- David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet by Thomas Dilworth
Vintage, 448 pp, £14.99, January, ISBN 978 0 7847 0800 2
- Epoch and Artist: Selected Writings by David Jones, edited by Harman Grisewood
Faber, 320 pp, £18.99, April 2017, ISBN 978 0 571 33950 1
- ‘The Dying Gaul’ and Other Writings by David Jones, edited by Harman Grisewood
Faber, 240 pp, £17.99, April 2017, ISBN 978 0 571 33953 2
- Dai Greatcoat: A Self-Portrait of David Jones in His Letters edited by René Hague
Faber, 280 pp, £17.99, April 2017, ISBN 978 0 571 33952 5
‘You ought to be in a kindergarten,’ a Canadian nurse exclaimed to David Jones, aged twenty, awaiting transfer home in July 1916 after being wounded in Mametz Wood. Even a decade later, photographs show a wary child or an understudy for an adult. Prudence Pelham, the staunchest of his extended female fellowship, described him as ‘completely unsexed’. He himself felt anomalous in the 1920s, and by the decade’s end ‘incredibly ancient’; at some point he slipped from seeming younger to seeming older than everyone around him. He was a self-taught modernist with an allegiance to medieval romance and Celtic art, a Londoner who was out of place in London, a Welshman who didn’t speak Welsh. He was an artist who constructed images out of words – in his painted inscriptions – and whose poems took in the observable world, including everything glimpsed in his peripheral vision. There was the hand-held and eye-level, frame-by-frame actuality of In Parenthesis (1937), his poem of the trenches, noise-saturated, full of chiaroscuro and stalked by horror, but recorded with intricate stylistic detachment; later, there were the ever receding vistas of The Anathemata (1952), his epic about the matter of Britain.
As Thomas Dilworth documented in his earlier David Jones in the Great War (2012), Jones saw more active service than any other British writer, all of it as a private, and outlived nearly all his contemporaries, with the exception of Robert Graves, born in the same year, 1895. The postwar life has its doldrums, and for a biographer the narrative sails are hard to hoist. For his full-dress Life, three decades in the making, Dilworth adopts a chronicle approach, breaking his close-grained account into brief chapters or time sections – wisely, because the hard to track Jones, endlessly on the move, never settled, and is to be found only in the day by day. The book reflects the tenacity and hiddenness of its subject, beginning with his London Welsh origins.
Jones’s father was a printer’s overseer for a Nonconformist weekly on Fleet Street, from a line of North Wales plasterers and stonemasons. His mother’s family were pure Rotherhithe: boatbuilders and shipwrights, her father a mast-and-block maker competent ‘in all that belongs to a ship’s carpentry’. Starting out as a teacher and governess, Alice Jones née Bradshaw ended her working life reluctantly with marriage and the family’s move from Rotherhithe to Brockley – London still, or just, with one foot in open country rather than river. She kept up with advanced ideas: she wanted to call her second son Oscar, got away with Walter (after Pater), but was confounded when at the age of nine he chose to answer only to his middle name, David. She had gone up in the world doctrinally, to keep Wales at bay and to counter her husband’s evangelical and downward move, as a lay preacher who had swerved from his Anglican origins. But both parents were high-minded, and questions of ritual remained alive, as they would for Jones throughout his life, in a household whose aspirations were framed by a lower middle-class artisanal culture on the cusp of change.
Jones’s dedication to what he called ‘the contactual’ derived from this maternal Pool of London world, so vivid and particular. The yielding of wood and sail to steel and steam informed his sense of personal identity as a loyalty to lost causes (‘almost always the right’ ones), giving its character to his paradoxical modernism. When he read The Waste Land in the mid-1920s, the line ‘C.i.f. London: documents at sight’ was as a stone dropped down a well, echoing with riverside workshops, bills of lading, sight-drafts, brokerage, bonded goods and harbour dues. The odd relatives and elders who came to tea in Brockley were salts, nautical types plucked from the Victorian treasure chest and date-stamped (Dilworth remarks that they were both Dickensian and Dickensians). Their idioms prepared the boy’s ear for idiosyncrasy: the rooming-house world of his later years, stocked with splintery solitaries, was familiar from childhood.
