Tag Archives: Christ

David Jones’ Sleeping Lord; A First Encounter

When writing about Jones’ magnificent work I’ve concentrated on In Parenthesis and The Anathemata because I encountered them first and because my initial response to the other work was that it’s a bit minor in that it doesn’t achieve the magnificence of the two longer poems. This view is currently undergoing some revision as I’m now paying some overdue attention to this material and have become just as absorbed as I am with the other two.

For those new to Jones, there are a couple of contexts that need to be stated at the outset: he was a staunch and conservative Roman Catholic and his father was Welsh which led to an abiding affinity with Wales and its history. Jones makes this clear in his introduction to The Anathemata:

So that to the question: What is this writing about? I answer that is is about one’s own ‘thing’. Which res is unavoidably part and parcel of the Western Christian res, as inherited by a person whose perceptions are totally conditioned and limited by and dependent upon his being indigenous to this island. In this it is necessarily insular; within which insularity there are further conditionings contingent upon his being a Londoner, of Welsh and English parentage, of Protestant upbringing, of Catholic subscription.

The good news is that you don’t need to be either Welsh or of the Catholic faith to become immersed in and enamoured by Jones’ work. When first reading the above introduction I was more than a little nervous of both these aspects but soon discovered that the material provides many different points of entry and passages of great beauty. The Lord of the title is identified at the outset as “Lord Llywellin, Prince of Wales” who was killed by Edward i’s forces at the Battle of Orewin Bridge in 1282.

This excerpt from the early part of the poem hopefully gives some idea of its strength:

                        does a deep syncline
                        sag beneath him?
or does his dinted thorax rest
                        where the contorted heights
                        themselves rest
on a lateral pressured anticline?
Does his russet-hued mattress
                        does his rug of shaly grey
ease at all for his royal dorsals
                        the faulted under-bedding.
Augite hard and very chill
                        do scattered cerrig
jutt to discomfort him?
                        Milleniums on millenia since
this cold scoria dyked up molten
when the sedimented, slowly layered strata
(so great the slow heaped labour of their conditor
the patient creature of water) said each to each other:
"There's no resisting here:
                          the Word if made Fire."

According to the patented Arduity Trickiness Index, there are four words that may give us problems. The first is the italicised ‘cerrig’ for which Jones provides this note; “stones; pronounced ker-rig ‘er’ as in errand. Pronunciation is provided for most Welsh words because Jones, in his brief introduction, states that the poem “chances to be a piece that is essentially for the ear rather than the eye”. The second word is ‘scoria’ for which I’m taking the secondary definition given by the OED- “Rough clinker-like masses formed by the cooling of the surface of molten lava upon exposure to the air, and distended by the expansion of imprisoned gases.” The third is ‘augite’ although it can be inferred that this refers to a hard rock. The OED is more expansive: ” As a mass noun: a mineral of the pyroxene group which occurs as dark green or black prisms, and is an important component of basic igneous rocks such as basalt and gabbro”- which takes us further into things geological than we need to go. The final word is ‘conditor’ which, in Latin, google translate tells me is either founder or builder whilst the OED has ” A founder; an institutor (of laws)”,both of which make sense in this context.

here we have a Medieval Welsh king conflated with Christ ‘asleep’ on the bare stone of a mountain and the above passage lists the ways in which this might be uncomfortable or difficult for him. The asking of questions, rhetorical or otherwise, is a key feature of Jones’ later work and works to good effect here- When this reader finds himself confronted with questions rather than a straightforward description, I find myself thinking more deeply about the content. The brilliance for me is that this insistence brings us into the detail of a different time and place and enables a sense of almost physical contact with the things and events depicted. I don’t know of any poet writing in English in the last hundred years that can achieve this with such sustained force.

One of my tests of greatness is the mix of originality of expression and technique. In the above the question about the Lord’s thorax is perfectly phrased and placed with the possible exception of the “on the lateral…” line which seems to provide a little too much geological detail and thus becomes a bit clunky when read aloud.

