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”.’

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in