But his early attention was fixed on Wales, part of whose purpose for him was its remoteness, brought near by avid childhood reading. During his first eight years the family did not visit Wales. When they did so it was a Rubicon he had already crossed, ratified by seeing hills for the first time and sea for the second. His loyalties were separate if indivisible, and decades later he corrected his publisher T.S. Eliot’s reference to him – not Welsh, but ‘a Londoner of Welsh and English descent’. He was encouraged to draw from early on – the urge to convey the look of things was as involuntary ‘as stroking a cat’ – and, at his own insistence, was sent at the age of 14 to the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts. He was taught cosmopolitan visual lessons under cover of an apprenticeship for a career as a professional illustrator, continuous with his father’s trade, whose Edwardian disjecta littered the house. ‘I was brought up in a home that took the printed page and its illustration for granted,’ he remarked in an ‘Autobiographical Talk’ collected in Epoch and Artist. Camberwell was an extension of Brockley, art an extension of storytelling. Dilworth makes clear these contexts for In Parenthesis: it was a painter’s first experiment with words, originally intended to be illustrated.
In 1914, Jones enlisted without hesitation, remarking later that ‘history came to my aid.’ He tried to join the Welsh Horse Yeomanry, with no experience of horses, and then the Artists Rifles, but was deficient in chest measurement, before succeeding with the newly raised London Welsh battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, a regiment in which commissions were held by Graves and Sassoon (neither of whom, as a private, he would meet). Some of the officers were Welsh, but the ranks were hastily recruited Cockney volunteers, and Jones was caught up in an emergency of language, unfamiliar idioms, indecipherable accents. Basic training in North Wales, musketry and manoeuvres on Salisbury Plain, the march to Southampton and the night crossing to France in December 1915, the first experience of a long-range heavy shell: these rites of passage are distributed between the flickering personae of In Parenthesis, as a prelude which takes up much of the work.
Jones was an infantryman, equidistant from officers and ‘other arms’. He was good at hearing where a shell would fall, what kind and calibre it was, and where to put himself. The draughtsman’s hand-eye co-ordination made him useful with a rifle, and would serve him as a map-maker. Physically slight, he excelled at night patrol, for which he repeatedly volunteered, as exempting him from fatigues. He preferred the company of comrades to any other – making himself scarce when the possibility of a commission was offered – and preferred the firing line to anywhere else. The climax of In Parenthesis is the attack on Mametz Wood in the first days of the Somme: an affair of marching, waiting, cancellation, repositioning, followed by a Now of battle fought by exhausted troops wound to a pitch of dread by long anticipation. The assault was directed at thick forest, heavily defended, a mile deep and the width of a division. Jones was not in the first wave but in close support. A frontal attack was the order of the day, ‘clear view … leisurely walk … waves of slowly walking men’. The final approach took four minutes, over rough and rising ground, without flanking support, during which a third of his battalion fell. After thirty hours of hugger-mugger in the wood Jones, mercifully, was shot in the leg. He crawled back towards the British trenches, was carried to a dressing station, told what a beautiful blighty – a wound serious enough to require the soldier to be sent back to England – by the orderly who removed the bullet.
With the closing of this account In Parenthesis ends, though it was not the end of Jones’s war. He resented sick leave, and after three months was returned to France in October 1916, to a desolate sector north of Ypres and to what seemed a different war. The increase in hard labour – ten months were spent consolidating a trench system in preparation for Passchendaele – was part of a newly methodical approach to carnage. Transferred to the battalion’s HQ and then to a field survey company, he mapped no man’s land and lost his bearings as a soldier. Separation from comrades and removal from the firing line at critical junctures reinforced a sense of mechanised slaughter as spectacle: was he participant or witness? His unpublished essay ‘Art in Relation to War’, written during the next war and collected in The Dying Gaul, looks back to an earlier ideal of chivalry, volunteer amateurism and what he called ‘elbow room’.
For a biographer, In Parenthesis is inescapably the primary source, and the primary complication. Dilworth treats the poem as a document and the experiences of its composite Private Ball as straight reporting. This speaks anxiously for its accuracy, but cannot register how radically the work is separated from the experiences it describes. The difficulty with reading the poem as a narrative account of those years is that In Parenthesis confounds chronology: not begun until a decade after 1918, not published until two decades after the events, in the shadow of a coming war. ‘I did not intend this as a “War Book” – it happens to be concerned with war’: as the hesitant and haunting preface suggests, it is a work of l’entre-deux-guerres. Its revelation is that the peacetime distinction between past and present is unreal, and that our historical condition is to be between wars. This is why the world of his trenches is so curiously normalised, the habitat of one who was there long enough to take it for granted. Business as usual, or in the chalked polyglot of the estaminet behind the lines: ‘BIERE/EGG CHIP 3 FRANC/CAFE AU LAIT/ENGLISH SPOKE HEER.’ Jones’s explanation of the work’s title refers to the composition, not to the experiences: ‘This writing is called In Parenthesis because I have written it in a kind of space between – I don’t know between quite what – but as you turn aside to do something … and also because our curious type of existence here is altogether in parenthesis.’ The between-time of which this speaks is close in apprehension to Eliot’s ‘twenty years largely wasted’.
