From the fora
to the forests.
Out from gens Romulum
into the Weal-kin
dinas-man gone aethwlad
cives gone wold-men
…from Lindum to London
bridges broken down.
What was his Hausname?
The poetry and art of David Jones is deeply concerned with cultural identity. The above passage encapsulates what is compelling and challenging about his work. It discusses the period in British history when the Roman empire was collapsing, and the native inhabitants (Romano-British, Britons, the future Welsh) faced a challenge from the continent: the Anglo-Saxons. Latin, Welsh, and Old English are placed in apposition to one another to tease out the complex identities of these people: now in the sophisticated Roman fora, now in the forests, now city-dwellers, now rural outlaws: ‘bridges broken down’. And all culminates in asking, ‘What was his Hausname?’, the Germanic word for place-family name chiming in to replace the previous Welsh and Latin. Jones’ fascination with this period is best explained in his own words: ‘it connects us with a very ancient unity and mingling of races; with the Island as a corporate inheritance, with the remembrance of Rome as a European unity’. Jones’ work is involved with this type of historical speculation, ‘re-presenting’ (his word) moments of historical and cultural change, making the past present and illuminating the complexities of civilisational change. Written by a World War One veteran, seeing Europe tear the world apart, it is clear why such topics would be on Jones’ mind.
One hundred years on from the end of this calamity, Jones’ work appears very relevant. Postcolonialism has brought about a probing into cultural identity, counteracting the nationalist myths generated over the previous two centuries. The political entity we so flatly term Britain is starting to appear more divided in many ways: consider the Scottish referendum, hostilities in Northern Ireland, growing independence movements in Wales and Cornwall, and the EU Referendum. All these speak of peoples seeking their roots and seeking to de ne themselves, searching for or trying to recover their cultural identity. Jones’ work offers a thorough and probing investigation into British and European cultural heritage, not dominated by nationalist or imperialist visions.
There has been an increased interest in Jones’ work in recent years: Thomas Dilworth has published an excellent biography, David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet, and Ariane Bankes and Paul Hills exhibited his art and published The Art of David Jones: Vision and Memory to open up discussions of his visual work. His painting ‘The Garden Enclosed’ appeared in the recent Aftermath exhibition at the Tate Britain, and the ‘The Lee Shore’ was on sale at the British Art Fair. ere is a rising interest in his work, at a time when Britain’s cultural identity has changed profoundly since the end of WW1. Jones’ depth and historical-mythological understanding sidestep the potholes of nationalism or the anti-national rhetoric of the left, avoiding simplification, but always searching for complexity, multiplicity, and the capaciousness and connectedness of all aspects of human identity and culture.
The interconnectedness of things across time was a fundamental belief for Jones. Rowan Williams has explained Jones’ theological take on art, reviewing Dilworth’s book: ‘for [Jones] all art rested on the conviction that God had made a world of endless cross-reference, and that humanity was most fully human when it acknowledged this. Art was humanity doing what only humanity could do’. A thorough understanding of his work can be gleaned from reading his theories of art in ‘Art and Sacrament’. Jones combined aspects of post-impressionist art theory and Catholic theology to develop his ideas. To him, a work of art was a ‘thing’, not an impression or representation of a thing; instead, if you look at a hill and paint a hill, you ‘re-present’ that hill, and make something new, something ‘other’, and create a new thing. For him, transubstantiation in the Catholic mass offered an analogy for how art works. You believe that the bread is no longer bread but is ‘made other’ into the body of Christ and ‘made present’, just as you believe that a coalescence of lines and colours are no longer that, but a hill or Arthurian Queen ‘made present’. ‘The artist deals wholly in signs’, wrote Jones. It is a view of artistic influence which considers how symbols are transferred through different civilisations by makers. Jones’ interest in history and mythology are a natural complement to this approach, generating a body of work deeply aware of its capacity to signify many things, and build on millennia of associations and signi cations. is transferal of symbols is comprehensively explored in Bankes and Hills’ chapter ‘Rediscovering the Masters’, which demonstrates Jones’ indebtedness to El Greco, Hogarth, Samuel Palmer, and many more. rough the transferral and revival of symbols and sign, Jones was able to ‘re-present’ things from the past, charged with meaning and historical echoes.
It was these beliefs that allowed Jones to connect so strongly to places or things, and ‘re-present’ them in his work charged with a depth of signi cation. In the painting ‘Hill Pasture, Capel-y- n’ from 1926, Jones depicted Welsh ponies grazing in a hilly landscape. Welsh horses were a motif he repeatedly returned to. To him, these were a living link to the days of Arthurian Britain; Malory comments that after the collapse of the Arthurian realm, the knights’ ‘horses went where they would, for they took no regard of no worldly riches’. ese were, perhaps, their descendants. ey connected him to a lost world, reminders of both permanence and decay. Bankes and Hills capture the essence of Jones perfectly when they comment on this painting (and other landscapes) that ‘the shrinking of the intervening centuries into oblivion gave the hills and valleys a resounding echo of the past’. Landscapes such as these appear more poignant when contrasted with the blasted stumps and disembowelled elds of France after WW1, another moment where perhaps a world was, or could have been, lost. T S Eliot asks in e Waste Land, ‘What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish?’, challenging the artist to recover something, to ensure that ‘things’ do not ‘fall apart’. Jones responds with these types of associations which give his work its mythical resonance, ‘making present’ horses not just as horses but steeped in all the signi cation that the culture of Romance and chivalry bestowed upon them.
