by Colin Wilcockson

First published in: Agenda, Vol 14, No. 2 (Summer 1976)
Reprinted in Letters to William Hayward, Agenda Editions, 1979
Used with the permission of Agenda Editions. All rights reserved.

'I'll read it: for I keep it yet. Any relic of the dead is precious,
if they were valued living.' Wuthering Heights, Chapter XII.

      There have recently appeared in print letters, or extracts from letters, from David Jones to his friends, that have thrown light on many facets of the man and his works. Reading these has stimulated me to re-read a number of letters I received from him over a period of twenty years; and I think it possible that others may be interested to read passages from the letters I have preserved which illustrate (and, I trust, bring alive) some of the qualities of that remarkable man. There are, of course, others who knew him more intimately and for a far longer time: but that does not in itself detract from the interest of the letters.

      From January-April, 1955, I lived at Northwick Lodge, Harrow on the Hill, where David Jones had already lived for some years. When I first met him, I had only very recently graduated from Merton College, Oxford: David Jones had, eighteen years previously, published In Parenthesis, three years previously, The Anathemata, and there was currently on view an exhibition of his works at The Tate Gallery. This will set in perspective the requests he makes in the letters for information and opinion about this or that. He was, as René Hague remarks, one of those people with 'a gift of making their friend feel that he is more gifted than he is'.[1]  His loathing for dogmatism and pretence made him self-effacing and tentative, even on the wide range of topics on which he was (though he wouldn't believe it) expertly informed. From the time I was at Northwick Lodge, we kept up the friendship with occasional letters and visits until his death.

      While I was deciding which passages to include, I chanced to read again the obituary in The Times; and I think that the extracts I have made may serve to illustrate several of the points made in that obituary. I am therefore taking a passage from it as a kind of 'text', to give some form to what follows — because, however much one attempts to group the extracts under specific heads, they spill out and overlap. To use David Jones's word, they 'meander', in just that delightful way that his conversation meandered through many areas of discovery and re-discovery. 'The Anathemata', writes the author of the obituary, 'which appeared in 1952, is an awe-inspiring but demanding work. If read (preferably aloud) four or five times by a person of scholarly attainments the reason for the superlatives it has evoked will be understood... David Jones is never deliberately obscure in his language or recondite in his imagery. Indeed, he always manifested an almost exaggerated humility towards learning in others. He regarded himself as a self-taught monoglot; called his writings "meanderings" ... But the fact is that he absorbed more from his wide reading than 99 per cent of scholars get out of theirs.' It will become evident from the passages I quote that what some may regard as 'recondite' was certainly not self-consciously obscure. It is perhaps too obvious to state that the history and mythology to which he directs us were in him part of a living and continuing culture: these things were precious agalmata, in imminent danger of literal and metaphorical levelling to the ground in an age of technology.

      I shall keep the commentary to the minimum. The letters speak for themselves for the most part — though I have attempted to reconstruct the situation that prompted some of the discussions, lest they should come across with the inconsequentiality that would appear if one were to listen to only one speaker in a dialogue.


      The format of the letters is fascinating. He usually wrote on unlined foolscap paper, leaving wide margins for subsequent glosses. If a point is unresolved in the main text, or in need of further illustration, he comes back to it in these glosses — frequently using a different-coloured ink. Sometimes the gloss is of a more elaborate kind: in a letter written just before Christmas, 1956, he paints in yellow ink the word 'GAVDETE' followed by a six-pointed star. It is in his splendid lettering (as on the cover of Agenda), each letter being about 1 in. high, and the whole word covering about 6 inches. In another letter he writes, after the word 'Epiphany', REGES. INSVLAE. MVNERA. OFFERENT., each word being written in a different colour. Thus, the layout and form of the words is sometimes a kind of extension of the meaning of the text itself. [2] 



      The method of dating some of the letters reflects in miniature his fusion of Latin and Welsh thinking — and in turn reflects the fusion of those cultures in Christianity. The different tongues are sometimes distinguished by different colours — or perhaps the colours may indicate a more complex train of connection (as, in the second quotation below, 'MAIR' and 'Xt' are in red; all the remaining words are in black or green):

Dyð Gwener
Unfed o Ionawr
Yn yr hen iaith Gymraeg

Dies 15 Septembris
Septem Dolorum
B. Mariae Virg.
Gwyl MAIR Wenfydedig
pymthegfed dydd o fis Medi
Oed. Xt.