I’m also very impressed by the way the above ends with the description of water as foundational and as a patient animal biding its time, the use of ‘dyke’ as a verb, the speaking strata and the concluding theological / Christian point. That this quite complex passage is underpinned by a very energetic sense of moving forward is quite remarkable.

The last line probably refers to the act of God’s creation as in “In the beginning was the Word” and the idea of Logos which is a key part of John’s gospel and the coming of Christ as the Holy Spirit.

There’s an extended section on the place and duties of the Lord’s candlebearer which leads to the Household’s priest and what feels like an improvised riff on matters relating to the early church. T S Eliot placed Jones alongside Joyce in the pantheon of modernists and some of Jones’ prose leaps and bounds along in a distinctly Joycean manner. We are given a lengthy description of the priest’s thoughts during a blessing:

His, silent, brief and momentary recalling is firstly of those
Athletes of God, who in the waste-lands & deep wilds of the
Island and on the spray-swept skerries and desolate insulae where
the white-pinioned sea-birds nest, had sought out places of
retreat and had made the White Oblation for the living and the
dead in those solitudes, in the habitat of wolves and wild-cat
and such like creatures of the Logos (by whom all creatures are that
are)........

My knowledge of early Christianity is almost fuzzy as that of Welsh history but I’m not aware of a tradition of holy men doing good works in the wilds of Britain. However, a priest in medieval Wales may well have imagined such figures and mentally transplanted them from the eastern end of the Mediterranean to his homeland. I have reproduced the above passage with the same line length as it appears in the 1974 Faber edition because it seems important to preserve the ‘look’ of the prose text as it is with the verse.

There are some critics who I admire that are of the view that the prose sections are poems and should be read and appreciated as such. I’m not convinced that things are quite as simple as that. Throughout the later work, I’d argue for a fairly distinct marker between the parts written as poetry which seem to be more incantatory and faux bardic than the parts written as prose. My main shred of evidence for this is the difference between the two when read aloud. For those wishing to put this to the test, I’d advocate doing the same with a passage containing both elements.

The main charge against Jones and the reason given by many for his lack of readers is obscurity, the other is the staunchly traditional nature of his Catholic faith. I’m not convinced by either of these but I do concede that there are moments when both these factors combine in a way that is challenging to say the least. This is from the extended section on the priests thoughts;

                     Quomodo sedet sola civitas plena populo!

This is annotated with;

See the first lesson of the first nocturn for Marina of Feria V in Coena Domini (Maundy Thursday) which begins ‘Incipit Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae Aleph: Quomodo sedet sola civitas plena populo.’

The line follows a passage on the ruination of the Roman cities and towns after the fall of the empire whilst the following lines provide some explanation for this catastrophe.

My first objection is that, for this agnostic monoglot, the explanation is more obscure than the line itself. My second objection is that, prior to the interweb (Sleeping Lord was first published in 1967) I’d have had no chance of working out what any of this meant. However, thirty seconds with the interweb reveals this passage from the A Heap of Broken Images blog:

These words first appear in Brideshead Revisited in a conversation between Cordelia and Charles. She uses them to describe her feelings after the chapel in Brideshead has been left empty. The phrase “Quomodo sedet sola civitas” -how lonely the city stands- is taken from the beginning of book of Lamentations, when the prophet Jeremiah cries over the destroyed Jerusalem; they are also used by the Liturgy of the Church in the office of Tenebrae to lament over the death of Christ.

Things now begin to fall into place, the phrase and its biblical source is now made clear and ‘fits’ well as a bridge between the two passages. It also happens that many years ago I read nearly all of Waugh’s writing because I liked his way of writing rather than his content. Like Jones, he was a staunchly conservative Catholic who bemoaned the reforms made by the Church in the early sixties. As a Jones completist, I’m now tempted to look again at Brideshead, having previously glided over most of the religious references and to look again at the diaries. For me, this is by far the most obscure part of the poem but it is the only part that I’d really struggle with and my incomprehension doesn’t get in the way of my understanding and appreciation of the poem as a whole.

