At The Thirteenth Hour

William Wootten

  • Wedding Poems by David Jones, edited by Thomas Dilworth
    Enitharmon, 88 pp, £12.00, April 2002, ISBN 1 900564 87 4
  • David Jones: Writer and Artist by Keith Alldritt
    Constable, 208 pp, £18.99, April 2003, ISBN 1 84119 379 8

David Jones was staying in the Chelsea flat of the BBC’s Assistant Director of Programme Planning, Harman Grisewood, as the bombs fell on London in the autumn of 1940. During one raid, a near miss blew a bus off course; it went through the window of Sainsbury’s on the King’s Road. ‘I was going out to see if I could do anything,’ Grisewood reported. ‘When I got to the door, David called out: “Tell them they can’t bring any of the wounded in here. This dugout is full up.” And he went on reading aloud “The Hunting of the Snark” to my wife.’ This isn’t the most flattering anecdote, but the behaviour is in character. Jones’s trench-hardened language belongs to another war and its way of coping with casualties, as does the peculiar choice of reading matter.

In Parenthesis (1937) is Jones’s account in free verse and poetic prose of life with the Royal Welch Fusiliers between December 1915 and July 1916. It’s a classic of both Modernism and First World War writing, and unlike what one expects of either. There is, to be sure, the horror and camaraderie of trench life; but there’s also the Fisher King and the Golden Bough and a range of devices picked up from The Waste Land. There is, too, a large amount of history, particularly Dark Age history, combined with a host of idiosyncratic allusions. The seventh and final part, ‘The Five Unmistakable Marks’, details a disastrous attack in the Mametz Wood against a backdrop of past conflict and ancient myth. The marks of the title seem unmistakably stigmatic, in sympathy with the carnage, the soldiers’ talk and the Roman Catholicism of the poem’s author. But as good snark spotters (and readers of the poem’s copious notes) will know, they are ‘The five unmistakable marks/By which you may know, wherever you go,/The warranted genuine snarks’. The inappropriate source has been made appropriate, in a balance that is sustained throughout the book: intimate humane detail against myth, history and allusion.

After art school and the Army, Jones apprenticed himself to the sculptor Eric Gill and spent most of the 1920s living in Gill’s various anti-modern Roman Catholic communities. Harman Grisewood, who spent his honeymoon at Piggotts, Gill’s spartan farm, was another member of the circle. Jones and Grisewood also belonged to the Chelsea Group of Catholic intellectuals, which, in Grisewood’s words, was ‘so far to the right of Mr Baldwin as to be off the map of English party politics altogether’. On 24 April 1939, Jones wrote to Grisewood that he was ‘deeply impressed’ with Mein Kampf while finding it ‘pretty terrifying too’. That same month, Grisewood, who believed that ‘the Germans by conquest might . . . reinvigorate Western culture’, visited Berlin, where he found the sight of ‘yellow-marked benches for the Jews in the Tiergarten . . . more sickening than any newspaper article could have made it’.

What Grisewood saw in Berlin, and no doubt reported to Jones, doesn’t appear to have substantially altered his or Jones’s politics. In an anti-war essay dated 11 May 1939 and intended for the Tablet, though never published there, Jones wrote that ‘there is much in both the Fascist and Nazi revolutions that demands our understanding and sympathy,’ and that Fascism and Nazism represent ‘for all their alarming characteristics an heroic attempt to cope with certain admitted corruptions in our civilisation’. According to Grisewood, Jones ‘soon came to feel . . . that it was rash to write like this, even dangerous, because one would simply be thought of as a pro-Nazi and the merit of the remarks would not be considered objectively.’ Rather than publishing the piece, Grisewood and Jones had it circulated among a few friends.

The two poems Jones wrote in celebration of Grisewood’s marriage to Margaret Bailey the next year seem always to have been intended for private distribution. The shortish ‘Prothalamion’ was written on the night of 14 September 1940. The longer and more complex ‘Epithalamion’, which was accompanied by three pages of footnotes, was drafted four days later. In the event, the poems do not seem to have reached anyone beyond the bride and groom. Grisewood, who had since left his wife, chose to omit them from The Roman Quarry (1981), the posthumous collection of Jones’s work that he coedited with René Hague, and forbade their publication during his own lifetime. Now, however, Thomas Dilworth has edited them as Wedding Poems.

