David Jones (poet)

From Academic Kids

David Jones (1895-1974) was both an artist and one of the most important first generation British modernist poets. His work was formed by his Welsh heritage and his Catholicism. T. S. Eliot considered Jones to be a writer of major importance and his The Anathemata was considered by W. H. Auden to be the most important long poem written in English in the 20th century.


Early Life

Jones was born in Kent, England. His father was a Welsh printer and his mother an artist. Jones started publishing his drawings at an early age, and in 1909, he entered the Camberwell Art School, where he was introduced to the work of the Impressionists and Pre-Raphaelites.

With the outbreak of the First World War, Jones enlisted with the Royal Welch Fusiliers and served on the Western Front until the end of the war. His experiences in the trenches were to prove extremely important in his later painting and poetry.

Jones as Artist

After the war, Jones entered the Westminister School of Art, where he developed an interest in the art of William Blake. He soon realized that he could not reconcile his wartime experiences with the culture of an art school. In 1921, he met the artist Eric Gill. Gill ran the Guild of St. Joseph and St. Dominic, based on the medieval guild model. Jones joined the guild and learned wood and copper engraving and started producing book illustrations, principally for the St. Dominic's and Golden Cockerel presses. His major illustrated series include wood engravings produced for editions of The Book of Jonah, The Chester Play Of The Deluge, and Gulliver's Travels. He produced an important group of copperplate engravings for the Golden Cockerel Press edition of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but another series, for Aesop's Fables, was never produced in a full edition and is accordingly less well known. He also worked on several books published by Faber and Faber, including Eliot's The Cultivation of Christmas Trees. Around this time, he was received into the Catholic Church, changing his middle name from Walter to Michael to mark the event.

Jones became well known as an artist during his lifetime, working most characteristically in a mixture of pencil and watercolour that produces dense and busy works full of symbolism. His best-known works include those on legendary subjects, such as Trystan ac Esyllt (Tristan and Isolde), but he is also much admired for his painted inscriptions, which exert a continuing influence on calligraphers.

Jones as Poet

Although he had been trying to write about his wartime experiences for some time, it was not until 1937 that Jones published his long poem about life in the trenches, In Parenthesis, which was published by Faber & Faber with an introduction by T. S. Eliot. Written in a very free verse that at time approaches prose, the book won the Hawthornden Prize in the following year. In the poem, Jones drew on the Matter of Britain, including the works of Thomas Malory, to try to make sense of the carnage he witnessed in the trenches. Its principal imaginative source is an early Welsh text, Y Gododdin, which also describes a doomed military expedition.

His next book, The Anathemata appeared in 1952. Inspired in part by a visit to Palestine during which he was struck by the historic parallels between the British and Roman occupations of the region, the book draws on materials from early British history and mythology and the history and myths of the Mediterranean region to explore the possibility of small cultures resisting the power of empire.

For the rest of his life, Jones worked on a long poem, of which The Anathemata was intended to form part. Sections of this incomplete work were published in two posthumous volumes, The Sleeping Lord and Other Fragments and The Roman Quarry.

Jones the Essayist

Jones wrote a number of essays on questions of art, literature, religion and history. These were published in two collections, Epoch and Artist (1959) and The Dying Gaul (1978). One of the key points he returns to in these essays is that, in an increasingly utilitarian world, the value of art is its lack of any utilitarian value.

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