His poem is hybrid because it confronts the past that evoked it, but in a novel medium cut off by what has intervened: the decade and more of artistic experiment which was itself an aftermath of war. At the same time, Jones was warily dismissive of influences, and thought the allusion-crammed air of the 1920s an unremarkable feature of ‘this groping age’, though he was forthright about those things which did consciously have an impact on him: the Joyce of Anna Livia Plurabelle (whose latter pages he had by heart), Browning, Negro spirituals, Cockney songs, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ‘bits of Welsh stuff … Norse sagas … and Lewis Carroll and Lear and God!’ And Eliot. He listened closely to the allusive mimicry of The Waste Land before setting out to do the war in different voices. It seems clear that he also absorbed the ensemble scoring of Sweeney Agonistes – its velocity and atonal, fractured burlesque – and he took to heart Eliot’s suggestion (in the 1930 preface to his translation of Saint-John Perse’s Anabase) that a poet is sometimes able to write poetry in what is called prose. In Parenthesis marries contemporary speech to the sovereignties of self-contained utterance, around which questions of genre arrange themselves as best they can. It took nearly a decade of writing and rewriting to pull off, with Jones acting as Pound to his own Eliot. The difference was that in Jones’s case the revisions – up to the last moment – involved a constant enfolding of new material rather than an excision of what was there. He had to splice and remake lines acoustically, to create the riveted and appositional effects he was after: his additions have an air of suppressed connections, such as Eliot defended in Saint-John Perse, and which Jones referred to as ‘juxtaposition’.
The other influence Jones acknowledged was Hopkins (whose poetry was not published until 1918), and he inherited Hopkins’s ambition for poetry – current language ‘to any degree heightened and unlike itself’ – as an ambition for prose. It was war prose (Graves, Blunden, Sassoon) rather than poetry that Jones was reading during the 1920s, and that convinced him he could, as he put it, do better. But instead of adding another memoir he chose to make ‘a shape in words’, and this indirection saved him from the false memories of what Graves called trench-mind. What Jones heard around him in the trenches or in ‘the shrieking wood’ could not be transcribed. Realism would distort these facts, and he had a comic horror of Dickens because of his own mimic tendency, as he agonised over the rendering of demotic: ‘How to make it not realistic is the bugger.’ Even so, what got said was sacrosanct, and this is the crux of Jones’s abiding anxiety over the matter of fact in art, as evident in his painting as in his writing.
In Parenthesis found a language for what he needed in its snaking adaptations of style indirect libre. Throughout the poem the enemy is ‘he’, but so too is the English sentry who, during a dawn stand-to, is probably using his shaving mirror (fixed to his bayonet) as a periscope:
In the mirror: below the wood, his undulating breastworks all along, he sees and loses, thinks he sees again, grey movement for the grey stillness, where the sand-bag wall dipped a little.
He noted that movement as with half a mind – at two o’clock from the petrol-tin. He is indeterminate of what should be his necessary action. Leave him be on a winter’s morning – let him bide.
This floating third person is part of the poem’s attempt to translate experience without self-expression, and without speaking for those involved. What it seeks is a choric in-betweenness, remote from Wilfred Owen’s aspiration to speak for the inarticulate common soldier. Jones’s soldiers are supremely articulate: ‘Every man’s speech and habit of mind were a perpetual showing.’ The poem’s view into other minds includes its transfixed intimations of the enemy as a semblable with better-appointed trenches, a hundred yards away. This articulated his sense of war as fraternity and fratricide – in his long view, because of the ‘culture-tangle’ of our historical interconnectedness, or as Henri Barbusse put it, ‘two armies fighting is one great army killing itself.’
Jones had been fascinated with the trench mazes of the British sector in Ypres, which resembled a German system, but his visual ‘loyalty’ was to the single wavering line more typical of British defences and, he felt, of the insular imagination. The labyrinth is one (Celtic) pole of Jones’s visual and verbal imagination: asymmetrical, self-enfolding, abstract, curvilinear. The zigzag is a different pole, and shapes the fluctuating lines of In Parenthesis, whose purposes are as much spatial as aural, and serve to keep the reader in a shifting relation to what is being said. Dilworth suggests that Jones’s spatial imagination was formed by his experience of map-making, which involved making coded sense of the visually indeterminate and psychologically confounding.
