Tag Archives: roman empire

David Jones, his notes as strata.

I’ve been re-reading Tom Goldpaugh and Jamie Collison’s brilliant and essential edition of Jones’ The Grail Mass and Other Works. I was going to pick out a few of the notes and talk about Jones’ views on both the Roman Empire and All Things Welsh. Something in the editors’ introduction, however, caught my eye before I had the chance to dive in;

These notes are best understood not as didactic attempts to limit the meaning of the lines to which they refer, but rather in terms of Jones oft-used geological metaphors of ‘strata’ or ‘deposits’ to describe the way in which meaning builds up over time within a culture. He was particularly concerned with layers of meaning, and argued that to appreciate the textures on the surface one must know what lies beneath. A page of Jones’ poetry with footnotes running along the bottom and the verse printed above instantiates this understanding. The footnotes do not explain away the verse, they uncover a lower stratum of meaning upon which the poetry above is built. From this perspective, they endeavour not to draw the text down to a fixed meaning, but rather point upward, opening out possibilities of association that would have been otherwise inaccessible and which Jones hopes will subsequently inform the reader’s engagement with the verbal play of the poem itself. The visual impact of Jones’ footnoted poetry is one of the reasons the editors have confined commentary to extended endnotes.

As a self-opinionated Jones obsessive, this detailed explication provides a lot to think about. I’ve been of the view that the notes to The Anathemata don’t ‘work’ in that they often explain things that don’t always need an explanation glide over in silence the things that are Very Obscure Indeed. Self-annotation always seems to me to be fraught with hazard. Some poets manage it reasonably well but others seem much more concerned with self-justification rather than providing assistance. Of course, different readers require different kinds of help but Jones’ later work is so obdurate that I feel that we could all benefit from more consistent ‘cover’. The editors describe these notes as providing a ‘lower stratum of meaning’ that is somehow foundational to that particular part of the poem. If this is the case then I’m not sure that it’s something that I need, I’d much rather have some idea of context which provides broader information rather than these foundations. If this is the case then I don’t mind if more information is provided than I need as long as it gives me that cognitive breadth.

I’m nevertheless intrigued by this geological aspect and have now paid some attention as to where this might apply in the Grail Mass. I want to start with a couple of lines from The Third Celtic Insertion;

or circumambulate the world of
Mother Mona to wheat her furrows
for Camber's mess.........

Mother Mona gets this lengthy note;

Anglesey was known as Mon fam Cymru, ‘Mona the Mother of Wales’, on account, it is supposed, of the corn grown on the island. We have already noted the association of the sea god Manawyddan with the soil, The great fabulist, Geoffrey of Monmouth, in order to provide suitable founders for England, Scotland and Wales respectively names as the sons of Brute: Locrine, Ambarnact and Camber. Camber, no more than the other two, has any place in the earlier mythology. He is, I suppose, a literary invention of the Angevin age. Geoffrey was trying to provide an Aenid for Henry of Anjou’s empire. We can, however, at this date afford to utilise his inventions, for he himself has become part of our deposits. (Incidentally what a tragedy it was for Britain as a whole that the Angevin hegemony ever disintegrated. For had it continued the unity between these islands and French civilisation would have been assured).

The above would appear to be a bit at variance with our editors’ observation. It’s more of a justification for making use of an erroneous reference than ‘a deposit’ in itself. The two elements which may require explanation (‘Mother Mona’ and ‘Camber’) are dealt with first and this provides all the information that I need. As a reader, the observation about Geoffrey’s work having become ‘part of our deposits’ strikes me as extraneous to my engagement with the work. As Jones ackowledges, the last observation is also extraneous (and incorrect).

I also want to have a think about this;

Here in Kemais, igneous and adamant, 
and high - there in Penfro, the high trees
are low under Manannan's tide
where the Deisi foray who converse with incubi.

Does the tufted coverlet drape the shifting
or do we tread the paleozoic
                Where, hard strata lean on leaning strata
harder yer, and with each greater hardness
the slow gradient falls, slowly falls to where
the basalts dark gull's side beyond the fretted
knuckles of Pebidiog
                 Where the brittle rim of the lithosphere
hangs and jutties between water-cloud
and water
                  where the last grey tokens are.

