David Jones in the Great War
by Thomas Dilworth.
Enitharmon Press (London), 2012.
Cloth, 228 pp., £15.

Nearly four decades after he left the trenches, the Anglo-Welsh poet-painter David Jones (1895–1974) declared that “the forward area of the West Front had a permanent effect upon me and has affected my work in all sorts of ways.” Jones’s verbal and visual art, his essays, and even his personal letters verify this sense of the Great War’s omnipresence in his oeuvre. Thomas Dilworth’s carefully researched study is therefore a welcome contribution to Jones scholarship, as it supplies a dispositive narrative of the poet’s wartime service and experiences. It also sparks consideration of those myriad ways in which the war molded Jones’s mind. In particular, this conflict affected Jones’s religious beliefs and historical imagination enduringly; these ramifications of his soldiering in turn shaped his profound poetic reflections on the First World War.

Dilworth notes that Jones saw more active service than any other British war writer, being at the front for 117 weeks, and that he did so as a private, unlike most of his author peers, who were junior officers. Yet when he enlisted in the storied Royal Welch Fusiliers in 1915, he was like most of his counterparts and countrymen in professing an idealistic nationalism and anti-Prussian prejudices. For Jones, these sentiments survived even the traumatic Battle of the Somme, in which he was wounded and which “my mind can’t be rid of,” into the immediate aftermath of the war. Although Jones would later renounce his wartime chauvinism, he also asserted during his stint in uniform more lasting themes of his thought. For instance, the intimate fellowship of regimental life spurred a desire to reintegrate a Western culture that he felt was becoming more fragmented in twentieth-century technocracy. Likewise, the contrast between the carnage and anxiety of “an essentially Industrial type of war” and the relative tranquillity of bucolic interludes became to Jones an “antithetical symbolism” that intensified a preexistent Romantic pastoralism disgusted by industrial mechanism.

Even more crucially, the war fostered a decisive religious reorientation in Jones. Although (unlike many troops) Jones had retained his inherited Christianity in the trenches, he was an increasingly apathetic Anglican. In early 1917, though, he underwent a pivotal spiritual awakening when he happened upon a Roman Catholic chaplain and some infantrymen celebrating Mass. Jones had never seen the central Roman Catholic rite before, and he was transfixed by a sense of unity between the priest and congregants and by the “beauty and transcendence” of the liturgy: “it would remain one of the most numinous experiences in his life.”

Witnessing the Mass made such a powerful impression on Jones because it fed a sacramental impulse he had had since boyhood but that had been frustrated in his family’s low church evangelicalism. This bent was based in his equally longstanding anthropological conviction that people are by nature makers of signs and thus at root are artists and sacramentalists. Indeed, Jones would come to regard the sacrament of the Mass as the supreme art form. Encounters with Catholics in the ensuing months—especially a chaplain, Daniel Hughes—built on this aesthetic attraction to Rome, so much so that Jones considered himself “inside a Catholic” from mid-1917. In 1921, he converted to Roman Catholicism officially, having been convinced further (chiefly by Monsignor John O’Connor and the Catholic craftsman, Eric Gill) that the Church was the best defender of man’s identity as homo significator in what seemed a positivistic and utilitarian—and hence dehumanizing—epoch.

Similarly, Jones’s war experiences gave greater depth and vitality to his view of history. Jones had always had a strong consciousness of continuity between past and present. But, he claimed, this sensitivity was quickened in the Forward Area: “It was there that one felt in communion with all the past.” This understanding of history as an organic tradition manifested itself in his wartime drawings, his heightened attachment to his Welsh heritage—as the Welsh Tommies had “a living sense of their past”—and his growing awareness of affinity with previous warriors, particularly ancient Roman soldiers, that would become a signature trope of his later art.

book cover imageJones’s religious renascence and his belief in historical continuity during the Great War converged in his poetic reckonings with it, principally In Parenthesis (1937). He recalled feeling while at war that prior ages “knew no calamity comparable to what we knew,” a perception he eventually concluded was “largely unreal and exaggerated.” His war verse seeks to resolve this tension by putting World War I in religious and historical perspective while simultaneously stressing the unique conditions and anguish of mechanized combat and its combatants. Jones outlined his specific approach in In Parenthesis’s preface. He related that the Bard of the Household in the Welsh court sings thrice to the queen as she retires: “a song in honor of God … the song of the Battle of Camlann—the song of treachery and of the undoing of all things … any songs he may choose to hear.” He made plain that he was assuming this role: “I have tried, to so make this writing for anyone who would care to play Welsh Queen.”

Jones’s song in honor of God drew on religious images and themes to help theodicize his war memories. For example, his Tommies grumble like the Israelites at what seems an interminable trial, and share Job’s outraged cry to know what they have done to merit such a fate. But Jones also cites the Good Shepherd’s providential care, and he adverts to hopeful psalms often as well, ones that soothed him and that likewise succor his fictional soldiers. He was hardly panglossian, though, for he chided church leaders whom he felt had blessed jingoism. Instead, he saw religion’s great power as its ability to descry the war’s folly clearly and still make the conflict comprehensible, even in such hard cases as the use of tactics that repeatedly decimate regiments, yet remain unaltered:

            by Him even the
G.O.C. in C.’s diversion before the Mill can shine with the
splendour of order.

