REVIEW by Suzannah V Evans

NWR Issue r18

David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet

by Thomas Dilworth

TS Eliot called David Jones’ epic poem In Parenthesis ‘a work of genius’, while WH Auden considered it to be ‘the greatest book about the First World War’, bowing deeply to the author when they first had occasion to meet. Since then, Seamus Heaney has described Jones as ‘an extraordinary writer’ who has ‘returned to the origin and brought something back, something to enrich not only the language but people’s consciousness of who they have been and who they consequently are.’ Other writers, including Basil Bunting and Hugh McDiarmid, held Jones to be one of the best writers of the twentieth century. So why, in Thomas Dilworth’s words, does Jones remain the ‘lost great modernist’?

The preface to Dilworth’s erudite and spirited biography of the poet and artist tackles this question head on. The difficult nature of Jones’ poetry, combined with its length – In Parenthesis and The Anathemata are both book-length poems – have discouraged readers in the past, Dilworth argues. Owing to its unusual form, Jones’ work wasn’t always even considered to be poetry, and when a 1986 book on the modern long poem was published, Jones was left out. As for the poet’s visual art, its complexity makes it ‘impossible to appreciate at first glance’. The fact that Jones was both a visual and verbal artist may also have contributed to his status as a ‘lost’ modernist, with neither side claiming him as their own. Dilworth’s own book, then, seeks to illuminate why, in spite of these historical lacunae, it is worth paying attention to this most extraordinary of artists.

Born to a Welsh-speaking father and London-born mother in south London in 1895, Jones’ artistic talent was precocious. Aged just five, he was ‘making pictures obsessively’, and when he sighted a dancing bear from his window at the age of seven, he quickly sketched it, later finishing the piece from memory. The sketch is, Dilworth claims, ‘the work of a prodigy’. Jones himself noted in 1958 that it was ‘much the best drawing I’ve ever done, which shows how, in the arts, there ain’t no such thing as getting better as you get older!’ Reading, on the other hand, came less naturally to Jones, and he was nine before he was able to read with ease. As an adult reader, he still found that it took time ‘for things to sink in’. Art, then, was his first love, and after periods of ill health as a child, he pursued art school, admiring the work of the Pre-Raphaelites, Blake and Turner. While at certain points in his life he would regret his lack of a grammar-school education, Jones later came to see his escape from it as an advantage. Thanks to his training in visual art, ‘his thinking and imagining remained predominantly spatial, and this would make him… unique among modern poets in his approach to literary form.’

This original approach to writing was partly shaped by the artist/poet’s experience of the First World War. In January 1915, wanting to play a part in history, he enlisted with the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His battalion consisted of Cockneys, Englishmen, and mainly Welsh officers, meaning that he was now ‘immersed in a mixture of Welsh and English languages, accents, idioms, and dispositions’. Already enamoured of the Welsh language – for his sixteenth birthday his father had given him a Welsh-English dictionary, which he studied furiously – his experience of slang and colloquial speech in both languages would feed into his 1937 epic poem In Parenthesis. He liked the lieutenants’ use of words such as ‘chaps’ and ‘blokes’, while other shouted terms found their place in his poem, such as the ‘Well, Bell!’ of an officer calling out to him. In his preface to In Parenthesis, Jones notes that the repetition of other ‘impious and impolite words’, when used during war, ‘reached real poetry’. When WWI ended, Jones had been disappointed by the writing he read which failed to show that conflict was ‘like ordinary life… only more intensified’. ‘Bugger it,’ Jones exclaimed, ‘I can do better than that. I’m going to write a book.’

In the meantime, he was painting. Doing so required ‘fierce concentration’ as Harmon Grieswood noted, with the artist’s ‘whole physical being mobilised’. The early 1930s saw numerous watercolours, with works such as ‘Curtained Outlook’ characteristic of the artist’s floating, airy style. Dilworth calls it a ‘daring picture’ which ‘only just avoids chaos partly by the off-rhyme between window frame and table.’ Another painting praised by Dilworth as ‘successful’ is the slightly earlier ‘Montes et Omnes Colles’, although the muddied, bruise-like tones lend it an air of sadness rather than vibrancy. ‘July Change, Flowers on a Table’, painted in 1932, is a brighter piece, and one which exhibits Jones’ skill in depicting the way we actually see, as the critic Simon Brett has pointed out. That many of these works are views from a window may also reflect the artist’s long periods of window-gazing during childhood illness. Dilworth’s enthusiasm for the art sometimes seems to run away with him, however, as when he praises a rather static-looking painting of trees in ‘Tree at Bowden House’ as ‘wild and free’, or comments on the ‘vitality’ of a beige-toned picture of heads entitled ‘Sunday Mass: In Homage to GM Hopkins’, a work, in my mind, saved only by the beautiful bird hidden in the girl’s hair. Arthur Howell, Jones’ agent in 1925, recognised that ‘[His] pictures were not always easy to grasp at first sight,’ and developed a wonderful technique of leaving the paintings propped up at critics’ desks to give them time to change their minds from hesitancy to absolute conviction regarding his client’s talent. Certainly, the fluidity and intricate detail of Jones’ later works, which often reference the war, as well as his Catholicism, makes them unique. Jones’ engravings, as Dilworth rightly points out later in the book, are also outstanding.

The artist/poet’s work was interrupted by a breakdown in 1932, and in 1968 he would write of the experience that ‘it has persisted’. Finishing any major work would bring on bouts of depression, which he named ‘Rosey’, and when the second world war arrived it seemed almost like ‘a holiday from neurosis’. Jones was captivated by the booming sounds of naval guns in Hyde Park, indicative of the importance that sound had for him in his writing. ‘Unless it sounds right’, he said while testing his writing by reading it aloud, ‘it’s no good at all.’ The pronunciation of Welsh words in The Anathemata, which he finished writing in the 1950s, was also important to him, and he was equally sensitive to voices as having an ‘almost limitless power to deject, repel, bore, or elevate, enchant, console, attract.’

The 1960s saw Jones feeling more dejected than enchanted. He described himself as ‘dry as a bloody dead bone’, the result of prescription medication that ‘all but ended his creative life’. That he was able to create ‘so much intelligent beauty during so many decades of psychological distress’ is ‘probably the greatest existential achievement of international modernism’, Dilworth argues convincingly. His own book is itself a feat, full of vividly recounted detail, careful biographical corrections and enthusiastic criticism. I hope that Dilworth’s publication may make this ‘lost modernist’ slightly less lost, for certainly David Jones, as engraver, soldier, painter, and poet, deserves both recognition and celebration.

Suzannah V Evans is a poet, editor, and critic. She was born in London and studied at the universities of St Andrews and York. Her writing has appeared in the TLS, Eborakon, the London Magazine, the ScoresTime Present, Tears in the Fence, and elsewhere. She has published peer-reviewed work on the acoustics of David Jones’ poetry and is Reviews Editor for the Compass. Additional writing by Suzannah V Evans on David Jones. 


previous review: Two Reviews: My Body Welsh & Wear and Tear
next review: Brood by Rhian Edwards, Translating Mountains by Yvonne Reddick and A White Year by Anna Lewis


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