All the names, except ‘Mannanan’ from the fist stanza are directly defined in the notes and that omission is clarified by the explanation of the reference to the ‘high trees’ lying low under the tide.

The rest of this extract however has no notes at all so I’ve had to use the interweb to elucidate both ‘Pebidiog’ and ‘lithosphere’ and to look up ‘jutty’ as a verb. This is what I mean with regards to the notes not ‘working’ in any of the later poems but especially this and The Anathemata. It may be argued that The Grail Mass is an incomplete draft an and Jones may have been intending to do this at a later stage before publication. All the same, this seems unlikely given the similar gaps in The Anathemata. Jones’ introduction to that work has;

I have a last point that I wish to get clear. Although in the notes to the text and in this apology I refer to or cite various authorities and sources that does not mean that this book has any pretensions whatever of a didactic nature. I refer to those sources only to elucidate a background.

This seems to me to be reasonably clear, I think that Jones could have done more elucidating but feel that thinking of the notes as some kind of strata just serves to complicate things that are already complex.

David Jones’ “The Fatigue”

The above poem was published in 1974 in the Faber collection “The Sleeping Lord and other fragments” and deals with the crucifixion, the working party of the title is the Roman soldiers detailed to accompany Christ to the cross. Before we go any further I need to make a plea from the Sadly Neglected Poets section of this blog.

I can just about understand the neglect suffered by Hoccleve, Skelton and Drayton, I can even appreciate that some may want to overlook/ignore the work of R S Thomas but I cannot understand why a poet of Jones’ talent and originality should be known more for his work as an artist than as one of the great modernist poets of the last century. The really odd thing is that he was recognised as such by both Eliot and Auden but now seems to be relegated to the third or fourth division. I accept that “The Anathemata” is very difficult but it’s also wonderfully difficult and “In Parenthesis” is by far the best poem from the trenches that we have.

Moving on to “The Working Party”, the good news is that it is nowhere near as tricky as “The Anathemata” and comes with an introduction and lots of footnotes. The even better news is that it’s very good indeed because it takes an unusual perspective and tells the ‘story’ in a way that is soaked through with compassion and humanity.

Jones converted to Catholicism in the early twenties and the Catholic faith and liturgical practice are major themes as are the Roman Empire, Welshness and the experience of ‘ordinary’ soldiers. All of these are present here. In his introduction Jones says:

I have (as in each other the other fragments) made the personnel of the Jerusalem garrison to be of mixed recruitment. Thus the NCO is from the urbs itself, while some of his men are Celts from Gaul or Britain.


But if I may have falsified some of the historical accidents I have done so with deliberation in order toconvey a far more important historical truth: the heterogeneous composition of the forces of a world-imperium.

Jones’ attitude towards the Roman empire is ambiguous in that he saw it as both brutal and ruthless but he describes its inner workings with a kind of appalled and awed fascination. He was born inLondon but his father was Welsh and all of his work is littered with signs and tokens from the culture of that broken land (I have been reading R S Thomas…).

Jones identifies the three main sections of the poem as:

  • ninety lines of a dialogue between a Roman NCO and two privates of Celtic origin;
  • about a hundred lines of “soliloquy or reflection made in the context of Catholic Xtian tradition and theology” on the crucifixion;
  • over seventy lines devoted to the administration of the empire from Rome before ending with a description of the “location and allocation of the men detailed”.

I want to deal with each of these in turn but need to point out that you don’t need to believe in God to appreciate what Jones does nor do need to be Welsh or have an enthusiastic interest in the Roman empire. I don’t fall into any of these categories and yet am almost overwhelmed by the strength and beauty of the work.

Jones is particularly adept in the demotic, his characters are believable and contain more than a little humanity. This is the NCO:

  D'you reckon you're tutelar deity of the whole of Salem city,
Upper and Lower and extra-mural perimeter as well? Not
Water Gate nor Fish Gate neither, but somewhat left of
Old Gate to the right of Arx, Birket Post West inclusive, with
y'r centre on Skull Hill, that's you bit of frontage
Skull Hill's your lode
the tump without the wall.
Project an imagined line from that tump, cutting Cheese
Gully back to this same block of silex where you now stand
and you've got y'r median point of vision - now hold it.
That's how we keep
the walls of the world
sector by sub-sector
maniple by maniple
man by man,
each man as mans the wall
is as squared, dressed stone fronting the wall but one way
according to the run of the wall.
It's whoresons like you as can't keep those swivel eyes to front
one short vigilia through as are diriment to our unific and expand-
ing order.