As autobiography, In Parenthesis was shaped by what happened to Jones in the decade after the end of the war. He had converted to Catholicism, and joined Eric Gill’s community, self-described as ‘a religious fraternity for those who make things with their hands’, first at Ditchling Common and then at Capel-y-ffin in the Black Mountains. He had become engaged to Gill’s daughter Petra, and was now a full-time artist – initially part of the English revival of wood engraving, the first fruits of which (his illustrations for The Book of Jonah and The Chester Play of the Deluge) already describe a personal passage in coded terms. He was a wayward but apt disciple. The spartan appointments, strict regime and easy fellowship recalled ‘the intimate, continuing, domestic life of small contingents of men’ which Jones would celebrate in the preface to In Parenthesis as defining the early months of war. In the sensory corridors of his poem Jones would have much to say about ‘cushiness’ in the trenches, as make-do or make-believe, but comfort was something else. His sense that dwelling as such had become an impossibility began here.
In Parenthesis is a testament but also a fictional world, thick with circumstance, whose walk-ons – its cast of Fluellens – come to life in ways that were surprising to Jones himself, betrayed as such by the excitable air of impromptu discovery in the writing, its grace notes of inspired redundancy. His material – and his people – keep escaping from the story he has to tell, running riot inside the moment, from the soldier referred to as ‘the man from Rotherhithe’ (a Dostoevskian solitary, homesick for proper beer, eerily brought to life) to the querulous couple in the estaminet who dispense liquid comfort to British soldiers behind the lines, as uxorious and marinated in their setting as Conrad’s Winnie and Verloc. They are part of the poem’s inclusiveness: its tragic air of holiday, of having time on its hands, if not on its side.
Jones slipped into peacetime, acknowledging that the war experiences he had left behind were inseparably his. The burden he carried was in some respects tolerable. Like Ivor Gurney and Isaac Rosenberg, he had fought an infantryman’s war rather than the subaltern war of Owen or Sassoon or Blunden or Graves. Instead of postwar assimilation and adjustment, there was a steady distillation of the private’s worldview; and if the private’s attitude of acquiescence was sardonic and undeceived, it also lacked the bitter taste of responsibility, the undertow of anger and guilt.
In Parenthesis bristles with intimations of class – ‘men on horseback, of evident aloofness’ – as an otherness more mysterious than the enemy, and ‘the clipt hierarchic command’ is one of the poem’s terse vernaculars. Imperturbable officers stroll in the open during heavy barrages, greet one another nonchalantly amid the falling shells (‘Well, Dell!’), are attired as if paying afternoon calls in Belgravia – and die without looking back. Jones had been sartorially susceptible even before he volunteered (one witness remarked that, however hard up in later years, he always got his shoes at Lobb’s), and he would have agreed with his friend the classicist W.F. Jackson Knight that the Great War was ‘a frightfully dressy affair’. Much of this is parodic – he resented the tone-deafness and hauteur of the officer caste – but there is a residue of fascination.
Even so, as Jones wrote in 1935, ‘I must be and am essentially a private soldier, in and out of the war,’ and he thought of the artist as an infantryman who works directly with his materials, who prospers by lying low. What he had witnessed – the dismantling of perspective itself – became a way of seeing. As he wrote during the next war, ‘a trench lived in in 1915 might easily “get into” a picture of a back garden in 1925 and by one of those hidden processes, transmogrify it – impart somehow or other a vitality which otherwise it might not possess … by some acid twist.’ In painting, he submitted to Eric Gill to learn the things he needed to forget, producing stubbornly original works in whatever medium he was shown how to use, acquiring a fluency which eluded virtuosity, just as his writing protected itself as far as possible from outside influences. When in 1924 Gill moved his small tribe to Capel-y-ffin, Jones followed, but on his own terms. Watercolour was his rebellion, and ‘the double-dapple’ of Wales its catalyst: an irregular and enclosed landscape, whose hill and river rhythms, like the sea-light of Caldey Island off the Pembrokeshire coast, freed him from the hieratic rigidities of Gill’s aesthetic, its trapped elegance – what Jones later called its ‘toyishness’ – and rigid closure to contingency.
One of the things In Parenthesis was writing itself towards was Jones’s breakdown, in 1932, shortly after finishing a first draft. The signs were present earlier, and Dilworth reasonably interprets the sudden paralysis – fears, phobias, chronic insomnia – as delayed shellshock. René Hague, a longstanding friend and the editor of Dai Greatcoat (a ‘self-portrait in letters’, first published in 1980), anticipated this and vigorously disagreed, arguing that Jones had had a good war, and that anyway his habit had been to keep in reserve ‘a safe margin of ill heath as a protection against outside interference’. Dilworth points out that Hague did not know the Jones who emerged from war, since they only met in 1924, by which time Jones had mastered the belle indifférence of neurasthenia. Nevertheless, Hague’s conviction points to something.