Another address appears thus:

Northwick Lodge
  Harrow on the Hill
      Yn y tir saeson-canol

      There is humour here, of course: 'In the land English [Saxon]-middle' = Middlesex! Those who are part of one nation, part of another, will — I think this not too fanciful — recognise, too, the sudden detachment, the varying sense of belonging here or there, as the historic place-name denoting possession ('The Land of the Middle Saxons') is spoken in the tongue of the foreigner. [3] 

      Literary and philological discussion is common in the letters. I earlier remarked that David Jones hated dogmatism and pretence. His favourite phrase, often after he had explained some intricate detail concerning archaeology, or history, or etymology or the like, was, 'But nobody knows anything about anything'. This was modesty, but not false-modesty, for he was acutely aware that opinions that seem irrefutable today may be challenged or proved wrong tomorrow. I am reminded of a passage from a letter to René Hague: 'Only the other day I heard a young man speaking [about history and archaeology] on the radio, in the most confident and supercilious manner... it was the confident know-all voice that I found most objectionable'. [4]  It is against this kind of background that we should read some of his assertions that he is, to use his own endearing phrase, 'such a nitwit'.

      To some extent, the literary references he makes in these letters are likely to be dictated by the particular literary preoccupations of either the writer or recipient at any given time. When some of the letters were written, I was engaged on an edition of Langland's Piers Plowman, [5]  and this in part may account for the number of references to that work. (References to Piers Plowman in David Jones's own work can be found in, for example, The Kensington Mass, lines 4-5, in the inscription beginning 'Cloelia Cornelia', etc.) Some passages will indicate his admiration for the work — and, inevitably, branch out into related topics:

'I still struggle with a bit more of the B text of dear old Langland... It's wonderful stuff — I wish I wasn't such a nitwit about languages ...'  [B]

'... what a marvellous poem it is. I suppose that had it been written in the much easier M.E. of Chaucer, which requires very little effort to follow, it would be better known... It does require a certain degree of M.E. to read Langland — just too much for blokes on the whole to make the effort, alas... I often have things about language I want to ask you... about Middle English or O.E.... I still try to learn a little more about Welsh & Latin, but I think I know less instead of more. As one gets older — I'm 68 on November 1st — one's mind retains nothing. I think one may get better at comprehending ideas as one gets older, but becomes virtually incapable of learning anything by rote & languages demand that. That's why I think it vital that children should be grounded in the elements of languages as early as possible.'  [F]

      There is a kinship between these two great visionaries, Langland and David Jones, that enables him to respond intensely to the essential grandeur of Langland, whose poem comprehends the squalor and dignity of humanity, its terrors and its moments of mystical ecstasy. Langland writes acutely conscious of cataclysmic events that threaten to destroy the political order and the spiritual integrity of the land. His faith is founded in the Easter Mass, in the recognition that,

',,, in þe apparaile of a pore man and pilgrymes lyknesse
Many tyme god hath ben mette.'[6] 

      Not a few of these visions of hope and despair, not a little of the tenderness for the frightened and the destitute, are David Jones's too; and he cries out about some portions of Piers Plowman that they are, '... some of the most wonderful passages of that exceedingly wonderful poem...' [H] and, later, as if the superlative wonder he feels for Langland is insufficient, he adds in the margin (with the world 'what' double underlined):

'WHAT a bloody good poem it is. Makes Chaucer, on the whole, lacking in DEPTH, neither as "earthy" or as "celestial".'

      I mention in this article a number of literary works to which David Jones makes reference in these letters. In addition, there are the following (in most of these cases there are only passing comments, some of which I here quote against their titles):

      Sir Patrick Spens [A]; Dunbar ('the Rorate Desuper poem and the Ballat of Our Lady I think are wonderful') [B]; The chronicle about Diarmait of Aed Sláine, Irish, 7th century ('... where it expresses great horror of some clerics who are travelling on Sunday. Where did this Sabbatarianism come from to 7th Cent. Ireland? It reads more like 19th Methodist Wales') [B]; A Reader in General Anthropology ed. C.S. Coon (in particular a chapter we had once discussed about 'the Wicings & their vile habits') [B]; Joyce, Dubliners and Finnegans Wake [C]; Tolkien, Lord of the Rings ('I thought I might like it, but find I can't get on with the bit I heard on radio') [C]; Beowulf ('A chap came to see me a bit back who talked a lot about Beowulf — he had a big thing about it. Said chaps had found a lot more about it quite lately. He said Beowulf was Our Lord. Well, of course.') [C]; Alysoun (in a letter written one dreary April, 'What a long-winded, cold-winded spring: Nou Sprinkes þe sprai — may be'.) [D]; LaƷamon's Brut .[E]; Wyclif ('I saw a jolly nice thing in his translation of the N.T. it was of Luke II.9, "and sudeynli there was made with the aungel a multitude of heuenli knyƷthod".') [F]

