Tag Archives: a commentary on the anathemata of david jones

David Jones and the shape of the Anathemata

I’m re-reading the above poem in conjunction with Rene Hague’s commentary and this has (together with a re-reading of Jones’ preface) added a bit more perspective on the rationale of this remarkable poem. Many months ago I wrote something speculating about why some parts of poems are in prose and others are in verse, with specific reference to Jones, Olson and Sutherland, I don’t think I made too much progress then but what Jones has to say about ‘shape’ does begin to clarfy things a little.

Hague quotes Jones as saying “I have tried to make a shape in words” and it is both the verb and the noun that strike me as important. In his preface Jones talks about the appearance of the poem in these terms:

I intend what I have written to be said. While, marks of punctuation, breaks of line, lengths of line, grouping of words or sentences and variations of spacing are visual contrivances they have here an aural and oral intention. You can’t get the intention unless you hear the sound and you observe the score; and pause-marks on a score are of particular importance.

This seems reasonable but these visual patterns are also the components of the poem’s shape and in this regard Hague has drawn my attention to Gregory Dix’ ‘The Shape of the Liturgy’ which Jones admired and gives this definition of liturgical shape:

If the whole eucharist is essentially one action, the service must have a logical development of one whole, a thrust towards that particular action’s fulfilment, and not merely a general purpose of edification. It must express clearly by the order and connection of its parts what the action is which it is about and where the service as a whole is ‘going’. It is this logical sequence of parts coherently fulfilling one complete action which I call the ‘Shape’ of the Liturgy.

We now come to the question of emphasis and the difference between what Jones and Hague have to say about schemes and themes. Hague is of the view that Maurice de la Taille’s interpretation of the Last Supper and Calvary forms the ‘very scheme upon which ‘The Anathemata’ is built. Jones, on the other hand says “What I have written has no plan or at least is not planned. If it has a shape it is chiefly that it returns to its beginning. It has themes and a theme even if it wanders far.” These would appear to be contradictory because there’ isn’t that much difference between ‘scheme’ and ‘plan’. I may be missing huge chunks of Hague’s reasoning but his claim doesn’t seem to hold up in various parts of the poem. Let’s start with de la Taille. I’m going to paraphrase the quote that Hague uses because it runs for two pages even though I may be accused of ripping material from its context.

The first point to be made is that the Last Supper and Crucifixion can be thought of as a ‘twofold immolation’. Before we go any further in this, I do need to say that I know that ‘immolation’ is a loaded term with a number of different connotations but that I’m going to take it on this occasion to stand for ‘sacrifice’. The second point is that these two acts should be thought of as one ‘complete sacrifice’. There then follows quite a bit about the role of the priest as victim but then Hague explains that all of this was important for Jones because it ‘insisted on the significant act contained in the Last Supper where the sign (the breaking of the bread, the drinking of the wine) made inevitable, in a sense created, what took place on Calvary.’

My initial, readerly response is that this deeply felt belief, doctrinal view, isn’t the overriding concern of the work and I would point to the most accessible section, ‘The Lady of the Pool’ for my evidence. I also need to acknowledge that Hague has far greater insight and personal knowledge about this material than I ever will so what follows should be seen as a tentative suggestion rather than an outright refutation. ‘The Lady of the Pool’ is mostly the soliloquy of a London lavender seller in the 15th or 16th centuries. It makes extensive use of John Stow’s late (ish) Tudor account of the city and its wards. It also mentions a number of dates in terms of feast days but there’s much more emphasis on place and on love / romance / relationships than there is on liturgy.

I’ll concede that the section begins and ends with references to masses for the Passion but even here these do not seem to reflect the ‘two foldedness’ referred to above.

                               In all the white chapels
in Lud's town of megara
when we put up rejoicing candles bright
when we pay latria
to the Saving Wood.
About the turn of the year, captain, when he sings out loud
from his proper in ligno quoque vinceretur
twisting his cock's egg tongue round
the Vulgar lingua like any Trojan licentious of divinity.

Neither Jones’ notes nor Hague’s gloss make mention of the de la Taille interpretation as above, Jones is at pains to stress what the cross stands for and why paying ‘latria’ to it isn’t idolatrous whereas Hague glosses ‘he’, ‘cock’s egg tongue’ and the ‘Vlugar Lingua’.

When I first read ‘The Anathemata’, I grasped and held on to the notion that it was a representation (a making) of Jones’ personal cultural clutter or ‘res’. I therefore struggle a bit with Hague’s view of de la Taille forming the basis upon which the poem is structured because I think that there is much more going on than theology. I’m not suggesting that the liturgy isn’t important, I just think that it isn’t the only important / structuring element.

I’m not entirely sure that Jones’ musical score analogy is the only thing that is going on with the way that the poem looks, the above extract would also seem to draw the eye towards ‘the Saving Wood’ as being central in terms of Jones’ faith rather than the ‘sense’ of this part of the poem. What I do think is clear is that I need to pay more attention to the various shapes that Jones makes both on the page and the way in which the sections are structured and relate to each other. ‘The Lady of the Pool’, for example has a structuring device, a ‘frame’ and uses the layout of the London wards, at or about the time of John Stow, to tell a story. I’m also intrigued by the possibility that Dix’ notion of ‘shape’ as a sequence is reflected in how the whole poem ‘fits’ together.

Of course, Hague is probably correct but his is not the way that I read the poem – a range of emphases is better than no range at all. I also wonder if I’d read this poem differently if I had some kind of religious belief.