Jones was shy of explanations because he retained the infantryman’s weary and sweating acceptance that command does not give reasons. He thought of bad news as coming from outside, and part of his inexplicability was to be uninterested in himself. While convalescing from his breakdown in Cairo in 1934 he read The Anatomy of Melancholy for clues, in a spirit of concession, as though it were The Universal Home Doctor. After his second breakdown, in 1947, he submitted brightly to therapy, but Dilworth reports that he ‘had to think quite hard in order to collaborate in seeing his life in a Freudian light’. He was wary of what he called ‘most modern “personal experience” & “psychological” kinds of poetry’ as, properly speaking, obscure. It is one reason he avoided lyric. There are no short poems, as opposed to fragments, and the personal pronoun is absent from In Parenthesis. He admired Malory above all other writers for his lack of inwardness, the dramatic fit and adequacy of words to deeds. In the preface to The Anathemata he writes somewhat hopefully that ‘the workman must be dead to himself while engaged upon the work,’ and his analogies are with the carpenter or the half-back or the cook.
Before his collapse, Jones had painted sixty pictures over a few months, as well as completing the draft of In Parenthesis. Hague thought the explanation for his illness was overwork. The doctors agreed, prescribing a course of ‘masterly inactivity’ for the next decade, which Jones meekly accepted and later regretted. His illness brought an end to his robustness, Hague said, and he made himself a smaller, lesser target. He learned a style from a despair, a routine of ‘they get you whatever you do’ which became the normative speech of his mind, especially regarding his serial disappointments in love – compounded decades later, when Valerie Wynne-Williams, the third and last of his deep romantic attachments, and 39 years younger, suddenly married. But illness was also retrenchment. It drew a line under his vacillating attempts to fit in with the expectations of others, which were replaced by a well-tempered contrariness, evident at every turn in Dai Greatcoat and expressed as quaintness of spirit, like the quixotic squint of his landscapes or still lifes. His intolerances widened to include things he might have been expected to like: Dante, Milton, Spenser, Norse sagas. Broadly speaking he shied away from abstract schemas and humourlessness, prizing pragmatism and the moral claims of expediency, as a wisdom learned in the trenches. He disliked asceticism, because it mortgaged the present, and he distrusted the elsewheres of mysticism or utopia: what mattered was the moment, which for him was a significant, eschatological stretch of time.
As he shuttled between Wales and his parents in Brockley, Jones’s movements began to take on an impulsive and even absurdist aspect. Gill’s community was itself itinerant: Ditchling Common and Wales were followed in 1928 by a farm in Buckinghamshire called Pigotts, and Jones kept returning to all three like a distracted homing pigeon. After his break-up with Petra Gill, who abruptly married someone else, having tired of his absent-mindedness (or disguised panic), he worked with concentration wherever he found himself, even when he had no particular place to be. He had Ditchling and Wales, as well as a London world in which he exhibited successfully and met everybody, but his preferred perches were fugitive: forays to the zoo or to the galleries, the routine of Mass followed by pub (he liked the former to be observant of ritual and the latter quiet, dark and comfortable). Alert to his surroundings, he was indifferent to his whereabouts. He had always hated leaving anywhere, the trenches included. Dugouts became billets, the more provisional the more intensely inhabited, and he had a keen awareness of carrying around a soldier’s body in peacetime as a snail its shell. At one point he half-heartedly rented a room in Kensington, as an experiment in leaving home, from which in turn the homes of friends became his refuge. His Catholic intellectual circle was outwardly purposeful – publishers, broadcasters, curators, historians and academics, mostly denizens of Chelsea and Kensington – but also introspective, contrarian and like-minded; they made conscious space in their lives for his unscheduled landings and the ensuing intervals when he would remain grounded by uncertain ailments. Further afield there was Pigotts (the letters are full of variations on a theme: ‘I went to Pigotts in July for a week’s visit and stayed 2½ months!’), or Rock Hall in Northumberland. As Helen Sutherland, its demanding chatelaine – and the most loyal of his hostesses or patrons – remarked approvingly, ‘he’s bad at going.’
After Brockley there were two long-term billets, both of which started as temporary measures. From 1935 the Fort Hotel in Sidmouth became Jones’s residence for five years. He preferred ‘grey days of a nondescript sort’, the seafront bare ‘save for a doddering general or two’. Prudence Pelham pictured him as permanently shaking hands with greyhound owners in nearby bars, and Dilworth itemises his acquaintances: ‘a priest named Murray; the Misses Jervois; retired Colonel L.H. Hastings; a teacher named Deanesley; a woman named Spunday; his doctor, E.E. Lightwood, with whom he walked the shore and dined at the Fort; and a homosexual couple who had a good library’.
