English poet and artist David Jones (1895–1974) was one of the revered figures of his generation. A writer who worked in the modernist style as well as a phenomenally gifted painter and engraver, he is best known for two major epic poems, In Parenthesis, published in 1937, and The Anathemata, which he wrote 15 years later.
The poet and publisher T.S. Eliot was an early champion of the work of David Jones, dubbing Jones's In Parenthesis “a work of genius” in his introduction to the 1961 edition. Another esteemed contemporary, W.H. Auden, compared Jones's modernist account of heroic journeys and the suffering incited by war to the work of the Greek master Homer. “We find ourselves privates in foot regiments,” Jones mused in the original preface to In Parenthesis. “We search how we may see formal goodness in a life singularly inimical, hateful, to us.”
Walter David Jones was born on November 1, 1895, at his family's home on Arabin Road in Brockley, a suburb of London located in the metropolitan area's southeast quadrant. As a child, he was called David by family and friends, and he adopted the name “David Michael Jones” when he converted to Roman Catholicism, selecting a second middle name as part of the sacrament of confirmation.
Growing up at the turn of the 20th century but within a late-Victorian culture, Jones was taught Bible passages and cautionary proverbs at a very young age. His Welsh-born father, James Jones, adhered to an evangelical sect of Christianity and worked at a printing house producing Christian-oriented publications, while mother Alice Bradshaw Jones maintained an allegiance to the formal Church of England (Anglican) rite. Alice was a teacher prior to marriage, and her family included a long line of boat builders and associated tradespeople based in Rotherhithe, a London suburb adjoining the River Thames and a historic center of the boatbuilding industry.
There was a four-year age gap between Jones and his older sister, Cissy, and a six-year chasm separating him from Harold, the Jones's first-born son. Both Harold and Cissy tormented their little brother as a toddler whenever the attention of responsible adults was diverted. According to reports, Harold was especially cruel to the younger boy, whose favorite pastime was drawing animals. This bullying reached near-tragedy when Harold tucked a live firecracker into his five-year-old brother's shirt, leaving the youngster with burns to his neck and back. A few years later, Harold contracted tuberculosis and ultimately succumbed to the disease at age 21, just a few weeks after Jones's 15th birthday. Jones would later recall that, as a child, he privately loathed his brother because of his bullying and had even wished him dead; as an adult, Harold's incurable illness and its tragic outcome left him with a lasting psychological scar.
World War I was the line of demarcation for Jones's generation. Nearly every family in Britain was affected by the four-year conflict, which played out largely on the battlefields of France and Belgium against an imperial German army, although improbably large sea battles and equally devastating clashes occurred elsewhere in Europe against the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Turks. In January of 1915, Jones enlisted with the Royal Welch Fusiliers, which had recently expanded to include a Londonbased battalion. His regiment trained near Winchester and shipped out to France in December of 1915.
Jones survived a remarkable 117 weeks of active-combat duty, longer than other British writers—a not-insignificant list—who also fought during World War I. He spent the majority of his military service on the Western Front and in the literal trenches. For many soldiers, these narrow and muddy, below-ground quarters were claustrophobic and seemed to be open-gravesites in the making. Jones was comforted by the close quarters in the trenches, preferring it to being above ground and exposed to enemy fire.
As a soldier, Jones spent long shifts on night patrols, which he preferred to the standard infantry-duty schedule. The atrocities he would witness during the daylight hours left him with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Many of his fellow soldiers were similarly affected, and the condition was termed “shell shock” at the time. Jones's case, however, exacerbated a mood disorder that was possibly genetic and likely amplified by stressors during early childhood. It took more than a decade after mustering out in 1918 for Jones to begin writing about his experiences on the Western Front, and the epic poem that resulted became one of the two masterpieces of his literary career.
In 1919, Jones re-enrolled at the Camberwell Art School and later took courses at the Westminster School of Art. He also converted to Roman Catholicism during the early 1920s, inspired in part by an experience he had in France while on one of his night-patrol rounds. While checking a barn near the British entrenchment, he came across a Roman Catholic priest saying the Latin Mass for a few devout men. After joining the faith, Jones was accepted into a community of Roman Catholic artists anchored by Eric Gill, a noted English sculptor and illustrator who created the impressive Stations of the Cross commission for Westminster Cathedral. Jones spent long periods with Gill and his family, as well as with members of the Guild of St. Joseph and St. Dominic, an artists' commune in Sussex that Gill had co-founded. It was through this group that Jones learned the process of woodcut engraving, which became the mainstay of his artistic output.
