William Blissett


      We are shy when people start talking about friendship, especially if they go on and on. Aristotle deals with it sensibly in his Ethics, in such a way as not to embarrass his friends. Erasmus, in the first great best-seller of the age of print, his collection of the sayings of Greek and Roman notables, the Adages, in all its many editions led off with the observation, attributed to and quoted by many, that a friend is a second self. There he left it, with a smile to his many friends, chief among them Thomas More. In treating friendship as one of the Four Loves, C.S. Lewis observes that lovers sit so that they look at each other, and two is quite enough, whereas friends sit side by side or in profile, sometimes with other friends, attending to whatever draws them together — a religion or a cause, a book or a picture, some topic or personality or just the passing scene. He or she who has more to give just gives more; those who have less give what they can. Attention is giving.

      It is in the context of friendship that I propose to say something about knowing David Jones personally, through visits, thirty of them, and an exchange of letters over the last quarter-century of his life. Then, touching on my several studies, published and unpublished, of aspects of his life and work, I hope I will be seen as continuing that friendship, and extending it, for literary attention, concern, and scholarship have a place — for some of us a place of honour — in the world of friendship. That place of honour may be likened to a mediaeval chantry, or shrine, for we have had, as members of the David Jones Society, a newsletter and now have a journal, with conferences, exhibitions, tours, events. Shall I use that friendly word “get-togethers”? Once, in his immense poem, The Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser pays tribute to the poet who most decisively and pervasively influenced him —

    Dan Chaucer, well of English undefiled,

    On fames eternall beadroll worthie to be filed. (FQ IV.ii.32)

He places this tribute in Book IV, the Legend of Friendship. I stretch back some seventy years to relate, from the opening pages of The Long Conversation, how my interest in David Jones began:

      I promise that this memoir will move, as this sentence does, from the personal pronoun ‘I’ to the proper name ‘David Jones’. My subject is how I came to know David Jones, and I must begin in 1938 when I was in my late teens. Though the capital of British Columbia, Victoria was then a quiet city full of retired English people and busy Scots: its daily life hardly impinged on me at all, and the things it considered important I dismissed as of no moment. Apart from Victoria High School only one institution mattered to me: the Victoria Public Library, under the direction of Miss Margaret Clay, was an exceptionally well stocked and up-to-date collection, and I cut through it like a blowtorch. I made a point of bringing a different library book to school every day — with no thought of endearing myself to classmates or teachers. This was the time of crisis leading up to Munich and the outbreak of war, and I fed my fires weekly with the New Statesman and the New Republic and the New Masses and daily with the literature of modernism.

      One day — yes, I could walk to the shelf and put my hand on it today — I noticed among the new books a handsome Faber volume with the cryptic title In Parenthesis; the author’s name could hardly have been plainer, David Jones. I opened it to the frontispiece, engraved by the author, who was evidently an artist. In a moment it fused together all my imaginings of the Great War (family lore, war songs at school, war films and fiction) with that enchanted realm of suffering and barely-possible deliverance, the Waste Land. The avant-garde character of the book I was altogether in the mood for, though I cannot pretend that I read it with as much understanding as excitement. Its evident Christianity I was ready to tolerate, by a willing suspension of disbelief.

      I returned the book, read, with a resolution to read it again. One aspect of it, I now realize, had drawn a total blank. The title-page bore an epigraph in Welsh, and the book clearly had a whole Welsh dimension that was lost on me: the Welsh words I did not attempt to pronounce, and if I looked up the notes, the Welsh ones did not stick. This is odd because my maternal grandfather, Frederick Jones, married a Miss Mary Jones (they were both from Cheshire near the Welsh border), and my mother’s name was Gladys; the Saxon Blissetts came from Hereford and have a family tradition of defending the Marcher country against incursions of the Wild Welsh.

      What did stay permanently in my memory was the sense of the book as a ‘shape in words’ and certain great passages — the rat of no-man’s-land (I.P., 54-5), the Old Bill character serving as warden of stores (89-90), the men on the eve of battle talking of ordinary things (139-40), sweet sister death (162-3), and the Queen of the Woods (185-6). I read the book again, as I had promised myself, in the late ‘40s when I was a graduate student, encouraged this time by friends like Norman Endicott, editor of the works of Sir Thomas Browne, and Barker Fairley, the Goethe Scholar, who shared my enthusiasm for the writing and enlarged my knowledge of David Jones the painter. The Christianity of the work I took quite positively this time, and the difficulties of the writing (except the Welsheries) began to disperse like the morning mists in its great description of a day in the trenches. (L.C., 1-2)

      Our correspondence began before our meeting. In the mid-1950s I wrote to a large number of contemporary poets to ask whether Edmund Spenser was to them, as he had been over the centuries, “the poets’ poet.” David Jones was one of these, and, along with my enquiry, I mentioned that I had reviewed his second book, The Anathemata (1952). He replied, largely in the negative to the Spenser question, but asked me to send a copy of the review. This I did, with an apology for saying, erroneously, that he was Eric Gill’s son-in-law, and he replied again in friendly manner. When, in 1958-59 I spent a sabbatical in London, I sent him Christmas greetings, to which he replied by inviting me to visit him. Three replies: I can cross the threshold. Here is what I wrote down, in breathless notes on the underground from Harrow to Kensington, and in connected prose the next day, little thinking that there might be future visits:

15 January 1959

      David Jones’s letter in reply to my Christmas greeting had seemed rather weary, and I hesitated about telephoning him, not wishing to seem or be an exploiter: academic predators are my own breed and I understand their ways all too well; but he did write down his telephone number, twice. When he came to the telephone, I found his voice brisk (with a very slight English stammer) and cordial. ‘Why not this afternoon?’ he said and told me how to reach Northwick Lodge.