His second and only permanent home followed his second nervous collapse, in 1947. After several months in a nursing establishment in Harrow he took a room in nearby Northwick Lodge, owned by a former housemaster, for ‘a month or two’, to be close to his doctor – and stayed for 16 years, detached but institutionalised. At mealtimes ‘he would cheerfully chatter away’ with an autodidact’s solicitude towards down-at-heel Harrow masters. On being forced to leave in 1964, by which time the place was falling down around him, he remarked: ‘I shall miss this room terribly, for it absolutely suits me to perfection,’ and his comparison was with the front being broken through by old Jerry.
Dilworth itemises the habitués of Northwick Lodge in its palmy days:
two long-term residents … (a female violin teacher and an old lady named Miss Evans, both of whom Jones liked) … Miss Knott, an impoverished upper-class spinster; a diamond merchant from South Africa and Whitechapel; Mr Feakins, an automobile salesman who tried to sell motor cars to the others, including Jones; and a lobotomised salesman, who had to write orders down immediately before forgetting them … A woman who worked as a secretary and kept a bottle of sherry behind her mantelpiece mirror and claimed to be engaged to the mayor of Monmouth.
All of which seems vital. As well as recovering a lost world, it looks out from Jones’s look-out, and communicates his tenderness towards names, for their comedy and the way they shift a gear in the mind for no discernible reason. In Parenthesis has its own flair in the matter, which Jones learned from Eliot, whose ‘power of compression’ includes his consummate acts of naming.
Jones both blended in and was preternaturally alert to the habits of individuals bent into strange shapes by circumstance. He praised particulars and thought of consistency as an implausible cover story. His occasional prose conducts a running battle with cultural abstractions; it generalises, but only when the particular is close to hand. This is what gives it at all times its deal-table plainness and verve, no matter how recondite his preoccupations. Like Wallace Stevens, Jones believed that the greatest poverty is not to live in a physical world. He had briefly thought of becoming a monk after the war, before embracing a native this-worldiness which counterpointed the long views of his spirituality, just as it enlivened his cultural discontent.
The supposed pedantry or antiquarianism of Jones’s procedures, visual as well as verbal, are deceptive. He relied on anachronism, sly private reference and a conviction that accuracy was allied to distortion, just as the distortions of idiomatic usage were the maker’s mark of the individual: this person not that person. ‘Nothing excellent that is not odd,’ he said of his annual rereading of John Collier’s His Monkey Wife. He objected in general to biography as being ‘too little “about chaps”’ – by which he meant ‘contradictory, or anyway, complex quiddities & haecceities’ – and he thought no biographer was equipped to write more than one Life in one lifetime. Dilworth has measured up to this latter stricture, and is attentive to Jones as a chap, rather than ordering the life at the cost of its recalcitrant and scattered realia, since for Jones everything bore witness.
He liked repetition wherever he found it. When his therapy uncovered a history of avoidances – his refusal of a commission, the refusals of home, marriage, paternity – Jones compared it wonderingly to ‘pouring acid on an etching plate: there was the pattern, quite clear,’ and the best patterns were forged from the most mutinous particulars. Here as elsewhere Dilworth is content to follow the grain of his subject’s wood, from which a great deal of illumination follows, as well as a salutary dullness and occasional exasperation. The biography is especially responsive to Jones’s trade with the world as a stand-off, an exchange of hostages, or jokes. Jones’s favourites (Dilworth retells a few) are informed by an arguably Welsh appetite for non sequitur, and are dark with circularity. They go nowhere. He needed a hard bed of humour and oddity to fill his days, and he found it most often in the company of women, whom he cast as co-conspirators with as much time on their hands as he happened to have himself. Thus the serpentine line of wives, mothers and daughters who file through Dilworth’s biography. Peacetime for Jones was the trenches, but with women as comrades.
They reciprocated in kind, but the suspicion that a favourite has no friend is what subtle Prudence Pelham (again) registered after one visit to Sidmouth: ‘I saw the white emptiness of your glass & thought it would never be filled.’ There was something of Prince Mishkin about Jones: his confounding candour, his obstacle-like presence in the room. If you could not marry him it was unclear what finally was to be done with him. You could look out for him, as so many did, or confide in him, as did several straying wives, because he was clear-sighted about pain and unjudging of people’s means of escaping it. Talk was the currency with which he spent time, and for much of the time was the only currency he could spend. Dilworth’s oral history is culled from decades of interviews, unpublished and often unposted letters (like the ‘fragment’, the unsent letter is one of Jones’s distinctive genres). In Jerusalem in 1934, in mid-crisis, an acquaintance remarked that talking seemed to be the only thing Jones enjoyed doing, and it continued for the rest of his days – ‘hesitant, groping’, as Dilworth notes, but unstoppable.
