David Jones

A Christian Modernist?

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Jamie Callison, Paul S. Fiddes, Anna Johnson, Erik Tonning
Studies in Religion and the Arts


On January 2, 1952, ten months before the publication of The Anathemata, T.S. Eliot wrote to David Jones asking him for a page-length description of his latest poem. “I feel rather at a loss to describe The Anathemata for catalogue and jacket purposes,” Eliot writes, “and I think the most satisfactory thing would be for you to let me have a draft blurb explaining what you are about in this book.”(National Library of Wales, David Jones Papers, CT 1/2).Three days later, Jones responded to Eliot’s request, not with a concise description, but with five tightly-written pages. Even in this long form, Jones appears to have struggled with the task, occasionally turning to abstraction and colloquialism as he strained to explain what The Anathemata is “about”: “perhaps the bloody book is kind of like a ‘lucky dip’ in a bran-tub in a church. Chaps will have to be satisfied with what they may happen to pull out.” (Thomas Dilworth, “T.S. Eliot and David Jones.” The Sewanee Review. Vol. 102, No. 1 (Winter, 1994), p. 74).The difficulties associated with writing the poem’s blurb partly reveal how the complex modalities of Jones’s compositions elude simple and declarative models of critical analysis. 

In this recent collection of essays, titled David Jones: A Christian Modernist? New Approaches to His Art, Poetry and Cultural Theory, eighteen Jones scholars provide alternative ways to approach these complexities, accepting an essential mysteriousness in Jones’s art and placing it at the center of their critical attitudes. Cleverly, the collection structures itself on an open-ended question, rather than a plainly-stated thesis. In his introduction, Paul S. Fiddes begins by asking how it is possible that Jones is both a Christian (thereby concerned with the preservation of history and the sacred) and a Modernist (thus interested in forms and modes of thought that try to break with the past)? Is this not a contradiction in terms? While Fiddes’s question is reductive in its understanding of Modernism, it provides the collection’s essays with the freedom to move away from declarative investigations and towards interrogative inquiries. The move proves fruitful, for David Jones: A Christian Modernist? not only accepts a variety of points of view, but also willingly asks difficult and even unanswerable questions to approach the ambiguities of Jones’s spirit. As a result, the collection is one of the most nuanced and thorough studies of Jones’s art, poetry, and theory to date. 

The eighteen essays that comprise David Jones: A Christian Modernist? are divided into four distinct sections: “Christian Modernism,” “The Break, War, & Politics,” “A Sacramental Poetics,” and “A Poet in Late-Modernity.” In the first, Fiddes’s question is directly addressed. In one of the more interesting essays of the section, Martin Potter looks at the ways Jones appropriates the experimental forms of Modernism  to achieve traditional and Christian objectives (for example, the assertion of a broad, but coherent Christian tradition) instead of reactionary and modern aims. Importantly, Potter’s essay not only reveals Jones’s engagement with his aesthetic and intellectual context, but also his understanding of Christianity as an open and developing project not a static and dogmatic system of beliefs. Jones’s willingness to play with the boundaries of Christianity is a critical facet of his thinking, however, it did occasionally bring him into problematic territory. The second section of the collectionacquires much of its strength by openly engaging with some of these difficult issues. Tom Villis’s “Catholicism, Modernism, and Fascism,” for instance, takes a candid look at Jones’s fascist sympathies. While Villis does not shy away from critiquing Jones [“Jones does not merely express tentative sympathy with the aims of fascism, but suggests that it was fighting the good fight” (131)], he remains aware that Jones was never inflexible, nor did he ever write dogmatic poetry. “It is unhelpful,” Villis reminds his readers, “to reduce the richness and ambiguity of poetry to one political or cultural viewpoint” (123).

In the third section of the collection, a number of scholars attempt to parse Jones’s conception of the artistic process as analogous to the “sign-making” of the Catholic Eucharist. The section is theoretical and, as such, reveals one of the few problems with the book: a lack of extended close readings. Despite the periodic overextension of her argument (her jump from “01549 Wyatt” to the claim there is a coded female presence throughout the text of In Parenthesis reads too quickly), Jean Ward’s “In Parenthesis, the Eucharist, and the Mythical Method” serves as a much-needed corrective. Her discussion of the “hidden presence of Mary throughout In Parenthesis” (190), however, is in company with only a few other extended close readings: Fr. Ramsay’s discussion of Eclogue IV and Tom Goldpaugh’s study of the compositional history of The Anathemata proving to be high points in applied theory. The third section of the collection also introduces a number of productive points of comparison—St. Ephram, R.S. Thomas, and Gerard Manley Hopkins (Daniel Gustafsson), Geoffrey Hill (Paul Robichaud), and Wilfred Owen (Anna Svendsen)—which illuminate the traditions, forms, and contexts of Jones’s art. In the last section of the book, this contextualizing reaches its climax in a fascinating essay by Matthew Sperling, which examines the publication of Jones’s poems in the 1960s by Stuart Montgomery’s Fulcrum Press and, subsequently, his relation to younger poets such as J.H. Prynne and Ian Hamilton Finlay. 

A highlight of David Jones: A Christian Modernist? is the honesty with which it deals with Jones and the ambiguities of his works. For instance, Michael O’Siadhail’s “David Jones: A Poet’s Perspective,”—in addition to confirming that criticism written by poets is often more illuminating than criticism written by academics— is a remarkably genuine discussion of the experience of reading Jones. In the sincerity with which he relates the reading experience [“the fact is that I struggle to understand the minutiae of his work” (271)], O’Siadhail makes a valuable critical step forward: he struggles, questions, and even puts pressure on Jones in ways that are exciting and insightful. Furthermore, O’Siadhail’s model of analysis teaches readers not to be overbearing, but more like the reader Jones envisioned for himself: a reader “willing to worry-out the meaning of a thing”—as he once wrote (René Hague, Dai Greatcoat: A Self-Portrait of David Jones in His Letters, London, Faber: 1980, p196-97)—and prepared to take a “lucky dip” into the “bran tub” of his art.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alex Assaly is a doctoral candidate in English Literature at the University of Cambridge.

Date of Review: 
January 14, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jamie Callison works on modernism, religious culture, and poetry in performance. He has published widely on these topics in journals such as Modernist Cultures, Literature and Theology, and ELH.

Paul S. Fiddes has published extensively on the relation between literature and theology, and his most recent book is Seeing the World and Knowing God (Oxford University Press, 2015).

Anna Johnson is Senior Development Manager at the University of Exeter. Her PhD focused on the visual and literary work of David Jones, and she has published articles on this topic (including “David Jones and the Anglo-Saxon Culture Tangle” in Anglo-Saxon Culture and the Modern Imagination, Boydell and Brewer, 2010).

Erik Tonning is Professor of British Literature and Culture at the University of Bergen. He has published on Jones in Modernism and Christianity (Palgrave, 2014) and in the edited volume Broadcasting in the Modernist Era (Bloomsbury, 2014).


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.