It’s a handsome-looking volume. There are photographs of Jones and the Grisewoods along with reproductions of some of Jones’s paintings of the time. There is also extensive critical and biographical commentary from Dilworth. Nestled amid this are ten pages of poetry which, Dilworth believes, more than justify their weighty surroundings. ‘Prothalamion’ is ‘a powerfully beautiful work and, as a commemoration of the Blitz, ought now to take its place beside T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding”, and Dylan Thomas’s “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” and “Ceremony after a Fire Raid”’. But ‘Epithalamion’ outdoes it: there ‘is much more to this work than the other, and nearly all of it is wonderful. If forced to decide which of these poems I would spend the rest of my life with, it would be “Epithalamion”.’

Wedding Poems aside, Thomas and Eliot are not unfitting company for David Jones. Eliot regarded In Parenthesis as a ‘work of genius’ and bracketed Jones with Pound, Joyce and himself. He was also something of a friend. Thomas, though socially and poetically more distant, appeared in radio adaptations of In Parenthesis and, later, The Anathemata, his voice no doubt giving an impression that Jones, who was raised in London and had an English mother, was more at home in the land of his father than was in fact the case. Around the time of the Blitz, however, something happened to Thomas’s verse and – more markedly – to Eliot’s that did not happen to Jones’s. Two poets hitherto noted for their obscurity, and for not addressing (or being particularly amenable to) a wide audience, were becoming conscious of being overheard. Their ceremonials grew more communal, and their language began to chime with public discourse and concerns. Thomas was still elaborating his fantasies of the self, but these now included the suffering selves around him, thus in ‘Ceremony after a Fire Raid’: ‘Myselves/The grievers/Grieve.’ And, even when refusing to mourn, his verse is attuned to what occasioned the mourning of others. Meanwhile, Eliot was allowing his pronouns to be opened to the public. The ‘one’s, ‘you’s and, especially, ‘we’s of the wartime Quartets draw in and implicate their readers in a way that is consonant with the British oratory of the time.

When Spike Milligan recalled Chamberlain saying, ‘As from 11 o’clock we are at war with Germany,’ he remarked in parenthesis: ‘I loved the WE.’ ‘Epithalamion’ is the work of a man who hated it. Jones couldn’t believe that either Blitz or war united the British people. In a letter of 14 September 1940, he wrote: ‘It is absurd to say that Winston C . . . can have the same reaction to the dropping bombs as the people in the Surrey Docks.’ When Jones uses the first person plural in ‘Epithalamion’, the effect is far from Churchillian:

We have long known about all this, we
have considered these often enough, sitting
under switches in warm rooms. These were our
history (for us who lived in the parenthesis of
the present). We could see no way by which
such marvels might come to us, in carne, in our latter day.

Out of context, it might look as though ‘we’ are all in this together. Nevertheless, it quickly becomes apparent that this ‘we’ does not admit all comers, but is strongly pitched against the ‘boasters’ who ‘vary their excuses (the blind who led the uninformed)’; and the ‘we’ soon boils down to David and Harman, with Margaret as their shared pearl (margaron). Or just the poet himself. The poem ends: ‘Margaret our margaron we now can look/upon, bright in this darkening, and constant,/whom our friend has found.’

In the privacy of the Grisewoods’ flat, Jones is determinedly answering Churchill’s rhetoric. Ironically, Harman Grisewood had coached Churchill in the techniques of radio speech, techniques which Churchill would have employed when broadcasting his 20 August dismissal of Hitler’s tales of the ‘panic-stricken British crushed in their holes cursing the plutocratic Parliament which has led them to such a plight’. It was just as well that he never chanced to ask Grisewood about his wedding gifts, one of which includes this account of the coming of Wormwood and apocalypse:

But now, beyond the fullness of time, at
the thirteenth hour, when the glass towers
shiver and the shrouds of a plutocracy look
very far from fine, entering and re-entering
history we are privileged to be illumined by
an historic star.

In September 1940 ‘plutocracy’ was a word overwhelmingly associated with Nazi propaganda; and while to equate Jones’s poetry completely with such propaganda would be to overstate the case, Jones is allowing himself to sound less like James Joyce than William Joyce.