      Some of the above list could have been constructed, of course, from quotations in David Jones's works. It is illuminating, however, to take one literary discussion in some detail to exemplify his precision of thought — and indeed many other aspects of his mind, with humour not long absent. I had mentioned to him that the genealogy of the Porter in Macbeth interested me (sprung, I supposed, from the devil-janitor in medieval Harrowing of Hell accounts, in turn bound in with the Easter 'Lumen Christi' Service).[7] It had struck me that the line in Macbeth, 'I hear a knocking/At the south entry' (my italics) might link with the particular church door at which the processional entry was preferably effected in the 'Lumen Christi' Service — 'south' being monosyllabic, the names of the other cardinal points would have equally well suited the Macbeth scansion. His interest was engaged in all sorts of ways (his care for the liturgy being not the least):

'... I think you are right — my impression is (got from sources I've forgotten about) that the chaps lit the New Fire outside the south door & came in & having lighted the "exaltet reed" proceed up the nave to the sanctuary where the Paschal Candle is lit. Well, we know all about that — it's this question of the explicitly south door — that you must be certain of before you establish the Macbeth association... However, in the long rubric in the Sarum Missal which, being wholly in Latin, I can do no more than partly translate or try to! I've found a passage which sounds suggestive, it reads: "et ad columnam ex parte australi juxta fontem ubi sacerdos executor officii ignem benedicat qui accendabatur ibidem; scilicet in medio inter duas columnas..."... I can only say that my impression is that of yours, that the south door was the, so to say, porta Xristi. It's terribly hard to check up on these things unless one knows exactly where to look [he here gives several references] ... this Sarum thing — it was compiled & published by the Parker Society — the date on the title page being 1861-1883 (don't hurry old boy!). It is entitled [here follow further references and Latin quotations]... Sorry to be so unhelpful — I see absolutely your point about the Macbeth passage — but we must first establish with absolute certainty the South Door stood in the minds of chaps as symbolizing Porta Xti — just as in Antiquity 'Horn Gate' — as opposed to Ivory gate — was the gate from which Truth emerged. That's what you want, don't you?

'I have myself taken part in these fire-making rites years ago, but it chanced that we did our stuff outside the north door, there being no south door, only a north and west door ... even if the sanctuary was at whatever quarter of the compass it would still be called the East end & the door on the Epistle side would be the 'south door' even though in fact it faced west or what not. At least I think you'll find that to be so. I mean the terms become symbolic, or "nominal" if that's the word [a sketch indicating the orientation of the church, disposition of the font, etc. here follows]... Yes, I expect you are right about the porter in Macbeth. That sort of bastard crops up in these Celtic tales — & in Malory Sir Kay (Cai) assumes something of the nasty qualities of the janitor. So of course do Regimental Quartermaster Sergeants & so do Head Butlers or whatever they were called in great houses — almost extinct I suppose now, but I met some earlier in my life. One I remember particularly, who literally 'ran' a bloody great country house I used to visit, and another a female always jangling keys, who was just the same — invaluable actually to the running of the place. But I meander.' [G]

      Perhaps I may latch on to his confession of 'meandering' to excuse myself for lack of a single or coherent topic under which I can group some passages about language and literature which follow. One factor at least unites the passages — delight in precision:

'... would you be so kind as to tell me one thing? In the line Ongyrede hine þa geong haeleð, which means, doesn't it, "stripped himself then the young hero"? the 'hine þa" does stand for "himself then", doesn't it? In which case did they dispense with the definite article before geong? I expect this is a bloody ignorant question to ask, but that I can't help. Was it more like Middle Welsh poetry when you could leave out all sorts of words, as, for example, kannwyll teyrned kadarnllew gwyned [He later adds a marginal gloss, 'In modern Welsh spelling "k" would be "c" & "d" "dd".'] meaning "the candle of kingship, the strong lion of Gwynedd", but reading only
                          one word
'... The Chilmark Press are also doing a new & terribly expensive edition of those Ancient Mariner copper plates I did in 1929, with, of course, the text: & they asked me to write a monograph to go with it. At first I said I had nothing to say about it. Then they said, have a go — it does not matter whether it's short or long. So eventually I was persuaded & once I got down to it I got very interested in it — in thinking of what I had in mind when I made the plates & what I think about the poem & it meanders all over the place, & I've been working on it for a couple of months or more & finished it only last week. It's far too long and unsuited to the purpose — it's a long bloody ramble about the Odyssey of man, bringing in all kinds of stuff from the voyage of Brendan & Arthur's voyage in his ship Prydwen & the analogy that certain early Xtians such as Gregory of Nyssa & Clement of Alexandria made between Ulysses & Xrist etc.etc. & I wanted to make quite sure of that line of which I speak above in this letter.' [F]

