David Jones? To Stravinsky he was “a writer of genius,” and Kenneth Clark once called him the best modern painter. According to military historian Michael Howard, Jones’s “In Parenthesis,” might be “the most remarkable work of literature to emerge from either world war.” As for Jones’s other masterpiece, “The Anathemata,” W.H. Auden claimed it was “very probably the finest long poem written in English in this century.” I won’t even mention similar encomia from Graham Greene, Dylan Thomas, Henry Moore, Seamus Heaney and others.
So, if David Jones is this good, shouldn’t he be, like, famous?
Well, he is, actually, except to those who confuse temporary celebrity with lasting artistic achievement. Still, Jones’s overall reputation may be slightly blurred because — like Beatrix Potter or Mervyn Peake — he was equally accomplished as both a writer and a visual artist. Moreover, his work can be demanding, even off-puttingly recondite. A Catholic convert, he imbues his pictorial and verbal art with religious imagery, Arthurian myth and intricately layered, deeply felt symbolism. Fortunately, Thomas Dilworth’s new biography, “David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet,” provides an excellent introduction to this multitalented creator’s life and imagination.
Born in 1895, “half British-Celt, three-eighths English, and one-eighth Italian,” he grew up in an ardently evangelical family. From childhood Jones was drawing so well that quite late in life he would hang over his mantel a large sketch of a bear, produced when he was 7, and impishly declare, “It’s much the best drawing I’ve ever done.”
In 1911 the young Jones began art school, studying drawing with A.S. Hartrick, who had been a close friend of van Gogh. Whatever his actual medium, Jones would always regard himself as primarily a draftsman, for whom, in his own words, “line is everything.”As a teacher, Hartrick urged students to push boundaries, often repeating Gaugin’s draconian remark that “in art there are only revolutionaries and plagiarists.”
During his art-school years Jones was also reading avidly, most notably Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur,” Welsh history and that great repository of romantic legend, “The Mabinogion.” When war broke out in 1914, he naturally enlisted in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Their tin helmets, he decided, resembled those of medieval infantry and his 18-inch bayonet looked like a sword.
As a combat soldier, writes Dilworth, Jones would be “canny, efficient, adept at survival.” He had to be just to live through the Battle of the Somme, in which one-third of his battalion died in the initial attack. By 1918, when he nearly succumbed to typhuslike trench fever, he “had seen more active duty in the war than any other British writer,” spending a total of 117 weeks at the front. He suffered from the war’s aftereffects all his life, once confessing that “I still think about it more than anything else.”
In France, however, Jones had once stumbled upon a small Catholic service being celebrated near the front lines. What he later called the “time-abolishing presence of Jesus in the Eucharist” deeply affected his mythic imagination, so much so that he came to regard the Mass not only as a sacred rite but also as the supreme work of art. After the armistice, he turned for instruction to John J. O’Connor, the prototype of G.K. Chesterton’s fictional detective, Father Brown, and converted to Catholicism.
About this time Jones also took up wood engraving, then joined two successive Catholic artists’ communities, both overseen by the master stonecutter and type designer Eric Gill. At the first of these, he studied Jacques Maritain’s “Art and Scholasticism,” learned that he was an inept carpenter and fell in love with Gill’s daughter Petra. During the 1920s, Jones was regularly commissioned to produce book illustrations, most notably for Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels,” the medieval “Chester Play of the Deluge,” the Book of Jonah and Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Only gradually did he emerge as an equally accomplished painter.
After Petra married someone else, Jones returned to London, where he survived for the rest of his life in the most humble rooming houses, subsisting on small stipends from friends and admirers. He was fond of whiskey, often sick with flu, sloppy in his living habits, sexually inhibited and prey to multiple phobias, serious depression and nervous breakdowns. Nothing came easily for him, though his paintings — landscapes, mythological scenes and portraits — often exhibit, amid their multilayered busyness, an almost ethereal delicacy.
He was also writing. “In Parenthesis,” his epic prose poem about World War I, appeared in 1937 and later won the Hawthornden Prize. Its models, says Dilworth, included Malory, the Mass, “Wuthering Heights” and “Moby-Dick,” while its linguistic richness derived from the “Anna Livia Plurabelle” section of James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake,” Cockney slang and the compacted poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Do give “In Parenthesis” a try, especially during this season when we recall the United States’ entry into the Great War.
“The Anathemata” — the title can be translated as “things set aside or consecrated for a deity” — is a more forbidding work. This Mount Everest of fragments and broken lines takes as its subject nothing less than Western culture, sets up parallels between Roman and British incursions into the Middle East, and successfully rivals Ezra Pound’s “Cantos” in its demands on the reader. I’ve done nothing but sample bits and pieces and wish I were smarter.
In 1974, three days short of his 79th birthday, this least known of the great modernists died of degenerative heart failure. While his life was hard and never entirely free of post-traumatic stress disorder, David Jones now has — thanks to Thomas Dilworth — a biography worthy of his originality and genius.
Michael Dirda reviews books on Thursdays in Style.
On Wednesday, April 12, at 6:30 pm, Thomas Dilworth will be at the East City Bookshop, 645 Pennsylvania Avenue SE.
By Thomas Dilworth
Counterpoint. 423 pp. $39.50