      The Lodge is halfway up the hill at Harrow, an oblong building, its white paint peeling, dead cold. Mr. Jones came downstairs to greet me, wearing his greatcoat and scarf. His room was warmer than the hall though still cold enough for our breath to steam. I was unused to being cold indoors, but this was cold even for England.

      It is a large single room, untidy but not at all squalid, rather giving the impression of there being a great many things ready to hand. A fireplace, two chairs, a mantel with a number of objects arranged freely but not in a clutter — a small Calvary in wood, originally intended as a block for an engraving, an inscription in Welsh on dark greenish-grey stone; books everywhere, in bookcases and piled on shelves or on the floor; a large table with pens and brushes and engraving tools; pictures on the walls, on an easel, stacked against the wall. Profusion, not at all menacing — neither a bombardment of things nor a tightly clenched trove.

Mr. Jones himself is a rather small man, though his handshake on greeting me was larger and warmer than mine; quiet, but with a good deal of nervous energy, so that conversation may sometimes lapse but never sag. His face can look tired and old in repose but has an almost boyish animation when we are talking. There are glimpses of joy and a certain radiance, no coercive power. Short, untidy hair brushed down over his forehead. A man of the spirit but not sacerdotal: too thin-skinned to be a priest, not methodical enough for a monk. More of an anchorite, a hermit, his room a rather ample cell where he subtly compounds his works of simples.

      He was full of questions about Canada and the sort of chaps I taught English to in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. He pronounced the name as if he had committed it to memory as the last place in the world: we are used to that, and I was able to convince him without much difficulty that my native province is habitable, even civilized. As strangers and pilgrims do, we exchanged perplexities about Americans, of whom he has come to know several in recent years, servicemen, boarding at Northwick Lodge. The most surprising thing about them, apart from their general receptivity and sudden chasms of blankness, was the way so many of the hulking big bruisers turned out to their various churches on Sunday mornings.

      He kept thinking of new things to show me and so the conversation was not very consecutive — and I’m not much good at recalling what other people say. Before the light failed I had a good look at a number of drawings, including the large watercolour on an easel, Aphrodite in Aulis, which has a depth and volume hardly to be guessed from reproduction in reduced size. When it was first shown in a gallery, a studious-looking man fell into talk with him about it, said he took a professional interest in goddesses: it was E.R. Dodds, author of The Greeks and the Irrational, that splendid book. The title of the picture, by the way, has no reference to George Moore’s novel, which Mr. Jones says he may have heard of but has certainly not read. The technical problem of the picture was so to dispose it as to make Aphrodite dominant — blooming, buxom, but not heavy — and the artist is satisfied on this score. The pencil line and the colouring are laid on concurrently, not pencil first and then colour. This is not what one would expect, and I had the sense that he often has to overrule the contrary assumption.

I had brought along my copy of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and he inscribed it for me. It is the one of his illustrated books that he thinks the most successful. He said the Golden Cockerel Press people, like lunatics, called in a bevy of girl art students to colour the wood engravings for his Gulliver’s Travels. Every single copy. He removed the colour from his own. I was relieved to hear this, for I thought the colouring poisonous when I looked at the book in the British Museum. Contrary to orders, they used the wrong paper and didn’t dampen it for The Chester Play of the Deluge, and so the black is not properly black: the reproduction in the Tate Gallery catalogue is superior to the book. As for The Book of Jonah, it is ‘pure Eric’ — good, with that reservation.

      I showed him The Wounded Knight, a copper engraving I had bought at the Redfern Gallery, but he thought it a pretty faint print that should not have been pulled and I could see that he preferred not to sign it. He didn’t know that some watercolours of his were being shown there currently, and he wondered about their source of supply. His experience in trying to get money out of them has not always been happy, in spite of their calling him David to put him at his ease. He recalled that at his exhibition there some years ago he had wanted to show but not to sell Vexilla Regis (‘The view from this window — that is the tree,’ he said, pointing),[1]   and so had been persuaded to put an exorbitant price on it, but an old friend, a very nice chap from Cambridge [H.S. Ede], bought it for his mother, who was ill and had set her heart on it. It was the only high payment he had ever received, but he wishes he had kept the picture, as he needs his main ‘things’ around him. ‘Serves me right for asking more that the just price.’ This he said with simple contrition, as if he were confessing to St. Thomas Aquinas.

      When talking of Gulliver’s Travels, he mentioned the great number of blocks to be engraved, conveying the sense of its having been a fatiguing commission, and this led to Aubrey Beardsley who at the outset of his career was given a huge commission to illustrate Malory, very gratifying no doubt but foreign to his temperament and crushing in its magnitude. Beardsley he admires highly; he did not know whether or not Canon John Gray had been in the Beardsley circle. He recalled Gray as a remarkable priest who, in his church in Edinburgh, was said to spend many hours regularly waiting in the confessional for anyone who might need him: a real mortification for one who started life as a minor poet of the 1890s and whose surname was appropriated, jocularly, by his famous friend Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Canon Gray was a great walker and no matter how many miles he had covered in town or country always arrived fresh and unruffled, his shoes gleaming. He often talked of Wilde and others of that time but Mr. Jones does not recall his mentioning Beardsley.

      Like Beardsley, David Jones does not work from sketches: the original drawing is revised and developed until it feels the way the first conception felt. I mentioned the signs of innumerable erasures in the Beardsley drawing of Siegfried now on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and that led to Wagner — as I had rather hoped than plotted. No, he doesn’t like Wagner at all, thinks his style vulgar, doesn’t enjoy opera: in fact, when his friends went to the opera years ago, he would sit on a bench in the Underground (or was it in the train itself, the Inner Circle Line?) and read a book until it was time to meet them. Any Wagnerism in his writing must come through as mediated by Joyce, of whom he never tires. Joyce is his writer, when he dares admit it.