      The Dream of the Rood is, of course, quoted on a number of occasions in David Jones's works[8]  — including the 'Ongyrede hine...' line in question (Dream of the Rood lines 39-41 in the plate facing p. 240 of The Anathemata). Constructions without the demonstrative in OE are by no means unusual, but are more common in poetry than in prose. In a later letter he remarks:

Thanks about Ongyrede hine, etc.,' and goes on to observe, 'Welsh "bardic" poetry... left out all sorts of things which in prose would not be allowed... It affords a marvellous compactness — otherwise obtainable only in synthetic languages such as Latin.' [G]

      This linguistic precision was a perpetual delight to him, of course. On one occasion, we had discussed the antiquity of the breed of dog, the Welsh corgi. In a letter written four months later he writes:

'I believe I told you something entirely inaccurate in January about the first element — I said it was an intensive prefix because I got it muddled up with gor — which is an intensive. But cor — simply means much what bach means, little, so a corgi is a 'little dog'. I still find it hard to believe that they are an early breed, but it would seem I'm wrong — they are mentioned in a 15th cent. poem, at least the term occurs, what precise dog is indicated is uncertain. A poet called Guto'r Glyn of Llangollen during the Wars of the Roses uses the word. '... the little poem (the cor-gerdd!) in that Landmarks & Voyages thing... Yes, it is of course like Donne, but somehow it seems to work in this case — I mean it didn't feel like pastiche to me, but I don't know.'[9] 

      David Jones's desire for strict accuracy emanated, not from a mind that cared for pedantry, but from a mind that reverberated to the history implicit in etymology: and properly to appreciate the history, it was imperative to be entirely accurate. One last example of an etymological discussion, because it is about the history of his own name:

'... and while we are on such matters, I noticed in an "Everyman" version of the Gawain poem that the name David is spelt Davyth, & I wondered if the Modern Welsh & Middle Welsh form, Dafydd, could have been borrowed from Mercian Middle English? I ask because it has frequently puzzled me that the Welsh form Dewi comes direct from Latin with intermediate forms such as Degui (in Asser) also Deugui, Deui etc. (in 12th Cent. Black Book of Llandaff) but (as far as I know) no one other than St David, was called Dewi (not at least until it was revived as a Xian name at the end of the 18th Cent.) Equally odd, the first Dafyð[10]  does not appear in Welsh history until Prince Dafydd (one of the sons of Owain Gwynedd) date of birth uncertain, but married in 1174 and died in 1203. Then, during the 13th Cent. there was the great poet, Dafydd Benfras, & the Prince Dafydd ap Llewellyn ap Iowerth the Last . . .' [H]

      The point is raised again in a letter he wrote some eight years later, in the month before his death. In that letter he discusses it in detail, covering three sides of foolscap paper, as he traces the name through Scotch, Welsh and Irish. It is too long to reproduce here, but even a marginal note will indicate, as a final example, the fascination he found in philological detail:

'The old contest of my early years about whether or no Latin v was more like w is certainly in Latin loan-words w. Brittonic & so Welsh is supporting evidence that v was pronounced w for every example of Latin words loaned into Welsh from the time of Roman Britain gives for v a gw e.g. gwaeg for Latin vaccus . . . the name Gwener from Veneris . . .' [I]

      'You can't get the intended meaning unless you hear the sound', David Jones writes in the Preface to The Anathemata (p. 35) — and eight pages later stresses the importance of sound, particularly of foreign words: 'The notes ... so often concern the sounds of the words ... I ask the reader, when actually engaged upon the text, to consult these glosses mainly or only on points of pronunciation'. It is a subject to which he frequently alludes in the letters — the sound will convey an important part of the meaning, or clarify the meaning, even in foreign words, or dialect words, or in ancient forms of our own tongue, he suggests. The importance to him of radio (particularly the old, admirable, Third Programme) is obvious here: and I warmly refer the reader to Mr Douglas Cleverdon's article 'David Jones and Broadcasting'.[11]  In that article, Mr Cleverdon remarks, 'the radio is ... the ideal medium for most of the major works of the last fifty years . . . and, superlatively, in In Parenthesis and The Anathemata'. I quote below two extracts from David Jones's letters. The first discusses the subject in general; the second discusses his reactions to hearing a B.B.C. production of The Anathemata:

'I wonder if you heard on the radio a couple of months ago by any chance a modern translation of the Dream of the Rood by two (I think it was two) Cambridge O.E. scholars? — I thought it was extraordinarily good — I should not have thought it possible to make so good a rendering in modern English. (I remember a cousin of mine, in the 1930s reading English at Oxford, reading the Dream of the Rood to me in the original — and how marvellous it sounded. Of course I could understand only bits of it, but the sound was wonderful & I got sufficient of the meaning — of course it's impossible to get that in any translation, I mean the strength of the sound)... A few years back they did on the 3rd Programme a series of readings from Piers Plowman in the original pronunciation (slightly modified) it was the work of some O.E. scholars at Cambridge, I've forgotten who — but it greatly helped me to get the sound. I tried to follow it in my 'B' text, but as they used in some parts 'A' & 'C' as well & left out passages, it was a bit of a business. But well worth it, and I thought very good. It is interesting how what one cannot understand or only by references to glossaries etc. on the printed page becomes so clear when it is spoken. There is a modern Scots poet, called Tom Scott, who sometimes writes in modern English & sometimes in Lallan Scots — he wrote a poem about the Paschal Candle which I found very hard to follow in its printed form, but he recited it on the radio & almost every word became as clear as could be in meaning.'[12]  [F]

'Sometime in the week beginning April 27th, the 3rd Programme... are broadcasting a thing of mine read by myself; it's longer a lot than 'The Wall' but again about soldiers & it's called 'The Tribune's Visitation'. It is another of those fragments that I hope to collect together eventually into a sort of book ... The Third Programme did that adaptation of The Anathemata on Good Friday & this time I liked it better than I did when it was first done. I suppose, for one thing, when one makes a work it is in any case a bit of a shock to hear it cut about etc. & interpreted by other chaps, but once having received the initial shocks, one can begin to assess the performance more detachedly, anyway I'm glad I liked it better this time & glad they did it on Good Friday.' [D]

In his last letter to me, he takes up some points we had discussed about language, and then moves on to the beauty of particular sounds in Welsh:

      'I think we spoke once of how Ben Jonson in his little grammar of the English language, expressed his emphatic opinion that the two "th" sounds had no longer, alas, the distinctive figures ð and þ in written or printed form. This he thought very unfortunate because the differing sounds were most needful. Old Ben J.'s little grammar is almost unknown. He is really angry that chaps should say & write, e.g. "Christ his Church" regardless of the O.E. -es ending. He, B.J., called the introduction of the personal pronoun in such cases "monstrous syntax". It's a bit odd in a way because Ben J. was more or less of the same period when the Bk. of Com. Prayer was if not being written but given slight changes & unless I have forgotten my Anglican childhood & youth & early manhood altogether I seem to recall very clearly hearing from the pulpit or in the saying of the liturgy the words "Xt. his Church". I mean B.J.'s "monstrous syntax" was being used by learned men — all bishops & curates — when reading the Common Prayer."[13] 

'Ben becomes positively estatic about 'H' — or rather its aspiration: "The Queen of consonants" he called it, and reminds the reader that it has a great place among the Welsh — how right he was, for in such words as uwchlewyr (high men) or brenhinedd (pl. of brenin king) the h in the plural greatly emphasises the beauty of the word. The feminine name Angharad is a better example, for [the h] lends great beauty to the name — in fact, it's when the aspirate comes in the middle of a word that it becomes, for some reason, especially lovely — though Mam Hawddgar (Mater Amabilis) is lovely too — but on the whole when the aspirate comes unexpectedly in the syllable of a longish word its beauty is best felt, and its absence most damaging. To take a very common & well known example, take away the aspirate from nhadau in Mae Hên Wlad fy nhadau and immediately the whole sound is lost.

      'It is interesting that Ben Jonson learnt Welsh'. [I][14] 

      One is taken back with renewed awareness to some of these words in his works — for example, the use of 'Mam hawddgar' in The Anathemata (p. 217). Or, again, of the beauty of Mae hen wlad fy nhadau that had lingered in his mind from childhood as he listened to his father's voice: 'Then there was the attempt to imitate the sounds when he sang Mae hen wlad fy nhadau or Ar hyd y nos. But without success' (Preface to The Anathemata, p. 41). Early in that same letter from which I have just quoted, a phrase from 'Ancient Land of my Fathers' is used to express the intensity of his sense of Welsh belonging. He had mentioned the recent death of my father, originally from Brecon; and then went on to recall the deaths of his own parents. His mother's death had caused him much grief (she had died in 1937) —

'... and in 1941 when my father died, though he was... cheerful and vigorous to the last & died of some heart thing at about 86, I again felt a greater sense of loss — for there was loss of my only blood affinity with yr hen wlad & the Bret-Wealas'.


