detail - frontispiece In Parenthesis 1937

Colin Wilcockson


David Jones and the Waste-Land Motif

The waste-land as a symbol appears in various forms in Jones's works. The poem A, a, a, Domine Deus is concerned with the sterility of the manufac­tured artefacts that surround us. These objects lack humanity, and the long chain that had linked man-the-artist with his predecessors over the millennia has been broken. It is Jones's belief that the imperative for the modern artist is to weld this severed link, to re-establish the continuity of man's desire to create what is beautiful which had marked him out from all other animals from the earliest cave-dwellers until the comparatively recent past. The de­sire to adorn, to make what could be simply practical into a beautiful arte­fact is, to Jones, an attestation of man's spirituality. All this means that we are living in a spiritual and aesthetic waste-land.

A different, but nevertheless related, waste-land occurs in Jones's first extended literary creation, In Parenthesis. It is a lament both for war itself and for the impossibility of the personal heroism that marked much of the individual grandeur of the soldiers of traditional epic. In particular, I analyse Section 4 of In Parenthesis, "King Pellam's Launde", because it is there that the only two specific uses of the word "waste-land" occur, though Dai's boast on page 79 also has ‘that made waste King Pellam’s Land’. Redolent in the title of the passage (taken from Malory's Morte d'Arthur) and in the many references to Malory's epic in the poem, is the desire of those in the desolate waste-land of trench-warfare to discover, nevertheless, some glimmers of a spiritual, heroic dimension in the apparent meaninglessness of their plight.

I intend in this paper to focus on two passages from David Jones's writings1  . The first, his short poem, A, a, a, Domine Deus. The sec­ond, a passage from In Parenthesis, Jones's first published work which is, amongst other things, an autobiographical account of his experiences in the Battle of the Somme in the First World War. In both, the central theme is waste-land and death, though the deaths may seem at first to be of different kinds.

Artists have notably chosen two events in Christ's life for repeated presentation: the nativity and the crucifixion - birth honoured by shepherds and kings, death by torture; helpless against overpowering odds. Many of the early paintings, carvings, poems, about the crucifixion depict not the Vir Dolorum, the Man of Sorrows, of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance but Christus Miles, Christ the soldier.2   He is, as in the Christ in the Old English Dream of the Rood (one of David Jones's favourite Anglo-Saxon poems), compassed about by many foes, but he willingly goes to his death:

geong hæleð, þæt was God ælmihtig 
strang and stiðmod; gestah he on gealgan heanne
modig on manigra gesyhðe3  
On one occasion, when David Jones was in the trenches in the First World War he saw through a crack in a barn a Catholic priest con­ducting the Mass (Jones, Dai 248-50). A saving and redeeming God emerges from the devastating brutality and squalor of the trenches. In Yeats' words, "A terrible beauty is born". In many ways this vi­gnette of the Mass in the waste-land of the trenches typifies Jones's vision. "As you once said to me, the Mass makes sense of every­thing," he remarked in a letter to Saunders Lewis. 4   To this positive thought I shall return, but first I shall confront its negative.

Not always does Jones see sense in everything. A, a, a, Domine Deus is an impassioned cry of despair: 5  

I said, Ah! What shall I write?
I enquired up and down.
                                      (He's tricked me before
with his manifold lurking-places.)
I looked for his symbol at the door.
I have looked for a long while
                                       at the textures and contours.
I have run a hand over the trivial intersections.
I have journeyed among the dead forms
causation projects from pillar to pylon.
I have tired the eyes of the mind
                                       regarding the colours and lights.
I have felt for His Wounds
                                       in nozzles and containers.
I have wondered for the automatic devices.
I have tested the inane patterns
                                       without prejudice.
I have been on my guard
                                       not to condemn the unfamiliar.
For it is easy to miss Him
                                       at the turn of a civilisation. 
    I have watched the wheels go round in case I might see the
living creatures like the appearance of lamps, in case I might see
the Living God projected from the Machine. I have said to the
perfected steel, be my sister and for the glassy towers I thought I
felt some beginnings of His creature, but A, a, a Domine Deus,
my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible
crystal a stage-paste ... Eia, Domine Deus. 

