David Jones on Religion, Politics, and Culture: Unpublished Prose
ed. Thomas Berenato, Anne Price-Owen, and Kathleen Henderson Staudt.
Bloomsbury Academic, 2018.
Cloth, xviii + 347 pages, $176.

Reviewed by Adam Schwartz


David Jones (1895–1974) is acknowledged increasingly as a pioneering poet and visual artist. But he was also a trenchant literary and social critic. Indeed, even as he upbraided Jones’s first published essays in 1959, Frank Kermode conceded that they were premised on assumptions “essential to the production of the kind of art most people are prepared to call important,” an appraisal Joseph Schwartz amplified more generously three decades later, calling his critical prose “visionary, erudite, highly original, and utterly sincere.” This addition to the Jones corpus confirms those judgments while opening new lines of scholarly inquiry, particularly concerning his stances on crucial, and controversial, political issues of his era. Rounded contextualization of these positions within the poet’s thought is therefore required to grasp accurately some of the social implications of what Rowan Williams dubs Jones’s “radical Catholicism.”

This volume contains two versions of a 1968 essay on Gerard Manley Hopkins, a 1973 interview with Jones, a 1938 letter to Neville Chamberlain backing his appeasement policies, and a 1939 exploration of Hitler and fascism. Each piece has a learned preface, and Kathleen Henderson Staudt provides a capacious, judicious historiographical survey that orients tyros to this burgeoning field while enriching veteran scholars’ interpretations. Staudt’s distilled edition of the Hopkins essay presents Jones’s reflections on the Victorian poet-priest as a proleptic modernist and on the resultant “mystery” of profound affinities existing between artists separated by decades, even centuries. Thomas Berenato’s exhaustive manuscript study of this article further includes cogent encapsulations of core aspects of Jones’s worldview, especially his theology and aesthetics, many of which are reiterated in the 1973 interview and which informed his political outlook.

In Jones’s mind, people are made in the image and likeness of a Creator, so their defining trait is an ability to subcreatively mirror divine creation in human poiesis. He found this theo-aesthetic anthropology’s belief in the “signum-making proclivity of man” affirmed by Roman Catholicism (to which he converted in 1921): “the Catholic religion took it for granted that this sign-making was not peripheral but central to man.” In turn, Jones argued, such artefacture is re-presentational, as art analogically and sacrament directly show forth an object under fresh forms: “all art re-presents” because it “strives to make in this or that medium an effectual re-calling of something other,” yet the “supreme ‘making’” is the Mass, for “signa and what is signified are one and the same.”

He hence feared that in the “machine age,” this intransitive, or “gratuitous,” sign-making had been unprecedentedly displaced by functional utility, a “break” that imperiled art, sacrament, man’s identity as homo significator, and the Church’s ancient liturgy: all such instances of gratuity are “extraneous to technological man.” Jones thought he had witnessed this dehumanizing rupture during his service as a private in the technocratic Great War, and he detected this mindset enshrined in dominant materialistic ideologies like communism and plutocratic capitalism. He was thus horrified in the 1930s at the prospect of another mechanized conflagration and open to a politique that seemed more compatible with his aesthetic and religious norms. In fact, he contended in 1939 that Catholics should be concerned “in a special way” with “the truth about Europe and civilization and mankind.”

Jones’s concern for avoiding a second world war echoed the admonitions of World War I-era pope Benedict XV, as he called in 1939 for forestalling the “suicide of Europe” by preventing armed strife. Jones’s participation in that prior conflict also molded his pleas for peace. He held that “ex-service men” had realized that “our heads were filled with a good deal of nonsense” justifying that struggle, and his ensuing distrust of the press, plutocrats, and politicians governed his view of the gathering storm. By May of 1939, he was chiding journalists for demonizing “the Dictators” and identifying the “interests” behind the perceived new jingoism: “the instruments or creators of capitalist exploitation, of imperialist necessity, the unnamed forces that control commodities and gold and the instigators of world revolution.” To him, such elites were using war as a distraction from the deeper cultural maladjustments of modern technocracy: “the real problems are only shielded.… It is far easier to get the human race to face high explosives (and anything else they like to invent) than to get it to face an elementary philosophy or aesthetic profession.” In addition, Jones regarded Britain as partly culpable for the possibility of hostilities, pointing especially to its role in what he deemed the victor’s peace of Versailles. As he felt that “on ‘our’ side the follies and dangerous untrue ideas have been contributing to a disaster,” he concluded that “all the threat to peace is by no means confined to the Axis Powers.”

Likewise, when Jones looked at those powers, he was more prone to see friends than foes. Reflecting a passion for unity (which he considered a sine que non of art), Jones claimed that Germans had helped create Britain and Western culture. Both world wars were thus battles between brothers that threatened to destroy European civilization:

                                          for the fratricides
of the latter-day, from east-shore of Iceland
bis Norwegen
(O Balin O Balan!
                        how blood you both
the Brudersee
                        toward the last phase
of our dear West.)

Jones’s war experiences shaped and intensified this feeling of fraternity. He dedicated his Great War epic, In Parenthesis (1937), in part to “the enemy front-fighters,” and this empathy with “‘poor old Jerry’, suffering a common fate, affectionately regarded, honored and fraternized with” pervades the poem. Moreover, Jones referred often to the Christmas 1915 truce instigated by the enlisted, when the infantry of each side “embraced” and exchanged gifts. He made these personal and cultural rationales for supporting Chamberlain’s appeasement of Germany plain in his 1938 missive:

When, during the war, we looked across to the other entrenchments, I know that at least for some of us, one thought was uppermost: we looked to the day when those opposite would be our friends again.… You, sir, have seen that the first necessity in Europe is such an understanding as we hoped for on the West Front.… [I pray] you will see some realization of our Christian and courteous effort. I hope this for all our sakes—as also for the saving of our common European unity.

