David Jones: A Guide to the Poet and Artist, with Thomas Dilworth

David Jones is arguably the greatest native British modernist he was a great poet he wrote two of the great long poems in English literature in paranthesis published in 1937 and the anathema des published in 1952 and he was also a hugely important visual artist whom Kenneth Clarke thought was the greatest living British visual artist but he's difficult to to come to terms with because the poetry is long it's unintelligible if you excerpt bits you you don't get a sense of the full strength of the work and the visual art is not quickly seen and depreciated you've got to look at it for a long time you've got to take time to actually read the visual art David Jones was born in 1895 in broccoli which was not then incorporated into London Jones was influenced by his mother who was a an accomplished Victorian drafts woman and encouraged largely by her but also by his father he he drew from the age of five and he drew continually and and he drew beautifully in 1903 he was looking out the front window on aergon road where he lived and saw a bear being led by a by a trainer and and forced to dance which to him was actually a horrible sight but that bear Jones drew first the outline of the bear that the bear was led away and he filled a bear's fur in and in the drew a fence and he used the ruler to draw a fence and his sister said real artists don't use a ruler and Jones said David said to his sister bugger what a real artist would do and he used the ruler anyway and and later in life Jones thought that this work was still one of his best drawings and in the 1960s he had it he had it up on his wall it was an example for him that art doesn't progress or improve as a person ages and and that bear becomes the prototype of later later paintings of victims including Aphrodite and Alice whose chained at the ankle he interrupted his art-school training to go to war in 1914 he served longer in the war than any any other British writer 117 weeks he was a good soldier he described himself in in parentheses as a knocker over of piles piles of rifles and as as incompetent as a parade soldier and a DD was he he couldn't tell his left foot from his right when he was ordered to turn right turn left and many people have thought that this clumsiness meant he was an incompetent soldier but Jones disliked that that at that assumption Jones was a cunning competent practical soldier that's why he survived the war he could tell by the sound of a shell coming in which which direction it was coming in and could jump to the right side of the parapet and and escape the explosion he was involved in many raids he went on night patrol whenever he could partly to escape fatigue duty he was a first-class shot at the beginning of the war he was an excellent soldier but not a parade soldier Jones was involved in the assault on Mehmet's wood in the Battle of the some when Jones was wounded in the leg and had to go to England for recovery while on leave he visited Hart Drake who was an editor of the graphic magazine and heart rate commissioned him to give him a drawing of the assault on Memex woods and this is a fairly realistic depiction of the entrance of his battalion into the woods the war affected him for the rest of his life he said he couldn't get it out of his mind he was haunted by images of broken trees and broken bodies mutilated bodies I remember him telling me there are many worse things in war than death and and as a result of his experience of war especially of constant horrific artillery fire on average to barrage is a week he suffered what was then called neurasthenia which we now call PTSD for the rest of his life he had too severe nervous breakdowns one in 1933 the other in 1947 he suffered decades of clinical depression largely because of this war after the war Jones discovered engraving when he saw Desmond's shoot at ditch sling engraving a box woodblock he expressed interest and shoot took him on as a student and within a week shoot knew that David Jones was more accomplished as a visual artist than he was Jones was a master of design and and this is evident in his engravings above any other of his work because engraving is a pared down controlled simplified art form it exists by virtue of exclusion of everything else but basic form his best engravings are the last of the Book of Jonah and graving 's in which Jonah is is in the heat under a kind of shelter and this sense of heat just radiates through this engraving he then went on to do the frontispiece of a Welsh translation of the book of Ecclesiastes and on the basis of that engraving he was given the Commission to do the deluge and and those are very accomplished wood engravings and very rich and complex and then when he he took on the Commission to illustrate the The Rime of the Ancient Mariner he had to pare down his visual form to absolute essentials and there you've got strictly predominantly anyway line he also developed a kind of scraping technique to give Sheen to water and to skin and those illustrations to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner are recognized as as the best illustration to that poem as a painter