David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet
by Thomas Dilworth.
Jonathan Cape, 2017.
Hardcover, 432 pp., $15.

T. S. Eliot called his debut poem, In Parenthesis, “a work of genius.” To W. H. Auden, his second epic, The Anathemata, was “the finest long poem written in English” in the twentieth century. Kenneth Clark deemed him the best modern British painter. And The New Yorker‘s Harold Rosenberg claimed his essays “formulated the axiomatic precondition for understanding” contemporary culture. Despite this catalog of applause, the Anglo-Welsh poet-painter David Jones (1895–1974) has received less attention than his creative and critical peers, making him, in Thomas Dilworth’s phrase, “the lost great modernist.” Thirty years in the making, this biography will be a cornerstone of efforts to recover Jones’s work that Dilworth and a growing cohort of scholars are undertaking. Such reconsiderations reveal that, despite decades of acute psychological misery, Jones produced lasting visual and literary art and original thought that was rooted in a sacramental sense of reality, one articulated most fully for him by Roman Catholicism.

Jones’s family background had a strong artistic and religious cast. His Welsh father was a printer’s overseer and a fervent evangelical while his English mother was an amateur draftswoman with Tractarian leanings, which he felt gave his upbringing an “undercurrent or groundswell of a sacramental and Catholic nature.” Jones would eventually follow his father ethnically and his mother theologically, but both nurtured the artistic talents and interests they bequeathed to him. Although they were more skeptical of written than visual art, Jones reasoned that both modes “proceed on the same principles,” as each is “a made thing with a shape.” In fact, he ultimately thought his verbal achievement exceeded his visual one, an opinion echoed increasingly by critics.

Yet his initial training and accomplishments came in the visual arts. Jones was drawing seriously from age five, and was educated in adolescence and young adulthood at the Camberwell School of Arts & Crafts and the Westminster School of Art. Beginning as a draughtsman, he expanded quickly into painting (chiefly watercolors) and engraving. His most original contribution was his painted inscriptions, a form Dilworth claims Jones invented, and which was “of special importance to me” because it combined thematic “complications & allusions” with expressive “freedom & directness.” Although Jones deprecated himself as a “third rate English Artist,” Kenneth Clark was not alone in lauding his visual work. In 1984, for instance, John Rothenstein (who had acquired many of Jones’s pieces for the Tate gallery) judged his watercolors among “the most original creations in modern painting,” and in 2015, Matthew Sperling declared that the “time is ripe” for a revival of Jones’s art.

Jones was certain from about age six that he would be an artist, and soon developed a sense of vocation: “I’ve always always as long as I can remember felt my business (however blindly) to be my work & always knew that everything had got to go for that.” Specifically, Jones held that the artist is a “rememberer” whose task is “keeping the lines of communication open” between past and present. He hence deduced that this impression of “the past still living in the present” must be communicated in a current idiom to be credible. Such “nowness” gives an artifact “authenticity” because it is a “renewing” of tradition: “the past takes on a new form” that “mirrors our civilization phase with absolute validity.” He therefore embraced modernist fragmentation and allusiveness in his art, believing that such “allusion-writing” was an “inevitable trend” in his “groping age.”

Jones’s wholehearted devotion to this perceived calling prompted a vow of celibacy at Camberwell, one he kept until death despite intense emotional attachments to several women. But grappling with the “totalitarian” demands of art while forsaking marriage helped precipitate crippling breakdowns in the 1930s and 1940s that he felt halved his creative output. Psychotherapy enabled him to resume his work, but he thought he was “never cured” as neuroses “persisted,” particularly lifelong agoraphobia.

Jones’s psychological pain was exacerbated by his service in the Great War. He was at the front for 117 weeks (longer than any other British war writer), and he was always a private (whereas most of his author peers were junior officers). Jones admitted in his final years that “I still think about it more than anything else,” especially his 1916 wounding at the Battle of the Somme, which “my mind can’t be rid of.” He was eventually diagnosed with neurasthenic “shell-shock,” which contributed to his nervous collapses. Yet unlike many of his counterparts who despaired of a patrimony that seemed discredited by this conflict’s violence, Jones confronted his suffering by placing World War I in historical and religious perspective while simultaneously acknowledging the unique conditions and anguish of mechanized combat. This distinctive approach to the war undergirds his artistic renderings of it, most notably In Parenthesis (1937), which fellow veteran Herbert Read considered a “miracle” because it was at once “a true record of our suffering” and “a work of art in the romantic tradition of Malory and the Mabinogion”—as well as of orthodox Christianity. As Dilworth concludes, this concurrent affirmation of the soldiers’ trauma and broader explanatory frameworks allows the poetry to transcend the ironic despondency and sentimental glorification that characterized other war literature as Jones “discerns spiritual meaning in (and despite) physical calamity.”