His talk was circular because his preoccupations were few but deep, invariably presenting themselves as problems. The most important of these by far was the distinction – aesthetic but all-embracing – between the ‘gratuitous’ and the ‘utile’. In the latter part of the war, when Jones found himself in a sinister zone of instrumentality, especially at Ypres, the triumph of the utile became for him an index of civilisational change. This was so acutely experienced as to become the leading voice of his malaise. He returns to it as a puzzle throughout the essays collected in Epoch and Artist and The Dying Gaul: how to make art in a world which has turned its back on the ‘contactual’, where hands have lost their cunning, where everything has a use.
The act of making must be gratuitous, a signpost to an elsewhere. At the same time the artist must make ‘things’, otherwise the work becomes disembodied. ‘Thing’ is a Jones word, and catches the toe-stubbing mulishness of his vision. His early efforts to move on from In Parenthesis were grouped under the working title ‘The Book of Balaam’s Ass’. Characteristically, he found the abstract virtues most clearly expressed in material objects as ‘the greatest giveaway of any epoch or place’: the non-utile needed the utile as a mirror needs its backing, their intermingling having characterised all cultures. The vitality of Celtic art lay in its incorporation of elements beyond those required for function: the gratuitous love of surface decoration, asymmetry and pattern, whether in pottery, horse harnesses and bits, flagon mounts, scabbards; the lack of differentiation between objects of peace and objects of war.
His aesthetic responses were both undefended and unaccommodating: he remarked that the Garrick Club door lintels were too big for the rooms, and that this offended God (Jones often sounds like Christopher Smart). He told Laurence Binyon’s daughter Nicolete that during his depressions he could ‘look at a coal-scuttle and be absolutely terrified’, and even in good times he was oppressed by the wrongness of modern spoons, as proof that ‘the whole bloody past is more or less down the drain, as far as I can make out.’ He lamented the passing of the immemorial link between art and craft or trade, and was as deaf to bohemian attitudes or philosophies of alienation as he was to mystical varieties of experience.
His mimic gift was closely related to his matter-of-factness, a way of processing the world and testing its coin. Habits of speech had talismanic significance for him, and his close women friends all met his exacting need for a voice ‘as if it were a physical touch’. In the trenches voice had been a matter of life and death, but also elusive: ‘The word of command unmade in its passage, mischiefed of the opaque air, mutated, bereaved of content, become an incoherent uttering, a curious bent cry out of the smarting drift, lost altogether.’ In peacetime Jones tried to identify where voices are coming from in the fog of the social order. His own printed voice often sounds as if coming from somewhere else, not least its terms of endearment: ‘sweet high bright Prudence’, Eliot ‘a darling man’ and so on. This Waughish strain took up residence ‘(but oh dear how expensive whisky is, I wish I didn’t have to drink it)’, taking its chances inside his peacetime blend of army Cockney and officer-speak.
Jones later suspected that his illness originated less from shellshock than from social placelessness. He would always miss the anonymity of soldiering. He moved unthinkingly between boarding house and country house, until he noticed the fact, as though catching himself in someone else’s mirror. He referred to his depressions as ‘rosy’, the near anagram like a symptom talking back. In Dai Greatcoat he concedes that ‘rosy herself resides a lot in the complex maladjustments of the social order … some of us are caught and transfixed in a more obvious fashion.’ His displacements were a way of making things connect, as if the resulting map would give him his bearings – but also a way of keeping moving.
He also wondered if ‘being half-Welsh’ made him ill. Wales was an outpost of empire, and yet ‘of all the people of this island, the Welsh alone afford a direct link with that late-Roman world from within whose crumbling imperium they emerged.’ In Jones’s art the centre is always contested by the margins, the marginalia, but his archipelagic and centrifugal loyalties were in tension with a passionate idea that the centre must hold, the continuity of ‘our common Western deposit’ be safeguarded. Dilworth suggests that Jones converted to Catholicism not to save his soul but to re-establish community with the past, and discover a rationale for making an art that would compass these urgencies.
When Jones refers to the predicament of persons of Welsh affinity ‘whose “medium” is English’, his use of the word hovers over its painterly sense, as though a choice were involved. But the impossibility of writing other than in English established an unbridgeable distance from those origins. His awareness of this helped shape the ‘deterritorialised’ or harlequin language of the long poems, which belong to a minority literature in the sense used by Deleuze and Guattari to describe Kafka’s Prague German: ‘A minor literature does not come from a minor language; it is rather that which a minority constructs within a major language.’