After the war, during which Jones converted to Catholicism, he found himself in the artistic community of Ditchling training with Eric Gill in the art of engraving, and learning about the Catholic faith. e wood engravings especially have a medieval charm, incorporating elements of faux naif to elicit pathos through the portrayal of biblical gures. Unlike intaglio printing, the ink does not ll the engraved recesses, leaving them white against a dark background, which Bankes and Hill beautifully explore: ‘the inherent unreality of white-line engraving endows the simplest design with a visionary aura’. is is what attracted Jones to this medium. Such harmonic depictions of life as seen in his ‘Family at the Hearth’ appear to be borne out of the degradation experienced in trench life, returning to Christian familial warmth, cut into wood, an ancient medium.
Jones argued that ‘the arts abhor any loppings off of meanings or emptyings out, any lessening of the totality of connotation’. He sought to achieve the opposite in his work. e above quotation comes from a passage discussing a hypothetical world where writing ‘wood’ had no chance of evoking the wood of Christ’s Cross. It is this multiplicity of signi cation; words and things being capacious, having lots more inside them to be brought out, that underpins so much of Jones’ work, from the above comments on 5th century Britain to the observations of horses. ere is no better example of this than his own treatment of wood. Jones indulges himself, elaborating the symbolism of wood in a collage of symbols: from the beams of Roman ships travelling to Britain under Caesar, to e Ark of the Covenant, to blasted trees in France. He adds as a mere footnote ‘Yggdrasil of Northern mythology, the great tree with its roots far in the earth and its owers in heaven … for all these things are one in a way’. is winding list is a testament to the summative and unifying power of Jones’ imagination. In the chapter ‘Keel, Ram, Stauros’ of e Anathemata, Jones describes in loving detail the selection of pieces of wood for the construction of a ship:
for the barrelling ribs
tallest and chose beam
to take her beams
Prone for us
tholing the sea-shock
The wood has this protective function, ‘tholing’ (suffering) for us, delivering us over tempestuous seas, much as the cross delivered Christ who in turn delivers us on ‘wudu selesta’ (the best wood, Dream of the Rood). It is interesting that Jones uses the phrase ‘loppings off’ when it comes to meaning, since lopping off is what you do to wood. When describing marching through France in In Parenthesis, Private John Ball observes how ‘a splintered tree scattered its winter limbs, spilled its life low on the ground’. Wood, charged with all the above symbolism and possibility, is the protector and deliverer of life, but is also fractured, mutilated by war into a Waste Land.
It is this idea of multiplicity and capaciousness which Jones felt so deeply, that bears relevance to us today in discussion of contemporary issues of identity and nationhood. For Jones, every one of us was a ‘corporate inheritance’. A day in the life of most people will involve interaction with things which are the products of untold numbers of differing cultural influences, and the work of millions of people. A simple walk down a street would put you into contact with multiple architectural styles, different languages, and food from an array of countries. Look around where you are now, and think on the endless derivations and transferences that have produced your things, words, thoughts, clothes, food; then move to yourself, your feelings, your sense of who you are, where you come from, where you exist: your land, your nation, your world.
Nationality is fundamentally a capacious thing. The word ‘Britain’ derives from the Brittonic ‘Pritani’ or ‘Prydain’, whose world was shared with the Romans but lost to the Anglo-Saxons, ‘the English’. Their world was made up of Danes, Norwegians, Picts, Welsh, Cornish, Irish, and more, many of which became Norman, then eventually became Britain again. An empire came and went, a parliament grew in strength, waves of migration changed the demography of the country, and all in the land whose name comes from the now lost language of the ancient Britons.
This way of thinking shows why Jones’ ideas about the multiplicity of signification, how one thing can be many things at once and no less all those things, is crucial to our mode of thinking today. The rhetoric of both left and right can be cruelly reductive when it comes to national identity. For some, nation is a dangerous homogenisation that threatens minority ethnic groups and seeks to force people to accept ‘British Values’, which must be rejected in favour of an open globalized world, devoid of the nation. For others, nation must be uniform, with a strict set of ‘values’, perhaps an appearance and attitude, a behavioural code, and some sort of vision of ethnolinguistic unity.
Obviously, these are extremes, but they are real extremes. ese extremes cannot simply be reconciled by reading poetry, but Jones’ work brings a voice to such discussions which emphasises the multiplicities and complexities inherent in the idea of Britain. We must not have any ‘loppings off’, and that also means not shutting o new branches. The word Britain need not be insular, but polysemous. It is an idea of unity, which rests on the interconnectedness of things which appear di erent but interact together every day and which move around in a land shaped by a ‘corporate inheritance’. Nation need not mean nationalism, but a gathering of the symbolic, the mythical, the historical, the current, across times and places, connecting everything up with its roots and blossoms. This interconnectedness is something Jones saw, and makes his work enduring, moving, and beneficial for how we perceive ourselves and our world today.