Monday 23 March 2015

A Centenary: David Jones, Y Gododdin and the Great War

When Varsity finally get round to asking me about my favourite piece of art in Cambridge, I’ll say ‘Vexilla Regis, by David Jones’. It’s on the ground floor in the house at Kettle’s Yard, just behind Jim Ede’s bedroom door. It is an easy thing to miss. There’s barely room to turn around, so you can only see the picture up close, and you get it to yourself. Also in the room: a bed, an arrangement of pebbles on a table top, and a shelf with Henry Moore’s Head (which is like something dug up by an archaeologist: or ‘first and foremost a stone’, as Ede put it). Over the bed, pictures by Alfred Wallis and Ben Nicholson. Ede’s household gods, perhaps.

There are lots of things I like about Vexilla Regis. One is the title, taken from a hymn by a Merovingian court poet:

Vexilla regis prodeunt,
fulget crucis mysterium,
quo carne carnis conditor
suspensus est patibulo.

The standards of the king come forth,
the secret of the cross revealed:
there in flesh, the flesh’s maker
by the beam is hung.

Another is that it is secretive as well as secret. It’s done with graphite and water colour, and it’s pale and knotty. Once you make out the hills and trees, it starts to feel like a map. You spot bits and pieces of ruined masonry, overgrown pillars, wildness and wreckage but also things sprouting and running. Certainly it has something to do with the end of Roman Britain, but I’ll leave it at that.[1]

Mapmaking was a skill Jones had learned on the Western Front, mostly while crawling around no man’s land at night-time.[2] He was at the front for more than two years, far longer than most of his fellow war-poets, and had arrived there in time to see what had been a relatively ‘intimate, domestic life’ turn into relentless mechanical slaughter. Conscription plugged the gaps with strangers. The loss of companionship affected Jones profoundly.

Trench map by David Jones © National Library of Wales

This year marks the centenary of Jones’ entry into the Great War. Precociously aware of his father’s Welsh origins, Jones had been desperate to join a Welsh regiment. In the end, he enlisted with a ‘London Welsh’ battalion, and crossed to France in December 1915. The previous spring, during basic training near Llandudno, Jones recalled nights spent on guard duty, watching the sea from the Great Orme and pretending he was a lookout for the king of Gwynedd. 

On the Great Orme, Llandudno

Thoughts like this shaped Jones’ war. The idealism didn’t last long, but his connection with the past only grew deeper and more real. Aware that he was fighting in a new kind of war, Jones felt that being in battle was, for the private infantryman, essentially the same experience it always had been. Distinction between past and present, at times, virtually broke down. The battle honours of the regiment liturgised Namur, Blenheim, Salamanca, Sevastapol, but ringing in Jones’ head were Brunanburh, Camlann, Catraeth, and ancient, vaguer ‘border antipathies’. Most of the soldiers around him had their own versions, the result not of propaganda or jingoism, but the simple fact of being there. 

Battle Honours of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, Jones' regiment

All through his time in the trenches, Jones carried, alternately, the Oxford Book of English Verse and Palgrave’s Golden Treasury in his pack. Reading them almost constantly, he grew frustrated that the ‘greats’ of Quiller-Couch and Palgrave now felt remote, too comfortable, for ‘they knew no calamity comparable with what we knew’. Thomas Dilworth, in his excellent David Jones in the Great War, argues that literature predating the canonised poetry of the anthologies had more resonance for Jones in this strange, particular reality.

Jones didn’t start writing In Parenthesis until the end of the 1920s. (On finishing All Quiet on the Western Front he reportedly responded with ‘Bugger it, I can do better than that. I’m going to write a book.’[3]) The poetry in In Parenthesis is intensely vivid, and allusions to Jones’ private world are integral to its sense of reality. No man’s land is recalled as a place of ‘enchantment’, like Pennant Govid or Annwn; explosive upheavals in the earth bring Twrch Trwyth to mind; men asleep in trench corners are ‘like long-barrow sleepers’. The allusions are not there to romanticise, but to present the Great War as Jones himself experienced it, and to align this catastrophe, symbolically, with other, older ones.
Christopher Williams, Battle at Mametz Wood (1918)

Jones furnished each of In Parenthesis’ seven parts with lines from Y Gododdin (a poetic compendium of war and disaster from medieval Wales). Y Gododdin has been praised for its realism: Gwynn Jones thought the soldier’s advance gan wyrd wawr, ‘with the green dawn’, the phrase of a man who had seen first faint morning ‘with a poet’s eye’. In Parenthesis finds matching lyrical detail amidst devastation. On the title page, Jones used what he took to be the most significant line of all: Seinnyessit e gledyf ym penn mameu, ‘his sword rang in mothers’ heads’. The deaths of Britons at Catraeth and at Mametz Wood, where Jones’ battalion suffered one hundred and eighty causalities and he himself was badly wounded, were to him rehearsals of the same ‘loveless’ defeat.  

David Jones
The author wrote simply that In Parenthesis is ‘about some things I saw, felt, and was part of’. Eliot, Auden, Greene, Yeats and Stravinsky all counted it among the greatest of any Modern poetry.


Last October I met Colin Wilcockson, former ASNC and Emeritus Fellow of English at Pembroke, for lunch at his college. Colin had been friends with Jones and, like everyone else who had met him, described him as the warmest and kindest of men. Afterwards, in the SCR, Colin unsheafed a portfolio he had with him and carefully spread the contents over a table. Unexpectedly, each bundle was a handwritten letter from Jones, glossed and re-glossed, sometimes illuminated, bursting with marginalia. In one of them, I glimpsed a mischievous return address, ‘Saes Canol’. Jones had rented a room in Harrow, Middlesex, in the 1950s. It was, he said, ‘his dug-out’. He died in 1974. 

[1] Kettle’s Yard closes for refurbishment on 21st June 2015, and will not reopen until 2017: see it now!
[2] Jones sometimes thought of himself as ‘Walter Map’ (Walter being Jones’ rapidly-discarded Christian name, and Walter Map the name of a twelfth-century Welshman who served Henry II).
[3] Incidentally Jones writes delightfully on swearing: ‘Private X’s tirade of oaths means no more than “I do not like this Vale of Tears”… the “Bugger! Bugger!” of a man detailed, had often about it the “Fiat! Fiat!” of the Saints’.

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