Sparked off, no doubt, by the early reference to the prophet Ezekiel in T. S. Eliot's Waste Land, 6   Jones commences, as does the prophet, with 'what shall I write?' Just as Ezekiel had warned his people that they lived a life devoid of spirituality, which he figures forth (chapter 37) in the vision of the valley of dry bones, Eliot also presents us with a sterile landscape ('stony rubbish', a 'dead tree', 'a handful of dust') and the despairing declaration:
Son of man, 
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images 
(Waste Land, lines 20-23) 
Jones was immensely impressed by Eliot ("a pre-eminent living artist", he calls him 7  ) and he was particularly moved by The Waste Land, in part, no doubt, because it encapsulated many of his own fears and religious concerns. The respect between the two poets was mutual: Eliot wrote the Note of Introduction to the 1963 reprint of In Parenthesis, and stated that he was proud to have shared the re­sponsibility for the first publication in 1937, through his position at Faber & Faber.

David Jones often refers to our "civilisational situation" as a time when the images that were meaningful in the past no longer have po­tency. They are indeed “broken”; they no longer convey meaning. In a critical essay, "The Utile", he takes up this point:

‘It is this same technocracy which achieves the vacuity and deprivation apparent in the thousand-and-one utensils and impedimenta of our daily lives, domestic or public. There the mediocre, shoddy and slick is no longer a matter for comment.’ (18I)
Interestingly A, a, a, Domine Deus was written and corrected over nearly thirty years. Jones dates it c.1938 (the year after the publica­tion of In Parenthesis) and 1966; thus its concerns represent an un­changing philosophy. In simple terms the philosophy is this: man is distinct from all other animals because of his desire to make beau­tiful what need only be functional. Thus, if I cut a stick to help me keep my balance when walking and then continue to use my knife to decorate the stick with ornamental patterns, I perform a func­tion which no animal other than man would trouble with. Both in "Art and Democracy" and in "Art and Sacrament" Jones gives examples of animals that create what we consider to be beautiful, such as the spider's web or the beaver's dam. But neither creature marks his creation with decoration that is not strictly necessary to its effi­ciency. Were it to do so it would indicate that it wishes its artefact to be more than functional. "If we could catch the beaver placing never so small a twig gratuitously we could make his dam into a font ... the whole 'sign-world' would be open to him, he would know 'sacrament' and would have a true culture, for culture is nothing but a sign." 8   He takes this a step further in his conviction that man's de­sire for beauty in his creations reflects the divine and is indeed an of­fering to the Divinity itself, a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. In two memorable passages (one in The Anathemata,77, one in The Sleeping Lord, 71) Jones describes the discovery of a skeleton in Paviland Cave on Gower Peninsula in South Wales, the oldest skeleton - some 20 to 30,000 years old - ­found in the British Isles. The bones are painted with red-ochre, and next to them are a pot and carved ivory trinkets. Even the very ear­liest discovered traces of man bear witness to his desire to create art:

Donated the life-signa:
                                        the crocked viatic meal 
                                        the flint-worked ivory agalma
the sacral sea-shell trinkets 
                                        posited with care the vivific amulets
of gleam-white rodded ivory 
(The Sleeping Lord, lines 14-19) 
I have discussed elsewhere how Jones and his friends located a spe­cific time when man's desire to make artefacts humane, particular to the individual artist-craftsman, gave way to the 'lifeless' manufac­ture of objects from the machines of the Industrial Revolution (cf Wilcockson, "David Jones and 'The Break'''). They called the mo­ment of severance of the links with man-the-artist over the millen­nia "The Break". Jones mentions this in the preface to The Anathemata, adding that the naming of the phenomenon "The Break" took place in discussions in the 1920s, but that like-minded people had al­ready perceived the phenomenon for perhaps a century. That brings it to the first quarter of the nineteenth-century, the great expansion of factories. The nub of the matter lies in the meaning of the word 'manufacture': once objects were no longer made by hand, the abil­ity of the artist to show forth, to make a sacrament of his productions was removed. Reactions towards the close of the nineteenth-century were to be seen in the 'The Arts and Crafts Movement', and the Later Pre-Raphaelites were deeply conscious of the rift between man-the-artist and man-the-machine-operator. It was, they considered, a rift that debased both the artefacts themselves and those who produced them. Ruskin stated that the object of art was "either to state a true thing, or to adorn a serviceable one" (116). Morris adduces the archaeological discoveries of carvings on bone, or of cave-paintings, to make the same point as does Jones later. That we have lost the impulse to beautify our artefacts has severed our links with some thirty-thousand years of man-the-artist; it is, says Morris, "a break in the continuity of the golden chain" (14). That is, in my view, the origin of the phrase "The Break" in the philosophic discussions of Jones and his friends in the twenties.