      He was curious to hear about T.S. Eliot’s new play, The Elder Statesman, and was pleased when I said that I found it witty and wise. ‘Marriage has done wonder for Tom — filled him out, even physically. It’s good to see him happy.’ Eliot he has known for a very long time; Edith Sitwell he has come to know in the past two years. He had feared she might be arty and brittle but instead found her warm-hearted and easy and quite without ‘side’. He thought she would be a Spenserian, if I liked. He is himself put off mainly (not exclusively) by Spenser’s fierceness in the matter of Ireland, and of course I didn’t defend it except historically. I tried to persuade him to enter the heartland of The Faerie Queene, where he would find something like his own landscape. He gave me the look of a man who resolves to open his Spenser one of these days.

      He showed me a little book on Bonnard. ‘Far superior to Degas. I can’t understand how they have come to be so misjudged.’ ‘More heart?’ I suggested, thinking of Degas’s limiting sarcasm, and he agreed, or let it pass. He recalled that his old teacher at the Camberwell School of Art before the Great War, A.S. Hartrick, knew many French painters of that generation and always referred to Degas as Degaz, which he said was how the painter pronounced his name. Without ever being strenuously avant-garde, David Jones, from his earliest days, was aware of what belonged to ‘the Now’, to use his phrase, and receptive to it. Tachisme he is out of sympathy with and says there is some fakery involved in claiming for accident what is (when it amounts to anything) skill. He admires Ben Nicholson in spite of his fanatical abstractionism. He was delighted with what I told him about the Canadian painter David Milne (whom I had mentioned in my review): how he soldiered through the Depression in the northern wilds, living in a shack and subsisting on pork and beans, how he avoided all commercial art or teaching (a vigorous nod of the head at this), and how, when he talked (not very much) about art, you could imagine a trustful chipmunk on his shoulder.

      ‘What do you think of old Spengler?’ he demanded, putting on a sort of Prussian bark very different from his usual quiet speech. I said I thought him a poet of ideas, obviously somebody — full of false analogies and true metaphors, I might have added, but didn’t think of it until halfway home. He thinks Spengler underestimated and rather too easily forgotten when Toynbee and Mumford and Malraux come to mind. We talked about the tragedy of Germany, and he made the admission (rather, tore the admission out of himself) that he had been quite pro-German in the appeasement era, out of fellow-feeling for the ‘enemy front-fighters against whom we found ourselves by misadventure’, having dismissed all earlier reports of Nazi cruelty and nihilism as propaganda, like the stories of soldiers crucified on hay ricks in the Great War. The truth came as a terrible shock, and he has been pondering ever since on whether a new age of torment and outrage has opened or whether the old securities and decencies had been an illusion all the time. It was here that a lapse in conversation took place, for I had much the same sort of assent, to the opposite political evil, on my conscience.

      We consumed two pots of Lapsang Souchong tea in the loose, mainly pleasant talk. When it was time for me to go, David Jones put on his scarf and coat and accompanied me to the front door, and I walked through the cold fog down to the station. (L.C., 8-12)

Eight more of these visits occurred before the end of the sabbatical, during which time I met René Hague, his old friend who became my close friend (The Long Conversation is dedicated to René and Joan Hague) and built up my basic collection of books illustrated by David Jones (a toast to antiquarian booksellers; to Anthony Rota and Peter Scott and to Hugh Anson-Cartwright, friendly themselves, they encourage the friendship of writers and collectors). I could make myself useful by fetching things from Central London. After that, I was not able to revisit London for ten years, but by then we knew each other well enough for correspondence to flourish: I tried with success to time my letters to St. David’s Day (1 March) and his birthday (All Saints’ Day, 1 November). Then, from 1969 to the year of his death, 1974, I crossed the Atlantic every year and saw him usually several times. There are many passages that I wish we had time for me to read; I choose one, from August 1972 when he was reading a typescript of The Sleeping Lord because it shows his sense of fun amid the tribulations of his later years:

      At a lull in the conversation I said that I was reading In Parenthesis again rather closely and continued to be puzzled by the mysterious ‘Aunty Bembridge’, which seems to be neither soldiers’ slang nor an allusion to a famous person. David laughed as if in recollection. The name ‘Bembridge’ is taken from an officer at headquarters who was only a name to him, but the character is that of Brigadier-General Price-Davies, V.C., his own brigadier, who was famous for being a fuss-pot and martinet, without fear and without imagination. He would tour the front-line trenches with a pole marked in inches, and if the parapet was an inch or two high or low, the sandbags would have to be removed and replaced to meet the regulation height, all this with bullets and shells whizzing round his and everyone’s heads. The great story (a real chuckle this time) concerns his talking to a number of junior officers, in the open, as an enemy bombardment bracketed in on them, he taking no notice, they ready to dodge or duck into a shell hole at the slightest encouragement. At that moment the post arrived, with a parcel for the Brigadier, elaborately tied in knots, which he proceeded to untie, saying, ‘Hate cutting string. Seems a wicked waste, especially in wartime.’ He added, as a postscript, ‘Waste not, want not, I always say.’ Finally the parcel was open, and he remarked, with a slight frown of vexation, ‘My dear old aunt. I can’t get it into her head that I do like chocolate but don’t like boxes of chocolates.’

      Our laughter at this put David in mind of the wildest laughter of his life. One night an officer, an N.C.O., and two men went out, one of them ’79 Jones, on patrol to inspect and if possible to cut the enemy’s wire. After inching snakelike along in the unusual silence, in which they could hear the Jerry sentry pacing up and down, one of them knocked over a tin can with the butt of his rifle. It was so bloody incompetent, and so bloody serious, that they could do nothing but laugh, and the four of them did nothing but that for minutes on end, heaving with suppressed merriment expecting every moment the Jerry would come to see what the joke was. That sort of incident would be unknown in the world of Ernst Jünger; if it happened, he would leave it sternly unreported.