Although such convictions were widespread at this time in Britain, Jones came to regret advocating them (a fact Oliver Bevington’s otherwise erudite introduction omits). He depicted two of Christ’s chief antagonists, Pilate and Caiaphas, as appeasers in later writing, and mockingly invoked Chamberlain’s signature phrase in 1952:

                            Peace in Our Time
the whole world expectant of war.

In the end, then, he felt that Hitler’s negotiations sought to subjugate Europe rather than win just redress from it and rejoin it as an equal partner. According to William Blissett, by the late 1950s, Jones was deeply ashamed of his misreading of interwar diplomacy.

Jones’s assessment of fascism followed a similar trajectory. Of the currently viable political orders, fascism seemed initially to be the least hostile to his principles and the most likely to be transformed by them. First, he focused on the fascist animus to materialism. Like many Roman Catholics, he championed Franco in the Spanish civil war due to his opposition to communism, and even as Jones criticized Hitler in 1939, he claimed that “I back him still against all this currish, leftish, money thing.” This sympathy dovetailed with Jones’s disdain for plutocracy, communism’s allegedly ethical twin. He shared the fascist notion that the military and its virtues, which his war service had made central to his outlook, were being degraded by fighting for money-interests instead of national ideals and heritages. He voiced this sentiment even late in his career, when a Roman soldier laments anachronistically that

                                   they used to say we marched for Dea
Roma behind the wolf sign to eat up the world, they used to say
we marched for the Strider, the common father of the Roman

                                          Now they say
we march for kind Irene, who crooks her rounded elbow for little
Plutus, the gold-getter, and they say that sacred brat has a

Beyond applauding fascism’s reproval of materialism, Jones suggested affinities between Catholic social thought and certain fascist policies in 1939, musing for a time that fascism was a surrogate faith, but a corrigible one. In 1938 he posited that making one’s nation or race a sacred, final end is a “crude retrogression” from a Christian standpoint, yet it still contains “an aboriginal validity.” In asserting that there is more to Being than matter, in revering tradition, and in sharing deep structures with the Church’s sociology, he felt at this point, fascism was the modern political system most congruent with Catholic ideals and thus the best extant hope for preserving and restoring gratuity: “it is, conceivably, for a baptized Führership that we may yet have cause to pray.”

But Jones soon saw the folly of this hope. As he evaluated his days’ actual führerships more carefully, he began to deem fascism radically incapable of baptism. He not only noted his friend Christopher Dawson’s 1939 argument that Nazism’s totalitarian nature undercuts any aboriginally valid traditional and religious elements it contains; but he concluded himself in the early 1940s that, far from upholding tradition, fascism was a secular “millenniumism” like communism. More fundamentally, Jones rebuked its main premise in 1939: “the conception of the world in terms of race-struggle (that’s what it boils down to) will hardly do … this hate thing mars his whole thing.”

In dividing men into permanently antagonistic camps on the basis of nation or race, the fascist denies the bedrock Jonesean principle of unity and therefore fails the test of sacramental and artistic gratuity: “Compared with his opponents he is grand, but compared with the saints he is bloody. And I think I mean also by saints—lovers, and all kinds of unifying makers.” The Christian facet of this rejection of fascism is reinforced in Jones’s poetic proclamation that the crucified Christ, who drew all things unto Himself on the Cross and died for all people out of love, “has put a few over on the men in black.”

Jones’s writing during and after the 1940s sustained a strongly anti-fascist cast, as his denunciations of totalitarianism usually used distinctly fascist imagery, be it the term and idea of Gleichschaltung, fascist salutes, “extra fancy step[s],” and “stormgroups,” or references to the “March purge” that helped establish “the Reich.” He also made direct acts of contrition. Even in his final months, he was chastising those who had partaken of his attraction to fascism but now “find it convenient to forget the fact”; he further admitted explicitly that “I got that Nazi thing wrong.” Jones, then, flirted with fascism only as long as he could accommodate it within his antecedent convictions: when he judged its essential idea antithetical to his aesthetic and religious mores, his opposition to it solidified, making his view of fascism a consistent part of his broader rebellion against modernity. As with his endorsement of appeasement, the poet might have had less remorse in later life had he curbed his early solicitude for this ideology and withheld comment until undertaking the closer scrutiny that prompted his renunciation of it.

In his Hopkins essay, Jones declared that his predecessor suffered “more isolation and less recognition during [his] life,” yet was seen posthumously as “not only a singular genius but as a harbinger whose work would have a special relevance” for subsequent generations. As David Jones emerges from his own relative obscurity, his distinctive voice and vision resonate with the “late civilization” he interrogated incisively. In considering this often-neglected artist’s reaction to his epoch, the complexities of a technocratic, ideological age become clearer, as does the subtle, sometimes struggling, response of a sensitive, radically Catholic conscience to these challenges. Although it has been easy to miss him at the turn of a civilization, these critical writings will foster the growing recognition of the singular achievement of a once isolated “maker.” As Jones put it in The Anathemata, “what’s under works up.”  

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, he serves on the advisory board of the David Jones Research Center.