It was in 1921 that Jones joined Eric Gill's community of artist-­craftsmen in Ditchling, Sussex. It was also the time when he con­verted to Roman Catholicism. The welding together of the concepts of imagery, sign, showing-forth, the gratuitous, what you will, with Christian sacrament was natural, and became central to his philos­ophy. The 'civilisational situation' which Jones perceived was in­deed a waste land, littered with 'broken images', with 'dead forms' of whose significance the contemporary world could not know or guess. Jones's works attempt to re-establish our kinship with man­ the artist, man the sacramentalist throughout the millennia.

I now turn to the second passage I wish to analyse, which is a descrip­tion of a waste-land of an altogether different kind. In the preface to In Parenthesis, Jones talks about a major alteration in the lives of the soldiers after the first two years of the First World War: " 1916... marks a change in the character of our lives in the Infantry on the Western Front. From then onward things hardened into a more relent­less, mechanical affair, took on a more sinister aspect." Until then, Jones tells us, there had been a sense of the familial, where "Roland could find, and for a reasonable while, enjoy, his Oliver", but this had given way to such wholesale slaughter that the camaraderie of old campaigners was a thing of the past. The word "mechanical" is sig­nificant. Jones a few lines later complains about the increasing num­ber of "gadgets" the soldiers had to learn to use. What Jones per­ceived was that in modern warfare the devastating potency of chem­ical explosives and of gas had diminished the soldier's individuality to a mere statistic. Roland, surrounded by the Saracens, chose not to sound the horn: the greater the odds, the greater the honour, and an­gels carried him and his companion-in-arms to glory. It is the heroic code that infuses the Old English Beowulf and The Battle of Maldon, and indeed the whole European tradition of epic writing from the Greeks onwards.

Before analysing a passage from In Parenthesis, however, I should set the poem in the context of Jones's attitude to the war. The epic which most frequently infuses the work is Malory's Morte d'Arthur, and Jones not only recognises this 9   but also exploits the Malorian subtext. I elsewhere discuss the constant association of the projection of the authorial persona, John Ball, in In Parenthesis, onto Lancelot, the man whose moral dilemmas and divided loyalties are agonising to him and indirectly bring about the dissolution of the Round Table (cf. Wilcockson, "Presentation"). With just such a sense of dilemma, Jones dedicates his poem to the soldiers who had fought with him, and importantly "to the enemy front-line fighters who shared our pains against whom we found ourselves by misadven­ture." Misadventure is the Leitmotif of the Morte d'Arthur: 'Alas, said the king, that ever this unhappy war was begun' (Bk. 20. ch. 22.): 'Ah Sir Lancelot,' said king Arthur 'alas that ever I was against thee (Bk. 2 I, ch. 5); 'O Balan, my brother, thou hast slain me, and I thee, wherefore all the wide world shall speak of us both. Alas, said Balan, that ever I saw this day, that through mishap I might not know you.' (Bk. 2, ch. 18.) Section 4 of In Parenthesis is called "King Pellam's Launde", the title being taken from Malory. Balin slew King Pellam with the "do­lorous stroke" of a spear, which turns out to be the spear of Long­inus the blind soldier who had thrust his spear into the side of the crucified Christ. Balan is told, "For the dolorous stroke thou gavest unto King Pellam three countries are destroyed, and doubt not but that vengeance will fall upon thee at last." Eventually, Balin, dis­guised in armour not his own, meets his brother Balan. They take each other to be enemies and both die having too late recognised that they have committed mutual fratricide. Similarly, the morality of the slaughter of consanguineous German and British soldiers haunts Jones. In the Anathemata he once again makes reference to Balin and Balan:

O Balin, O Balan!
how blood you both
the Brudersee
The betrayal of humanity in war is represented, too, by the idea (common in both English and German poets and artists of the time) as crucifixion. Balan had taken Longinus's spear and had fatally wounded the King. The soldiers in the trenches are at once both the sacrifices and the sacrificed. The frontispiece to In Parenththesis shows an almost naked soldier, arms spread. The helmet strap could perhaps to be seen to be halo-like; the camouflage twigs on the hel­met, a crown of thorns.

As I remarked earlier, Jones makes reference to 'waste-land' only three times in In Paren­thesis and all are in this section 4 (Pellam's Land). The first reference occurs on page 70 line 24 in the motif of the sacrificed creature who atones for the sins of the people: the soldiers are “appointed scape-beasts come to the waste-lands, to grope; to stumble at the margin of familiar things - at the place of separation." The third reference is on page 79, where the Welsh soldier Dai, seeing himself as the epic soldier throughout history, proclaims:

I was the spear in Balin's hand 
                              that made waste King Pellam's land 
The spear is linked with that of the blind Longinus, who pierced the side of the crucified Christ. Dai goes on to boast:
     I served Longinus that Dux blind and bent
The Dandy Xth are my regiment
The two passages are emphasised by being the only rhyming couplets in the whole of Dai’s boast.

But, the second reference occurs directly after a passage that exactly exhibits the showing forth, the sacramental, even in the terror and destruction of the waste-land itself. This occurs on page 75: "where waste-land meets horizons". But let us now set this in context by turning to the passage that precedes it:

     “Each one in turn, and humbly, receives his meagre ben­efit [a rum-ration]. This lance-jack [lance-corporal] sus­tains them from his iron spoon; and this is thank-worthy.
     Some of them croak involuntary as the spirit's potency gets the throat at unawares.
     Each one turns silently, carrying with careful fingers his own daily bread. They go, as good as gold, into the re­cesses, of the place and eat what to each would seem ap­propriate to breakfast; for that dealing must suffice till tomorrow at this time. You could eat out of their hands.
     There was an attempt with tea and sugar. There was fum­bling with fire and water and watched-pot.
     Fall of trench dampt the fire, fall of fire spilt the water,
there are
too many hands to save the boil.
Slow-boy laid hold on calcined dixie-handle [the han­dle of the soldier's cooking pan] - that made him hop - laugh, why you'd laugh at Fanny.
     It was Jack Float, who in the end brought boiled water, borrowed from the next platoon right, tepid with car­rying - so that after all after a fashion, they drank their morning tea.

John Ball, relieved for sentry, stood to his breakfast. He felt cheese to be a mistake so early in the morning. The shared bully [tinned beef] was to be left in its tin for the main meal; this they decided by common consent. The bread was ill-baked and sodden in transit. There re­mained the biscuits; there remained the fourth part of a tin of jam; his spoonful of rum had brought him some comfort, He would venture along a bit, he would see Reggie with the Lewis-gunners, He stumbles his path left round traverse and turn.
     At the head of the communication trench, by the white board with the map-reference, the corporal of a Vickers [an automatic gun] team bent over his brazier of char­coal. He offers an enamelled cup, steaming. Private Ball drank intemperately, as a home animal laps its food, not thanking the kind agent of this proffered thing, but in an eager manner of receiving.
     After a while he said: Thank you sergeant - sorry, cor­poral - very much - sorry - thanks, corporal.
     He did not reach the Lewis-gunners nor his friend, for while he yet shared the corporal's tea he heard them call­ing down the trench.
     All of No. 1 section - R. E. fatigue [cleaning-up duties for the Royal Engineers].
     He thanked these round their brazier and turned back heavy-hearted to leave that fire so soon, for it is difficult to tell of the great joy he had of that ruddy-bright, that flameless fire of coals within its pierced basket, white­-glowed, and very powerfully hot, where the soldiers sat and warmed themselves and waited to see what the new day would bring for them and for him, for he too was one of them, shivering and wretched at the cock­crow.
     [...The section moves off ... ] The untidied squalor of the loveless scene spread far horizontally, imaging un­named discomfort, sordid and deprived as ill-kept hen­-runs that back on sidings on wet weekdays where wasteland meets environs and punctured bins ooze canned ­meats discarded, tyres to rot ... Sewage feeds the high grasses and bald clay-crop bears tins and braces, swollen rat-body turned-turtle to the clear morning.”