To Jones, then, belief in this “eternal economy”

        brings in a manner, baptism, and
metaphysical order to the bankruptcy of the occasion

of calamities like the Great War.

Jones thought that this order was also a yield from investing in more temporal traditions. He claimed that during the war, “every man’s speech and habit of mind were a perpetual showing: now of Napier’s expedition, now of the Legions at the Wall, now of ‘train-band captain,’ now of Jack Cade, of John Ball,” and so on for over a paragraph. Lance-Corporal Aneirin Lewis personifies these traits in In Parenthesis. He is both deeply sensitive to tradition—he “worshipped his ancestors like a Chink”—and it remains alive to him: it is he “for whom Troy still burned, and sleeping kings return, and wild men might yet stir from Mawddwy secrecies.… Lance-Corporal Lewis fed on these things.” The like-minded Jones served up a cornucopia of kindred historical fare throughout the poem. Arthur’s Camlann is not the only undoing of all things that the bard makes a song about, but he also refers to various actual and fictional battles, while further invoking Shakespeare and other Western literary luminaries extensively, plus British folk lore and popular culture, and even regimental and newly founded trench traditions. Behind this wide-ranging allusiveness is an underlying assertion that the war is intelligible within any of the manifold legacies that readers of his verse might bring to it, and is hence not a radical departure from earlier eras metaphysically and morally.

Jones did, however, acknowledge the modern soldier’s special circumstances, especially the effect of technological change on his fellow front-line fighters. Lest the sacrifices of ordinary men be lost in the anonymity of modern combat and thus engender despair among their survivors and successors, Jones emphasized the importance of naming them and honoring their courage, so as to help make sense of their foolish fate: “They’re worthy of an intelligent song for all the stupidity of their contest.” Although fewer chances for conventional heroism exist in mechanized warfare, he held, the common troops’ willingness to face its terrors directly made them the worthiest heirs to traditional heroes, for doing so evinced more bravery than “staff-wallahs” or civilians displayed: it is “the small men who permanently are with their sections” who “endure all things.” Jones therefore posited the continued validity of the epic heroic heritage by adjusting its customary focus on the social elite to account for total war’s technological transformations. His admiration for the infantry’s valor also had a spiritual aspect, as “courage is one of the Four Cardinal Moral Virtues.… And behind those again stand the three theological ones.” In loving the common warriors while hating the brutality of industrial war, then, Jones sought to defy the dehumanization and despondency he associated with such conflicts and reactions to them by memorializing their most direct combatants in his framework of historical and religious meaning.

Jones’s psalms in honor of God and his lays of previous battles, tales, and customs harmonized into a hymn of hope that he prayed his listener-queens would choose to hear. Like T. S. Eliot, Jones felt that “This is the use of memory: For liberation.” In Jones’s mind, a current sufferer gains hope by sensing solidarity with prior warriors and victims, particularly the supreme Suffering Servant, because he is freed from the prison of individual horror by realizing that forebears, especially those in arms, have endured a like fate, and that doing so has produced compensatory, everlasting beatitude and remembrance. The war consequently becomes an anathematon, for cursed as its violence and humiliation are, it is finally blessed by being a gateway to eternal life, both literally with Christ and figuratively through inclusion in historical and poetic annals, as symbolized by Jones’s lists of the fighters and the dead in his war verse. The Great War is therefore tragic but not meaningless. No less sensitive to the slaughter of annihilation war or the technological innovations that facilitated it than the majority of his contemporaries, Jones still rejected their judgment that modern war was thus either inexplicable religiously or substantially different from its ancestors. Rather, his Christian and historical affirmations gave him a perspective on the admitted terrors of total war that kept at bay the despair that plagued so many of his peers. To him, history is freedom.

Discussing the war two years before his death, Jones confessed “I still think about it more than anything else.” His lifelong grappling with this conflict was both personally agonizing and imaginatively fruitful. His spiritual and aesthetic transmutation of his suffering into art yielded In Parenthesis, which Dilworth describes plausibly as “the greatest work of literature on the Great War.” But the poem’s religious and historical depth gives it even richer significance. One night shortly after the Somme offensive, Siegfried Sassoon (a fellow Fusilier, war writer, and Catholic convert) was “overawed” by an epiphany: “It was as though I had seen the War as it might be envisioned by the mind of some epic poet a hundred years hence.” To read In Parenthesis during the centenary of the Great War is to recognize David Jones as that epic poet. 

Adam Schwartz is author of The Third Spring: G. K. Chesterton, Graham Greene, Christopher Dawson, and David Jones (The Catholic University of America Press, 2005). A professor of history at Christendom College, his scholarly interests are in the Catholic literary revival and the Inklings.