Derek Shiel

Why and How David Jones Became a Poet

The composer Igor Stravinsky said of writing Sacre de Printemps, his most audacious composition, ‘I am the vessel through which Le Sacre passed’1  and in the film In Search of David Jones: Artist, Soldier, Poet the poet Gillian Clarke remarks of David Jones ‘He has chosen writing – or writing has chosen him’, a fascinating statement worth pondering. The question that came to my mind while making the film – and to which there can be no real answer – was this: would Jones ever have become a poet if he had not been a soldier in the First World War?

As you may know, until 1928 David Jones saw himself as an artist and engraver and only began to write almost by accident. So, from a few bare facts – and supposition – two questions arise: why and how did Jones become a poet and of such calibre?

Jones had joined the army in January 1915 partly because, at the time war was declared, he had just left art school and was unsure what profession he should follow. Throughout the war he served as a Private, and on being demobilised or transferred to the Reserve (‘disembodied’ was the official designation 2  ) he returned to an art school on an ex-serviceman’s grant from 1919-21, when in the space of one year, 1921, he met the sculptor and letter-designer, Eric Gill, graduated, became a Roman Catholic, joined the lay community of artist-craftsmen where Gill was working, at Ditchling in Sussex, and hastily learned how to make wood-engravings so that he could illustrate for the community’s St Dominic’s Press. 3  He stayed in Ditchling until soon after the Gill family departed during 1924 but by Christmas of that year Jones was able to join them at the disused monastery of Capel-y-ffin to which they had moved, in the Black Mountains on the Hereford-Breconshire border.

In 1928 Jones returned to France for the first time since the war, again joining members of the Gill family, for a visit to the village of Salies-de-Béarn near the foot of the Pyrenees and close to the Spanish border. He was there to paint for an exhibition he would have later in London 4  but although outwardly Jones was observing and painting the landscape, internally something equally important was gestating, which would in the future alter his life to its roots.

On getting back to England he had the idea of making a series of war drawings with captions 5  and it was while staying with his parents in a house built right on the beach near Brighton that he began to draft these captions. Here is how he describes what happened: ‘… in a house at Portslade… I began to write down some sentences which turned out to be the initial passages of In Parenthesis published some [nine] years later. This was a beginning of another sort. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for.’6  Almost immediately what were to be no more than captions began to grow into a text – ‘a writing’ as he would call it – and he found he had a new objective: ‘to make a shape in words’7  or as he put it more technically ‘To see how this business of ‘form’ & ‘content’ worked in a writing, as compared with the same problems in… the visual arts.’8 

But Jones had no experience of writing – or almost none. During the War he had written two essays – parts of letters actually – about being a soldier, one of which was published in The Christian Herald in 1917, and a third item composed in 1917, for a New Year’s card of 1918 of an entirely different sort.9  Entitled The Quest, he called it a story and it concerns four imaginary characters, Jones using a type of medieval language throughout. Their quest is for ‘the Castle called Heart’s Desire’.

In the film, considering the image which accompanies this story, Gillian Clarke hazards an intuitive guess as to why Jones resorted to a medieval world while Dr Rowan Williams indicates the connection – curious for us perhaps – there was in young men’s minds in 1914 between patriotic soldiering and the romance of the medieval knight, who combats dark forces. Indeed, by the beginning of the century a whole mythology had been formulated around the soldier, whether as chivalrous warrior, Christus Miles the follower of Christ, or looking back even earlier through classical myth, to the soldier as hero, demonstrating his capabilities as a man of courage, endurance and daring in the heat of battle.10  The word ‘gallantry’ summed up the concept – is it any wonder men flocked to join up as soon as the War started?

However, by 1928 the War had been over for a decade and veterans found themselves needing to set down their testimony as soldiers to what had happened through recording events, or as writers, or as poets using prose, to express how they had responded to the experience, thereby hoping to be rid of the results of participation: physical symptoms such as breathlessness, trembling or tears, nightmares of scenes relived, guilt at still being alive, wanting to memorialise dead comrades – a host of individual reasons that civilian life could not obliterate, let alone contain or adequately repress.

