- History, Geography, Poetry: David Jones’s Late Modernism
Until relatively recently everyone seemed to agree that modernism came to an end with the twin disasters of Finnegans Wake (1939) and the outbreak of the Second World War. What followed was a matter of disagreement, but most commentators concurred that it wasn’t modernism. This account of modernism’s end now seems less than persuasive, especially given the critical attention that has been paid during the past two decades to modernism’s legacies, afterlives, and late manifestations.1 This is particularly true for those scholars, including myself, who seek to account for the achievements of late modernist poets on both sides of the Atlantic. Indeed, I would argue that the three decades between 1945 and 1975 marked a major new phase of formal and linguistic experiment in Anglophone modernist poetry. This period saw the publication of such important late modernist texts as William Carlos Williams’s Paterson (1946–58), Lynette Roberts’s Gods with Stainless Ears (1951), Melvin B. Tolson’s Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (1953), W. S. Graham’s The Nightfishing (1955), Hugh MacDiarmid’s In Memoriam James Joyce (1955), Louis Zukofsky’s “A” 1–12 (1959), H.D.’s Helen in Egypt (1961), Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts (1966), George Oppen’s Of Being Numerous (1968), Lorine Niedecker’s North Central (1968), Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems (1960–75), and Brian Coffey’s Advent (1975). Nor should we forget that the first nearly complete edition of Ezra Pound’s The Cantos was published by New Directions in 1970. Given this remarkable late flourishing of modernist poetry in the decades after the Second World War, the more interesting critical question is not when modernism [End Page 869] came to an end but rather how modernism persists and transforms itself during the second half of the twentieth century.
In this article I want to offer some answers to that question through a focused critical engagement with the work of David Jones, which is arguably central to the resurgence of modernist poetry in the three decades after the Second World War. Born in 1895, Jones had already established a career and reputation as a visual artist when he published In Parenthesis (1937), a book-length poem in verse and prose that is widely regarded as the most important modernist depiction of the First World War.2 Less widely known but also highly significant are two later texts, The Anathémata (1952) and The Sleeping Lord and Other Fragments (1974), both of which extend modernist aesthetics well beyond the “end” of modernism proper. The latter volume in particular, which gathers together several texts that were begun in the 1930s then revised and published in the 1960s, can be regarded as an example of what Edward Said calls “late style,” a mode of writing characterized by anachronism, “intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction.”3 Moreover, Jones was preoccupied with the historical and aesthetic implications of “lateness,” describing himself in the preface to The Anathémata as someone who writes poetry “in a late and complex phase of a phenomenally complex culture.”4 Lateness and complexity go together in Jones’s work, and the late style of his oeuvre is of further interest because of the way in which it serves to both illustrate and complicate some influential critical accounts of late modernism.
Simplifying a little, there are two ways of describing late modernism: one relates a story of decline and obsolescence that is usually keyed to larger narratives of historical change; the other tells a tale of survival and persistence long after modernism is supposed to have passed on. The first kind of account is exemplified by Tyrus Miller, who defines late modernism as a phenomenon of the late 1920s and 1930s, “a distinctly self-conscious manifestation of the aging and decline of modernism” that eschews the “strong symbolic forms” of high modernism through self-reflexive laughter and the erosion of individual subjectivity (Late Modernism, 7, 20). In Miller’s influential account, then, late modernism belongs to the interwar years and fits within the conventional period boundaries ascribed to modernism as a whole (roughly, 1900–40), though it also constitutes...