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

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Review by Rob Spence

Ask a reasonably well-educated person to name some Anglophone modernist poets, and you are sure to hear the names of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Mention might be made of the Imagist poets, such as F.S. Flint, “HD” and Richard Aldington; you may hear a case made for D.H. Lawrence or Ford Madox Ford. But it’s unlikely that you will hear the name of David Jones mentioned in this context. And yet, as Thomas Dilworth points out in the preface to this impressively comprehensive biography, his work, particularly the two long poems The Anathemata and In Parenthesis, were championed by Eliot, Auden, Dylan Thomas, Herbert Read and other literary giants of the mid-century. Jones’s painting and engraving were praised by Kenneth Clark and Eric Gill amongst others. His reputation as a significant figure of English modernism should be secure. The fact that it isn’t is what has motivated Thomas Dilworth to devote much of his own working life to Jones. Dilworth is the doyen of Jones critics, having published four critical works on him, as well as an edition of Jones’s letters. The present book is the culmination of thirty years’ work on Jones, and even now Dilworth isn’t finished: a note at the end states that the book is “ a condensation of a much longer document” which will eventually emerge as a website.

What strikes the reader immediately about this biography is the level of detail. Dilworth is clear and authoritative about his subject, offering intimate glimpses of the domestic life, backed by a mass of documentation – the endnotes  amount to fifty pages – and a real sense of engagement with both the literary and visual art. The visual art is particularly well-served in this heavily-illustrated volume, which reproduces some of the precocious work Jones completed as a schoolboy and as a young student, years younger than his classmates, at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts, as well as a broad range of his mature work.

Jones did not have the privileged background of some of his literary and artistic contemporaries. His early life in an Anglo-Welsh working class household in Brockley, south London, is evocatively described by Dilworth, down to lovely details such as his daily journey to Camberwell by horse-drawn bus, carrying hot potatoes in his pockets for warmth in winter.  Much of the early life seems almost Dickensian, despite taking place at the turn of the century. Dilworth is good at evoking the atmosphere of the time, and relating it to Jones’s later work, as here:

“Shops delivered groceries. In the street passed church parades, organ-grinders with dancing monkeys, a man with a donkey offering children a ride for a penny, and a man with a bear dancing at the end of a leash – for David ‘a horrible’ sight.  Peddlers filled the air with cries. The ‘heavenly’ singsong ‘Lavender: Who’ll buy my sweet lavender?’ held him spellbound  – it would later bracket the central monologue of his long poem The Anathemata. Until he was five or six, a dancing Jack o’ the Green appeared at the door on May day, frightening him – the green man would later emerge in his poetry.”

Of course, the dominant event of Jones’s early life was the First World War. He enlisted, fought, and was sent home in 1916 as a result of wounds sustained at Mametz Wood. After returning to the front, he was invalided out with trench fever. His war experience was central to his long poem In Parenthesis and was also the source of a series of startling paintings and sketches, which certainly bear comparison with those of Paul Nash or Wyndham Lewis. Not surprisingly, the experience of war stayed with him for the rest of his long life, and certainly contributed to the depression he felt intermittently for decades afterwards, with breakdowns persisting until his final years.

Jones was immersed in religion, through his evangelist father, from his earliest day. His first glimpse of a Catholic mass came near the battlefield at Ypres, and led eventually to his conversion. One of the distinguishing features of his poetry is its heavy use of religious – not always Christian – symbolism. The sweep and scale of In Parenthesis, originally conceived as a text to accompany his engravings of war scenes, is overwhelming. Like Joyce or Eliot, Jones is able to draw on an enormous range of allusion, from medieval romance to contemporary cultural theory, using a daring experimental mix of formal verse and fractured prose that evoked both the agonies of war and the decline of Western civilisation. It is not hard to see why Eliot considered it a work of genius. Less comprehensible is why, when Eliot’s The Waste Land has been universally acclaimed since publication in 1922, Jones has not been considered his peer.

Dilworth takes the reader diligently through Jones’s life, offering a really thorough account of his rather strange, somewhat isolated existence. The author speculates on the psychological significance of key events in the life, such as the childhood death of a brother, or the fruitless pursuit of a series of potential lovers, including Eric Gill’s daughter Petra. One aspect of Jones’s life that Dilworth emphasises is the deleterious effect of medication: from the early sixties until his death in 1974, Jones was prescribed a continual stream of anti-depressants and other drugs, leading to long periods of inactivity, and contributing to the fragmentary nature of his work. Like Pound, though to nothing like the same extent, Jones has some sympathy with Fascism. Dilworth examines Jones’s comments on his reading on Mein Kampf, and concludes that Jones’s anti-materialist views found some echo in that book, but that he was dismayed and offended by its anti-Semitism.

The life might be seen as a series of failures, with projected books and paintings not quite being completed, or lying abandoned.  And yet, there is much to celebrate in a life full of incident and achievement. His exceptional ability as both an artist and a poet led to encounters with numerous significant figures of the day, including Gill, with whom he worked at the Ditchling workshop; Kenneth Clark, who was influential in persuading galleries to acquire Jones’s work; T.S. Eliot, whose enthusiasm for The Anathemata ensured that Faber published it; Barbara Moray, the American wife of the Earl of Moray, who took him to tea with the Queen in wartime London; Helen Sutherland, who was a significant collector of Jones’s work as well as a staunch friend; and numerous poets and artists of the day. Despite his almost lifelong obscurity, Jones was increasingly recognised towards the end of his life, accepting the award of Companion of Honour in the year of his death.

Dilworth’s heroic attempt to advance his claim for Jones’s significance is sustained throughout the biography, and his arguments are convincing. Literary fashion is a strange beast, however, and one wonders whether the revaluation he seeks will ever happen. The signs are promising, though: this biography clearly constitutes the most important element in the process, and recent years have seen retrospective exhibitions of the work, the republication of the major poems, with further publications in prospect. Whether or not critical orthodoxy will ever come to consider, as Dilworth asserts, that Jones is a “brilliant visual artist, the best modern native British poet, and… the foremost native British modernist” only time will tell. Certainly his cause has been dramatically enhanced by this monumental work, for which Dilworth must take massive credit. It is evidently a labour of love, and that affection for the subject shines through on every page.

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Thomas Dilworth, David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet (Jonathan Cape, 2017) 9780224044608 432pp, hardback

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