Erich Maria Remarque’s book All Quiet on the Western Front, an immediate success in German, was translated into many languages. It happened that Jones knew its English translator, A W Wheen, who lent him a copy in 1929. Having read it, Jones’s comment to himself was, ‘I can do better than that.’ He also read in translation Ernst Jünger’s Copse 25 and the books of the English poets writing prose: Robert Graves’s Goodbye to all That, Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man and Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War.11  (Wilfred Owen’s poems he was to read, and admire, much later in life 12 ). His comment on All Quiet on the Western Front, suggests that even in 1929, only a year after beginning to write, Jones knew what he wanted or did not want to do.

So Jones began to write seriously when others had already started to publish. This must be recognised since Jones could build on what had already been written and fill in omissions. If he were to make a contribution it had to be then, but why would a painter need to write? What could he not express in one medium that he could in another? Here is the crucial question of Why and a subsidiary one follows from it: What could Jones attempt, or achieve, that nobody else had?

As an artist Jones was approaching the height of his powers. In 1927 he had produced his finest wood-engravings for The Chester Play of the Deluge and in 1928 would make 150-200 drawings for his copper engravings of The Ancient Mariner, which he completed early in 1929. The impetus or compulsion to re-examine the War must have been considerable for, astonishingly, as well as making many paintings and engraving he found time to write and over the next four years, 1928-1932, had constructed most of the long poem he would eventually call In Parenthesis and have published in 1937.

But to return to beginnings, Jones makes it clear that he just started to write and in the first of his drafts presumably would have had the objective of getting the basic material down, having recalled as much as he could. To assist him he had his own war drawings, those he had not destroyed or that had not been lost, the three ‘essays’ mentioned already and very probably other letters written to his family. By good fortune, and visual training, he had a remarkable memory and books were being published to which he could refer such as Up to Mametz, in 1931 by Wyn Griffith, an officer of his own battalion, who had served in the same areas during the same period, and the regimental history of the Royal Welch Fusiliers,13  or he could consult maps. Gradually or suddenly, by fits and starts perhaps, he found out that he had been given a magnificent opportunity. Here is what an earlier poet, the American Walt Whitman, says on the first page of Leaves of Grass, incidentally a book Jones may have had reason to look at:

Know’st thou not there is but one theme for ever-enduring bards?

And that is the theme of War, the fortune of battles,

The making of perfect soldiers.14 

Jones must have discovered this, if not by reading Whitman, then in his study of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Malory, Shakespeare or Norse sagas.15  He had been given his theme – THE theme – he had a story to tell, he had a language or, in fact two, having served in a battalion of Cockneys and Welshmen, 15th (London Welsh) Battalion, Royal Welsh Fusiliers. He had been given everyday speech, army terminology, soldiers’ slang, swearing, songs, rhymes, hymns or psalms, even prayers uttered or yelled by men in extremes of anguish, and Jones adds: ‘I suppose at no time did one so much live with a consciousness of the past, the very remote, and the more immediate and trivial past, both superficially and more subtly.’16  It is intriguing to surmise that perhaps Jones, in using what was to hand,17  first got the idea of juxtaposing medieval and present-day language when he noticed the contrast between his own medieval pastiche and his contemporary writing. In In Parenthesis he chose to substitute Malory for his own words – to potent and resonant effect.18 

Had Jones not other assets as well, individual assets? As the child of a printer’s overseer he was ‘brought up in a home that took the printed page and its illustration for granted.’19  He was by nature a listener, he had listened to his sister reading to him, he had heard his father sing at least one old Welsh song and listened while James Jones read Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress to the family on Sundays or Milton’s poem Hymn on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity each Christmas Day.20  After the War, in Ditchling, he listened to the Gill girls singing folksongs or participated in the Little Office as a Dominican Tertiary.21  In Capel he listened while Gill read to his family. Through listening he also developed the gift of mimicry as can be seen in his letters, for instance, in recalling Herbert Cole, a teacher at Camberwell, or Laurie Cribb, the stone-cutter at Pigotts, where the Gills moved after Capel-y-ffin.22 

Whereas Jones had had to outgrow art school and Ditchling styles in order to find himself as painter and engraver, as a writer he had no earlier influences to free himself from. He had written no war poetry nor had he been a Georgian poet. His background as he saw it was solely that of a trained artist, quite unlike, indeed wholly unlike, he wrote to his associate Harman Grisewood, that of Brooke, Sassoon, Graves, Owen or even T S Eliot.23  Nevertheless, Jones may well have considered the Imagist agenda set out in 1912 by Ezra Pound, representing a small group of poets who wanted to move poetry beyond Victorian and subsequent Romanticism. Pound’s definition of the Image would have appealed to an artist: ‘that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time,’ and other points from Pound’s statement are also relevant, most notably his advocacy of verse freed of metre – ‘[compose] in the sequence of the musical phrase,’ Pound urges 24  – or he stresses a much more direct use of language and discusses the relation of verse to prose.25 