After the priest’s many and varied remembrances, the poem returns to the Sleeping Lord and recounts the destruction wrought by the hog, a boar with great and destructive tusks, who may be the invading English armies of the Norman and Plantagenet periods, I’m tempted to suggest that this creature may be Edward I but that’s mainly because I want it to be.

This stunning poem ends where it began:

Do the small black horses
                      grass on the hunch of his shoulders?
are the hills his couch
                      or is he the couchant hills?
Are the slumbering valleys
                      him in slumber
                      are the still undulations
the sill limbs of him sleeping?
Is the configuration of the land
                      the furrowed body of the lord
are the scarred ridges
                      his dented greaves
do the trickling gullies
                      yet drain his hog-wounds?
Does the land wait the sleeping lord
                      or is the wasted land
the very lord who sleeps?

I hope, in this brief tour, I’ve given some idea of the poem and given encouragement to those who have initially been deterred by Jones’ reputation. I remain of the view that Jones is by far the greatest of the Modernists and that his ongoing neglect is an indictment of the current state of British Poetry as a whole and our literary critics in particular.

The Sleeping Lord and other fragments. is currently available for 12 quid from amazon. There really is no excuse.

John L Armstrong 2020

David Jones’ The Grail Mass’; Caiaphas and Judas.

First of all, a bit of a rant, the above is my nomination for publication of the year. This is a work of paramount interest to Jones’ readers and confirms to the world Jones’ genius and skill. Tom Goldpaugh and Jamie Callison as editors have done an enormous service to those of us with an interest in the man’s work. But it costs one hundred and ten (110) pounds from Amazon and slightly more from Bloomsbury, the publishers. This is simply unacceptable, I know that publishing is in all sorts of crises but this is an example of yet another company digging its own grave. Many readers, like me, don’t have access to academic libraries and are thus shut out from this crucial work. Apart from its brilliance The Grail Mass provides fascinating and invaluable context for The Anathemata which is Jones’ finest work. End of rant.

One of the things that Jones is exceptionally adept at is capturing the voices and phrasing of ordinary people. He demonstrates this in The Anathemata with Eb Bradshaw’s response to the sea captain’s request for ‘preference’ and Our Lady of the Pool’s soliloquy. Here we have a conversation between Judas Iscariot and Caiaphas before Christ’s arrest in Gethsemane.

For those new to Jones or only familiar with In Parenthesis it might be helpful here to note the absolute centrality of the Roman Mass in his later work and for him as an individual. Without getting into the depths of mid-century theology, it’s probably enough to point out that, for Jones, Christ’s passion began with the Last Supper.

This is Judas in conversation with Caiaphas who was the high priest who presided over Christ’s trial;

'But may be - you can't tell with him
y'r Grace - maybe he'll take high-path
to the turn of the wall, close in under
run o' the wall, by great Golden Gate
past Aurora's door, 'long sheep-walk
toward where the naiad walks that troubles
the Probatica - then right and down,
'cross bridge,
where Nutting Dell narrows
at the God-bearer's megalith
  up far stepped-way, straight
to the oil press
through garden wicket to known-copse,
the ascertained place

Can't swear on that, y'r Grace,
we often resort to it, but you
never can say with him.

This is simply fabulous. The betrayal and subsequent trial of Christ is foundational in Western culture. It’s been used for the last two millennia to demonise the Jews and to underpin all kinds of Christian identity. Here, this momentous event is presented in as plain a fashion as possible with Iscariot explaining that he isn’t quite sure which route Christ will take that night He’s a little obsequious but not toadying to Caiaphas (one of the most important men in the land) as he sets out the probable route hedged by his own uncertainty. Given that I’m not overly interested in the details of the geography of ancient Jerusalem, I’ve skipped all of the places referred to with the exception of the Probatica which turns out to be the Pool of Bethesda which is mentioned in John’s gospel. I’m guessing that,with some help from the interweb, I could track down the other places but in this instance I’m more than happy to take Jones’ word for it. The point made so brilliantly here is that Judas is an ordinary man who is there, simply, to do a deal. At some stage at school it was explained to me that Judas was a Zealot and his motivation was to put Christ in a position where he would have to use his powers and thus instigate a revolt against Roman occupation. This seemed fairly logical to my developing brain but it fails to account for the cash that Judas was said to receive for his services. Of course, this particular aspect of the story fits all too well with the Christian characterisation of all Jews as being solely interested in money.

