Why David Jones? Why Now?

Kathleen Henderson Staudt

© Estate of David Jones

     David Jones’s poetry is not widely read. Because of the difficulty of his work, its themes of the Great War, of cultural “lateness” and its often fragmentary and multitextual form, he tends to be classified as a lesser Modernist. Some find him a little easier than Joyce (whose work he greatly admired, especially Finnegans Wake) and a little harder than Eliot (who fostered and supported Jones’s work). But I believe it is in his particularity, his resistance to being included with broad themes and movements, that David Jones actually speaks beyond his time. Perhaps, as Lear’s fool put it, he lives “before his time,”1 and looks ahead to our own. A Catholic convert, Jones wrote at a time of change in the liturgical practices of the Church, and this, combined with his identity as an Anglo-Welsh artist, makes him even more interesting to our own multicultural era. He speaks self-consciously out of a cultural and religious framework that is less and less widely understood. But he expresses little of the normative traditionalism that one finds in, for example, Eliot. The ideas and traditions Jones evokes are not held up in a spirit of traditionalist nostalgia, but are rather celebrated and shaped, before our eyes, as the particular cultural materials of this artist, working within “the limits of his love” (Ana, 24). Reading his poetry, we watch a creator and craftsman – a representative of “man the artist” at work, using some of the strategies, but not always the ideologies, of High Modernism. All his work is about poetic process, and it demonstrates and celebrates that process, as we watch the poet-artist putting things together into significant form.

     Aware of the increasing pressures of what he called “our placeless cosmocracy,” Jones looked to the particularities of place, landscape, story, and ritual, and his work invites readers to do the same. Distressed by the reductiveness of a material culture focused on utility and practicality, he celebrated what is gratuitous, playful, delight-ful in our making. Most of all, he insists on our identity as “makers.” In a fresh take on the Christian mythos, he explores the implications of the Logos, the Son, the second person of the Christian trinity as the divine “maker” whose nature we reflect when we “hold up this thing and say “this is something other."2

     Perhaps more subtly, for 21st century readers, Jones’s work is countercultural in ways that speak directly to our time -- perhaps especially in the United States, which has been for more than a generation a center of “world empire,” politically and economically. He is not simply a traditionalist wishing we could go back; rather, he is pulling together the “things” that he cares about and that seem to be threatened and devalued by the technocratic and imperialist agendas of our time. For Jones, Christian tradition is one of those “things”, especially an incarnational, sacramental, often curiously feminine-centered Christianity that values generativity, continuity, and particularity. He sees the Christian mythos and the practices surrounding it as if they were part of an indigenous culture being threatened by a new empire. Especially in the U.S, many of us who care about the continuity of a creative and generous-hearted Christianity can resonate with Jones. We can recognize with him that the beloved, traditional forms look to most of the world like the “rear-guard details in their quaint attire” (Ana, 50) and we can wonder with him what will come next as a mode of expression for the mystery of who we are as human beings. Jones’s work invites us to explore what it means to be “makers” in a world that often seems to be occupied with “unmaking. ” It invites us to see that we perform “acts of art” because we are made in the image of the One who made all things: “himself not made, maker of sequence and permutation in all things made” (Ana, 63), the One who “placed himself in the Order of signs."

     On the weekend of St. David’s day (February 27- March 1, 2009), the Cathedral College of Washington National Cathedral sponsored a conference on “Faith, Art and Poetry in a post-Christian Culture,” focusing on the art and poetry of David Jones, with Kathleen Henderson Staudt and Esther de Waal serving as organizers and conveners. The conference was coordinated with the opening of an exhibit on David Jones and his Circle at the Lauinger Library of Georgetown Unviersity, an event which featured a talk by Derek Shiel and the showing of Shiel’s film, In Search of David Jones: Artist, Soldier, Poet.

     This issue of FlashPøint has at its core the papers offered at that conference, enhanced by other fine work that places Jones’s work in various modernist contexts. In Washington, William Blissett offered a keynote, reflecting on the themes of faith and friendship over his seventy years of knowing David Jones and his work. Calum Macfarlane and Kathleen Henderson Staudt spoke to the conference’s theme with reflections on the theology and spirituality expressed in Jones’s sacramental poetics – MacFarlane by placing Jones’s work in conversation with that of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Staudt by reflecting on her own evolving relationship with Jones’s poetics and spirituality. Anne Price-Owen showed how Jones draws together the material and immaterial in his visual art. Thomas Goldpaugh, who is completing an edition of Jones’s previously unpublished long manuscript poem, reflected here on the anti-imperialist themes at the heart of the long poem that Jones was writing for most of his life, of which the poems published in The Sleeping Lord are “fragments.” Bradford Haas placed Jones’s work in the context of High Modernist discourse. Beyond the Washington conference papers, we also include here some fine work by Thomas Dilworth and Colin Wilcockson offered at a later David Jones Society gathering at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, May of 2010.

     Readers of FlashPøint will appreciate in Jones’s work the linguistic complexity and multivoiced texture of High Modernism, as well as his peculiar cultural vision, which is neither totally traditionalist nor purely anti-imperialist, though it weaves together elements of these perspectives. We hope that the papers and links drawn together here will provide a kind of “gateway” for readers and scholars new to Jones’s work, as well as a foundation and re-starting point for those taking a fresh look at this highly original and much neglected modern voice.


1.   Shakespeare, King Lear III: iii, 95. Epigraph to The Anathemata: Fragments of an Attempted Writing (London: Faber & Faber, 1952). (Ana)

2.   Jones develops this theology of human sign-making in his important essay “Art and Sacrament,” in Epoch and Artist (London: Faber & Faber, 1959). See especially pp. 148-159.

In addition to essays by those who attended the Cathedral Conference, this David Jones special issue of FlashPøint features:
Tutelar, or Her Truth's Teller? Myth, Women Poets, and David Jones's "The Tutelar of the Place"
Silences Inside the Word: Cultural Spaces in David Jones's Anathémata and Selected Writings
by David Annwn,
David Jones’s "The Sleeping Lord," Melvin Tolson’s "Libretto for the Republic of Liberia," and American Empire
by Carlo Parcelli.

David Jones books available via Amazon.com:

          In Parenthesis, New York Review Books, NYRB Classics, 2003, with foreword by W.S. Merwin. Used book stores might also carry the Viking Press Compass Book edition, 1961, with T.S. Eliot's original "A Note of Introduction."

          The Anathemata: fragments of an attempted writing, Faber and Faber, London & Boston, 1952, 1972, 1979, 1990.

          The Sleeping Lord and other fragments, Faber and Faber, London & Boston, 1974, 1995.

          The Kensington Mass, Agenda Editions, 1975.

          The Roman Quarry and other sequences, edited by Harman Grisewood and René Hague, The Sheep Meadow Press, New York City, 1981.

          Selected Works of David Jones: from In Parenthesis, The Anathemata, and The Sleeping Lord, edited by John Matthias, National Poetry Foundation: Rei Sub edition, 1992.

          Epoch and Artist: Selected Writings, edited by Harman Grisewood, Chilmark Press, New York, 1959.

          The Dying Gaul and other writings, edited with an introduction by Harman Grisewood, Faber and Faber, London & Boston, 1978; also Faber Finds, 2009.