he moved away from a kind of realistic competent depiction to a kind of new aesthetic of delicacy and transparency and an approach to chaos so that his paintings incorporate a sense of freedom that makes them challenging for the for the viewer to see a David Jones painting you have to take time and pause and look at it and not just look at it but read the painting the paintings have a kind of delicacy and a kind of shyness in them that makes them inaccessible to a quick superficial glance and and that's because he he he achieves a sort of balance between form and chaos in which the form seems to come alive and to move one of the things I want to mention is his inscriptions which are really astonishing and they combined his visual art and the kind of freedom he attempted to achieve in his visual art with poetry modernist aesthetics and poetry because he would take texts from Welsh or Latin sources and juxtapose them and the reason he used Latin largely in Welsh is he didn't want you to read them he wanted you to see them he wanted it to be fundamentally a visual experience not the kind of experience we have when we read a text and we don't see the letters we just read them he invented the painted inscription as an art form and they are among his greatest works Jones started writing poetry because he came down with the flu and wasn't well enough to paint the first draft of in paranthesis was finished in 1932 but it was published in 1937 so there were five years of revision in parentheses is a making present again of his experience in the first seven months of the great war well this is a section from early on and Paredes about the incredible tedium of sentry duty at night and the deepened stillness as a car cast over us a potent influence over us and him dead calm for this Sargasso dank and for the creeping things you can hear the silence of it you can hear the rat of no-man's land rut out intricacies Ouisa liked his patient workings scrub scrub scrub hair out earthly trowel his cunning Paul Rodriguez own amphibious paradise you could hear his carrying parties rustle are corrupt through the night weeds contest the choicest morsels in his tiny conduits be died feast on us by a rule of his nature at night feast on the broken of us those broad pinion blue burnished or branded back who's proud eyes watched the broken emblems droop and drag dust suffer with us this metamorphosis these two have shared their fine feathers these two have slimed their dark bright coats these two have condescended to dig in the white-tailed eagle at the battle ebb where the sea wars against the river the speckled kite of Maldon and the crow have naturally selected to be unlinked to go on the belly to SAP SAP SAP with festered spines arched under the moon furet with whiskered snouts the secret parts of us but it's all quiet you can hear them scratch scratch scratch when it's as quiet as this is it's so very still your body fits the crevice of the bay and the most comfortable fashion imaginable it's cushy enough the relief elbows him on the fire step or quiet china bugger old report keeping mate Christ mate you are them all over most people they appreciate in parentheses because it's so poignant because the debt you you get to know the infantrymen who die and it's so moving and the celebration of their goodness in the visitation by the queen of the woods who bestows Garland's according to their virtues what was Jones's favorite part of the poem and it is one of the most moving passages in English literature although to appreciate it fully you have to have gotten to know those infantryman by reading the poem as a whole but by far Jones thought and I think it's true the anathema des is his greatest work which is a symbolic dramatic anatomy of Western culture it begins with human evolution and and and flies is exact zigzags back and forth across the centuries including Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism symbolically present in Roman imperialism which Jones was was very much against the thematic meaning of the anathema des I think derives from an experience he had when he was a child he remembers his mother saying goodbye to a Quaker doctor and she said tell me doctor why did Quakers not have sacraments and the doctor said but mrs. Jones all of life is a sacrament and Jones never forgot that and that is the meaning of the anathema to everything has ultimate significance and and that significance is represented in the Eucharist which for Jones is the central act of Western culture his poetry comes from a rich literary culture and and it's so rich because he never went to school in other words he didn't imbibe the conventions of of academic training which which tell you when to stop he just kept reading reading and in his work he alludes richly more richly than probably any other writer other than Joyce at the end of his life a friend of his came to him visit him one one day and said of course your pictures are more important than the poetry and he mulled this over for a week and when he saw his friend again he said you know that's not true the poetry is more important than the pictures you

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