The last three lines brilliantly underlines Judas as a human being rather than the epitome of treacherous evil. He’s made his decision to do this thing but at the same time doesn’t want to be blamed if things go awry and the arrest isn’t made. I’m particularly fond of ‘but you / never can say with him’ because of its mix of affection and mild exasperation.

The monologue continues with references to the money and to Judas’ motivation and gentle disparagement of other sources of Caiaphas’ information. The he anticipates the arrest;


And soon, maybe, his beauties
too, we'll tangle - he's in the
duke's collateral line, as his
gilte tresses clearly tell- that's royal
David's mark - he's very fair
to look upon, y'r Grace, in all
his members ... he's shining
fair, y'r Grace.
     He's more than any other one
     he's ruddy among a thousand
      - he's as strong as 
     the cedars when he takes off 
     his coat - 
         O m'lord Pontiff
     and saving your pious ears
      that's the bugger of it!

I’m reading this as gesturing towards at least some of Judas’ motivation. Christ is physically strong and descended from the line of David but the ‘bugger’ of it may well be that he eschews violence of any kind. This is obviously disappointing for those working towards an armed rebellion. Taking off your coat refers to the action of getting ready for a fight as well as revealing your physique.

I initially puzzled over ‘in the duke’s collateral line’ until I looked at the OED definitions, one of which is “Descended from the same stock, but in a different line; pertaining to those so descended.” I’ve checked and discover that the genealogy at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel has “And Jesse begat David the king; and David the king begat Solomon of her that had been the wife of Urias;”. I have no idea why a part of this is italicised but it does seem very likely that the duke in question is David.

The only quibble I have here is with ‘ruddy’ simply because I don’t know why this particular adjective was chosen. It seems clumsier than a number of others describing someone in good health and has too many other meanings that could distract.

Before we get to Caiaphas I must also highlight this from Judas’ deal making; “I’m fond of facts – dreams are / m’bugbear – that’s why I’m here.” Judas is here presenting as a hard nosed realist as opposed to what he sees as Christ’s idealism.

Caiaphas’ response is lengthy and complicated but here I want to extract a couple of things that seem to exemplify the realpolitik feel of the occasion. First,we have some flattery;

Why! Here's a chance to make of
neo-Judas a greater than his noised namesake,
for Judas to cock a snook at Judas:
foe Simon's son the plummet drops
to crucial and chthonic myth
the shallows of mere history
he leaves to Judas Maccabee.
Here's a role with some recession
to it!
Our score has promise of undertones.
Let's play it.

The flattery is done by comparing Iscariot to Maccabee, the Jewish priest who led the successful rebellion against the occupying Seleucids. He also restored the Jerusalem temple so that it could be used by Jews. The inference being that Iscariot would be seen as a greater hero in both military and religious roles. I was puzzled by ‘plummet but the OED gives ” A criterion of truth, a means of testing or judging; a standard. (Now only in biblical use”. I’m taking ‘chthonic’ to be primordial and fundamental but have a bit of a problem with ‘recession’ as there are at least two possible meanings;

“The action or an act of departing from some state, standard, or mindset; disaffiliation from an association, agreement, etc.”

and / or;

<p<"The action of ceding back; a territory that has been ceded back."

Since Caiphas begins with “Bar Simon, What says your Beauty of
himself? “As Yahve is, I am”> it would seem that this mostly refers to changing back the mindset/belief that Christ is the Son of God. Of course it could also refer to the the potential ceding back of Israel by the Roman occupiers and thus relate to Maccabee’s revolt.

