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This item is taken from PN Review 24, Volume 8 Number 4, March - April 1982.

Among the several better than topical things that we were able to secure for PNR 22-these included, it will be remembered, Charles Johnston's version of a long poem by Paulinus, and Zbigniew Herbert's reflections on Lascaux-there were also John Matthias's transcriptions of letters from David Jones to Jim Ede of Kettle's Yard, Cambridge. The materials that Matthias excerpted for us undoubtedly and very valuably fill out and qualify the skilfully tailored versions of Jones that the late Rene Hague presented in his Dai Greatcoat, which was approvingly reviewed by Matthias in the same issue. Particularly significant from one point of view is what Jones wrote to Ede some time in 1933:

. . . The Eng. Bible, Milton, the Puritan Revolution, the Jacobeans, Pope-anything you like-'Ann' civilization, the whole 18th Cent business, God knows are England enough- but a great foreign influence seems to have all but strangled the particular quality we seem to all recognize electric from the remote past-Celtic-Anglo-Saxon-to make you weep in the early middle age . . .

All of which-inchoate punctuation and all (indeed, the inability or reluctance to punctuate is very significant) -chimes in, so some of us will think, with Jones's response, nine years later, to Henry Moore's drawings of sleepers in the underground air-raid shelters:

. . . the best things he's ever done. God be praised! They are somehow 'romantic' in the true sense. English artists are 'Romantic' or nothing-I'm sure of that . . .

'Romantic', first without capital R but then with it, in both cases put between quotation-marks and qualified by the all-purpose disclaimers, 'somehow' and 'in the true sense'-this is all of a piece with, in the earlier letter, 'anything you like' and 'the whole 18th Cent business', and with the punctuation. There is no way for any one to engage, for the purpose of serious consideration, with concepts and perspectives defined so cloudily, and no sooner advanced than they are backed away from. To make doubly sure that he can never be brought to account for the highly tendentious and implausible and unsupported view of the English tradition that none the less he is proposing, Jones hurries to allow in the letter of 1933 that all he writes of the English Bible, Milton and eighteenth-century English art is 'ill-put, open to every wrong interpretation . . . & not to be taken at all literally.' If H. S. Ede was not to take these remarks 'literally', then how was he to take them? And how are we to take them, now that they have become public property?

Jones's position is as impregnable, now when he posthumously addresses us all, as it was in life when he addressed Jim Ede. We can take his remarks either as the oracular and thus unchallengeable pronouncements of eccentric genius, or else as the endearingly muddle-headed bumblings of a lonely naif unable to cope on level terms with 'you clever chaps'. In the one way or the other Jones can always slip out from under whatever net we try to cast over him. Any question we might put to him would have to begin: 'Do you really mean to say that . . .' (for instance that the King James Bible is less 'English' than the Vulgate)? And the situation has been rigged so that any one who puts such a question is a pernickety pedant, or an obtuse philistine, or both of those unlovely characters rolled into one.

Rene Hague's portrait, though it was meant to be (and is) a tribute, consistently shows Jones, certainly in his life and often in his art, getting mileage out of this notion that the artist has the right to be muddle-headed, muzzy and ineffectual so long as he is strenuously well-intentioned. And yet David Jones was not a charlatan. Moreover his neurasthenia, though it remains mysterious, was undoubtedly real; and it explains or excuses a great deal. So it seems more charitable to take him as a representative rather than extreme case of how the British artist responds to what the British public expects of him; in particular what it expects of him intellectually. That public does not expect of him, indeed it is positively affronted when it finds in him, any capacity for systematic or rigorous thought about what he is doing, and how it relates to what has been done along the same lines in the past. The puerility of Jones the poet's reflections about metre (they can be found in Dai Greatcoat) is only one instance out of many. In common talk about the arts, the frequently expressed hostility to 'the academic' is in many ways and on many grounds justified; but too often it masks this at once protective and condescending conviction that the true artist is, when it comes to intellectual formulation and explanation, a more or less winsome child. It was not a child who wrote 'The Tutelar of the Place' or Epoch and Artist. But there ought to be a way of recognizing these as moving and tough-minded achievements while yet-acknowledging that the man who wrote them also wrote things that are silly and irresponsible. Discrimination -between the places where an artist lives up to his capacities, and those where he doesn't-is a duty laid on all of us, which few of us measure up to. But in the case of writers like David Jones we have to acknowledge the more dispiriting possibility that a poetic writer may live up to his responsibilities as a writer even as he falls short of his responsibilities as a man of letters.

This item is taken from PN Review 24, Volume 8 Number 4, March - April 1982.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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