We are occasionally rewarded in our reading and research travels by new discoveries. Sometimes, like treasure hunters of any stripe, our laborious diggings and wanderings into obscurity yield buried hoards meant to be shared with those who would appreciate them.
Such was the case, recently, when after two years of intensive work, archaeologists announced the discovery of a 7000 year-old Native burial site off the coast of Florida. Or, similarly, when archaeologists revealed new theories about the workings of the ancient Roman Plutonium, where animal sacrifices were made to reinforce notions of divinity and the power of the priesthood. Or in Sweden, recently, where archaeologists discovered 8000 year-old human heads impaled on spikes.
Discoveries like that are always rare additions to our thinking, and they can easily slip past us in the daily crush of information. But they remain endlessly fascinating discoveries for those of us scouting the trail for sign, and they can be studied to inform our modern life, and work, and what it is we think we know about the past.
My own recent discovery – and I honestly have no idea why it took me so long – isn’t nearly so old, though it contains marvelous nods to antiquity, an utterly genius exploration of the boundaries of our language, and a deeply held appreciation for the taxing and mysterious burdens of citizenship in service.
The embarrassing part, for this tracker, is that the treasure was always hiding in plain sight, and that I found it late, and by accident.
It happened like this: I was reading in Wendell Berry’s latest work, The Art of Loading Brush – which is yet another excellent contribution to reason – when Berry quoted briefly from David Jones. The quote, which informs elements of the foundational thinking behind Running Iron Report, runs like this:
“My view is that all artists, whether they know it or not, whether they would repudiate the notion or not, are in fact ‘showers forth of things’ which tend to be impoverished, or misconceived, or altogether lost or willfully set aside in the preoccupations of our present intense technological phase, but which, none the less, belong to man.
So that when asked to what end does my work proceed I can do no more than answer…thus: Perhaps it is in the maintenance of some sort of single plank in some sort of bridge.”
This quote comes from Jones’ work The Dying Gaul, which is what initially caught my attention, given my long appreciation — it borders on obsession — with that masterwork of sculpture. But my second thought was: who the hell is David Jones? And why don’t I know about him? My third thought was: If Berry is quoting him, then something powerful is going on in his work, my education has an enormous gap, and gaps in the line must be filled immediately.
To make short-shrift of an involved process, I now know who David Jones was, and what he has done for us, and that discovery necessitates a pleading with the readers of RIR to give him your attention.
If you are interested in World War I history, or nurture an appreciation and love for the deeper mysteries of language and its uses, you will be richly rewarded.
David Jones was a Welshman, born and raised in Southeast London in 1895 to a Welsh father and an English mother. He had two siblings, a brother and sister. His brother died at 19 of tuberculosis.
As a young man Jones, recognizing and insisting early on his own talents, was sent to art school, at Camberwell, where he showed remarkable promise. Some of his earliest drawings, at 7 or 8 years old, are truly accomplished works of art, stunning in their realism and sense of the particular.
At the outbreak of World War I Jones joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers. From 1915 until 1918 he served with the 38th Welsh Division, formed largely of those East Londoners like Jones of Welsh extraction. He served longer on the Western Front than any other British war writer. This service would eventually take a major toll on Jones’ health, but it would also produce some of the finest writing ever produced in the English language.
But don’t take my word for it. T.S. Eliot, writing about Jones’ work In Parenthesis, called it “a work of genius.” He was saluted by W.B. Yeats. And W.H. Auden, one of the finer English poets the world has known, said of Jones’ work The Anathemata, that it was “probably the finest long poem in English in this century.”
If you are at all familiar with English literature, you understand the enormity of that praise.
In the foreward to In Parenthesis, the poet W.S. Merwin notes that T.S. Eliot ranked Jones with James Joyce and Ezra Pound in the world of heavyweight writers, while lamenting that Jones was not nearly so widely known. And then, mercifully, Merwin gave me an out for my own embarrassing oversight: “For some years his books have been unobtainable in the United States, and many readers who are otherwise well acquainted with the poetry of the twentieth century have barely heard of him.”
Merwin speculates that one reason for his obscurity may be that Jones’ work is difficult. And it most certainly is. The language and references demand attention and work, which is sadly not a forté of the average modern reader. Allusions to Homer, or Arthur, or ancient Welsh legends tend to overwhelm the casual reader’s willingness to participate because we have, in the age of Miley Cyrus, forgotten how informative those ancient works are to everything else that comes behind them.
Too often, if we are asked to do any work, we put the book down and miss the opportunity for enriched understanding.
But Jones’ ability to reach into antiquity, such as a moment in Part 4 of In Parenthesis when Dai Greatcoat, a private soldier, begins a trenchline soliloquy and calls forth the ghosts of soldiers from Artaxerxes to the Welsh epic Y Gododdin, are so ultimately worth the effort that they left this reader stunned and speechless by their sonorous, synethesthetic, and generational genius.
If we are willing to let Jones employ our language in challenging ways, and to explore the way human beings experience and filter their exposure to, and impressions of, horror, such as those moments in Part 3 when we follow Private John Ball and his fellow soldiers into the trenchline at night for the first time, we may perhaps never see the WWI experience in the same way.
And if we are willing to do that work, as any reader of Paul Kingsnorth’s enormously rewarding novel The Wake — recently published in an invented language resembling the English of antiquity — has learned, we may find treasures and rewards we never knew existed.
In Parenthesis is, essentially, an epic poem. But it also isn’t. There are long passages of narrative, interspersed with a stretching of the English language into its potential to articulate impressions of the mind that are rarely seen in literature, or any other medium, and simply nowhere else to such success in the literature of World War I.
Readers of the more well-known of the WW I poets, Sassoon and Owen, for instance, or of the famous novelists of the era will likely find that Jones’ understanding and employment of our tongue is on a different playing field altogether. And because it is on a different playing field, it offers astonishingly fresh insight into how we see the life of a private soldier in the trenches of France.
What’s also mesmerizing in Jones is the success of his deliberate movement “from the universal to the particular,” which arcs to a lesson from Berry, and one that intrigues me to no end — not only in good writing, but as a way of approaching life. Jones’ eye for the particular in the trenches is often startling, always fresh, and a superior accomplishment in letters.
Because I have come to him late, and have only recently finished reading In Parenthesis, I’ve felt some urgency to encourage our growing group of readers and thinkers to get acquainted with him. Please do. If you are willing to put in the work, you will be showered in riches.