Jones’s wartime was also crucial to his personal search for spiritual meaning. He grew more committed to his mother’s sacramental, Catholic bent throughout his rearing. By age eighteen, he found Anglican services “arid,” a sentiment that intensified in the trenches as his church’s chaplains appeared “totally devoid of the sacramental.” Jones was thus deeply moved when, in 1916 or early 1917, he happened upon a Roman Catholic Mass, which he had never seen before, and was transfixed by the “oneness” between the celebrant and congregants, as well as by the beauty of the liturgy. Ensuing encounters with Catholic Tommies and priests built on this aesthetic attraction to Rome, so much so that he considered himself “‘inside’ a Catholic” from mid-1917. Outwardly, though, he remained an Anglican through the end of the war.

Following demobilization, Jones pondered conversion to Roman Catholicism as he resumed art studies. He detected a shared deep structure between Catholic theology and post-impressionist aesthetics in a common emphasis on “re-presentation,” the idea that sacrament and art each “effects what it signifies.” For Jones, then, both the priest and the artist engage in anamnesis, as each attempts “to show anew under another species some already existing reality. To make substantially and really present in one’s medium what already is. To do in a ritual manner what has already been done with actual immolation.” Jones’s insight was bolstered by Father John O’Connor, whom he met through a classmate in 1920, and who stressed that the Mass is a sacrifice that re-presents Christ’s original self-oblation and immolation at the Last Supper and the Crucifixion, which Jones had deemed from youth the central episode in history. Jones thus began to consider the Mass the “supreme art-form,” one that was “more real” than anything else and was hence the “highest achievement of the human spirit.” Roman Catholicism therefore, in turn, had a “reality … that seldom if ever seemed quite there” among Protestants because its central rite affirmed re-presentation as “the nature of man.”

Through O’Connor Jones met the convert–craftsman Eric Gill in January 1921. Gill buttressed Jones’s views on re-presentation and later helped refine them by exposing him to Jacques Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism. This treatise became Jones’s “bible,” in part because it cast his belief in the essential kinship between art and sacrament in Thomistic terminology by declaring each to be an objective “sign.” Encouraged by O’Connor’s and Gill’s counsel, Jones was received into the Catholic Church in September 1921; he soon joined Gill’s community of workmen at Ditchling, and later Capel-y-ffin, for much of the 1920s.

Although his parents castigated his conversion, Jones found Roman Catholicism, especially the Mass, to be an ongoing source of intellectual and imaginative inspiration, culminating in The Anathemata (1952). This epic is a theology of history with the Mass at its center structurally and thematically. The poet is again a rememberer, striving to preserve “our common inherited myth” in a suitable, modernist register: “owing to the complications of our civilization phase, we surely tend to fragmented works.” Yet, Jones asserted, the poem still had “artistic wholeness” because it focuses the “whole ‘Argosy of Mankind’” around the supreme art-form. As Dilworth puts it, for Jones “the Eucharist is sustained by and contains all human experience.” In short, in Jones’s maxim, “the Mass makes sense of everything.”

Jones insisted thenceforth that, of all his works, The Anathemata was “the one that matters.” He nonetheless bemoaned critical incomprehension of its content and its liturgical hermeneutic, seeing this confusion as symptomatic of cultural decay. He apprehended that the notion of artistic re-presentation had been “prostituted or forgotten,” especially after World War II, and he was distressed deeply by the Catholic Church’s mid-century liturgical changes. In Jones’s mind, these alterations replaced sacramental poiesis with utilitarian pragmatism and therefore “buggered up the Mass.” This trial, however, did not erode his faith’s centrality to his identity. As Jones told an interviewer in his final decade, Catholicism “is just everything to me.”

Jones’s aesthetic and religious dismay arose as well from his theory of culture, a distinction between gratuity and utility. He posited that for most of history, makers had been impelled by gratuity, being driven by delight in the act of creation, laboring for the fulfillment derived from exercising their artistic essence, and thus feeling integrated with their finished products. But he thought the industrial era had brought “The Break,” which granted an unparalleled primacy to utility and hence valorized efficiency and pragmatism, fostering alienation between makers and their handiwork. To Jones, the “central problem of our time” was upholding “an unequivocal, emphatic defense of the extra-utile” lest this technocratic devaluation of it spawn “a kind of sub-man” incapable of re-presentation. He also saw theological implications in this civilizational shift: “If God is the source of beauty … then He must disapprove of our offenses against beauty.” Jones drew on Oswald Spengler’s writing in formulating his paradigm, plus critiques of it by Christopher Dawson and other members of the Order group, a collection of Christian humanists pursuing a theology of culture that became Jones’s intellectual nucleus in the late 1920s and 1930s. His reflections and their conversations sparked several trenchant essays on these themes, later compiled in Epoch and Artist (1959) and The Dying Gaul (1974).