So, we have the Roman equivalent of a platoon watch complaining because one of his guards has reported something occuring outside the area he’s supposed to be watching- which happens to be the site of the crucifixion. This has the effect of placing the reader on those walls too and into the mindset of the lower echelons of the army. The middle section in verse is a refrain about the extent and strength of empire that recurs at the end of the poem and is one of the ‘points’ that Jones wants to make. ‘Cheese Gully’ is the only part of this that is glossed – “Cf. the Tyropoeon Valley which ran north-south through the Upper and Lower divisions of the city and means the valley of the cheese-makers.” I confess that I had to look up ‘silex’ and ‘diriment’ and am now of the view that we ought to make much more use of the latter.

The above records a banal, everyday event in the first century but Jones manages to situate it within the context of empire/imperialism and also, with the reference to Skull Hill as ‘your lode’, to anticipate what is to follow. None of this is overstated and the tone of the speech accurately echoes the voice and attitude of thousands of contemporary NCOs even though ‘whoresons’ does come as a bit of a shock.

I’ve said this before but if poetry is in part about bearing witness then there are very few who fulfil this function better than David Jones who manages in a very short space of time to involve (in its widest sense) the reader in what is being described.

This is from the second section:

   And others of you to be detailed
(not on other fatigues)
for the spectacle
at the sixth hour
in Supplementary Orders
not yet drafted
for the speculatores

those who handle the instruments
who are the instruments
to hang the gleaming Trophy
on the Dreaming tree
and to see
on the leaning lignum
the spolia-bloom
where shine the Five Phalerae
that till the hard war
and for his racked-out limbs
(extensis manibus...)
the dark-bright armillae
Quis est vir qui babet coronam?
for the spined-dark wreath
squalentam barbam
without the circuit-wall
of his own patria.
Where the Spoil of Spoils
hangs to Iuppiter
and the trophies
are the Conqueror
...himself to himself
on the Windy Tree.

Most of the Latin is glossed and the rest can be looked up quite quickly. The ‘speculatores’ are glossed as “a special branch of the service directly responsible to the provincial governor for the carrying out of executions”. As well as the Latin, there are references to Anglo-Saxon, Welsh and Norse traditions all of which are explained but the Point that I want to make is that this is incredibly beautiful in capturing the poignancy of the scene perhaps because of the wide range of references that are used. What also shines through is the humanity of Jones as witness. I’ll accept that there’s a degree of obscurity going on- “Quis est vir qui babet coronam?” is glossed as “a translation of a line in poem by the 14th century Welsh Poet Gruffud Grygg, reading: Pwy yw’r gwr piau’r goron, ‘who is that man that owns the crown?'”. The overall effect however is still stunning, in contrast to the routine tones of the first part and building up to the magnificent last two lines- which are glossed as being from the Nordic ‘Havamal’.

The last section is a complete contrast again for now we are observing the processes and structures of empire:

By how an inner cabinet plot the mappa mundi when key
officials and security agents forward their overlapping but dis-
crepant graphs
by whether the session
is called for after
or before, noon
by whether a hypocaust has fouled its flues
by how long the amphora is off the ice
be whether the wind
blows moderate from trans-Tiber
or with a nasty edge
straight up the Tirbutina

As can hopefully be seen, none of this matches the level of difficulty found in ‘The Anathemata’ even though it addresses many of the same themes. As Jones notes in his introduction, ‘The Fatigue’ is interrelated with two other poems (‘The Wall’ and ‘The Tribune’s Visitation’) which are also set in Jerusalem at the time of the Passion and all of these give greater voice to Jones’ faith and his view of empire. The other two are both accomplished poems of a very high standard but ‘The Fatigue’ stands out for me because of the switch in focus and perspective that re-frames this pivotal act removing from it the conventional narrative and enabling us to see it with a fresh pair of eyes.