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Review of ‘David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet’

An inspired biography.

David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet by Thomas Dilworth
432 pages

The quintessential human experience of war can be found in the myth of the Golden Virgin on the Basilica at Albert. During the First World War, artillery fire knocked loose a statue of the Virgin holding the infant Christ, causing mother and child to lean precariously at about a 40 degree angle, almost as if the Holy Mother were catching her infant from falling—or, to a darker turn of mind, intentionally dropping him. Naturally, localized myths built up around the damaged statue. When mother and child fell, the war would end. The side to finally knock them down would lose. Or win. The statue dripped blood, spoke, issued prophecies from its absurd and slightly menacing position.  

The awful sight, so close to the front lines, was like a beacon transmitting messages from a deeper, truer reality. The dumb horror of the trenches, unbearable in their mind-numbing squalor, was only one stratum of a palimpsest that also included vertical layerings of myth and spiritual imagination. War makes us acutely aware of the membrane through which things pass freely from the mythopoetic to specific material reality and back again—shedding or accumulating metaphysical significance. And we realize through these shifts in perspective and value that our minds are moving through an almost incomprehensible totality, unified in ways that escape us.

It was this free passage of human consciousness through layers of reality and meaning that interested David Jones. And it’s his lifetime of loyalty to this complex, total, and ultimately spiritual vision of reality that forms the heart of his new biography, David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet by Thomas Dilworth.

I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to call David Jones a poet’s poet. Or an artist’s artist. The praise of Jones on the back of the biography’s dust jacket, collected from friends, acquaintances, and admirers, attests to the high esteem his contemporaries held him in. Dylan Thomas says, “I would like to have done anything as good as David Jones as done.” Seamus Heaney calls Jones “An extraordinary writer.” T.S. Eliot, who became a friend and professional supporter of Jones, calls him “One of the most distinguished writers of my generation.” But it’s Kenneth Clark, also a close friend and a major supporter of Jones’s work, who comes closest to capturing the full scope of Jones’s talents by calling him “Absolutely unique, a remarkable genius.” Not only did David Jones write the best war book of the 20th century (some might be tempted to make the case that In Parenthesis is the best account of war since The Iliad), but he followed it up with The Anathemata, a book so alive with the rich language of historical and mythic sentiment that it deserves to be placed alongside Pound’s Cantos and Finnegan’s Wake. But he was also the best watercolorist of his generation, and a master engraver who reinvigorated the craftsmanship theories of Morris and Ruskin with the robust spiritual culture of a Guild-centered Distributism. If anything should be changed about the title of this book, it’s that the word “Catholic” should be placed in front of “Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet”.

One is tempted to say that David Jones accomplished so much despite his humble origins, but the truth is that coming from an “artisan lower-middle class” family, as Dilworth describes it, was a boon that helped Jones to move comfortably through the nuanced British class system. He was equally as comfortable having tea with the queen (as he did on a few occasions) as having a pint in a working-class pub (which occurred much more frequently). Art school was interrupted by the war, where Jones prefered to stay with the Cockney and Welsh men in the trenches than accept a commission to become an officer. He never attended university or married. Much like his origins, these abstentions only invigorated his art. His entire life he approached literature with the ecumenical intellectual passion of a self-taught man, and all of the intense sublimation (a Freudian term that Jones would have been ambivalent about) of someone who has chosen art over sex.

In Parenthesis is probably Jones’s best-known work. Disappointed with the war novels he’d read after returning to civilian life, Jones audaciously decided to write his own. Inspired by a panoply of works and artists such as Coleridge, The Wasteland, Welsh folk songs, and Arthurian legend, In Parenthesis resembles less a straightforward war narrative than a tapestry of voices and characters living out the the deeper realities of organized combat in what amounts to a temporal stew. As Dilworth describes it, “In Parenthesis is the only modern epic poem in English. It makes vividly real the physicality of the Great War and imbues it with broad, rich cultural resonance. … The implied central archetype is the dying god of fertility ritual, who symbolizes the waste land and its renewal, here consisting of the goodness of infantrymen turning physical desolation into a metaphysical garden. In this respect, the poem takes literary modernism beyond irony.”

When I first opened In Parenthesis, it’s power was immediately apparent to me. This wasn’t true with David Jones’s paintings. In spite of his reputation as a watercolorist, his pictures initially struck me as unfinished and insubstantial. They just seemed as if they were barely there, almost transparent, and my eye couldn’t find anything in them. And then I looked again. And again. And slowly, while spending time with the each of the many prints and pictures in this lush biography, their appeal opened up to me in a dynamic echoing the reflowering of the waste land itself. The bareness of the canvas was repopulated by my imagination working in conjunction with Jones’s.

It’s impossible to choose favorites from a lifetime of master works, but it was the 1950s “chalice paintings” that first revealed themselves to me. Flora in Calix-Light (1950) is one of the best examples of these, and the first Jones work that I was actually able to see and appreciate. There are of course, as in most of Jones’s paintings, visual motifs redolent of the crucifixion and Christian iconography, but there was a kind of spiritual energy in the technique and form of the work as well. As Dilworth describes it, “The ambiguous relationship between vivid flower-and-background and the less distinct vessels has the effect of turning space inside out, suggesting a mystery of grace transcending space-time.” In Jones’s watercolors, all things happen at once, and for all time. What seems muddled is really just a radically democratic way of presenting all things as being of equal importance inside a spiritually unified totality. The cup and the table are celebrated the same as the hills or the flowers. Jones wasn’t painting ideas or impressions. He was painting Christian visions.

Of course, the chalice paintings were from his later years of productive activity. By then his visual work had evolved through a number of modes and styles. The heavy-lined and almost pre-Raphaelite early work grew into a profound religious simplicity. His pictures became heavy with allegory as he wrote The Anathemata, a “symbolic, multi-voiced anatomy of Western culture throughout time” that he esteemed to be his best work, “worth fifty In Parentheses.” The Chalice paintings were a propulsive liberation from allegorical weight before Jones concentrated on engraving in his final years. Through the changes though, and in each medium, he worked to expose the same spiritual truths, as seen from different perspectives and in different moods. The constant was Christ.

Dilworth is the man to write about David Jones. He’s most likely the world’s leading expert on Jones, and this book serves as a fantastic introduction to the person some call the Blake of the 20th century. As I began reading it, though, it seemed to, not necessarily meander, but to constantly set things that didn’t seem of equal value side by side. Descriptions of bedrooms get as much attention as ideas. Fleeting friendships are explored almost as energetically as romances. The flatness of the reckoning might throw the reader off, just as Jones’s paintings initially threw me off.

But what Dilworth actually did was quite genius: his biography is inspired (whether consciously or not) by the spiritual architecture of Jones’s painting. Everything is presented as vital to the totality, with barriers and window frames obliterated and all people and events becoming equally illuminated, sharing light, and snared in a common web of metaphysical energy. Any biography meant to act as a conduit for Jones’s vision would necessarily have to succumb influence of that vision’s power. Dilworth’s book is both ambitious and humble enough to do so.

Scott Beauchamp is a veteran and writer based in Portland, Maine.




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