Jones had also the benefit of knowing Eric Gill, who had introduced him years earlier to Jacques Maritain’s Philosophy of Art and through that to St Thomas Aquinas and even Aristotle’s theories of art. Other writers spoken about by Gill included Ruskin, Morris and, for Jones particularly important, Maurice de la Taille.26  Through listening and in discussion Jones had already a clear concept of what a work of art should be and, in addition, younger friends to talk about poetry with, such as Harman Grisewood, René Hague, Jim Ede and Tom Burns. In the film Gillian Clarke surmises that as he wrote he discovered the potency of words, what they can do, what they signify, how they can be transformative. And, I would add, through using quotation extensively Jones was enabled to develop a poetic style equal to that of his quotations, balancing his choice of vocabulary in tone, expression and power with much earlier writing in English such as Malory or translations from Welsh.27 

By 1931-1932 Jones had almost totally laid aside engraving because it was endangering his eyesight but as a watercolorist he was now being considered one of the most significant painters in Britain. There was a new freedom in how he handled his brush, in his fluid manipulation of the medium and much less dependence, if any at all, on a use of the pencil when organising his compositions on the paper.28  And, as already mentioned, by 1932 he had almost completed his ‘writing’, an emerging epic, partly in prose, partly in poetry. Then, towards the end of that year disaster befell him. He could neither sleep nor work; for months on end he was at a standstill. He was, in fact, undergoing his first breakdown.29 

It might be thought that he had exhausted himself and merely needed rest or that he was experiencing delayed ‘shellshock’. Probably both of these were true, but, with hindsight, I suggest more than these problems was troubling him. At the profoundest level in addition something else, more momentous, was occurring, at the time not realised by Jones or anyone else. He was undergoing the process of becoming, or being turned into, a poet, accepting himself as the vessel ‘of something other’ as he might have described it, signified by the Word, implicit in contemplation of the War, but not confined to war. Put oversimply, the Word was being made Flesh. The Word was becoming his principal task. He had to make way for the warring factions within himself now, as artist and writer.30 

But is this all that it meant for Jones to become a poet? Definitely not; for first of all, in his quest for who he is, he is able to discover more of himself because, as must be obvious from considering his work, Jones was concerned with expressing the wholeness of himself as an artist.

Secondly, through using words he can construct large-scale works, he can layer past with present, secular with sacred, thought with action, individual with group or race.31 

Thirdly, through the use of words he can become more actively part of his society than as painter or engraver: poetry books, essays, dramatic broadcasts, radio talks, letters to the press, all attest to this.

And finally, he can become a friend of a world renowned poet, the American T S Eliot 32  and gain the admiration of another, the Irishman W B Yeats.33 

Jones read of earlier Welsh poets being called ‘rememberers’34  and liked the definition but remembrance surely has at least two contexts where warfare is concerned; while it falls upon civilians through remembrance to celebrate their soldiers, whether alive, disabled or dead, it is the soldiers job ‘to forget’, to downplay the atrocities he is asked, or enabled, to commit or which he has to endure when fighting in a war. Jones could not claim one aspect without accepting the other and his grief has been, I would suggest, greatly underestimated for Jones, much like his father, ‘was not given to voicing his deeper feelings.’ – directly.35  Here, however, are lines he quotes in an essay on The Song of Rowland: ‘Now you are dead and it is my grief that I live’,36  or a line from Malory: ‘Sirs, you are set for sorrow,’37  or from his own In Parenthesis: ‘He found him all gone to pieces… who miserably wept for the pity of it all…’ or ‘No one sings: Lully lully / for the mate whose blood runs down.’38 

Most painfully, Jones may already have had an inkling, during his nights of sleeplessness, that he would never be as great a painter or engraver as he would a poet. Words had become or were becoming his cross as well as his salvation.