In ‘Little Gidding’, ‘We only live, only suspire/Consumed by either fire or fire.’ On 11 September 1940, Churchill spoke of a ‘fire which will burn with a steady and consuming flame until the last vestige of Nazi tyranny has been burnt out of Europe’. Contrast David Jones in ‘Prothalamion’:

In flame-lap and split masonry
where the high fires leap and the merchandise
of the merchants, under whatsoever deep
vaulting, rocks now, knows the blast, feels the
unpredictable violence.

‘The merchandise of the merchants’ (who else’s merchandise would it be?) is weak as poetry, but it does sound like a contemporary rhetoric, though not a lot like Churchill. Grisewood later commented: ‘Imperial ideals were shrinking, and at home were being replaced by those of the salesman and the supermarket. When Hitler wrote about decadence, many of David’s friends – myself included – agreed with his accusations. No one more positively than David himself.’ Though his use of ‘the merchants’ as a pejorative derives from Gill, in ‘Prothalamion’ it rings in recognition of Hitler’s ideas.

‘Prothalamion’ goes on to describe a time ‘When Troy towers are a feeble analogy and/ the Harrying of the North a child’s tale, when/fear rules and bombast pretends to be competence./Because of the detestable counsel, directly/because of the merchants’ rule.’ Aware that some readers might have their doubts about such a diagnosis of the causes of the war, Dilworth supplies an explanation.

Usually today, the Second World War is ascribed to irreconcilable ideological differences and nationalistic aspirations, but there were also other causes. The greatest of these was the unfairly punitive Treaty of Versailles . . . The Treaty served the imperialist interests of Britain and France, whose empires were largely commercial. ‘Merchants’ certainly influenced the terms of the Treaty. Furthermore, National Socialism was a form of state capitalism in which rearmament and munitions manufacturing fuelled the German economy. Partly in reaction to the Treaty of Versailles, Hitler had acquired, and was seeking more, Lebensraum to provide increased sources of raw material for German industry. In blaming business interests for the war, then, this poem has considerable validity as ‘criticism of life’.

It is an astonishing conclusion, which would have little enough validity even if the poem said what Dilworth says it does. Which it doesn’t.

He fails to point us to the strong influence of Gill, who, like Jones, attributed nearly all modern ills to the rise of the usurious merchant class in the 15th and 16th centuries. He also believed that financiers were funding the Second World War in their own interests. Jones’s ‘merchants’ rule’ may be similar, but it comes from a writer who the previous year had written in the proposed Tablet essay of ‘the unnamed forces that control commodities and gold’ and ‘the iniquities . . . of international Jewry’.

Rather than drawing attention to such uncomfortable facts, Dilworth accentuates the positive. He sees in ‘Epithalamion’ ‘new aspects of Jones’s social conscience and sense of history’ which add ‘to the celebration of the feminine throughout his work’. ‘Epithalamion’ depicts a progression of female beauties down the ages who are paraded like the exempla of medieval verse in order to demonstrate the loveliness of Margaret and the pattern of Western history. At one stage Beauty walks Bristol’s quays: ‘Bristol milk digests the/larks with leverets – but Bristol undercrofts/stifle the wail: O Lord, sever my bonds and/deliver. Who will be our witness but the/blackamoors in novissimo die.’ Though ‘blackamoors’ grates on modern ears, this is a sympathetic response to past sufferings and a historical vision that connects the trade in sherry to the trade in slaves. But, of all the times to draw attention to the shameful past of Bristol Docks, just after they’d begun to be bombed must be about the least appropriate.

In the Tablet essay, Jones had written: ‘If some of us in this country . . . are “free” in so many ways . . . it is largely because our ancestors so gathered the world’s wealth, so established by application of armed and economic pressure the British thing in the world.’ Thus, ‘For any evil that war apologists can fling at the Axis Powers the Axis Powers can easily and justly retaliate.’ ‘Epithalamion’ continues this argument of moral equivalence. It also extends the indictment of the ‘merchants’ rule’ by drawing heavily on Gill’s essay ‘Sculpture on Machine-Made Buildings’, which links the rise of the merchants to the rise of slavery and maintains that the ‘Medicis, the Fuggers, like their modern counterparts . . . inevitably fell for a revival of decadent Rome and the slave culture of the pre-Christian world.’ Jones bridges the small gap between Gill and Oswald Spengler. ‘Who will be our witness but the/blackamoors in novissimo die’ is an invocation of the Day of Judgment, but it is also the vision of Man and Technics, in which Spengler declares: ‘The exploited world is beginning to take its revenge on its lords. The innumerable hands of the coloured races . . . will shatter the economic organisation of the whites at its foundations.’ The exposition of their ideas in ‘Epithalamion’ makes Gill and Spengler themselves seem models of restraint.