      Likewise later, in the monastery at Caldey when David was making a retreat, a novice made a ludicrous liturgical mistake and, after convulsive attempts by everyone to maintain gravity and composure, the Prior simply had to rap for attention and send them all out of the chapel for ten minutes.

      The woes of the Church came up again. It had seemed bad enough years ago when the Caldey Benedictines were dispersed over some scandal (completely unsuspected by DJ), but now! The enemy seems to have taken all the places of power. There was some old bishop who said recently, about the liturgical upheaval, that he had been waiting all his life for it. ‘The bloody old hypocrite! All these years our acts of worship were nothing but play-acting, mummery, bowing and scraping.’ He continued: ‘I was talking about this to a priest a few months ago. I said, you fall in love with a girl, visit her often, kiss her, tell her many times and in many ways that you love her; then you visit her less and less often, give her an occasional peck, tell her that she has your esteem. “What has that to do with it?” asked the priest. It has everything to do with it: it means that what you do in religion, as in love, is the sign of what you are.’

      David usually goes to the half-past eight Mass as being the least deformed, but two Sundays ago he had gone to the eleven o’clock, on the Feast of the Transfiguration, and it consisted of the priest poking around with bits of paper until suddenly the words of Consecration were spoken. ‘And then he had the cheek, in the middle of these blasphemies, to preach a bloody sermon on the meaning of the Transfiguration!’

      This was vehemently spoken, then David signed and said, ‘Why must all experiments in liturgy be compulsory? Why must they replace the Mass that was known and loved and set up an unbridgeable discontinuity? Why must every one of the new experiments be so thin and truncated and incapable of making any lasting impression?’

      He remembers years ago seeing Dom Gregory Dix, whose Shape of the Liturgy he thinks a great work of the spirit. There was some sort of Anglo-Catholic Congress, and a very ancient liturgy was to be celebrated. John Betjeman couldn’t use his ticket, and so David went with Penelope, hoping he wouldn’t be exposed and expelled. He remembers, as I do, Dom Gregory’s stillness and concentration; they did not meet then or ever.

      Rather to my surprise, DJ disclosed that he knew the books of both Frazer and Jessie L. Weston before he knew or had heard of The Waste Land.[2]   He met T.S. Eliot in the later ?20s when he came to know some literary people, and discovered the poetry of Eliot and Hopkins concurrently. The full, not the abridged Frazer is the thing to read: most of the good of it is in the notes and documentation. (This matches what he said about Spengler some years ago.) He recognized the comparative slightness and tendentiousness of Jessie L. Weston from the beginning, as well as her ‘poetic suggestiveness’.

      Gossip about the Laureateship. Betjeman, he said again, would grace the position since so much of his best work is occasional. Recently the TLS had said that the three best poets were too old for it — Robert Graves, David Jones, and ‘that Scotsman’. ‘Hugh MacDiarmid,’ I said. ‘Yes, of course.’ David knew of his work through (I believe he said) Saunders Lewis. He was pleased to learn that Hugh MacDiarmid (Christopher Grieve) admires David Jones almost as much as he admires Charles Doughty, and spent a whole afternoon with me in Toronto looking at my DJ collection.

      David laughed at the thought of the Laureateship but took some pleasure in being named. He said again that he doesn’t think of himself as being old — and how shocked he was when his doctor crudely told him that he would never get out of Calvary Nursing Home. ‘Not the right line to take with a man suffering from neurasthenia, even if true: it puts an end to hope.’ He returned to this when I was about to go, after he had played the record of ‘The Sleeping Lord’: ‘I don’t love this life, but I think I have a lot more poems to write — a lot more to do for . . . Britain.’ He hesitated, briefly, then chose the awkward ‘Britain’ over the easy ‘England’. A laugh and good-bye. (L.C., 94-7)

      There, with reluctance, I take leave of the old friend and turn to a more rarefied exercise of friendship, in critical writing.


      Twice in David Jones’s lifetime, both times I think to his pleasure and approval, I brought out articles on his work. “Himself at the Cave-Mouth” (1967) I have been surprised to find not only explored the key images of the cave and labyrinth that pervade all his work (including much that had not then been published) but pointed forward to several lines of investigation that I had then no inkling of. The other, “In Parenthesis among the War Books,” (1973) made me examine pretty well all the English books — history, memoirs, fiction, poetry — on the Great War that Jones and his readers in the Thirties could have known, including many translations into English. I demonstrated, at least to my satisfaction, the pre-eminence of In Parenthesis among them.

      I was fortunate to be assigned to teach a seminar on the literature of the Great War, and even more fortunate that young Tom Dilworth turned up as a member of it. Exclaiming WOW! he made David Jones from that time forth his consuming interest, writing MA, and PhD theses on him, from which emerged his magisterial book on The Shape of Meaning. I rejoice that he was able three times to visit Jones with me and that he has been entrusted with writing the official biography, an immense labour now nearing completion. Three other doctoral theses were completed under my direction. Since friendship is our theme and the association of teacher and student is a major division of friendship, let me put them on the beadroll: Vincent Sherry, concerned with allusion and concentrating on Dai’s Boast; Patrick Deane, placing Jones among the writers of the Thirties; Paul Robichaud, on making the past present, especially the mediaeval and the Welsh past. To these should be added John Terpstra, not a literary student but a cabinet-maker and poet, working full time, who needed one course to graduate and wrote an extended “senior essay” on “The Sleeping Lord.” The second reader for the Department of English snapped it up for publication in the University of Toronto Quarterly.