And, to end, why did David Jones become a poet rather than a writer of prose? Two quotations answer this question better than I can, the first from a French critic, Jacques Darras, and the second from W B Yeats about ‘the Poet’. Darras writes: ‘The language of poetry runs fathoms deeper than ever will the language of politics or criticism. It is the most awesome of languages to handle, in so far as it is linked to prophecy, calling into existence what it wishes for with all its soul and body.’39  And here is Yeats himself: ‘[the poet is] more type than man, more passion than type.’40 

In summary: Jones first became a poet due to outer and inner pressures and then because in writing he discovered his own exceptional talent with words, exploring their sounds, rhythms, potency of meanings, derivations. Through using words poetically Jones was enabled to investigate the deposits he sought, could hear and listen, could be heard and listened to, could participate in mythic or sacramental ritual, in the imaginative and historic contexts of NOW, viewed as part of all recorded and unrecorded time.

© Derek Shiel 2009


1.  Donald Mitchell The Language of Modern Music London: Faber and Faber (1963) p104.

2.  William Blissett The Long Conversation Oxford: Oxford University Press (1981) p129.

3.  Derek Shiel David Jones in Ditchling Ditchling, Sussex: Ditchling Museum (2003) p37.

4.  Jonathan Miles & Derek Shiel David Jones: The Maker Unmade Bridgend, Wales: Seren (1995) pp107-108

5.  Ibid pp210-211.

6.  David Jones, Harman Grisewood editor Epoch and Artist London: Faber and Faber (1959) p30.

7.  David Jones In Parenthesis London: Faber and Faber (1937) pX.

8.  Jonathan Miles Eric Gill & David Jones at Capel-y-ffin Bridgend, Wales: Seren (1992) p155.

9.  Anthony Hyne A Fusilier at the Front Bridgend, Wales: Seren (1995) pp38, 66, 162.

10.  Graham Dawson Soldier Heroes Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge (1994)

11.  Blissett The Long Conversation p104.

12.  David Jones, Rene Hague editor Dai Greatcoat London: Faber and Faber (1980) p245.

13.  For a change in the spelling of Welsh see Anthony Hyne, A Fusilier at the Front pviii.

14.  Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd (1947) p1.

15.  Jones Dai Greatcoat p190.

16.  Jones In Parenthesis pXI.

17.  David Jones The Anathemata London: Faber and Faber (1952) p34.

18.  Jonathan Miles Backgrounds to David Jones Cardiff: University of Wales Press (1990) pp78-96.

19.  Jones Epoch and Artist p26.

20.  Jones Dai Greatcoat p24.

21.  Ibid p30.

22.  Ibid pp64, 227.

23.  Ibid p188.

24.  H.D. Collected Poems 1912-1944 New York: New Directions Paperbook (1986) pXIII.

25.  Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot editor Literary Essays Norfolk, Conn: New Directions (1954) pp3-4.

26.  Miles Backgrounds to David Jones pp5-22.

27.  Thomas Dilworth The Shape of Meaning in the Poetry of David Jones Toronto: University of Toronto Press (1988) p94-107.

28.  Miles & Shiel David Jones: The Maker Unmade pp138-39.

29.  Jones Dai Greatcoat p48 or Miles & Shiel David Jones: The Maker Unmade p252.

30.  Derek Shiel, Belinda Humphrey & Anne Price-Owen editors David Jones Diversity in Unity Cardiff: University of Wales Press (2000) pp107-115

31.  Backgrounds to David Jones pp78-96 or Paul Fussell The Great War and Modern Memory London: Oxford University Press (1977) pp146-147.

32.  Blissett The Long Conversation p11. Jones may have met Eliot in 1937 when In Parenthesis was first published by Faber and Faber.

33.  Dilworth The Shape of Meaning in the Poetry of David Jones p3.

34.  Jones Epoch and Artist p141.

35.  David Jones, Harman Grisewood editor The Dying Gaul London: Faber and Faber (1978) p23.

36.  Ibid p96.

37.  Ibid p96.

38.  Jones In Parenthesis pp153, 174.

39.  Jacques Darras, Paul Hills editor David Jones, Artist and Poet Aldershot, Hants: Scolar Press (1997) p128.

40.  Denis Donoghue Yeats London: Fontana / Collins (1971) p21.

Derek Shiel is the author, along with Jonathan Miles, of David Jones: The Maker Unmade, and the writer and director of the film In Search of David Jones: Artist, Soldier, Poet.