The first thing that strikes the reader is the variety of tonal register. The first register is in the drilled soldier's words of command that give some semblance of orderliness to a scene of horror and chaos:

(a)"next platoon right"
(b)"relieved for sentry"
(c)"stood to his breakfast"
(d)"left round traverse and turn".

Second, are the hints of nursery-rhyme jingles and rhythms:

(a) “Fall of trench dampt the fire, fall of fire spilt the water” (mimicking the rhythms of “This is the House that Jack built”)
(b) "Slow-boy laid hold…" The reference is to the charac­ter, Slow in the nursery rhyme "Let's Go to Bed, said Sleepy Head" (“Tarry awhile said Slow”.)
(c) "too many hands to save the boil", evoking the common proverb “Too many cooks spoil the broth”.

All these em­phasise the child-like bewilderment of the soldiers, as they go about their duties "as good as gold" (a phrase used only in reference to the behaviour of very young children - and, indeed, many of the soldiers were young.)

A third tonal-register possesses a particular kind of formality:

(a) "thank­worthy"
(b) "spirit's potency"
(c) "daily bread" evoking The Lord's Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread ...”
(d) “the white board” with “the enamelled cup” (the altar and chalice)
(e) "the kind agent of this proffered thing" (the priest with the wine)
(f) "an eager manner of receiving" (the com­municant)
(g )"the flameless fire of coals within its pierced basket" (the thurible).

It is in this third kind that we see the sacramental subtext. In ordinary life, the cup of tea is trivial. In the conditions of the trenches, the corporal's generosity in giving Private Ball his mug of tea is a genuine sacrifice, an act of humanity. In Ball's soldierly mind, he promotes the corporal to sergeant, and is immediately embar­rassed at his mistake - "sorry, corporal". The white board, the enam­elled cup, the priest-like "agent of the proffered thing" become the Mass itself. Alerted to this, the mind moves by association to make significant "The corporal [hoc est corpus meum, “this is my body”] of a Vicker's [vicar's] team, and the “communication trench" resonates with the word “communion”. But Jones does not forget that all war is betrayal. A few moments later Ball is standing at the fire with the soldiers, "for he, too, was one of them, shiver­ing and wretched at the cock-crow." No doubt, deep in his heart he weeps, as does Peter in Luke 22:25-62: "And when they had kindled a fire ... Peter sat down among them... 'Thou art also of them.' ... 'Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice.' And Peter went out, and wept bitterly."

In retrospect, the simple vocabulary of the passage I quote above resonates to the liturgy for the Mass. The very first line, with its “humbly” and “benefit”, echoes the prayer after the Communion: 'Most humbly beseeching thee to grant, that by the merits and death of thy Son...and all other benefits of his Passion...' [my italics]. The prayer continues '..we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourself, our souls and bodies to be a reasonable, holy and lively sacrifice unto thee.' How apt is the concept of the sacrifice of the body, connecting again with that picture of the crucified soldier in the frontispiece of In Parenthesis which I mentioned earlier. “Each one in turn” [my italics] hints at the rubric in the Communion service directing that, when the clergy have received the Communion, it will be received by “the people also in order [my italics], into their hands, all meekly kneeling. And when he delivereth the Bread to any one he shall say, ‘The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee’ ”. Finally, “Carrying with careful fingers his own daily bread” becomes retrospectively charged with the significance, the sign-making of the Communion with its element of bread.

