Ancient religion in the poetry of David Jones

This month sees the 125th anniversary of David Jones, the major British poet of the Twentieth Century. Feted by TS Eliot and WH Auden, he deserves greater recognition. This is perhaps due to the complexity of his poetry – which combines several languages and explores obscure topics of religion, history and myth.

David Jones

David Jones was born in Brockley, South East London on 1 November 1985 to a protestant Welsh father and London-born mother, whose family had links in ship building. From a young age, he showed a talent for drawing. His earliest surviving work was a drawing of a bear, which he drew at 10. In 1909 he enrolled at Camberwell Art School, where he stayed for five years. 

He volunteered in the First World War joining the Royal Welch Fusiliers (the same regiment in which Graves and Owen were members, although Jones was in a different company), serving served in some of the heaviest fighting on the Western Front, including in the Mametz Wood during the First Battle of the Somme.

In the war he witnessed a Catholic Mass. This would have a profound effect on him and he later converted to Catholicism in 1921. He became associated with the artist Eric Gill and lived with him in the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic in Ditchling and then later at Capel-y-ffin in Wales in the 1920s.

First World War

In 1932 he suffered a mental breakdown perhaps a delayed response to his experiences in the war and other stresses. During this time he began work on his first major literary work: In Parenthesis. He also took a trip to Jerusalem (then part of Mandatory Palestine, governed by Britain).

At its most basic level, the poem tells how a company of soldiers leave a training camp in Britain and arrive in the trenches in France and then take part in the Battle of the Somme.

It is a challenging poem, demanding close reading.

In it he explores themes of identity (especially Welsh-ness), myth and religion. He alludes to the Arthurian myth and draws on Mallory’s Morte D’Arthur and also to Y Gododdin, a Welsh language poem lamenting the soldiers who died in a battle in 600 CE. It also includes an early reference to Arthur. (He also references Henry V and The Pilgrim’s Progress amongst many works).

The Fisher King

Jones draws on the idea of the Fisher King. The landscape of the war, No-Man’s Land becomes the mythic King Pellam’s Land. In Athurian myth, King Pellam is the overseer of the Holy Grail. He is wounded and can only fish (hence the name).

He is first mentioned in the poetry of Chretien de Troyes, but some scholars believe he may come from an earlier Celtic tradition (such as Bran the Blessed). Chretien only mentions a dish which contains a mass-wafer which sustains the Fisher King’s father. 

Chretien died before he finished his work, but the theme was taken up by several writers most notably Wolfram von Eschenbach. In each telling, more details were added.

According to Malory, he is wounded by Sir Balin using the spear of Longinus (which pierced the side of Jesus at the Crucifixion). 

The theme of the Fisher King was of interest to writers and thinkers in the early Twentieth century. Frazer’s Golden Bough was published in various editions between 1890 and 1915. He collected various myths and argued that ancient religions were fertility myths in which a sacred king was sacrificed. The idea of a dying god had obvious parallels to Christianity. The Fisher King fitted this model. 

TS Eliot explores this theme in The Waste Land which ends with a reference to the figure of the Fisher King:

“I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?”

In his notes, Eliot recommends people read The Golden Bough and From Ritual to Romance by Jessie Weston, which claims that the Grail myth is a remembrance of an ancient Mithraic ritual which perhaps continued to be followed in the distant hills of North Wales until a late date. It is not clear how serious Eliot is.

In Jones hands, the idea of the Fisher King takes on more deadly connotations, whilst retaining the pre-Christian connotations. The land itself is dying and the young soldiers become the sacrificial victims: “Like those other who fructify the land”.

Jones’ allusive style reaches a crescendo in the final section of In Parenthesis which is both visceral and elegiac. The poem ends ambiguously where the Queen of the Woods, a tutelary figure, tends to the dead:

“The Queen of the Woods has cut bright boughs of various flowering.
    These knew her influential eyes. Her awarding hands can pluck for each their fragile prize”.

Celts and Romans

Jones was  interested in ancient history, especially Roman history, I think, for two reasons. Firstly Roman history and the Latin language was linked to the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. For example, at the end of the mass, the Priest would use the Latin words “Ite, missa est” (Go, it is dismissed) which Jones recognised as the words at the end of a military parade.

Whilst recovering from his breakdown in Mandate Palestine, he also overheard some British soldiers in Jerusalem, who were bored of their job and feeling homesick. He identified with some of his own experiences of being a soldier and realised that the Roman soldiers in Jerusalem during the Crucifixion would have reflected the same feelings. 

Secondly Jones recognised contemporary Wales with the ancient Britons who would have engaged with the Roman empire in various ways. Writing of the Roman roads (viae) he said:

“To contemplate the viae of the Roman provinces of Britannia is to contemplate also those Brittonic-speaking people who walked and talked up and down those roads for something like half a millennium”.