They plug the moist nipples of our mother
up with notes of credit. They manipulate the
eternal fountains. They burn the fruit of Ceres’
womb, that her reaper-lovers had got upon
her – to suit their double-columned books.
John Barleycorn must die a second death, when bankers rule, as Spengler shows, till
Caesar comes.

Jones’s skills have not exactly deserted him: there is still the historical knowledge, the talent for allusion and association, and some distinctive phrase-making. However, the blending of voices expressing shared experiences that gave In Parenthesis its distinctive tone has vanished, as has its strange appropriateness. ‘Prothalamion’ ends by describing the coming marriage thus:

So have I heard bird-song, beneath the
trajectory zone, at Passchendaele, or seen
flowers lean toward each other, under the sun
that shined to delineate the hate and mutilation
of the Forward Area.

Seeing this war through the lens of the last makes for a strong finish, but it does not so much bring to mind In Parenthesis as that copy of In Parenthesis which Jones sent to Chamberlain on 18 December 1938 to thank him for trying ‘to mend things in Europe and to save us from the worst’. As the horrors of the trenches occasioned an overwhelming desire for peace, so more positive memories of soldiers’ life – the order, the military virtues, the lack of the mercantile, and the living traditions of the London Welsh volunteers who seemed to embody Jones’s romantic sense of history – may partly explain, though not excuse, Jones’s new leaning towards Fascism (there is no previous evidence of anti-semitism or even much interest in politics). Perhaps, as with the bus on the King’s Road, it was Jones’s inability to free his mind of the First World War that lay at the root of his failure to understand the imperatives of the Second.

Dilworth’s commentary on Wedding Poems makes no mention of the Tablet essay, which seems surprising when one considers that an edited version of it was first made available in his 1986 article ‘David Jones and Fascism’. Back then Dilworth reckoned that there ‘may be some justification for avoiding a man’s poetry on moral and political grounds, since we read literature for wisdom as well as beauty. But on this score the poetry of David Jones is unassailable.’ It is ‘explicitly anti-Fascist’. Editing Wedding Poems doesn’t seem to have changed his mind. Nevertheless, one of the appendices contains ‘The Brenner, March 18 1940’, an occasional poem sent by Jones to Grisewood. This is the only time Dilworth admits that all is not as explicitly anti-Fascist as it might be. The poem commemorates Hitler’s meeting with Mussolini at the Brenner Pass against a grand historical backdrop of Varus and Arminius, Boniface and Barbarossa, and hopes that the good sense of Hitler, ‘the Hammerer, whose/strength is in his reins’, and Mussolini, ‘Dux,/the measurer’, will prevail and lead to peace. Dilworth expresses reservations about the heroic epithets, while maintaining that ‘however unacceptable some of its imagery and rhetoric remain even today, the underlying vision of “The Brenner” is benign and valid.’ Other admirers may be less minded to seek out the good points in this outpouring of dictator-love.

Keith Alldritt’s biography, David Jones: Writer and Artist, makes up for its lack of new material by being a judicious assessment of Jones’s life and reputation. Though he does not mention the Wedding Poems, Alldritt notes how in ‘The Old Quarry’, a manuscript of the same period, ‘David speaks of the Reich of the “führer of the north”, and in what is surely a kindly meant phrase, of the “Volk consanguine”.’ He is candid about Jones’s interest in Fascism, and that ‘kindly meant’ is itself kindly meant, an aside which pleads more for Jones the man than for such views or their expression. He is perhaps overgenerous in failing to notice the problem with Jones’s painting Epiphany 1941: Britannia and Germania Embracing. ‘The searching expressions which Britannia and Germania direct into each other’s eyes convey a profound sadness, helplessness and hopelessness,’ he writes. ‘The painting transcends the likely emotions, after the attack on Coventry, of anger and grief. Like T.S. Eliot at the end of the third section of “Little Gidding” . . . Jones is compassionate towards both Germany and Britain.’ In fact, the picture, subtitled ‘O Sisters Two What May We Do’, is a protest against a conflict between ‘Volk consanguine’. Along with the sadness, the painting conveys unlikely emotions. The sisters’ destructive embrace has lesbian overtones and their spearheads, one of which is shaped like a swastika, are clasped like dildos. The painting has been aptly described by Julian Bell as ‘sexual fantasy serving as ornate apology for Fascism’. If, as Jones believed, the war distorted the female principle in the world, it also distorted the presentation of that female principle in his painting, just as it did in his poetry. Alldritt shares Dilworth’s eagerness to set Jones’s response to the war alongside Eliot’s. But, once again, comparison between the two only serves to demonstrate how marked the differences between them were.