Then a few lines later we move to back to the waste-land: "The untidied squalor of the loveless scene spread far horizontally, imag­ing unnamed discomfort, sordid and deprived as ill-kept hen-runs that back on sidings on wet weekdays where waste-land meets hori­zons and punctured bins ooze ...Sewage feeds the high grasses and bald clay-crop bears tins and braces, swollen rat-body turned-turtle to the clear morning." We are reminded of Eliot's Waste Land where "The wind/Crosses the brown land" (lines 174ff.), "The river bears no empty bottles" (line 77), and "A rat crept softly through the vegetation" (line 187).

Yet in Eliot's vision there is a road to Emmaus, there is Lancelot's journey to the Chapel Perilous, there is "the third who walks always beside you" (The Waste Land, line 360). So, too, In David Jones' s vision the sacramental signifier is there, but it is, as he remarks in A, a, a, Domine Deus, "Easy to miss Him at the turn of a Civilisation."

Works Cited

Bennett, J. A. W. Poetry of the Passion. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982.
Eliot, T. S. Collected Poems, 1909-1935. London: Faber & Faber, 1936.
Jones, David. The Anathemata. London: Faber & Faber, 1979
_ 'Art and Democracy'. Epoch and Artist. London: Faber & Faber, 1959· 85-96.
_ 'Art and Sacrament'. Epoch and Artist. London: Faber & Faber, 1959· 143-79·
_ Dai Greatcoat. Ed. René Hague. London: Faber & Faber, 1980.
_ In Parenthesis. London: Faber & Faber, 1937·
_ The Sleeping Lord and other Fragments. London: Faber & Faber, 1974·
_ 'The Utile'. Epoch and Artist. London: Faber & Faber, 1959· 180-85.
Malory', Thomas. Le Morte d'Arthur. London: J. M. Dent, 1906.
Morris, William, 'The Lesser Arts'. Hopes and Fears for Art. London, 1882.
Ruskin, John. Lectures on Art, London, 1894.
Wilcockson, Colin. 'David Jones and "The Break" '. Agenda 15, nos. 2-3, Summer-Autumn (1977): 26-31.
-'Presentation and Self-Presentation in In Parenthesis'. Presenting Poetry. Eds. H. Erskine-Hill and R. McCabe. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press, 1995. 235-56.


This essay is based on my article in Inklings, vol. 18 (2000). pp.107-120.


1.   I am grateful to Faber & Faber, publishers, for permission to print A, a,a Domine Deus and the passage from In Parenthesis.

2.   For full discussion of this motif, see Bennett, chapter 3.

3.   ‘The young warrior, who was almighty God / strong and resolute; he climbed on the high gallows / Proud in the sight of many.’ This passage and its surrounding lines is quoted by Jones in a painted inscription facing p. 240 of The Anathemata.

4.   Letter to Lewis 3rd March, 1971, published in Agenda, vol. 11, no..4 - vol. 12, no. 1, 1973/4, "Saunders Lewis introduces two Letters from David Jones", pp.17-29, particularly p. 20.

5.   Jones quotes most of this poem in his essay "Art and Sacrament". Epoch and Artist, 143-79, particularly 179· It appears in complete form in The Sleeping Lord.

6.   The Waste Land, line 20 (and the note on that line)

7.   Preface to The Anathemata, p. 26.

8.   "Art and Democracy" 88. See also "Art and Sacrament" 149.

9.   In a letter to Harman Grisewood, 12 August, 1957; reproduced in Dai Greatcoat, p. 174

Colin Wilcockson is a graduate of Merton College, Oxford. In 1973 he was elected to a Fellowship at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he was for many years Director of Studies in English and in Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic. He is now an Emeritus Fellow. He has published books, articles and reviews mainly on Medieval and Renaissance literature — he is one of the editors of the Riverside Chaucer (Houghton Mifflin), and has recently published Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales: a Selection (Penguin). He also writes on David Jones, whom he knew personally for some twenty years.

His 1999 Journal of Modern Literature essay Mythological References in Two Painted Inscriptions of David Jones also appears in this issue of FlashPoint.