The Song of Deeds: David Jones and William Blake

Today is the anniversary of the birth of David Jones (1895-1974), a poet and artist born in London to a father from a Welsh-speaking family, whose Welsh heritage and Catholicism – as well as the work of William Blake – did a great deal to shape his art.

Jones entered Camberwell Art School in 1909, but his experiences during the First World War, where he served on the Western Front as one of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, led him to explore the catastrophic events leading up to this collapse of a civilisation. As he wrote in his long poem, The Anathemata, the growth of industrialisation and a global imperium that divided communities from their social, cultural and mythological histories – what Jones referred to as ‘The Break’ – had brought material benefits but dislocated those communities from their essential spiritual and moral compass.

Jones’s interest in Catholicism brought him into contact with Eric Gill, and he joined Gill’s Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic and later the artistic community at Capel-y-ffin. He worked as an illustrator on numerous books, including Gulliver’s Travels and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and produced two notable literary works, In Parenthesis (1937) and The Anathemata (published by Faber and Faber in 1952, although Jones continued to work on it for the rest of his life).

As with In Parenthesis, The Anathemata was an attempt to recuperate what he saw as a humanity sacrificed by science, technology and politics in pursuit of military victory, the effects of which had been to create a historically- and culturally-impoverished society. The Anathemata (meaning precious or sacred gifts) was Jones’s attempt to regenerate a republic of art and help create a British counter-culture.

Part of his project, and one reason why the text was never satisfactorily completed for Jones, was not simply to illustrate the past but literally illuminate his text and history. In this task Jones was greatly influenced by Blake, not merely to bring together the heterogeneous elements of his Anglo-Welsh cultural heritage (with roots in Latin and biblical culture), but also formally through imitation of Blake’s acts of repetition. Jones had been an early admirer of Blake, and his return to the mythographical accounts of the origins of Britain out of Geoffrey and Monmouth shared great similarities with the Romantic poet’s desire to locate the beginning and end of all things “in Albions Ancient Druid Rocky Shore”.

Blake, particularly in his prophetic works Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion and Milton a Poem, is not the only influence on Jones’s poem, for he also drew upon a long line of English poetry from The Dream of the Rood to Hopkins via Shakespeare, Milton and many others. In addition, he privileged the position of classical civilisation and chthonic mother religions in a way that marks out his ethos as very distinct to that of Blake’s. Nonetheless, his mythic map-making and delineation of space is often closer to that of Blake’s than any other poet, as when he writes:

Did Albion put down his screen of brume at:
forty-nine fifty-seven thirty-four north five twelve four west
to white-out the sea-margin east of northwards to confluent
Fal, and west over Mark’s main towards where Trystan’s
sands run out to land’s last end? (Jones 98)

This shares considerable similarities to Blake’s idiosyncratic description of Albion in his later books, for example in Milton:

There are Two Gates thro which all Souls descend. One Southward
From Dover Cliff to Lizard Point. The other toward the North
Caithness & rocky Durness, Pentland & John Groats House. (E123)

Yet while British (specifically Celtic) history is essential to Jones’s salvation history as it was, with a more particular English twist, to Blake’s, both poets emphasise the importance of the story of the gospels to that national story. If Blake’s radical Protestantism may have caused him to baulk at what he would have seen as Jones’s priestcraft, at the same time the profound similarities between their prophetic visions lay in their self-conscious sense of being Christian poets in Albion.

Similar Posts: