At 7:28 am on July 1st, the United Kingdom held a two minute silence to commemorate the first wave of soldiers to participate in the bloodiest battle of the Great War. Exactly 100 years ago, the British Army detonated a series of mines under German lines near the upper reaches of the Somme River in France. British and French troops then climbed over the parapets of their trenches and advanced into No Man’s Land with rifles in their hands. The operation was a disaster. Allied troops suffered heavy losses under German machine gun and rifle fire. Over 19,000 Allied troops died in the operation and another 38,000 were injured. And this was only the beginning: the Somme Offensive would last another 140 days.
At 7:30 am, Big Ben chimed an end to the commemorative silence. Now sounds. The bells initiated a month and more of collective remembering: lectures on the Great War in history classrooms, poetry readings on the radio, and documentaries on British television. The Royal Mail’s “centenary stamps” serve as potent metaphors of a country in communication—a country in dialogue with its past and reframing its present.
Amid Britain’s attention to the Battle of the Somme, a new sensitivity fell on one of the greatest (and perhaps one of the most neglected) poets to have participated in the Great War: David Jones (1895-1974). BBC Radio Wales aired “David Jones – The Space Between,” BBC Radio Three played “Landmarks: In Parenthesis, by David Jones,” BBC Four hosted Owen Sheer’s documentary The Greatest Poem of World War One: David Jones’s In Parenthesis, The National Library of Wales displayed manuscript pages of In Parenthesis next to Aneirin’s Y Gododdin, the Welsh National Opera put on an operatic adaption of the Great War epic, and Pallant House (Chichester) hosted a retrospective of Jones’s visual art. Jones’s “absolutely unique” (Kenneth Clark) vision had found its own place in Britain’s larger discussion of the Battle of the Somme.
One’s first encounter with Jones’s work—even when (re-)framed in popular programs like the ones listed above—is often marked by frustration. Both his visual art and his poetry is allusive, dense, seemingly impersonal. A passage from In Parenthesis:
He stood alone on the stones, his mess-tin spilled at his feet. Out of the vortex, rifling the air it came—bright, brass-shod, Pandoran; with all-filling screaming the howling crescendo’s up-piling snapt. The universal world, breath held, one half second, a bludgeoned stillness. Then the pent violence released a consummation of all burstings out; all sudden up-rendings and rivings-through—all taking-out of vents—all barrier-breaking—all unmaking. Pernitric begetting—the dissolving and splitting of solid things. (Part 2, p. 24)
But, how else is one to speak of the modern condition but in complex fragments? How else is one to speak of war but in language “snapt” and “up-rended”? How else does one avoid the simple and propagandistic syntax of the very media commemorating the war? If Jones’s work was, in fact, closer to propaganda, perhaps it would have a more fixed placed in Britain’s cultural canon. But this is not the case—and who cares? If ears, eyes, thoughts are, even for a moment, turned to Jones, it is for the good. Jones (in In Parenthesis at least) is not only valuable in that he particularizes the experience of the Somme (in which he fought and was wounded), but, more importantly, that he complicates the discourse dedicated to it—he adds sensitivity and intricacy to often oversimple discussions of Britain’s past.
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On 21 July, a “small contingent” of enthusiasts gathered at York University to discuss Jones’s singular and complex vision. Over three days, we attended a variety of Jones-related talks, discussions, and events as part of a conference entitled David Jones: Dialogues with the Past. And the past did loom. Exactly 100 years and 10 days before the opening day of the conference, Jones was shot in the leg during an attack on Mametz Wood. Over 630 years before that, Llewelyn ap Gruffudd, the last native prince of Wales, was killed in the Battle of Orewin Bridge. And over 680 years before the death of Llewelyn, an army of 300 Brythonic men died in the Battle of Catraeth. So, we reached back in time. And although the topic of our conference was the past, our discussions were not fossilized and static (like artifacts in a museum), but alive, present, relevant.
