- Reading David Jones
David Jones, poet and artist, is one of the least known of the great literary modernists, in part because of the breadth of his knowledge and interests - including Welsh tradition, every detail of the Roman Mass (in Latin during Jones's writing life), archaeology and geology, Roman history (especially during the time of Christ), etc. This makes his work difficult to read for less artistically equipped mortals - but fascinating and desirable to master. Hence the need for a book on reading David Jones.
Thomas Dilworth is a major authority on Jones's work, to whom we owe The Shape of Meaning in the Poetry of David Jones (1988, a magisterial [End Page 363] interpretation explicating the totality of his writings); Inner Necessities (1984, a valuable edition of Jones's letters to Desmond Chute, who instructed him in wood-engraving and later became a priest); Wedding Poems (2002, two important additions to the Jones canon, which he rediscovered and edited); the first non-limited edition of Coleridge's Ancient Mariner complete with Jones's illustrations (2005); and numerous scholarly articles in learned journals.
Reading David Jones is an impossible book to review by its very nature because, although containing information that makes it useful for specialists, it is 'intended primarily for beginners, especially non-academic readers, who want help in exploring the poetry.' An admirable intention, yet no one qualified to judge the book's accuracy and authority can be in a position to judge its usefulness for 'beginners.' What do such beginners need? Presumably information in the form of exposition, interpretation, annotation, elaboration, and insight into the unity achieved by individual poems and by the whole oeuvre. Dilworth's book touches on all of these. However, though I have the greatest respect for Dilworth's scholarship and am immeasurably indebted to him for deeper appreciation of Jones's achievement, I have to state - reluctantly and with regret - that, because he touches so many bases, I do not consider this book the best way of achieving his goal.
For reasons of space, I shall concentrate not on Dilworth's book (which is accurate and authoritative so far as content is concerned, and should be available in all academic libraries for the up-to-date information it contains) but on beginners' prime needs. In my view, they need a clear sense of what Dilworth felicitously calls 'the shape of meaning' and provides in his earlier book. They also need practical demonstrations of how to approach the poetry, especially through close readings of particular extracts from major poems that would demonstrate the best way to proceed. Then, gradually, they should be able to discern his conspicuous (often unique) poetic qualities and be equipped to explore the myriad details, concentrating on those that most conform to their own interests and experience.
Where to begin? Jones's own notes reproduced with the texts of many of his poems are naturally primary. Beyond these, though Dilworth is somewhat condescending about it in his bibliography ('invaluable' yet 'not otherwise critically informed'), I consider René Hague's Commentary on the Anathemata of David Jones (1977) the best single introduction (admittedly to only one, but surely the most central, of Jones's poems) with its clear page-by-page explanation of difficult references. From there, enthusiasts (who will by then be beginners no longer) can branch out into other studies including Hague's Dai Greatcoat (1980, a self-portrait of Jones through his letters), William Blissett's The Long Conversation (1981, a sensitive and elegantly written memoir of his friendship with the poet) - and Dilworth's Shape of Meaning. [End Page 364]
But I don't want to end on a negative note. Perhaps Dilworth's most valuable contribution in Reading David Jones is the chapter on his early engravings to The Chester Play of the Deluge (1927). These are reproduced, and Dilworth shows how they exemplify a visual symmetry that, he argues, 'displays the kind of imagination that would make him a major poet' and goes on to demonstrate this in his later discussions of the...