David Jones (poet)

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David Jones CH (1 November 1895 – 28 October 1974) was both an artist and one of the most important first generation British modernist poets. His work was formed by his Welsh heritage and his Catholicism. T. S. Eliot considered Jones to be a writer of major importance and his The Anathemata was considered by W. H. Auden to be the most important long poem written in English in the 20th century.


  • 1 Early life
  • 2 Jones as Artist
  • 3 Jones as Poet
  • 4 Jones the Essayist
  • 5 External links

Early life

Walter David Michael Jones was born in 1895 in Howson Rd Brockley, Kent, now a suburb of London. His father, James Jones, was born in Flintshire, North Wales, to a Welsh-speaking family; he was discouraged from speaking Welsh by his father, who, in common with many Welsh parents of the time, believed that habitual use of the language would only hold his child back in his career. James Jones moved to London to work as a printer's overseer for the Christian Herald Press, and it was here that he met his wife, Alice, a Londoner born and bred. They had three children, Harold (who died in his late teens of tuberculosis), Alice, and Walter David, later known solely as David.

Jones exhibited artistic promise at an early age, even entering his drawings into exhibitions of children's artwork. He wrote that from the age of six he knew that he would devote his life to art. At fourteen, he persuaded his parents to allow him to abandon traditional education for art school, and in 1909, he entered the Camberwell Art School, where he was introduced to the work of the Impressionists and Pre-Raphaelites.

With the outbreak of the First World War, Jones enlisted with the Royal Welch Fusiliers and served on the Western Front until the end of the war. His experiences in the trenches were to prove extremely important in his later painting and poetry, especially his involvement in the fight at Mametz Wood.

He died in Harrow, Middlesex in 1974. His grave can be found in Crofton Park, Lewisham, SE13, near Brockley.

Jones as Artist

After the war, Jones entered the Westminster School of Art, where he developed an interest in Post-Impressionism and studied under the English artist Walter Sickert, among other influential teachers. He also became increasingly attracted by Roman Catholicism, and in 1921 he converted, choosing "Michael" as his confirmation name. It was probably the priest who received Jones into the Church, Father John O'Connor (in fact the model for G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown character), who suggested that he contact the Catholic artist Eric Gill. Gill ran the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, based on the medieval guild model, in Ditchling, Sussex. Jones joined the guild and learned wood and copper engraving as well as experimenting with wood carving. Jones soon began producing book illustrations for the St. Dominic's Press, and he would later illustrate for The Golden Cockerel Press, for whom he engraved the Cockerel itself in 1925.

Eric Gill split with the Guild of SS. Joseph and Dominic and moved with his family and some followers to Capel-y-ffin, a village in southern Wales, to pursue a rural way of life. Jones spent much of the years 1924 to 1927 living with the Gills and assorted hangers-on in a rambling former monastery just outside Capel-y-ffin. He had already become engaged to Gill's middle daughter, Petra, whose characteristic long neck and high forehead continued as standard female features in Jones's artwork for the rest of his career, even though his engagement to her did not last more than a couple of years.

Jones's major illustrated series include wood engravings produced for editions of The Book of Jonah, The Chester Play Of The Deluge, Aesop's Fables and Gulliver's Travels as well as for a Welsh translation of the Book of Ecclesiastes, Llyfr y Pregethwr. He produced an important group of copperplate engravings for an edition of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. He also executed commissions for one-off engravings such as his illustration for T.S. Eliot's The Cultivation of Christmas Trees.

Despite his success and growing reputation as an illustrator, Jones seems to have become disaffected by the medium. He professed great disappointment in the way that his illustrations for Gulliver's Travels had been subsequently hand-coloured by art students, and complained about the reproduction of the very dark wood engravings for The Chester Play of The Deluge. This may have influenced his decision later in life to concentrate on painting. His style changed over time from more traditional watercolour landscapes to a unique mixture of pencil and watercolour resulting in dense and busy works full of symbolism. His best-known paintings include early seascapes such as "Manawydan's Glass Door" and later works on legendary subjects, such as Trystan ac Esyllt (Tristan and Iseult). He is also much admired for a genre that he devised later in life, which he termed "painted inscriptions", and these exert a continuing influence on calligraphers.

Jones as Poet

Although he had been trying to write about his wartime experiences for some time, it was not until 1937 that Jones published his first literary effort. In Parenthesis, which was published by Faber & Faber with an introduction by T. S. Eliot, was written in a mixture of verse and prose: it defies categorization as either poem or novel, and critics still differ as to what term best applies. Jones's literary debut won praise from critics and admiration from fellow-poets such as T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats, as well as garnering the Hawthornden Prize in the following year. Jones's style can best be described as High Modernism; the poem draws on literary influences from the 6th-century Welsh epic Y Gododdin to Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur to try to make sense of the carnage he witnessed in the trenches.

His next book, The Anathemata, appeared in 1952 (again published by Faber and Faber). Inspired in part by a visit to Palestine during which he was struck by the historic parallels between the British and Roman occupations of the region, the book draws on materials from early British history and mythology and the history and myths of the Mediterranean region to explore the possibility of small cultures resisting the power of empire. The poem received mixed reviews in the press, but was acclaimed by other literary artists such as W.H. Auden, Kathleen Raine and William Carlos Williams.

For the rest of his life, Jones worked on a long poem, of which The Anathemata was intended to form part. Sections of the incomplete work were published as individual poems, mainly in the London literary magazine Agenda, but in 1974, they were collected for publication in book form as The Sleeping Lord and Other Fragments (once again under Faber and Faber's auspices). A posthumous volume of previously-unseen materials was edited by Harman Grisewood & René Hague and was published by Agenda Editions as The Roman Quarry.

In 2002 the text of three short poems was published for the first time in Wedding Poems, edited by Thomas Dilworth. Two of these poems ("Prothalamion" and "Epithalamion", amounting to 271 lines) had been written while living in London during the Blitz, for the marriage of Harman and Margaret Grisewood. The third poem, "The Brenner" (24 lines), had been written on March 18th 1940 to mark the meeting of Mussolini and Hitler on the Brenner Pass. According to their editor, the publication of these poems brought into print "all the known completed poetry by David Jones".

Jones the Essayist

Jones wrote a number of essays on questions of art, literature, religion and history. He wrote introductions for a few books such as a new edition of George Borrow's Wild Wales; he gave radio talks on the BBC's Third Programme; he even tried his hand at an extended consideration of Coleridge's poem for a reprinting of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner featuring his own illustrations. These efforts were published in two collections, Epoch and Artist (Faber and Faber, 1959) and The Dying Gaul — another posthumous volume edited by a close friend and published by Faber and Faber in 1978. The best summary of David Jones' attitude to art and religion is contained in his essay, "Art and Sacrament" (included in Epoch and Artist), which explores the meaning of signs and symbols in everyday life, relates them to Roman Catholic teachings such as the dogma of transubstantiation, and argues that human beings are the only animals which create "gratuitous" works, thus making them creators analogous to God.

  • Examples of Jones' work at the Tate Gallery
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