      A necessary postscript to these remarks, lest it be thought that academic life is simply a matter of degrees and publications and accreditation. David Jones was very insistent on the spoken nature of his writings, wanted them read aloud, took care to indicate pronunciation, and himself made recordings (with Peter Orr of the British Council and Argo Records) of an oral quality well above that of most recorded poets. In my seminar students giving papers on Graves and Sorley and Blunden and Sassoon were encouraged to quote freely, and we ended the spring term by reading aloud by turns the whole of In Parenthesis. Since then I have taken part in two full readings of In Parenthesis, and I have been privileged to hear the gifted actor Tom Durham render (?), recite (?), no, create The Tribune’s Visitation and other extended writings. Douglas Cleverdon’s adaptations of In Parenthesis and The Anathemata rank high among the glories of radio. I am convinced that in literary studies nothing can take the place of this bodily possession. Somewhere along the line, any serious readers but especially teachers and future teachers must learn to speak, not to gabble, mumble, mouth, or honk.

      Still on the theme of friendship, I propose now to give an account of my long-continued involvement with David Jones in critical and scholarly writing: influence as friendship, in distinction from, though not in denial of, Harold Bloom’s important insight into influence as rivalry. In coming to grips with a writer, one is initially drawn to some elements in a shared world of ideas, feelings, judgments, perhaps very general, perhaps minutely particular, all of them framed by an ineradicable separation — in this case, bodies twain, two generations, five time-zones and many tangential interests and experiences.

      When news of his death came in 1974, I thought immediately of putting our correspondence and my narrative of visits together, along with such articles as I had published or drafted. (All his own writings were preserved, but letters to him, including all but one of mine, were swept away in a prompt housecleaning.) I submitted this text to the publisher and they quite rightly wanted the memoir only. Rightly, because “Himself at the Cave-Mouth,” exploring two related master-images in his art, both visual and literary, (the cave and the labyrinth) pointed beyond itself to matters that in course of time demanded separate and extended treatment — the question of epic; the “Welsh Thing”; the matter of “recession” in art as found in the view from a room through a window and its possible analogy in literature as far-reaching allusion; the centrality of the Cross in the writing and the art; the pervasiveness of questioning.

      More immediately “In Parenthesis among the War Books” insisted that I proceed to an orderly sequence of related studies. The first of these I called “To Make a Shape in Words” (a phrase used by the author for the purpose of his writing). Here I took a passage from the original article, defining what by the bias of historical events would be expected of any book dealing with the British sector of the Western Front. There must be a hundred examples, some well known, most forgotten. In its driest outline the shape of the experience of the Great War in the British sector of the Western Front may be defined by all or most of these events in roughly this order: the outbreak of war, enlistment, basic training, embarkation, the base, marching to the line, the sound of bombardment, the first shell, entering the trenches, digging in, under fire, the first death, relief and leave, return, on patrol, in combat, the suffering of hardships or wounds or sickness, the end.

      Even given this expected shape, the war writer has to select and compose the heavy conglomeration of routine and surprise, boredom and terror, puzzlement and illumination. As I looked at In Parenthesis, which is divided into seven parts, it so happened that I was at the same time much immersed in a radically unrelated interest, the string quartets of Bela Bartók — unrelated because David Jones, exceptionally knowledgeable about plainchant and delighting in folk-songs, spirituals, sea-chanties, and soldiers’ songs, was not “musical” in the sense that most major Modernists were musical: Mallarmé, Valéry, Proust, Joyce, Thomas Mann, Eliot, Pound, Auden, recital and concert and opera-goers. Eliot would know Bartók’s quartets, Jones would come to know Eliot’s. However, two of Bartók’s quartets are disposed in a distinctive five-movement “arch structure,” the first movement clearly balancing the last, the second the penultimate, the third being central. Looking at In Parenthesis, I saw that its seven parts likewise made an arch. At the time, Tom Dilworth already keenly aware of pictorial structure, was working on his thesis, and we must have talked about this as we did about everything else. I mention this because he has gone on to explore the full ramifications of this and other structural practices not only in the writings but in the sequences of engravings. Having seen the manuscripts in Aberystwyth, he was able to tell me that the epigraphs from Y Gododdin at the head of each section were a late afterthought: they secure the arch.

      The next probe, after establishing the genre of “war book” and accounting for the shape of this particular war book, was to engage with the urgent question of whether the rendition of experience at the limits of human endurance requires or is aided by an analogous stretching to the limits of language. Is there, and should there be, a “Syntax of Violence”? Using the vocabulary of Stylistics, I adduce many devices of foregrounding to be found pervading the writing: the layout on the page, the huge range of diction from the technical to the demotic, allusive and concrete, literary and spoken, all exactly accurate, unexpected respellings, rapid shifts of person and abrupt changes of rhythm, and, of course, the long debated question of imitative sound. Here I take what I think is a reasonable position between the Old Macdonald’s Farm people, who think sound carries sense — bow-wow, moo moo, oink oink, etc., and the linguistic purists who would disallow any linkage of sound and meaning. Yound Alexander Pope got it right: “The sound must seem an echo to the sense.” While a writer or speaker does not (or should not) let sound dictate sense, it is a fact that certain sound patterns are readily actable and others are not. Unlike most of my essays, this was never delivered. It appeared in the generous and indispensable collection edited by the poet John Matthias and published by the University of Maine Press under the auspices of the National Poetry Society. I had thought that it might be controversial, but to the best of my knowledge it has entirely escaped notice.

      Not so “The Efficacious Word,” delivered at the very first David Jones Conference, 1975, at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, and published in a collection of Eight Essays, edited by the convener, the poet Roland Mathias. People will come up to me and say, with a chuckle, that they enjoyed my footwork in dealing with Jones’s definitive answer to the ticklish question of how to render the blasphemous and obscene language universal in the war experience but still in 1937 under legal ban in print. It is all there but is not allowed to take over and swell to a pleurisy.