These musings and discussions also molded Jones’s perception of the social and political ramifications of The Break. Seeing industrialism at its heart and having been scarred by the “un-making” of mechanized battle, he preferred pastoral, rural cultures to industrial, urban, and suburban civilizations while displaying a precocious ecological sensibility, observing in 1934 that the “mechanized state … seems not friendly to the earth.” He further condemned imperialism from a young age for imposing industrial norms on “primitive” rustic peoples, be it Italy’s 1935 invasion of Abyssinia or Britain’s “dramatically foolish” 1956 Suez intervention.

Jones was intrigued by some aspects of the communist and fascist censures of Western industrialism and imperialism, but finally rejected those ideological rivals. To him, Marxist materialism “truncated the hierarchy of Being,” while fascist “race-struggle” contradicted Christian charity and aesthetic gratuity: “this hate thing mars his whole thing.… Compared with his opponents he is grand, but compared with the saints he is bloody. And I think I mean by saints—lovers and all kinds of unifying makers.”

Jones was also wary of the British welfare state, regarding Hilaire Belloc’s cautions in The Servile State as “prophetic”; in fact, the political outlook that Jones sympathized with most was Chesterbellocian distributism, even if he felt the extreme ruralist, technophobic version of it enacted at Gill’s “cell of good living” lacked “nowness”: “It’s all very well to live simply and grow things and practice crafts—we had it jolly nice with cows and things in Wales, but what about the hundreds of thousands in Birmingham who can’t hope to be self-sufficient in property and craft?” Notwithstanding these significant reservations, Jones’s cultural and social criticism belongs to a heritage of religious and romantic protest thought that includes distributism and, as Dilworth notes succinctly, sought to sustain “traditional values in the face of modern mechanized war, technological pragmatism, and political totalitarianism.”

Jones localized this rebellion against modernity often in commentary on Wales. He felt allegiance to his father’s land from around age six, and his first visit to Wales in 1904 left “an indelible mark on the soul.” As he grew older, Jones fashioned a myth of Wales as a traditional, pastoral Catholic society that had been despoiled by Protestant English imperialism and industrialism. What Dilworth dubs this “intellectual-imaginary Wales” became a crucial subtext of Jones’s final published poems, collected in The Sleeping Lord (1974). Jones besought the Welsh to conserve their “living, direct, unbroken series of links with Antiquity and so with the formative period and the foundational things of this land” against the “urgent claims of technological studies,” particularly by maintaining the Welsh tongue, “the oldest living tradition in Britain.” Although his “bitterest grief” was that he never learned Welsh fluently, Jones gave “all [I] could afford” of his meager income to a Welsh language school, and clashed with the Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, when it seemed to prioritize partisan agitation over linguistic preservation. By the end of his life, he lamented that “no one has any use for Welsh in Wales anymore,” and he thus feared that, “as the shadow of a living tradition,” Wales had “had it.” Yet sorrow at this apparent failure did not breed despair, for Jones concluded that Wales’s history of subjugation had made the Cymru “masters of defeat” whose “philosophy of defeat” was “their great contribution to our culture.”

This Welshman’s personal mastery of seeming defeat shaped fundamentally his own contribution to British culture. Jones complained repeatedly of being ignored or misread, once pledging ruefully to sign letters “The not understood D. J.” Whatever the mitigating acclaim of some eminent peers, Jones did endure relative neglect of his art and thought, along with the eclipse of treasured elements of his adopted church and land. But despite these burdens, and the persistent psychological suffering they compounded, David Jones remained an artist and man of hope. In the midst of his first serious breakdown, Jones nevertheless counseled a friend, “Don’t get too overcome by this curious type of world of appearances & complicated shadows. There is a magnificent reality behind the bloody mess,” one he had learned in youth: “the whole of life is a sacrament.” Faced with this ever-present interlace of time and eternity, then, man-the-re-presenter can only respond with “the optimism of the saints,” a Chestertonian wonder and gratitude that is “praise, praise, & praise all through.”  

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.