In the London Welsh battalion Jones found his unshared background made flesh. ‘These came from London. Those from Wales. Together they bore in their bodies the genuine tradition of the Island of Britain.’ His regiment confirmed an ancestry that before the war was notional, and afterwards unfindable because vanished. To describe loss and diaspora was to address a modern condition, and to write a long poem was to subscribe explicitly to modernist preoccupations, under the sign of prose. But Jones was primarily interested in modernism as affording new ways of describing the past, and he embraced it fully only when it too became a lost cause. Writing in 1965: ‘In the Thirties there was, I think, a feeling that liaison with the whole past … was still possible, however “contemporary” the images employed.’ Dilworth thinks that what vexed him after 1945 was the assumption that this had been an illusion, and it is partly what his second long poem sought to redress.
As his cultural pessimism deepened these paradoxes were newly minted. His sense that only the outsider possesses cultural memory produced an insomnia in which Jones was doomed to remember the entire cultural map of Western Christendom (he even drew such a map) on our behalf. The Anathemata encompasses the whole long and entangled history of Britain, scouring its artefacts and buried deposits, from Iron Age Cornwall through Wales to the Kingdom of Mercia, all revealing connections to a Mediterranean elsewhere – revealing, indeed, the entire history of Western Christendom. The poem’s astringencies – its breathless simultaneities, its crisis of syntax – are designed to be non-negotiable, and it remains a glacial erratic in the landscape of modern poetry. It is a drama rather than a narrative, hinging on a moment in a modern Mass, and its thalassic plot – its various ships sailing in various ages from Troy to Rome, or seeking the British coast, or sailing down the 19th-century Thames to London – can scarcely accommodate Jones’s restless memory-work and analogy-seeking. One such link was forged from an experience he had while convalescing in Palestine in 1934: the marching and helmeted British soldiers he saw from his window metamorphosed before his eyes into the Roman occupying forces of the first century, and this moment became an ‘inexhaustible’ source both for The Anathemata and for the later fragments gathered in The Sleeping Lord, which was published in 1974, the year he died.
Time easily became ‘unfixed’ for Jones. His Catholicism is full of intimations about ‘the penetration of the timeless into time’. He was interested in animals as the excluded constants of human history who live in unmoored time: a grazing pony in Roman Britain looked no different from a pony grazing the Welsh hills today. Jones’s unmoored life – what he sometimes referred to as ‘not marriage’ – was something other than avoidance. Not too remote from Peter Brown’s image of abstinence among the early Christians – ‘in the heart of the continent person, the heavy tick of the clock of fallen time had fallen silent’ – to describe the withdrawal of the body from a society whose experience of time is tainted, because dominated by a linear terror of death. In both wars Jones seems to have felt obscurely convinced of his own safety, if not on the best of terms. The Blitz was his happiest period, after the trenches, because everyday life and the conditions of a stationary war – nothing doing alternating with sudden destruction – coincided with his inner sense of liminal living, in ‘the last phase of our dear West’.
Dilworth has an anecdote from the Blitz years, part of his fund of things nondescript and indispensable, which interrupt but constitute his story: ‘In Cheyne Walk on the Chelsea Embankment during a rare daytime raid, Jones was leaning on the parapet watching heavy bombing. A man running from upriver pointed backwards shouting to follow him. Ten minutes later he reappeared, running in the opposite direction, shouting to follow him. It was, Jones said, like something out of Through the Looking-Glass.’ The marginal but privileged viewpoint and the watchful impassivity are all present – and Jones seems baffling in this biography only when such things are explained in terms of a helplessness. His manifold self-removals seem full of visionary decision, and shaped a life whose characteristic experiences recurred, empowering his visual and verbal art.
Take that view of soldiers, collapsed in time, seen through the window in Jerusalem. In Jones’s narrowed negotiations with the world, the window was the most frequented of border crossings. Whether the Hardyesque early childhood memory of a detachment of volunteers riding through the suburbs, ‘seen through the slats of the venetian blinds’. Or the memory of watching through a chink in the garden wall a fruiterer’s horse stabled on the other side. Or in early 1917, the secret Catholic Mass in progress in a byre north of Ypres, with a handful of soldier-communicants, which Jones stumbled on while searching for firewood – watching it through ‘a crack against which I put my eye’ – and which set him on the road to Rome. The epiphanies in his life were regular and they arrived as inadvertences, which is also the reason this Life is more than the sum of its parts.