Jones's first work as a commissioned book illustrator came in 1923 when he produced artwork for a new edition of Jonathan Swift's 1726 satire Gulliver's Travels, published by Golden Cockerel Press. He went on to illustrate many more works for the fine-art publishing venture and even designed the firm's fanciful avian logo. One particularly notable example of his book-illustration work is a 1929 edition of the classic Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Forty-five years later, the book's copperplate engravings were included in a new edition, and prints from this 1964 version are now in the permanent collection of London's Victoria & Albert Museum.
Since his first visits to his father's family during childhood, Jones had loved Wales and its singular natural beauty, impenetrable language, and distinct culture. During the 1920s, Gill and several artist colleagues acquired an abandoned monastery in the region and established an artists' colony at Capel-y-ffin, and Jones now spent long periods there. Although he became engaged, at one point, to Gill's daughter Petra, he suffered a period of extreme mental distress beginning in 1927, and their engagement was broken. After recuperating at his parents' home in Brockley, Jones toured France and began to earn positive critical accolades for his printmaking and drawings. His works were exhibited and sold by the Goupil & Cie gallery and featured at the 1934 Venice Biennale, a showcase for contemporary artists of significance since 1895.
In the early 1930s, following his trip to France, Jones began working on the epic poem that became In Parenthesis. Revisiting the traumas of World War I triggered another mental-health crisis, however, and the poem's publication was delayed several years and was issued by London publishing house Faber in 1937. T.S. Eliot, then a director at Faber, recalled his first reading of the work in a later edition of In Parenthesis. “On reading the book in typescript I was deeply moved,” Eliot asserted 24 years later. “I then regarded it, and I still regard it, as a work of genius.”
In Parenthesis is a seven-part poem that recounts the experiences of a humble infantry soldier, Private John Ball, during World War I. Much of it draws from Jones's experiences on the Western Front and during the Battle of the Somme. The critical reception was fervent, especially among reviewers who also served in the British Army during the grim 1914-18 conflict. Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, art historian Herbert Edward Read deemed it “a book which we can accept as a true record of our suffering” as well as “one of the most remarkable literary achievements of our time.” In 1938, Jones was awarded the Hawthornden Prize, at the time the only major award for recent works in British literature.
Jones produced one more epic poem, The Anathemata, which was published in 1952. Its themes include the early-historical links between the Levant and Romanera Britain and the enduring legacy of Celtic culture in surprising corners of Europe, including Wales. More than two decades later, a writer for the London Times described it as “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. This, of course, is asking a lot. But the difference between The Anathemata and another twentiethcentury masterpiece with which it is sometimes compared, Ezra Pound's Cantos, is that David Jones is never deliberately obscure in his language or recondite in his imagery.”
Returning once again to his art studio, Jones produced a raft of works that were featured in a British Arts Council exhibition tour that brought them to the prestigious Tate Gallery in London in late 1954. He had planned The Anathemata as the first installment of a longer work, but he began to suffer from various ailments—including bouts of what was quaintly described as “nervous exhaustion”— in his sixties. In 1974, when his verse collection The Sleeping Lord was finally published, Jones died. Then living at a care facility in Harrow, England, he passed away on October 28, at age 78. He was buried in the Brockley and Ladywell Cemetery in London, just a few short blocks from the Arabin Road home in which he was born.
Dilworth, Thomas, David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet, Jonathan Cape, 2017.
Jones, David, In Parenthesis: Seinnyessit E Gledyf Ym Penn Mameu, introduction by T.S. Eliot, New York Review of Books, 1961.
Times (London, England), October 29, 1974, “Obituary: David Jones, Painter, Writer and Engraver,” p. 19.
Times Literary Supplement, June 19, 1937, Herbert Edward Read, “War and the Spirit,” p. 457.□