Tuesday, March 13, 2012

David Jones: Art, Poetry and the Bible, by Kathleen Staudt

Jone, Human Being, 1931 (detail)
I’ve been helping to organize an upcoming conference and exhibition at Washington Adventist University. The conference will feature the visual art work and poetry of David Jones (1895-1947).  Jones is one of those rare geniuses like William Blake, who combines a unique vision as visual artist -- working as a painter, engraver, book illustrator and maker of painted inscriptions-- and poet.  Trained as a visual artist as a young man, he served in the Great War with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, and began writing poetry after the war, when debilitating post-traumatic stress symptoms prevented him from painting.  The result was his first long poem, In Parenthesis, which brought together a mythic imagination, a painterly sense of form and texture, and an intimate sensitivity to the human experience of war as seen from those who served.  Widely acclaimed in his time (T.S. Eliot called it “a work of genius”), In Parenthesis has been recognized as one of the great poetic works coming out of World War I.

Jones, Deluge (detail)
Jones was a convert to Roman Catholicism and spent some years in the artist’s and craftman’s community of Ditchling, in England - a community led by the Catholic sculptor Eric Gill in the 1920’s. Jones’s conversations with Catholic artists in those days led him to a highly original understanding of the poet’s and artist’s work as a “sacramental” activity, drawing on the work of Jacques Maritain and other Catholic theologians, but with Jones’s own particular stamp as an artist of the 20th century, acutely aware of the cultural fragmentation of his time, and deeply connected to his Welsh heritage and to the liturgy and story of his adopted Roman Catholic tradition.

Jones, Everyman (detail)
I have spent many years immersed in what I view as Jones’s greatest work, a long poem entitled The Anathemata, published in 1952 but written largely during the second world war, including the time of the blitz in London.  W.H. Auden called this work “very possibly the finest long poem written in English in this century.”  Winding and circuitous in its form, it centers on the celebration of the mass in a London chapel during the war, at what the poem calls “the sagging end and chapter’s close” of western civilization.  In an internal monologue that opens out layer after layer of verbal allusion, the poem connects the celebration of Eucharist with the last supper and passion, with the mythologies of the west from Greece, Rome, Wales and northern Europe, and with the arc of salvation history.  It is an offering of “anathemata” -- a Greek word that means “the things set apart” for blessing or for curse.  The intersection between “things” and the acts of “sign-making” which Christ performed at the Last Supper and at the Crucifixion widens to a celebration of the “sign-making” activity of humanity, which connects us to the Incarnation and to the Logos, the Creator.  Dense in its texture and allusive in its meanings, the poem belongs to the era of high modernism, reminding one of the allusiveness of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (which Jones admired) and of Eliot’s Waste Land.  Like those works it is challenging but rewards rereading, and it engages themes of theology and culture that are deeply relevant to our own time.  Indeed, there are ways in which Jones is well ahead of his time.  My talk at the conference will be about Jones and .H. Auden and what we can learn from them about a “sacramental poetics” in a post-Christian era.

Jones, Crucifixion (detail)
Jones was very aware of connections between text and image, and he was fascinated with the role of the artist as the preserver of “culture” and what he called “the world of sign and sacrament” in a world where economic and political empires reign, and the artist’s role becomes increasingly prophetic in what he called our “placeless cosmocracy.”  The conference on Jones, entitled “David Jones: Culture and Artifice,” will be held at Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park  March 29-30.  It will  include an art exhibit, academic papers and discussions, a poetry reading, and the North American premiere of the film "David Jones between the Wars: The Years of Achievement" a new feature length documentary by Derek Shiel and Adam Alive.  For full information and registration materials go to the conference website at http://www.wauhonorsprogram.org/davidjones2012.html or contact me at kathleen.staudt@gmail.com.

As if that isn’t enough for this lover of theology and literary art, dovetailing with the Jones conference will be the annual Keogh Lectures at Washington Adventist, featuring distinguished scholar Dr. Leland Ryken.  On Friday evening March 30, Dr. Ryken will lecture on “The Bible as Literary Classic,” and I will be giving a formal response to his talk that evening.  On Saturday March 31, Dr. Ryken will lecture on "What Makes the King James Bible Great." For more information about the Keough lectures, contact Dr. Zack Plantak at zplantak@wau.edu. 

If you’re interested in learning more about David Jones, the proceedings of conferences held in 2010 at Washington National Cathedral are available online at http://www.flashpointmag.com/index13.htm

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