, deals with themes of Welsh antiquity, mythology, language. Of course, both Dylan Thomas, ‘the Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive’, and David Jones speak in the accents of upper-class Englishmen.

(The remarkable 1965 interview—two hours of film edited down to around twenty minutes—between Jones and Saunders Lewis, produced by Tristram Powell, is available here: http://www.david-jones-society.org/research-resources.html
(Also accessible through this site are the three invaluable films about Jones by the late Derek Shiel)

Despite the prevalence of Welsh matter in David Jones’s work, he tends to be viewed—when he’s not being neglected or overlooked, which is still too often the case—in relation to British modernism. This can seem something of a drawback for those seeking to establish a distinct strain of Welsh modernism and situate Dylan Thomas centrally within it: ‘If modernism in Britain was largely imported – think of James, Conrad, Pound, and Eliot – it was heavily Irish-influenced [presumably Joyce and Yeats]. Predictably, the Welsh variety has been seen solely in terms of its input to the definition of British (i.e., English) modernism, in the shape of David Jones. Although its anomalousness and belatedness are arguably a sign of writing which deals with the condition of Welshness, concentration on Jones’ high modernism (endorsed by Eliot, and publication by Faber) has led critics away from Welsh modernism.’[2]

David Jones told William Blissett that he’d met Dylan Thomas on three occasions: ‘twice he was drunk and unreachable, though amusing, the other time sober, and they talked at some length about Welsh metres, in complete accord.’[3] Thomas Dilworth points out that, on this last occasion, 30 March 1953, David Jones did ‘most of the talking since Thomas knew little about it.’ Thomas regarded Jones with ‘“great reverence”’, and ‘expressed huge admiration for him as a poet’, while Jones thought that Dylan Thomas ‘invigorated English through an underlying sense of Celtic language’.[4]

Both of David Jones’s major poems, In Parenthesis and The Anathemata were dramatised on the BBC, and Dylan Thomas performed in both recordings. In 1946, David Jones went to the basement flat in Albany Street of his friend Douglas Cleverdon to hear the first broadcast of Cleverdon’s adaptation of In Parenthesis; and listened to the following evening’s repeat with his friends Harman and Margaret Grisewood. He felt that the actors, including Richard Burton and Emrys Jones, wrongly stressed words and exaggerated emotions. Jones ‘hated it, broke down, and went to bed for a week.’[5] But Dylan Thomas, who delivered Dai Greatcoat’s boast, seems to have escaped the author’s censure. And in 1954, a year after Dylan’s death, when Douglas Cleverdon’s version of The Anathemata was repeated on Friday 26 November, Jones wrote to his friend Jim Ede: ‘It’s a peculiar thing. They sweated on it, but of course, from my point of view, it is all over-dramatized etc. etc. etc.—one or two bits not so bad—Dylan Thomas said his [pre-recorded] bits beautifully and the Welsh women in Part VII are all right.’[6]

I read In Parenthesis for the first time more than thirty years ago but feel that I’m only now beginning to see David Jones properly for the first time; reading Dylan Thomas and experiencing that intoxication—language as if mainlined, shot straight into the vein—even longer ago than that, I think that seeing him for the second time, though less enthralling than the first, may, in the end, prove even more rewarding.

 
References

[1] Dylan Thomas, The Poems, edited and introduced by Daniel Jones (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1971), 176-177.

[2] John Goodby and Christopher Wigginton, ‘Dylan Thomas’ modernism’, in Alex Davis and Lee M. Jenkins, Locations of Literary Modernism: Region and Nation in British and American Modernist Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 99.

[3] Conversation dated 25 September 1970: William Blissett, The Long Conversation: A Memoir of David Jones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 57.

[4] Thomas Dilworth, David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet (London: Jonathan Cape, 2017), 276.

[5] Dilworth, David Jones, 239.

[6] René Hague, editor, Dai Greatcoat: A self-portrait of David Jones in his letters (London: Faber and Faber, 1980), 164.