This ‘crucial and chthonic myth’ is very likely to be the story of Creation and the Fall. Even this atheist knows that Christ came to redeem mankind from its original sin and to replace that myth with something based on love and compassion. This is contrasted with the ‘shallows of history’ which is a bit strange from someone who, in the next stanza, says;

Factuality is our lode: her beam
is chilly but cannot be illusory,
We do not,as some others do,
intermeddle phantasy with fact,

It can be argued that ‘mere history’ is more concerned with facts than myth, no matter how crucial and important. No doubt this is something I’ll come back to and pay further attention once I’ve got this initial impression under my skin.

The playing of the scaore is packed with ambiguities but makes complete sense and perfectly sets the tone for these two game players. Of course, both are aware that the stakes in this playing are very high and that the underscores are many but they play just the same.

The monologue is dense and continues through several rationales, traditions and justifications until we get back to basics;


Therefore tonight is terminal: this night,
this pasch is terminal
not that he's of consequence - but an
irritant- Caesar's peace and ours.
This skin of Juda suffers ichthyosis enough,
ours is a physician's work.
We have long been credited with an opinion
- received by but few but now by many
seen to be opportune:
   we need an azazel.
   A goat's a goat,
   the lot's on him.

This pasch is the feast of the Passover and a comprehensive Wikipedia article tells me that;

“ʿAzāzīl is a fallen angel; he was sent a scapegoat bearing the sins of the Jews during Yom Kippur. In the Bible, he only appears in association with the scapegoat rite. During the Second Temple period, he appears as a fallen angel responsible for introducing humans to forbidden knowledge. His role as a fallen angel partly remains in Christian– and Islamic traditions. In Islam, he is often, but not exclusively, associated with the Devil.

Here we have the political motivation for Christ’s execution, his teachings and message were seen as forbidden and dangerously destabilising. Scapegoats are used to set an example to others- ‘this may happen to you if you follow this man or his teaching’. History, of course, is packed with men and women who were punished for disseminating this knowledge and as a warning to others. It’s also a commonplace for those in power to use the sickness metaphor for those that they persecute. Icthyosis is a skin condition which, as the name suggests, is characterised by thick and scaly skin. Caiphas’ use of this metaphor is telling, he reduces his role to that of a doctor curing the body of the nation whilst at the same time dismissing Christ as a mere ‘irritant’ rather than a very real and destructive threat to the established order.

As well as being an irritant, Caiaphas points out that a scapegoat is needed and Christ, who also is responsible for introducing forbidden knowledge, fits the bill. The last line suggests that he’s been chosen by chance but may also indicate that his execution is pre-destined by God.

In conclusion, I want to attend to this whichis the final part of Caiphas’ monologue because it’s an example of Jones at his best;

Obscure Kerioth shall be blessed
in you and enter history.
Come near, my son:
 we give you our peace,
Yahve's peace, of course.
He knows his own.
              Amen.
May he award you
as do we, and handsomely.
              Go then:
there's not all night to spare.
Get doing what is to do.
See that you're there.

These thirteen short lines epitomise everything that’s wrong about the deployment of political power. First Judas’ place of birth is guaranteed lasting fame, albeit in the shallows of mere history, then he is blessed by the highest priest in the land and told that he is God’s ‘own’. He holds out a promise of a reward from God and at the same time reminds Judas that he is being paid ‘handsomely’ for his services. This ends with instruction toget on with the task and to make sure that he’s at the appointed spot where he will identify Christ.

Obviously I can’t vouch for the veracity of this account but I would like to suggest that it is an entirely accurate example of how powers relations function on both a large and small scale. I’m especially impressed with ‘he know’s his own’ and ‘and handsomely’ because they’re both extraneous to what’s been said but have the effect of drawing Judas further in and reminding him just how complicit he is in what’s about to occur.

This is much longer than I intended but I wanted to give as full a flavour as possible of the first parts of this important work. For such essential reading to be priced out of the reach of the vast majority of us is an indictment on Bloomsbury and all publishers of a similar ilk.