      Precision over detail is clearly to be seen in his meticulous checking of texts. He remarks that, once you make alterations in a first edition to produce a second, corrected, edition, you are in danger of begetting fresh errors — adding that he blames no one but himself. He had carefully corrected a copy of (the second edition of) The Anathemata before making me a gift of it and in the letters he calls attention to other corrections:

'... The Fatigue ... page XII, Introductory Note, bottom paragraph. For "beyond the composite facade" read "behind the composite facade", as in text p. 17 & 19. Note 25 for Ller Benglog read Lle'r Benglog. But, alas, I've missed one which I would ask you to correct as it seriously messes up the meaning of the passage. It occurs on p. 7 of the text, line 4. For "that till the hard war" read "that tell the hard war". That is to say the Five Shining Phalerae stand for the Five Wounds of Our Lord and they tell ("of" understood) a severe conflict...' [H]
Most of these remain uncorrected in the recent editions.[15]  A particularly interesting 'mistake' in The Sleeping Lord line 16, is discussed in another letter. It concerns the word agalma — a word of special significance to him:[16] 
'..."the flint-worked ivory agalma". I feared agalma was wrong; for one thing I chanced to know that Homer used the word in the sense of precious and made over to the Gods, but I left it for a while for I wanted to get on with it as I wanted to be ready for the Spring number of Agenda, 1967. I started it in November of 1966. Anyway, I forgot to go into the matter of agalma & as I am virtually ignorant of the Greek tongue left it when it should have been in the plural agalmata. Anyway, nothing can be done about it now & as a matter of fact I don't much care for agalmata — nothing like the kick, in the context, of agalma. So perhaps my ignorance served a purpose.' [I]

      'Agalma' had — fortunately — slipped through. But this was unusual. The letters show that no untidy concept was allowed to pass if there were any means of checking the detail — detail that so often implies the history of things, and how places may have looked in times past. A breed of dog, as we have seen, may call for this attention; or it may be a species of plant on another occasion, as we shall see in a moment. Of course, in both cases, there is more than one point of interest for him: in the corgi query, it is etymology, in the fuchsia query (below), it is perhaps in part the recollection of a place he has known and loved and painted. I had written to David Jones from County Donegal — I was living in Ireland at the time — and had described the landscape of that beautiful place. He replies (see Gaudete letter above, in Agenda appears as plate facing page 64).

"I was interested about the fuchsias growing wild — I remember that & also they did on that Welsh island, Caldey, off Tenby — the hedges there were full of fuchsia. I wonder who planted them in these places, for clearly they can't be native'.
In different-coloured ink he adds the familiar marginal gloss:
'I find they were introduced from America late in the 18th century to Kew Gardens — but it's a long way to Tipperary, Iona & Inys Pyr'. [C]
In the same letter the visual predominates:
'Do they still use red coloured ploughs in Donegal? — I remember friends of mine telling me about them & saying how beautiful they looked against the earth & greenery. I think they said ploughs, not farm-waggons, but I may be wrong. It was a friend of Yeats who told me — 20 years ago'.

      And the post-script, again descriptive, seems to pick up the Tipperary motif that had appeared comically, but which now changes tone as the living nerve of war memories is touched by outward phenomena:

'There's a bloody awful fog over all this part of England all today & this night — very thick and cold and stationary and all things outside are silent. Fogs have a way of reminding me always of war, for in a heavy mist in the trenches in the 1st War the tension was greatly increased because you couldn't tell what might be happening out in front of the trench'.

      One is naturally reminded of the edgy expectancy of the soldiers in In Parenthesis (pp. 61-2): 'With each moment passing — the opaque creeping into every crevice . . . Keep your eyes skinned — it's a likely morning'. The detail of war in the trenches never faded. He told me that when he had his stroke, he unwisely heaved himself on to his bed. He had thought, 'I realize I've had a stroke — but I'm damned well not going to lie in a draught!' This had reminded him of soldiers he had seen, perhaps mortally wounded, yet primarily irritated by some comparatively trivial inconvenience.