      These essays moved easily from one to another and form a group. Much later, two more on the same line have asserted their right to exist. One, encouraged by a tour with the David Jones Society to the Western Front and delivered at a David Jones day in the Imperial War Museum, concerns itself not with whole battalions of war writers but with three, all born in 1895, all fusiliers: David Jones, who lived to be 79; Robert Graves, who lived to be 90, both in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, and the German, Ernst Jünger of the Hanover Fusiliers, who lived to be 102. In that smaller company the parallels and contrasts of English and German, officer and private, and of three distinct literary sensibilities can be dealt with in some detail.

      The other recent war article, not yet publicly delivered, deals with two perfectly allowable metaphors that have decomposed into polluting clichés — Sacrifice and Slaughter. True, there is an element of sacrifice in joining the forces — sacrifice of time and prospects, of youth and health, but a sacrificial victim is put to death, and no soldier wants or expects simply to be put to death. And from the commander’s point of view the loss of troops is a matter of expenditure, not sacrifice. Similarly with slaughter, the business of a slaughterhouse is to be efficient, hygienic, and total: there are no prisoners, no wounded, no survivors, no wooden cross, no letters of sympathy, no Memorial Day. In the context of war writing, most talk of sacrifice is prate, most talk of slaughter is rant. This will be an unpopular statement, but it needs to be made. David Jones touches legitimately on both metaphors but eschews both clichés.

      In revision most of this set of articles centring on In Parenthesis have needed only incidental clarification and removal of redundancies. The original survey of the war books, however, dealt with a succession of topics: “fun and games,” gear and tackle and trim, comrades and enemies, word and song, landscape with animals, moon and stars, “the glory of women,” and the large questions of civilization and Christendom and what may be called imaging the unimaginable. I have found that there needed to be two more, “footslogging” and “the feel of things”. Infantry regiments are “regiments of foot,” the “foot mob,” and the process of turning a civilian into a soldier moves first through the feet, by marching. The trained soldier in modern warfare may be transported by vehicles to the support lines: from then on he is on his feet. In Parenthesis is without rival in registering this fact: in “Starlight Order” the sensitive reader’s feet should ache in sympathy. So too, the feel of things. The strangeness of life at the Front is a strangeness of feel: the uniform and its care, the rifle’s wood and iron, mess tin and helmet, sacking and duckboard, the varieties of rain, the qualities of mud. Here David Jones the artist can evoke not just the visible but, as artists can do, the feel of the visible.

      The sequence of my studies thus far has been quite clear, and they must stand more or less in the order in which they were written. The subsequent essays, intermittently composed have less sequence but do tend to form themselves into groups, often pairs. A revered mentor, Reid MacCallum, used to say with a laugh, “There are just two sorts of people in this world, those who divide everything into two and those who don’t.”

      The first group of essays, however, is a threesome. Belonging in the neighbourhood of “Three Fusiliers” but not engaged with war are three further studies in literary congeniality. One is concerned with Chesterton and Belloc, as Catholic writers and public personalities of course, but also simply as copious writers one enjoys and keeps on reading, as Jones clearly did. The second is Gerard Manley Hopkins. Jones studied art formally for years at Camberwell and Westminster Art Schools, but he had to learn his second art on his own. I surmise that Gerard Manley Hopkins was a major formative influence on Jones’s style, along with Malory and perhaps George Borrow. There are many illuminating references to Hopkins, early and late, and he understood and appropriated Hopkins’s sense of haecceitas (“thisness” as distinct from “whatness”): it is their common practice and possession. The third, T.S. Eliot. Jones knew T.S. Eliot’s poetry from an early age and came to The Waste Land already familiar with The Golden Bough, which he read in its original, multi-volume edition. They were friends from the 30s to the end of Eliot’s life. Eliot exerted himself to ensure publication by Faber of The Anathemata and wrote a brief laudatory preface to a reissue of In Parenthesis. Jones, I will argue, has the stronger grasp of the Roman Thing than Eliot, his “Tribune’s Visitation” being a clear success in taking us into the mind and world of imperial Rome, whereas Eliot abandoned his Coriolan sequence, as I think, because it became confused, not being based on adequate historical knowledge and insight.

      Two more, rather chunky, studies take their place next, on wide literary and cultural subjects. There has been much throwing about of brains as to whether In Parenthesis and The Anathemata are epic poems. It is a question that will not go away and is discussed by John H. Johnston, Bernard Bergonzi, Thomas Dilworth, Kathleen Staudt and others. The history of epic criticism has tended in two directions: either to derive from the Iliad a set of rules to be imposed on all others, including the rather restive Odyssey, or to define epic as the greatest work of man, which it is no longer possible to write. Virgil has not lacked critics who would exclude him; Milton worried about “an age too late”; the dictator of neo-classicism, Boileau, rejected Tasso and by implication Milton for their use of Christian “machinery” as an impiety; and Edgar Allan Poe, that tremendous influence on French literature, asserted that “there is no such thing as a long poem … a long poem is a contradiction in terms.” David Jones, with two long poems containing history within him clamoring to be written, and with Catholic Christianity as the mainstay of his life and of all he had to say, met this challenge, leading us to the conclusion that an epic is a great poem that comes as a surprise when epic is presumed dead. (The Odyssey must have been a surprise.)

      Looking back on his childhood David Jones thumped his chest and exclaimed “I already had the Welsh Thing here.” A long article with that as its title balances the treatment of epic, for the world of Wales and its literature may be termed “unepic”, as lacking architecture; instead, it possesses, in Matthew Arnold’s phrase, “its turn for style, its turn for melancholy, and its turn for natural magic.” In youth, ever with “the Welsh Thing in here,” David pored over the Mabinogion and Giraldus Cambrensis and Geoffrey of Monmouth, and, with more a Celtic than a French eye, Malory. On his sixteenth birthday his father gave him The Welsh People: chapters on their origin, history and law, language, literature and characteristics, by Sir John Rhys and David Brynmore-Jones, a 600-page book still in his possession after more than sixty years. He plugged away at Welsh, never achieving the freedom of the language but immersing himself in words, lore, and historical detail. To the challenge of writing the long poem with historical and Christian content and force, the Welsh Thing added a second, awkwardly difficult challenge, to incorporate in his writing Welsh substance of high value that has no centre and is impatient of organization.

