Gothic Architecture in the Poetry of David Jones and Geoffrey Hill

By Robichaud, Paul | Mosaic (Winnipeg), December 2002 | Go to article overview

Gothic Architecture in the Poetry of David Jones and Geoffrey Hill


Robichaud, Paul, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


The complex relationship between ethics and aesthetics shapes the historical analyses offered in the poetry of David Jones and Geoffrey Hill. This essay examines the symbolic, historical, and formal significance of Gothic architecture in their poetry, showing how it illustrates their very different explorations of aesthetic value.

In The Symbolist Movement in Literature, which introduced French Symbolism to English readers, Arthur Symons writes: "Every age has its own symbols; but a symbol once perfectly expressed, that symbol remains, as Gothic architecture remains the very soul of the Middle Ages" (80). As a symbol, the Gothic has been invested with a variety of meanings since the earliest days of the mediaeval revival, but in the twentieth century it has also been a focus for exploring the significance and value of aesthetic form itself. In the poetry of David Jones and Geoffrey Hill, Gothic architecture is symbolic of an earlier culture whose spiritual aspirations are given communal expression, a view shared by such nineteenth-century precursors as A.W. Pugin and John Ruskin. Jones and Hill nonetheless offer radically different versions of the Gothic in their poetry. Whereas Jones develops the traditional associations of Gothic form into an exemplum within his larger theory of culture, Hill meditates on its ethical meaning. This le ads, in Jones, to a celebration of aesthetic form as an end in itself, but in Hill to a radical questioning of aesthetic value, with important implications for their interpretations of culture.

The differences between Hill and Jones exemplify the fraught relationship between the aesthetic and the ethical in twentieth-century culture. Hill takes as his starting point Wittgenstein's claim that "'Ethics and Aesthetics are one'" (qtd. in "Dreams" 96). Poetry is an ethical discipline for Hill, and he approvingly cites Kenneth Burke's definition of "'workmanship' as 'a trait in which the ethical and the esthetic are one'" (qtd. in Lords 150). Jones, in contrast, maintains the Aristotelian and scholastic distinction between ars and prudentia, succinctly expressed by Brian Davies: "'Art' is correct reason about things to be made. 'Prudence' is correct reason about things to be done and aims at the good of the agent" (240-41). Jones observes that "in so far as art has an end[,] that end is a 'fitting together' and the word art means a fitting together." Art aims at achieving aesthetic form. Thus, "the much misinterpreted tag that art is for art's sake is, in that sense, true" (Epoch 151), a position Hill wou ld view as "aesthetic hermeticism" (Lords 6). Conversely, Jones would regard the position held by Wittgenstein and Hill as a case of confusing ars with prudentia, which he poetically defines as "the tutelary genius who presides over the whole realm of faith, moral, religion, ethic" (Epoch 145). What is at stake in this categorical debate is the basis for making and judging poetry or any other art. By exploring the role of Gothic architecture in the work of both poets, the terms of the debate can be clarified, and the practical results of their theoretical positions demonstrated, with an aim to understanding more fully the very different ends sought by two poets whose work is often linked together.

The poetry of Jones alludes to Gothic architecture as part of a wider engagement with what he calls "Celto-Latin-Germanic-Western Christian culture" (Anathemata 92 n.4). While retaining a Ruskinian sense of Gothic architecture as a symbol for vital culture, Jones recognizes that cultural vitality cannot be achieved through restoration, which seeks to recover an irrecoverable past, or through imitation, which merely parodies an earlier period style. He views the modern West as suffering a severe imbalance in which utilitarian values outweigh gratuitous ones; in such a situation, art becomes separated from daily life and work, which are more than ever determined by exclusively pragmatic ends. …

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