Rene Hague on ‘The Anathemata’

I have said this before but I will carry on saying until the current situation changes, David Jones is one of the five best modernist poets of the 20th century and ‘The Anathemata’ is his finest work. It is unfathomable to me that he should continue to be neglected when so many mediocre nonentities receive ardent critical attention. Anybody who affects to have an interest in what language can do must pay attention to this man’s work. I should go on but I’v just bought Rene Hague’s “A Commentary on the Anathemata” and it is a revelation.

I don’t normally read commentaries on modernist poems but Hague was Jones’ best friend and this particular commentary is clearly put together with enormous respect for the man and the work and I think I’m reading it more for context rather than for what things might ‘mean’.

For those who don’t know, Jones was an artist who served in the first world war and converted to Catholicism in his late twenties. His main poetic subjects are his faith and the Catholic liturgy, Welsh history and culture and the Roman Empire. ‘The Anathemata’ is a long poem (243 pages in the current Faber edition) and is accompanied by a preface and extensive footnotes provided by the poet. Auden described as the century’s best long poem and confessed that he had been reading it for ten years and still hadn’t got to grips with its meaning.

In his preface, Jones talks about the role of the poet in relation to power and of poems as a kind of gathering together of ‘signs’ or cultural artefacts and I have been reading ‘The Anathemata’ as a drawing-together of Jones’ personal and entirely subjective collection of Important Stuff. I can still make a case for this but Hague makes it clear that this Important Stuff is linked and underpinned in quite complex ways.

Before providing some examples of why the commentary is so effective, I think I need to address the Catholic and the Spengler Problems. Both Jones and Hague were ardent and traditional Catholics who deplored the introduction of the vernacular Mass after the Second Vatican Council. This is no longer as big an issue as it was in the sixties but I’m just about old enough to remember the storm it created at the time. The poem isn’t a Catholic Poem in that conservative (or any other kind) doctrine isn’t rammed down the readers’ throat but there is an emphasis on the ritual and liturgical aspects of the mass, as we shall see. Jones was a fan of Spengler’s analysis of how civilisations function, Spengler was ideologically Deeply Suspect (fascist) and all of his ideas have been discredited but, whilst the poem does deal with civilisations at different times and different places, it is not a blueprint nor an espousal of all things Spenglerian.

The other thing to note is that this is a commentary written out of friendship, out of the respect Hague clearly felt for the work and for the man, it doesn’t vaunt its erudition in the quest for academic prestige but tackles the areas that need clarification with warmth and respect.

‘The Anathemata’ starts with this piece of prose:

We already and first of all discern him making this thing
other. His groping syntax, if we attend, already shapes;

application and for them, under modes and patterns altogether
theirs, the holy and venerable hands, lift up an efficacious

Hague’s commentary on the first paragraph begins-

D. frequently, particularly when beginning a passage, uses ‘he’, ‘him’ or ‘his’ etc, to indicate that, while he has an individual in mind, that individual is to be regarded as typical. Only two of the eight sections of The Anathemata’ do not begin in this way, ‘Middle-Sea and Lear Sea’ and ‘Mabinog’s Liturgy’ – and the first of these is quick to introduce a named person as ‘him’.

The ‘him’ whom we discern in line 1 is (however far back we are looking into pre-history) a priest – or, if that is putting it too strongly, he is at least sacredotal in his intention; he is performing a ritual act and thereby making this thing ‘other’. The repetition of the verb ‘discern’ at the very end of the poem (p243, ‘discern the Child’, ‘discern a lord’s body) shows that here, too, it carries more than the meaning of ‘distinguish’, for it contains the Pauline sense of ‘recognise the true nature of’. We could paraphrase the poet’s words in this paragraph by saying that so soon as man makes that which is significant, which is a sign of something other and greater, we can already see that his act is of the same nature as the transubstantiation effected in the Mass by a representation of what was done at the Last Supper.

I’ve quoted this at length in order to show how Hague adds depth and context rather than simply elucidating meaning. It is entirely possible for the reader who has read Jones’ preface to work out what is meant in this paragraph but it is less likely that the ‘Pauline’ sense of ‘discern’ would have been grasped, nor is it clear that such a reader would have made all the connections involved in ‘making this thing other’- it certainly took Hague’s insight / knowledge for me to work out how all these elements (poem, sign, shape, Mass, Eucharist) function together.

There are also times when Hague disagrees with Jones’ notes. The first of these occurs with ‘Adscriptam’ which Jones glosses as ‘ascribe to’ and Hague comments- “The translation given is not very satisfactory, for God is not being asked to ‘ascribe to’ but to make it ‘ascribed’, i.e. enrolled as his own, made his own.” Hague then goes on to give the full Latin text of the prayer and indicates the points where the priest makes the sign of the cross in order to further explicate the further connotations involved in Jones’ use of ‘groping syntax’ before quoting an English translation which translates the word as ‘consecrated to thyself’ which seems (to this atheist) to be half-way between the two. There is then an extensive passage from a letter from Jones which gives more context, describes liturgy as ‘pure poesis’ as well as bemoaning “the awful havoc inflicted upon us by these blasted apostles of change”.

I hope I haven’t frightened too many people off by the above, I have tried to demonstrate how Hague enables a wider and more ‘complete’ reading even for those of us who are reasonably familiar with the poem and Jones’ rationale. Certainly it has prodded me into acquiring ‘The Shape of the Liturgy’ by Gregory Dix which Jones apparently admired. This isn’t because I’m on the verge of conversion (there still isn’t any kind of God) but it is because I’m intrigued by this link between verse and ritual and by how each inform the other.

‘The Anathemata’ isn’t just about faith, it has exceptional passages on the Roman Empire, London, seafaring and Wales as well as musings on the prehistoric. Next time I’ll discuss the Hague view of Jones’ London- his home town.