For me to discuss the conference in its entirety would only result in sentences (list-like) too empty, too quick, to do each speaker and each event justice. So, I’ll frame my discussion by way of a simple form: three groups of three—three speakers, three events, and three thank-yous. (And there may be a few honourable mentions as well).
The three talks that left a lasting impression were Tom Dilworth’s “David Jones, the Great War and In Parenthesis” (21 July), Elizabeth Rose Powell’s “The Quest for Sacrament in Jones’ Poem ‘A, a, a, DOMINE DEUS’” (23 July), and Bradford Haas’s “Visualizing History: the Pictorial Method of David Jones” (23 July). Dilworth’s keynote speech rehashed a number of ideas featured in his book The Shape of Meaning in the Poetry of David Jones (1988). After discussing the literary features of In Parenthesis, Dilworth concluded with a new and compelling psychological point. While he was conducting research for his biography of Jones (out in April), Dilworth found evidence of Jones having been bullied by his older brother Harold. Harold, Dilworth claimed, was so physically and psychologically abusive that David may have wished his brother dead. Soon his wish would come true: Harold died at the age of 19 of tuberculosis and David suffered from severe guilt for the rest of his life.
Powell’s “The Quest for Sacrament” was another highlight. Powell presented a close reading of “A, a, a, DOMINE DEUS”: a poem about the struggle for a sacramental poetics in a technocratic age. Powell made a convincing link between the poem and Jones’s painted inscriptions, thereby complicating traditional readings of the seemingly simple poem. Haas’s “Visualizing History” proved to be the most compelling of the talks I attended. His slideshow of historical graphs and charts (cf. “Millerite Graph” below) became a fruitful means of understanding Jones’s own organization of history, particularly as it is depicted in the mind map associated with The Anathemata (1952) (cf. “Chart of Sources” above)
To give variance to the conference, a number of events were organized. The first day closed with a screening of previously unseen footage of Jones, taped by Mabon Studio. The film shows Jones surrounded by books, papers, and miscellaneous artwork in his room at Harrow-on-the-Hill (where he spent the latter part of his life). Having suffered a stroke, Jones speaks slowly; however, the method of his speaking seems to me more than just the effect of a cerebrovascular attack. He speaks and pauses with a conscious deliberation that reminds me of the late Geoffrey Hill: a dwelling on words and phrases, attempting to communicate the right and truthful thing. Like Hill, he jokes as well.
The night of 22 July offered two enjoyable entertainments. After a keynote given by Paul Hills (“‘The Good Bodily Image’ and David Jones’s Historical Imagination”), the attendees took a bus to St. Wilfred’s church in York’s city centre. The event began with a short reflection on the “sound” of Jones’s poetry by Fr. John David Ramsey and then a rendition of Vexilla Regis by the School Sancti Wilfridi. Then, we heard a moving sequence by Opus Anglicanum called David Jones: July 1916, The Battle of Mametz Wood from In Parenthesis. Their vocal performance was punctuated by dramatic readings of In Parenthesis. After the Opus Anglicanum performance, the attendees walked to Walmgate Alehouse where Rahul Gupta recited of The Dream of the Rood in Old English, followed by a reading of his original translation. Hilary Davies and Kathleen Henderson Staudt read original poetry.
Now my three thank-yous. The first two go to the conference organizers, Anna Svendsen and Dr. Jasmine Hunter Evans. I bestow a “curious crown” of “golden saxifrage” on the former and give a “myrtle wand” to the latter. (I’m unsure if that joke is in bad taste). The third thanks (and a “very special one”) must go to the anonymous donor that made parts of the conference possible. And I will add a fourth: Richard Leigh. Richard and I had the chance to have a very interesting conversation about another historical moment: jazz. Jazz and Jones seem worlds apart—but that’s all easy surface.
To listen to any of the talks, please click here.
Header Image: David Jones by Mark Gerson (1965) via National Portrait Gallery