      Before proceeding to my final section and its two essays that, like “Himself at the Cave-Mouth,” try to explore his lifetime concerns and attitudes of mind, I have placed four essays, or two pairs of essays, on restricted subjects, all of them serving to join his two great talents, as artist and as writer, with another, often forgotten or played down, as a thinker, a prophet. The influential art critic, Harold Rosenberg, happened upon the essay on “Art and Sacrament” in Epoch and Artist and wrote an enthusiastic account of its argument in The New Yorker without apparently being fully aware that Jones was a figure of stature in both art and literature. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, has long known and prized the art and the writings, but it is significant that as Regius Professor of Divinity he prescribed this essay of Jones as a prime text for the advanced study of sacramental theology. Similarly, Oswyn Murray, a Fellow of Balliol and a historian, praises him for the range, accuracy, and insight of his historical imagination.

      The first pair are “Balaam’s Ass and Other Animals” and “The Scapebeast,” which reveal not only his eye and feeling for animals but his thinking about the nature and mystery of animals. The second pair, rooted in the pictorial, raise the questions of how literacy affects the painter and how the widespread (but by no means universal) practice of what I call fenestralia avails in Jones’s art: by that I mean an interior scene with a window and a view through that window of another scene. Let me expand a little on these two pairs.

As an art student just before the Great War young David Jones was undecided whether to be a historical painter or an animal painter. Those categories seem distant to us now, but painters then were regularly sorted according to subject matter: portrait, landscape (rural, rugged, marine, urban), historical, animal. His imagination was stirred by great historical events — call them “scenes” — like the death of the last Prince of Wales or the death at Trafalgar of Nelson, whose anniversaries he observed faithfully every year — but his talent did not direct him to the broad historical canvas. History remains implicit in many of his pictures. A substantial proportion of his drawings, from childhood to old age depict animals, and there was a period in high maturity when he frequented the London Zoo to give close wondering attention to creatures, an attention reflected in the abandoned Book of Balaam’s Ass, which he attempted between In Parenthesis and The Anathemata. It may be noted that David Jones, who loved cats and gave “stroking a cat” as a ready example of something natural and innocent, never possessed one, such was his lifelong practice of doing without, without even much complaining of doing without.

      A close probing look at a specific animal, which he calls the “Scapebeast,” belongs in this context, which reaches out to the metaphor and cliché of sacrifice and slaughter. The tailpiece of In Parenthesis, at once a ram caught in a thicket of barbed wire and a beast banished to the wilderness, is a retrospective commentary on the action and meaning of the writing. It positively directs the reader to the rich scriptural commentary and it pointed this reader to the surprisingly sparse pictorial record, explicit in Holman Hunt’s terrific “Scapegoat” in the Lady Lever Gallery, implicit in Robert Rauschenberg’s “Monogram”, in Stockholm — that angora goat with a tire round its middle, its face bashed in and covered with paint, standing on a tiny plot of waste ground.

      The reverberant idea of the scapegoat is rooted in ritual, which in turn is fixed in scriptural writing, the scroll, the Book. This raises the related question, especially relevant to David Jones and other artists who are not only highly literate but exercise a second, even an equal, talent in writing — the question of the effect of literacy on visual art. Debates, long, hot, ill-defined, inconclusive, keep taking place on the Sister Arts, the literary in painting, the pictorial in writing. The same purists who scorn the “literary” in art will say of some quite non-representational piece, “the way I read this painting….” It is germane to note that the great bulk of easel paintings, water-colours, engravings, and finished drawings are either the shape of a page of print or of an opening of a book, and that a visitor to a gallery habitually, almost automatically, gives each item on display the sort and duration of attention he gives to a printed page. I have tried to come to grips with the ramifications of this phenomenon with particular reference to the doubly-gifted Wyndham Lewis and David Jones.

      Only one of my probes into aspects of Jones’s achievement originated in his work as a painter, and so I have only the smallest claim to a place beside Paul Hills and Nicolete Gray, Derek Shiel and his collaborator Jonathan Miles, though the vein I am exploring I think is a rich one. Painters who are concerned at all with representation may be divided into those who approach their “thing” as if looking through a window and those who have no such thought. David Jones is, many times over, what I call a fenestralian. The fenestral picture looks out; it embraces an interior, a window or aperture, and a view through it to something exterior. It depicts or implies depth of recession — two planes, which can evoke two states of mind, two qualities of time, two tones of feeling. The use of the window motif has always required of the artist second thoughts, a refocusing of attention, an effort to catch the dimension of depth; and it makes the same demand on the viewer. It can never be simply an “impression” or an “expression”. Unlike the door, the window is a threshold of perception, not of action. You hesitate and decide at a doorway; you glance or gaze through a window, blankly, sharply, with dread, with curiosity, with longing. The perceiver remains here, but there opens out to him in imagination and futurity, promise or threat. The interior may be full or spare, lived-in or strange; it may range from the fortress to the prison, from safety to confinement, from cozy familiarity to crushing boredom. The exterior is the realm of at least potential movement, whether of danger or enjoyment, of exhilaration or routine. Interior and exterior in pictorial conjunction may co-exist in various degrees of harmony or discord, and either can stand for “appearance” to the other’s “reality.” In this regard, Jones stands with the Pre-Raphaelites and not with Turner or Constable; not with Picasso or Braque but emphatically with Matisse and Bonnard; not with Ben but with Winifred Nicholson and Christopher Wood. My full treatment of this subject, on which I have far too much information, is not yet complete, and one thing I hope to explore is whether the use of historical allusion in the writing can justly be likened to the opening of windows.