The Viae: The Roman Roads in Britain (Broadcast in the Third Programme on 22nd November 1955) in Epoch and Artist

For him, Wales was the last bastion of Celts and he recognised in the Welsh language and culture, a tradition which transcended the bounds of the modern country. 

Two centuries
                  since Rhine progeny
became dying Galatae
                  in Pergamon bronze
four caliga’d other ranks
                  torque-wearers
                off parade
started a fox
    on Nile Bank

The Celts here are both fringe figures and central to the Roman Empire. He also recognises the power of art to create meaning and references the famous Dying Gaul statue.

During the war, Jones served alongside Welsh soldiers. An important figure in In Parentheis is Dai Greatcoat, who some scholars identify with Jones. Dai is a bard with a memory of various ancient conflicts. Jones saw in these soldiers, fore-types of his own comrades in the war.

Empire

Jones perhaps had an ambiguous understanding of the Roman Empire; as someone who identified with both the opponents or even Victims of the Empire (Christians and Celts) and also the soldiers, the grunts, who enforced its rule.

In his later poem ‘The Wall’, a soldier is stationed on the Wall reflects on Rome:

“We don’t know the ins and outs
      How should we? How could we?
It’s not for the likes of you and me to cogitate high policy or to guess the inscrutable economy of the Pontifex
      from the circuit of the agger
      from the traverse of the wall.”

The Wall in The Sleeping Lord

The narrator of the poem is a complex figure, who identifies with the Empire. He is not merely following orders, but is beginning to understand the complexities of his role:

“But you and me, comrade, the darlings of Ares, who’ve helped a lot of Gauls and gods to die, we shall continue to march and bear in our bodies the marks of the Marcher – by whatever name they call him…” 

What would the British Empire mean to Jones? He identified with the underdog and was appalled at the British bombing of Egypt during the Suez crisis. He likely also believed in the idea that empire brought civilisation. His ambiguity towards something he knew was oppressive is an acquiescence. Further study is needed. 

Religion

Jones was a Catholic writer and his faith is a central theme of many in his final masterpiece The Anathemata. The Anathemata presents all time and human creativity leading up to and responding to the crucifixion, which taking place at the centre of the world, “the unabiding omphalos” is presented as being at the apex of space and time.

Jones sees previous religions as precursors to Christianity:

“Upon all fore-times.
From before time
his perpetual light
Shines upon them”.

This idea that Christian truth is made evident in earlier faiths is most clear in Jones’ presentation of the Willendorf Venus, a prehistoric figure which may depict a women. It was believed to have been a fertility figure, but this theory is challenged today. The small statuette foreshadows the central mystery for many Christians, that god became man in Mary’s womb:

“Cthonic? why yes
But mother of us.
Then it is these abundant ubera, here, under the species of worked lime-rock, that gave suck to the lord? She that they already venerate (what other could they?)

Egyptian Gods

The Egypitan gods are not particularly important figures in The Anathemata but exploring how Jones discusses them highlights the two ways he uses the theme ancient religions in his work.

The final page of the Anathemata mentions Anubis alongside a reference to the crucifixion.

      “(Nor big Anubis haste, but rather stay:
for he was whelped but to discern a lord’s body).”

This line draws from Milton’s poem On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity (which Jones’ Dad would read to the family every Christmas). In Milton, the ancient gods are demons and Christ’s coming destroys their power and reveals them to be false gods. Whereas for Jones, the ancient gods are precursors to the true religion. The lord’s body mentioned in the passage above can refer to both Osiris and Jesus, as according to Plutarch, Anubis discovered the body of Osiris, himself a dying god figure. 

This is made explicit in an earlier part of the poem which states:

“He whose fore-type said, in the Two Lands
     I AM BARLEY.”

Jones draws a direct link between Osiris and Jesus here and the ritual of Osiris Vegetans when grain grew from a mummy made of Nile mud and the miracle of the mass when the bread becomes Christ’s body. The similarity between the two traditions, highlights the truth of one which was obvious throughout time by replication. This is a challenging idea, but creates an intoxicating historical vision which is at heart of the poem’s power.

It is also interesting to note that Isis is not mentioned in The Anathemata (except a minor reference to Cleopatra), yet female mother goddesses are. The iconography of Isis and Horus were common throughout the Roman Empire.

Summary

Jones’ poetry is complex and challenging. Further study is needed to analyse his reading of the Roman and British Empires, possibly with reference to his archive in Aberystwyth.

Statue
The Dying Gaul, a Roman marble copy of a sculpture originally made in bronze possibly for Attalus I of Pergamon to celebrate his victory over the Galatians, Capitoline Museums, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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