THE SLEEPING LORD & OTHER FRAGMENTS by David Jones, Faber pounds 9.99 DAVID JONES: A Fusilier at the Front selected by Anthony Hyne Seren Books pounds 14.95 DAVID JONES: The Maker Unmade by Jonathan Miles & Derek Shiel, Seren Books pounds 29.95
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"HOW to fit in the odd man out?" ask Miles and Shiel. Their subject was a man whose art "was anchored by a religious world view that may not any longer be intellectually fashionable or comfortable", and their question acknowledges David Jones's marginal status. He is a poet and painter loved by some for his reticent integrity but more often respected than engaged with and taken to heart. Some see him as another Blake, with a different but analogous set of visionary fixations, involving a mysterious fusion of Christian grace, Roman duty, and the matter of Britain. There are similarities too with Ivor Gurney, another double-barrelled artist (poetry and music, in his case) maimed in the bestiality of the trenches.

In Parenthesis (1937), hailed by Eliot as a work of genius, remains Jones's most complete and accessible literary work. Not to be outdone, Auden called its successor, The Anathemata (1952), "very probably the finest long poem written in English this century", a judgement as credible as the garlands variously flung at the Cantos, Paterson, Maximus, and The Bridge. Later writings and "fragments" have followed, collected now in The Sleeping Lord and copiously fitted out with notes and explanatory matter.

These explications and apologias are reminiscent of the finicky, troubled perfectionism of a Wittgenstein or a Pater, who could hardly bear to part with a thought till it was polished up bright, but who couldn't bear not to get into print either. The poems themselves, rooted in the fertile soil of The Waste Land - the real masterpiece of the century - are always interesting and suggestive, yet leaded with Poundian mannerism, the dogged attempt to sacralise apprehension by juxtaposing ancient and modern, the arcane and the familiar, the jokey and the epiphanic. The Roman sentry pacing the vallum is David Jones beside his dugout; the enemy is chaos, barbarism, meaninglessness; the saviour might be Christian or pagan, Jove or a platoon-sergeant bawling out his men. "A few like you can undo / and properly bitch / all the world plan".

He invents a "lingua / of the fog-bound insula" (ie a mongrel mix of English, Latin, Welsh) in order to "evoke the feel and ethos inherent in the 'materia' or subject matter". At its best it has real weight, at its worst - "the crocked viatic meal / the flint-washed ivory agalma ... / the vivific amulets / of gleam white-rodded ivory ... " - it is constipated and eccentric, hauling at names and tags as though allusion might suddenly transmute itself into illumination.

There's also something inflationary and too insisted-upon in the comradely "world-hegemony" practised by the "sacred college" of the regiment, which must put away "plebeian pity" in order to protect the "world-utilities" of Rome, or Christendom, or Britain. For all the high-cultural trappings this "materia" is sometimes only a hair's-breadth away from "Play up! play up! and play the game", or the rather suspect compound of humility- in-arrogance you find in Housman and Kipling.

The quest for a real and usable spirituality, however, was a heroic one; and he was well aware of the dangers of sentimentalising Dai Greatcoat - the memorable Gill engraving of a First War grunt, made from a Jones drawing - into a chi-chi minion of the gods. Once upon a time "the embrace of battle seemed one with the embrace of lovers. For us it is different."

If he was implacably modernist as a poet, keen to keep the reader on his collaborative toes, Jones was rather more relaxed and conventional as an artist, open to any number of influences, from the Romanesque to John Piper and Winifred Nicholson. He had two spells at art schools, Camberwell and Westminster, before and after his soldiering, and then fell under the sway of Eric Gill's semi-monastic commune at Ditchling, where art and worship were combined in spartan pursuit of the ineffable lineaments of desire.

Anthony Hyne's book offers a rich selection of his war drawings, dashed off in pencil on any old scrap of paper to hand. They range from a wonderful sketch of a drunk bandsman, through his experiences in France, to a medievalising New Year's card of 1918, The Quest, featuring the rather bald components of his mythic imagination. By and large the figures and the machinery (and the dead rats) are superior to the shattered or peaceful landscapes. Owenesque tenderness suffuses many of these swiftly-caught faces and bodies - see the excellent "Cath", where less is more - and the beast of burden carrying a duckboard, while his rifle does its best to trip him up. Even the lanky, upper-class twits, who look to be straight out of Dad's Army or It Ain't Half Hot Mum, manage to stay this side of dismissive caricature.

Jones disowned these drawings in later life but carefully preserved them (they were found in the nursing home after his death), so we may assume that something of their magic stayed potent for him. So did the charm of the early animal drawings which open Miles' and Shiel's large and illuminating conspectus of his career as art student, painter/ sculptor, engraver, illustrator and letterer. The large format suggests an art book, the abundant text a scholarly monograph. In fact it's a compromise between the two, mixing analysis with biography and source material, and taking in every aspect of Jones as a maker of "signs". "To make a 'thing' - let's say a mountain ... under the form of paint, and not an impression of a mountain ... this idea was

His various techniques defied photographic reproduction, he said - "the better the picture the worse the photograph" - and Miles and Shiel agree that the "ethereal delicacy" of his watercolours is not easy to capture. Most of the illustrations, therefore, are in black and white, though a dozen or so have a go at his rather Piperish palette. Irritatingly, the text is not keyed very precisely to the many pictures on the page, and you sometimes have to guess which image is being discussed.

What emerges clearly enough, however, is the range and depth of Jones's accomplishment, those piercing moments when his charm and eclecticism deepen into something genuinely holy, as in the best of his landscape and flower paintings ("Tree at Northwick Park", for instance), the crucifixion on a piece of tongue-and-groove, the vital energy of his lettering, which really does marry up past and present in a new way.

He was a recluse whose life intersected with many of the best artists of the century, an ascetic haunted by sex, a poor man who hailed taxis, a Welsh Cockney who communed with Tristan and Arthur in Harrow on the Hill, a pacifist obsessed with military service, a poet who deliberately mired himself in the prosaic. It would be easy to bracket him as yet another English eccentric hung up on myth. But his search for "the efficacious word" or sign was a real one. Art is "an infantryman's job", he once said, anxious to dispel the aura of preciousness that hangs over his archaising obsessions, the maker's triumph over "the original indeterminacy of the intellective faculty". He shared William Morris's hatred of the machine but doubted that the sleeping lord was likely to be woken by socialism, or any other earthly remedy. "You can't beat whitewash ... and candle-light ... about as good a thing as you can see in this world I reckon."