      The final two essays share with the first a wide comprehensive scope. I have given them the names “Stat Crux dum Volvitur Orbis” and “In this Place of Questioning.”

      “Stat Crux dum Volvitur Orbis” is the motto of the Carthusian Order: “the Cross stands still while the World revolves around it,” quoted, with emphasis, several times by David Jones. Restless, fragmentary, his writings may seem, touching momentarily upon myriads of topics, puzzling, at times even distracting, in spite of the most ample and intentionally helpful annotation ever supplied by poet to reader. That reader, however, is never quite lost at sea, never has the dismaying sense of a maze without a centre or an exit, of its signifying nothing. In The Anathemata the great prehistoric and historic voyages of the first half are made in ships, types of the Ark of Salvation, whose masts recall the Cross (a time-honoured patristic image), whose keel and rib-cage recall the Cross no less (a striking image original with Jones). The second half culminates in a vision of Christ reigning and triumphing from the Tree.

      In the Preface (23) a great question is put: “If the poet writes ‘wood’ what are the chances that the Wood of the Cross will be evoked?” I have taken up that challenge and have found and tried to demonstrate to anyone’s satisfaction that the wood and iron in all his writings regularly and in detail recall the cross and thorns, the nails and spear of Calvary. The trees in Biez and Mametz Woods recall the Tree of the Cross implicitly, as it is explicitly evoked at the end of The Anathemata:

He does what is done in many places

what he does other

he does after the mode

of what has always been done.

What did he do other

recumbent at the garnished supper?

What did he do yet other

riding the Axile Tree? (243)

      I had thought of ending there, for fear of being in the case of Gustav Mahler, who wrote a Resurrection Symphony and then went on to compose other ambitious works on different and necessarily lesser themes. However, while David Jones brings both his extended writings to strong conclusions, any reader will have noticed that the two concluding sentences just quoted both end with question marks.

      The first draft of the first piece I ever wrote on David Jones began with a question: “An epic in the interrogative mood?” Any reader of his writings, from beginning to end, will be struck by the great number — uniquely great if I am not mistaken — of questions there, with or without the mark of interrogation. It was one of the matters of style he himself remarked on in the Preface to In Parenthesis; it continues. Sometimes it is an antiphonal chant of question and response; memorably in The Anathemata, it is an advancing column of questions, all beginning, by anaphora, with “how else?” Sometimes it is simply an exclamation of wonder at the thisness of people and things. Everything occurs “in this place of questioning where you must ask the question and the answer questions you.” I chose those words, from the posthumous Roman Quarry, to frame the bookplate made for me by the eminent wood-engraver Simon Brett, himself an admirer of the engraver-poet. I wanted there and I want now to leave the same sort of impression that Jones wanted his work as a whole to leave, one of openness and promise, of eager questioning in lively expectation of an answer — this being over and above the dogged endurance (“The Duration — wot you signed for”) that he embodied in his day-to-day existence. In old age he struck Stephen Spender as “happy”, and so he always struck me as happy and hopeful and questioning to some purpose, even when feeling “mouldy” and grousing like an old soldier about the weather in Christendom.

William Blissett

19 February A.D. MMIX


1.   But see Dai Greatcoat, 151, for DJ’s letter to Mrs Ede of 28 August 1949, in which he traces the origin of the picture to trees outside the window of a nursing home.

2.   Dai Greatcoat, 46, dates David’s introduction to J.L. Weston to 1929.

William Blissett: Writings on David Jones, Excluding Reviews

I. The Long Conversation, Oxford University Press, 1981

II. Published Articles

1.  “Himself at the Cave-Mouth,” University of Toronto Quarterly. 36, 1967, 259-273

2.  “In Parenthesis Among the War Books,” U.T.Q. 42, 1973, 252-286.

3.  “The Efficacious Word,” in Roland Mathias, ed., David Jones Eight Essays, Llandysul, Gomer Press, 1976, 22-49.

4.  “Paul Fussell: The Great War in Modern Memory,” (review-article) U.T.Q. 45, 1976, 268-274.

5.  “The Syntax of Violence,” in John Matthias, ed., David Jones Man and Poet, Orono, National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine, 1986, 193-208.

6.  “To Make a Shape in Words,” Renascence, 38, 1986, 67-81.

7.  David Jones Artist and Writer, Fisher Library, University of Toronto (illustrated catalogue) 54 pp.

8.  “The Welsh Thing in Here,” in Paul Hills, ed., David Jones Artist and Poet, Aldershot, Scolar Press, 1997, 101-121.

9.  “David Jones and the Chesterbelloc,” Chesterton Review, Special David Jones Issue, ed. William Blissett, 33, 1997, 27-55.

10.  “Things Unattempted Yet in Prose or Rhyme,” in M.I. Cameron, etc. ed., The Old Enchanter: A Portrait of George Johnston, Toronto, Penumbra Press, 1999, 86-101.

11.  “The Scapebeast,” in Belinda Humfrey and Anne Price-Owen, ed., David Jones Diversity in Unity, Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 2000, 26-42.

12.  “Painters and Literacy,” in Jens Brockmeier, etc., ed., Literacy, Narrative, and Culture, Richmond, Curzon Press, 2002, 110-130.

13.  “The Pre-Raphaelite Window,” Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies, 13, 2004, 5-16.

14.  “Footslogging,” David Jones Journal, 6, 2007, 35-43.

III.  Unpublished Articles, with Date of Public Delivery

1.  Pictures from Malory, 1991

2.  Three Fusiliers: Jones, Graves, Jünger, 1996 and 2003

3.  Fenestralia, 1998

4.  Balaam’s Ass and Other Animals, 2000

5.  Stat Crux dum Volvitur Orbis

6.  In This Place of Questioning, 2002

7.  T.S. Eliot and David Jones, 2006

8.  Sacrifice and Slaughter

9.  Gerard Manley Hopkins and David Jones, 2007