A deeper conversion with David Jones

I recall going to an Orthodox service in Oxford where the tradition is followed by acquiring prosphora bread, shaped like a miniature cottage loaf, that is sent to the priest for blessing (not consecration) accompanied by small notes listing people (under a red cross for the living, under a black for the dead) for intercession. Adding my offering, I noticed one note, under a red cross, having a list of people after which, in brackets, it read Anglican! I was suitably shocked for what did it matter in the patterns of prayer and concern what denomination (if any) the prayed for person was?

I was happy reading in Thomas Dilworth's exemplary biography of the painter-poet, David Jones, that Jones was similarly shocked when, asking a Catholic priest to intercede for a friend crippled by arthritis, he was asked whether the friend was a Catholic!

Jones was a devout convert to the Catholic Church but as Dilworth shows, consistently, it was, and is, Catholic for a reason, because, for Jones, it embedded and carried forward a universal culture of making meaning, gathering up all that was known and resolved anew within a transcending frame that was God's incarnation, sacrifice, and resurrection. A transcending frame that was, paradoxically, one that was thoroughly immersed in the matter of things -including the essential need to focus on forgiveness, sunk as it is in the very felt texture of real lives, rather than the policing of morality (or of 'faithful allegiance)!

Jones was a deeply sensual painter - the world dances and flows (as here above in an apparently simple rendering of his desk and window) and speaks each of its particular selves or objects into a world of light. Every sign of a thing is tumbling towards revealing itself as 'sacrament' - an outward visible side of grace. It was a vision that Jones held to, sometimes by the very edge of his fingernails, for his life had been through the shattering experience of war. He is, Dilworth notes, of all the famous war poets of the First World War (let alone the artists), the one who spent the longest time actually at the front, engaged in combat and the drudgery, fear of waiting for combat - and as a private soldier rather than as an officer.

He paid the price in lifelong suffering of what would now be known as post-traumatic stress disorder - some of the treatment of which, unthinkingly, for a period of his life obliterated liveliness in a formidable (and futile) cocktail of drugs.

But through it all - and within remarkable bursts of creative activity - he painted and wrote - including the most beautiful and painful account in "In Parenthesis" of that very conflict in the trenches. One of the reasons that Dilworth's biography is so good is that it captures how seriously ideas matter in the life of a person. Jones' navigated his war by the light of them, embedded in the texture of living stories, living sights, that created a holding narrative of meaning. It did not, and could not abolish his suffering, but it could help bear and carry it.

Reading the introduction, I was initially somewhat put off, for Dilworth (who has devoted a lifetime of study and work to Jones) was, notwithstanding the buttressing quotes from the great and the good, claiming too high for Jones (and I still think Blake is the better poet). But as the text wove on, and the universally excellent illustrations built up with their accompanying and illuminating expositions, I was, I think, converted.

He is a very great painter, one of the finest English poets of the century; and, the possessor of a worked out and robust theory of culture that locates it within a profoundly sacred view of life.

It is a life that spills into and out of all his work - and even if one can never hope to catch all the qualities of its allusive references - to mythology, history, literature, technology, science and theology (as here in his late painting of Tristan and Isolde about to consume their poison) - you naturally respond to its vividness and its complexities by a willing journey of exploration. An exploration that goes on giving indefinitely reflecting the depths that it continually fathoms.


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