      Though he had a ready sense of humour, he had constantly to contend with depression. He was deeply saddened when it was necessary to move from Northwick Lodge, Harrow, where much of his finest work was done. His room overlooked the School playing fields, and I recall his standing by the window and observing how the brightly-coloured football shirts of the teams delighted the eye. Some indication of the wrench it was for him to leave the house can be inferred from remarks such as these:

'. . . and with some suddenness the house is being closed down & I'm in the chaos of trying to deal with 14 years' accumulation of stuff in this one beloved room'. [G]

'I sadly miss being up at Northwick Lodge, in my high room, but the house closed down, &, now it has been pulled down so you would not know it had ever been there'. [H]

      In many of the letters, he speaks of depression, of 'a devastating weariness' and 'tedious worries'. Sometimes these were of a personal nature — though many of the reasons are spelt out in his poems. At other times, they might be on account of political affairs (and one would be quite wrong to suppose that, because of his seclusion, he was not well informed on such matters). The plate facing page 64 [see Gaudete letter above] reproduces one such allusion: 'All this international political business [the Suez crisis] has impinged a good bit on my mind & I expect on everyone's.' Typically, he would try to make light of his worries, It's a difficult world at times. After which banal remark it's time I stopped!' I hope that the extracts I have taken from letters will help others to return to his works with a fuller understanding of the man who made them. Perhaps they will help, too, to explain why those who met him justly speak with such admira­tion. He was not only a man of genius, but also a man of outstanding gentleness, warmth and humour. His scholarly, discriminating mind and sharp intellect are everywhere evident. Yet the adjective that frequently occurs in the letters is 'wonderful'. David Jones never lost the ability to be filled with wonder at the works of the great makers of art and of literature.[17] 

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.


I am grateful to David Jones's Trustees for granting permission for the publication of this article.

1.   René Hague, David Jones (University of Wales Press, 1975) p. 4.

2.   See the Introit at Mass on the 3rd Sunday in Advent (Philipp. 4, 4-6, 'Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete . . . etc.') See also the Offertory at Mass on the Feast of the Epiphany (Ps. 71, 10 ff, 'Reges Tharsis et insulae munera offerent . . . etc.') For the sake of brevity, I have indicated A, B, C, etc. against quotations from the letters written on the following dates:

A   3rd January, 1956     B   19th January, 1956     C   19th December, 1956    
D   19th April, 1958     E   1st January, 1960     F   23rd September, 1963    
G   7th-8th March, 1964     H   3rd January, 1966     I   15th September, 1974    

3.   Translations of Welsh phrases in the addresses are:

Dydd Gwener  =  'Friday'.
Unfed o Ionawr  = 'First of January'.
Yn yr hen iaith Gymraeg  =  'in the ancient Welsh tongue'.
Gwyl MAIR Wenfydedig  =  'Festival of the Blessed MARY' (c.f. Anathemata, p. 217 Note 5).
Pymthegfed dydd o fis Medi  =  'fifteenth day of the month of September'.

4.   René Hague, 'The Clarity of David Jones', Agenda (Winter-Spring, 1975) p.115

5.   Langland: Selections from Piers Plowman ed. C. Wilcockson (London: Macmillan, 1965).

6.   Piers Plowman Text B, passus xi, 234-5, ed. W.W. Skeat (Oxford: for the E.E.T.S.; reprinted 1950).

7.   Cf. Langland: Selections, etc. op.cit. p. 45 ff.

8.   Cf. René Hague, David Jones op.cit. p. 81.

9.   David Jones had sent me a copy of Landmarks & Voyages, in which The Wall first appeared. The poem to which David Jones makes reference is Frances Cornford's The Young Man to his Girl, which begins, 'The new geography behind your eyes / May I not read, and come and colonise?'

10.   Whenever David Jones uses the symbol ð ('eth'), he implies voiced th (as in Welsh dd). He was guided to this usage by a note in Ben Jonson's English Grammar (see Ben Jonson ed. C.H. Herford, P. and E. Simpson (Oxford, 1947) VIII, pp. 496-7):

'And in this consists the greatest difficultie of our Alphabet, and true writing: since we have lost the Saxon Characters ð and þ that distinguished the

ðe.                       þick.
ðou.                       þin.
ðine.                       þred.
ðo.                       þrive.
Jonson derived this (incorrect) distinction from Sir Thomas Smith. (It has been suggested that the impulse to introduce a crossed d ('eth') alongside runic þ ('thorn') may originally have been to distinguish the voiced fricative from the unvoiced; but, even if such a distinction initially existed, it was short-lived.)

11.   Douglas Cleverdon, 'David Jones and Broadcasting', Poetry Wales (Whiter, 1972), p. 72 ff.

12.   Cf. The Sleeping Lord and other Fragments (London: Faber, 1974) p. 32 Note 1:'. . ."The Dream of the Rood", which, even in translation, seems to me to 'far excel any subsequent English poem about the Passion.'