It was around this time that Jones embarked on a massive project in prose and free verse centring on the Passion. It would unite history, archaeology, myth, politics, art, religion, and practically everything else that interested him. Mythic timelessness would be made to accord with Christian Incarnation and eschatology, conventional history and the great cycles of Spengler’s Decline of the West. No easy task, clearly. But Wedding Poems demonstrates how nearly unified the different time-schemes seemed in 1940: Spengler’s Caesars had arrived. And if Greco-Roman history was repeating itself in the modern West, wasn’t a Second Coming just around the corner?

The Caesars and their modern Fascist counterparts soon lost their attraction for Jones, whose work began to associate totalitarianism with the negative aspects of ancient and modern megalopolitan civilisation. However, the 1940s manuscripts gathered in The Roman Quarry, though they never deal with the war directly, are far from being loyal literature of the home front. Ancient Rome is depicted in Fascist terms on one page and refigured as the British Empire on the next. Meanwhile, Roman legionaries with the voices of cockney privates contemplate a future invasion of a Britain full of Aryan warlords. Jones’s use of ‘Aryan’ is more or less in line with prewar theories of the Indo-Europeans, but it is part of a vision that uses the past to blur the moral and political certainties of the present.

In the absence of another Julius Caesar, Britain made do with Clement Attlee. The new circumstances combined with Jones’s nervous breakdown in 1946 to make him abandon the project as originally conceived. Instead, he drew on it to produce The Anathemata: Fragments of an Attempted Writing in 1952 and The Sleeping Lord and Other Fragments in 1974, the year of his death. The Anathemata is extraordinarily ambitious: its historical scope expresses Jones’s peculiar sense of national, religious and cultural identity. The book has remained a minority taste, and this is largely Jones’s fault: the reader has to decode a complex verbal texture that is often wilfully obscure, and must plough through acres of footnotes citing hundreds of books. The years of not being able to publish or speak freely result in a text that has no wish to communicate fully except to those sympathetic enough to put themselves to a great deal of effort. By the time of The Sleeping Lord, the 1940s drive to make everything cohere is in reverse; the earlier material is chopped and changed rather than added to or completed. All this suggests that Jones was having doubts, not just about how his work might be received, but about aspects of the thinking that engendered it.

The fragmentary state of the later work may be a saving grace. It has certainly yielded a rich crop for cherry-pickers. Writers such as Iain Sinclair, Roy Fisher and Geoffrey Hill have found in The Anathemata elements that correspond to their own very different outlooks and have proved much of it to be relevant and capable of reinvention. There is a great deal that is interesting and valuable in The Anathemata and The Sleeping Lord despite their follies and faults. But neither book has many of the virtues of In Parenthesis, and though they don’t repeat the most obvious failings of Wedding Poems, they do share some of its difficulties. Alldritt finds The Anathemata too abstract, and too often concerned with archetypes rather than human beings. Unlike Dilworth, he thinks of In Parenthesis as Jones’s major poetic achievement. His cautious investment in the later work and his lack of interest in Jones the cultural prophet make his biography a useful introduction to its subject. Dilworth has been a devoted Jones scholar for many years, and though his forthcoming biography may be richer than Alldritt’s in detail and research, I doubt that it will prove to be the better book.

Jones is often compared to Pound, but seldom approached with anything like the same critical caution. Partly because he has always deserved to be better known than he is, his champions tend to ignore or indulge both his weaknesses and what is ideologically problematic in his writing and his art. Dilworth’s edition of Wedding Poems succeeds only in showcasing all that is wrong with David Jones and the cult that surrounds him.