Mapping the Labyrinth: The Ur-Anathemata of David Jones

By Goldpaugh, Tom | Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Mapping the Labyrinth: The Ur-Anathemata of David Jones


Goldpaugh, Tom, Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature


DAVID Jones, the British poet and painter, once remarked that soldiers in The Great War were of two types: those who feared being buried alive in the trenches, and those who feared death on the open plains. Wounded at Mametz Woods in 1915, he counted himself among the latter, so much so that his post-war life was marked by an ever-increasing agoraphobia complicated by an intense need to surround himself with possessions redolent of significance.

It was not simply that he called the rooms in which he lived "dugouts" and filled them with his paintings, manuscripts and books;(1) creating enclosed havens extended to his art. Paul Hills notes that a common gesture in his paintings is the creation of space that offers "a sense of safe enclosure" and Jones (31), speaking of his preferred method of painting, wrote in 1935 that "I like looking out on the world from a reasonably sheltered position" (Hills 56).(2) While a concern with enclosures is visible in his paintings, his regard for the "sheltered position" is even more important in his poetry.(3)

Irrespective of the origins of his fears, Jones, like many modernists, divides experience into a system of radical opposition: past counters present, culture resists civilization, gratuity opposes utility. Concerned with cultural crisis, a crisis Jones labeled "The Break" (DG 41-49), many modernists conceptualize such oppositions in temporal terms--often by upholding a past culture, now lost, that in its wholeness opposes a fragmented modern world.

While Jones, too, constructed an idealized culture to counter a failed present, he differed from his contemporaries in how he depicted the tensions that he felt threatened the contemporary west. A visual artist first, he characteristically frames his oppositions in spatial terms. Whether in the geography of No-Man's Land, where "there was no help for them on that open plain" (SL 104), or in his rendering of Imperial Rome as a sprawling "megalopolis that wills death" (SL 13), exterior spaces most often exemplify the traits of civilization: empire, conformity, alienation. As embodied in Jones' representation of rural Wales and Celtic culture as the "hedges of illusion" (SL 63), interior spaces serve as refuges for the threatened values of local culture: community, tradition, the sacral.

In sketching the uneasy boundary between the interior and exterior, Jones' poetry continually employs images of demarcation: the trenches of The Great War, the city walls of Troy, the limes of the Roman Empire, the natural boundaries--the rivers and mountains--of Wales. Walls and boundaries, though, serve two opposed purposes in Jones' poetic universe: one is to protect an endangered culture, "that known enclosure" (SL 56), by serving as "hedges ... round some remnant of us" (SL 63); the other is to serve the interests of imperialism as "the walls that contain the world" (SL 10). Equally problematic is his depiction of the center. In presenting beleagured cultures, Jones evokes the "prepared high room" (A 53) of Holy Thursday, the burial mound, the cave, the earth as repositories for all that is in danger of being lost "in the December of our culture" (SL 64). Conversely, the center is the locus of imperial power, where "an inner cabinet plot the mappi mundi" (SL 40) and impersonally send out "the routine decrees" (SL 40) that govern the "Urbs, throughout orbis" (SL 50). The centripetal protective enclosure "gather[s] all things in" (SL 61) as "the holy mound / [the] fence within the fence" (SL 64). Imperialism's centrifugal center extends outward seeking to "liguidate the holy diversities" (SL 62) by levelling local cultures "to the world plain" (SL 55) and by dispersing that which culture would preserve.

While a concern with interior and exterior spaces is evident throughout his career, his poetry underwent a profound shift during the Second World War when Jones undertook a poetic project centered around the Roman Catholic Mass. …

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