13.   The construction noun+dependent third-person possessive is recorded (though infrequently) in Middle English. Its employment greatly increased in the 15th century and continued as a popular means of expression until the 17th. For detailed discussion, see Tauno F. Mustanoja, A Middle English Syntax, Société Néophilologique, Helsinki (1960), pp. 159-162.

14.   See Note 10, above. The other Jonson passages alluded to are:

'Nounes ending in and ch. in the declining take genitive singular i. and the plural e. as

Prince.                   Princes.
Sing.                   Plur.
Princis.                   Princes.

So, rose. bush. age. breech. &c. Which distinctions, not observed, brought in first the monstrous Syntaxe of the Pronoune, his, joyning with a Noune, betokening a Possessor; as the Prince his house; for, the Princis house' (Herford and Simpson, op.cit., VIII, 511.)

On the subject of the pronunciation of h in Welsh, Jonson first acknowledges Smith's statement: 'Recte quidem in hac parte Graecissent nostri Walli' (= 'Our Welsh correctly follow the Greeks in this point' i.e. sounding the h after a consonant, as in 'Choros', 'Rhamnes', etc.) Smith's further remark, which Jonson quotes, is: 'H. vero κατεξοχην aspiratio vocatur' ( = 'This H is called an aspirate, par excellence'). (Jonson notes that 'h' after P in Greek, 'added a strong spirit, which the Welsh retaine after many Consonants'. He continues, '. . . though I dare not say, she is (as I have heard one call her) the Queene mother of Consonants: yet she is the life and quickening of them'. (Herford and Simpson, op.cit. VIII, 494-5).

Thus, on this evidence alone, one could not prove 'that Jonson knew Welsh: he may be simply following Smith. On the other hand, among Jonson's collection of grammars there are two non-Classical — a Hebrew and a Welsh grammar. The latter had been acquired for him by his admirer James Howell, at Jonson's request. Howell was himself a Welshman. The particular volume is now in the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge. In this work, Jonson would have found Smith's remarks about Welsh h corroborated (and, of course, Jonson may have noted the Welsh pronunciation at first hand). About the h sound, Davis notes, 'Magna est huius efficacia, frequensque vsus & necessitas apud eas gentes, quae eo vti solent . . . Haec ego respiciens . . . pro primo certe totius Alphabeti elemento ipsum H. merito constituissem.' (John Davis, Cambrobrytannicae Cymraeque Linguae Institutiones et Rudimenta, London, 1592, pp. 16-17).

15.   Corrections made in The Anathemata volume (given to me Winter 1955-6) are as follows: —

p. 113, line 20:  for 'is' read 'is'.
This incorrect reading persists in the 1972 edition. The first edition, 1952, reads 'are'.

p. 159, line 17:  for 'm' read 'me'.
Incorrect reading in 1972 editions; 1952 edition was correct.

p. 199 note 5:  for 'man-now-ud-an' read 'man-now-id-an'.
Incorrect reading in 1972 and 1952 editions.

p. 209, line 4:  for 'i nmaculatam' read 'immaculatam'.
Incorrect reading in 1972 edition; 1952 edition was correct.

The Sleeping Lord and other Fragments (Faber, 1974). The incorrect 'beyond' persists p. 26.
So also 'till' for 'tell' (ibid) p. 32. 'Lle'r', in footnote, has now been corrected.

16.   See Preface to The Anathemata, p. 28.

17.  For David Jones's discussion of 'wonder' as perception of the splendor formae see the text of his letter to Mr Saunders Lewis, Agenda, 'David Jones Special Issue' (Autumn-Winter 1973-4), p. 18.

General note on the Gaudete letter above (in Agenda is plate facing page 64):

(a) 'C.C.' refers to Mr Christopher Carlile who supervised the management of .Northwick Lodge.

(b) The reference to 'the Lollard' further exemplifies David Jones's sense of humour. A mutual friend was so nicknamed by him. Some years later, David Jones refers to him in another letter, 'No news whatever of the Lollard — perhaps he has been seized by the Holy Office!'

(c) A personal reference has been expunged from this reproduction.

See also Colin Wilcockson's

"I HAVE JOURNEYED AMONG THE DEAD FORMS" David Jones and the Waste-Land Motif


Mythological References in Two Painted Inscriptions of David Jones

FP Editor's Note: A simple google or wikipedia search will yield many reference websites for the Dream of the Rood, Beowulf, and the various texts of Piers Plowman, including, in some cases, copies of the original manuscripts. And The Norton Anthology of English Literature now has an Audio Readings Archive which offers an audio recording of the Dream of the Rood read by R.D. Fulk.