Tag Archives: theology

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

J H Prynne on Love III by George Herbert

This tome containing an extensive commentary on the above is now available from Barque Press and costs 10 quid plus 2 quid for delivery. it needs to be read by everyone who cares about poetry and what poetry can do. I’ve now completed my first reading and there are a few things that I need to get off my chest.
The first of these is that the early part of the 17th century was a very odd place to be. I have a view that the past is always quite odd but from 1590 until about 1640 has always struck me as being especially different and (because of this) very difficult for us to make sense of this.
The second point is that George Herbert deserves much more attention. This isn’t to say that he should be elevated to the status of Donne in the canon but that we should spend a bit more time thinking about his place and role in the wider cultural scheme of things.
The third point is that Prynne writes with a great deal of perception about ‘Love III’ and has clearly immersed himself in some of the theological debates of the time. For those of us who are keen on religious poetry and the place where verse and faith meet, this is delightful because we have somebody new to argue with.
The fourth point is that ‘Love III’ is a seriously good poem with a couple of lines that achieve greatness for reasons that I will set out below.
The fifth point is only of interest to Spenserians and relates to Prynne’s use of Canto X in Book One of the Faerie Queen to provide some context to ‘Love III’ which actually raises a number of puzzles.
Finally, as with ‘Field Notes’, this commentary provides further insights into the way that Prynne thinks about poetry and language. This is not to say that they provide the ‘key’ to his poetic project but they do put some more flesh on the bone.
With regard to the oddness of the past, this isn’t the extremist position that we can’t say anything about the past but it is to point out that 400 years is a very long time and things might appear similar or recognisable but closer inspection reveals that they weren’t. The 17th century often descends into caricature with tired old debates about the ideological positions taken by various groups occupying much futile effort over the last thirty five years. This kind of thinking leads to generalised conclusions about certain periods that isn’t (in the Rortian sense) at all helpful. The historical past is always lumpy and consistently refuses to place itself in the boxes that we prepare for it. Prynne spends a lot of time discussing the Arminian elements of ‘Love III’ and the reader is left to assume that by the end of the 1620s there was an established Arminian faction within the Church of England whereas there were probably many variations around both the issues of free will and predestination and that this mixed oddly with bits of Catholic theology and hardline Calvinism (which wasn’t particularly coherent either). I think I would have liked more detail on the wider social and political context, some indication of what it ‘meant’ for Herbert to become a country priest may have been helpful as a way of marking him out from others of a similar status. Or simply some acknowledgement that this particular part of our history is fairly complex and consequently difficult to write about.
With regard to Herbert’s status as a kind of lesser Metaphysical, this does need to change. He has attracted detailed criticism from Stanley Fish for catechising but Prynne makes a very strong case for the strength of this kind of religious verse, whether it catechises or not. There’s also a reasonably direct line that goes from Spenser to Herbert and then on to Henry Vaughan and this needs to be given more prominence because it can be argued that this ‘thread’ produced some of the century’s strongest work.
Unlike ‘The Solitary Reaper’, I do actually care about this stuff and have thoroughly enjoyed arguing with what Prynne has to say. It isn’t that there’s anything inherently wrong with his reading but there are a number of omissions that detract from getting more from the poem. When discussing the Arminian tendency, Prynne goes into great detail about free will and about the mutual nature of ‘service’ but doesn’t give any attention to the Arminian view that although we are all free to choose, God knows what those choices will be. If Prynne is correct and the poem is fundamentally Arminian then this adds a more nuanced aspect to the encounter described in the poem.
He does mention the Cambridge School on one occasion but doesn’t draw attention to what some of us would see as a neo-platonic tinge occurring in the first line “yet my soul drew back,” even though other critics have commented on a neo-platonic theme in Herbert’s work. It would seem that 92 pages of densely packed prose is enough for an eighteen line poem but this is not the case, there is a lot more that could have been said.
Needless to say, most of the margins are now filled with exclamation marks and approving comments and there are only one or two places where I think Prynne is trying too hard. There’s also a final point about contradiction that doesn’t need to be made but on the whole this is a remarkably sensitive reading that should do a lot to promote Herbert’s reputation.
I now have to draw attention to the really great line of this poem. Many great poems have some very, very good lines but, in my view, truly great lines are comparatively rare. The line is question is the poet’s initial response to Christ/God and it is “A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:” which I find to be utterly and staggeringly brilliant in that it manages to convey a whole range of complicated responses to a direct question from God.
We now come to Canto X of Book 1 of The Faerie Queen which Prynne uses to show that views about free will pre-dated what Arminius had to say by at least a couple of decades. This would be valid were it not for the fact that Canto X is theological car crash mangling together threads from both sides of the Reformation and shouldn’t really be trusted to depict any kind of belief system in the ‘real’ world.
For those of us who read Prynne in the hope that this may help with a more informed reading of his poetry there is this: “The very format of utterance grammar, with the subject-position in English syntax coming before and governing all by way of a sequent predicate, performs and expresses this vaunted, front- loaded selfhood.” So, the task for attentive readers would appear to be to identify the ways in which the post-Brass poetry sets out to disrupt the subject/predicate sequence…