Vol 17 No 4
The Anathemata: a Brilliant Modernist Poem
A growing number of contemporary poets and critics are becoming convinced that David Jones's Anathemata is not only a brilliant poem(1) and a fine example of modernist poetry,(2) but also a work which entitles Jones to rank among such twentieth-century Titans as Pound, Eliot and Joyce (3). Someone unfamiliar with Jones's work in general, or with The Anathemata in particular, might consider such a conviction extreme and ask (with good reason), what is The Anathemata? Why is it modernist? What is its relationship to the works of the other more famous modernists? And finally, why is it great?
The question 'What is The Anathemata?' is difficult to answer because, like all great works of art, it defies summary or reduction, and also because its appearance, form, and content are distinctly different from what most people expect of a long poem. Almost 250 pages in length, the text, which is written in English interspersed with Latin, German and Welsh, consists of a detailed preface, a plethora of footnotes, and nine illustrations, including the poet's hand-lettered inscriptions, water colours, and engravings. The form of The Anathemata is also something of an enigma. The poem, as Jones's biographer, David Blamires, observes, 'shares the qualities of chronicle, epic, drama, incantation, and lyric', but 'is at the same time none of these and more than all put together' (4). The content of this work, although not so mysterious as its form, is very far-ranging in breadth and depth (5). Simply put, The Anathemata narrates man's evolution as artist and sacramentalist from prehistoric times to the present. Although Jones does not, like Milton, attempt to justify the ways of God to man, he does do something almost as difficult: he depicts man's ways of reaching out to God - in language, art, rite, ritual, and sacrament. As a kind of compendium illustrating Western man's cultural history, The Anathemata is a work not only about man's sign-making and artifacture, but is itself an artifact (6) containing examples of man's languages, liturgies, art, poetry, and prose.
The fact that The Anathemata seems like an artifact itself is by no means accidental, nor is it the only modernist aspect of the poem. Jones's experimentation with genre, his juxtaposition of different styles and tones, his variation of diction and syntax, his use of fragments, his appeal to the myths of the past, his method of structuring the poem, and the kind of material he adopts are all distinctly modernist.
The author's experimentation with a large number of genres is one of the things that makes The Anathemata so difficult to characterize. He uses lyrics, dramatic monologues, riddles, litanies, prayers, refrains, and nursery rhymes to illustrate various aspects of man's cultural and literary past. Analogously, he varies the levels of discourse – particularly the tone and style -- so that their juxtaposition gives rise to additional meanings. For example, Jones deliberately mixes an elegantly-worded account of Christ's passion with the refrain from a Latin lullaby to emphasize the inextricable relationship between the Christ child's incarnation and His death years later.
Other typically modernist aspects of Jones's style are his allusiveness, characterized by a lack of narrative links and a heavy reliance upon ellipsis. The diction and syntax also vary widely from section to section and even from page to page. For instance, Jones skillfully combines the informal domestic chit-chat between witch figures with their theological musings on the Virgin Mary's selection by God: 'It all hangs on the fiat. If her fiat was the Great Fiat, nevertheless … we participate in the fiat or can indeed, by our fiats'(7). Jones achieves similar contrast in tone by using, as do many modernists, a great deal of macaronic poetry, as well as many quotations.
Another modernist aspect of The Anathemata is Jones's reliance upon fragments to make up his materia poetica. In fact, the subtitle of the poem is 'fragments of an attempted writing' - a phrase which inevitably recalls Eliot's fragments shored against his ruin, as well as the seemingly fragmentary aspects of some of Pound's and Joyce's work. Since, Jones, like them, dealt in fragments, he too had to discern how to unify them. Like his fellow modernists, he turned to his own version of the mythic method - only the 'mythos' that unified his poem and his life were the events of Christ's incarnation, passion, and resurrection as revealed in the Mass. In fact, Jones himself announces in the Preface that the structure of the poem is modelled on that of the Mass.
Jones's use of material is also typically modernist. He focuses on a broad sweep of time - often juxtaposing the ancient with the recent, ranging from metropolises of the Middle East to the rustic areas of Wales, mixing the mythic with the technological - focusing always on significant rites and rituals, frequently mentioning such major Western motifs as the Grail quest.
The Anathemata is so clearly a poem in the 'modernist' tradition that a few reviewers have even considered it sheerly a derivative work. J.C.F. Littlewood, for example, denigrates Jones as belonging to "that 'tradition' in English letters which has Joyce for its chief luminary and The Waste Land in its status as an accepted classic - as its show piece" (8). John Berryman is equally acerbic in a review entitled 'Epics from Outer Space and Wales': 'Take away many of Ezra Pound's interests, make him a Welshman and a Catholic, soak him in Finnegans Wake … and he would have written this work instead of … ‘The Cantos' (9). Jones himself found such critics' remarks entertaining, but also frustrating, because he had not read The Cantos until after he wrote The Anathemata and during its composition he had deliberately avoided reading either Joyce or Pound (10).
Ironically, Littlewood and Berryman, who both intend to belittle Jones's achievement, actually compliment him insofar as they immediately recognize the tradition to which he belongs and the luminaries whom he resembles. T.S. Eliot perhaps expressed this most clearly when, in his introduction to In Parenthesis, he dismissed any questions of Jones's works being derivative from Pound's, Joyce's or his own, stressing only the affinities which they all shared.
Eliot, as well as such other notable critics as W.H. Auden and William Carlos Williams, agreed that The Anathemata was a brilliant modernist work, but more important than their verdict are the reasons that give rise to it. We should ask ourselves not so much what they said about the poem, but why they said it. What are the elements of The Anathemata that provoked W.H. Auden to call it 'very probably the best long poem written in English in this century'?
While the greatness of the poem is best illustrated by a reading of it, we might consider here some of the excellencies it displays. The Anathemata has many elements that mark it as a great literary work. First, the poem is a substantial work – not only in length, but also in content. The subject matter befits an epic, for the questions it asks are universally important: 'What is the nature of man?' 'What is the importance of human culture?' 'What roles do religion and sacrifice play in shaping human psyches?' 'What is the significance of myth to man?' and 'What are the most basic human aspects that are expressed and fulfilled in myth, art, religion, and language?'
Despite this breadth of scope and the profundity of these questions, the work does not degenerate into a superficial surveyor a philosophical tract. Perhaps one of the qualities of the poem that protects it from such fates is the intense pathos that Jones evokes in his descriptions of man's affirmation of his own identity as artist and sacramentalist throughout the centuries. The poem is emotionally moving, but it also stimulates the intellect and piques the reader's curiosity with odd facts, strange myths, and fascinating, if sometimes idiosyncratic, words.
From a formal point of view, The Anathemata also can claim many distinctions. The visual effect of the poem is stunning. The careful typographical arrangement of the words and lines reminds the reader that Jones was an artist, a letterer, and an engraver long before he became a poet. His literary virtuosity in varying style, tone, and diction is also remarkable - especially in the creation of what has been called his anti-phonal or liturgical passages. Of equal importance is the poet's acute sensitivity to aural effects gained through years of listening to the speech rhythms of Wales and of studying the intricacies of Celtic punning, riming, and chiming. This aural faculty is, in turn, associated with Jones's belief that poets are to be, as the Welsh put it, 'carpenters of song –’(11) a belief which explains his gift for arranging the fragments of his poem so that they form a coherent whole with the form and content utterly unified. For all these reasons, those who value technical skill and formal innovations cannot help admiring The Anathemata.
The final test of the poem's greatness, however, lies not just in its scope, subject, profundity, pathos, intellectual interest, visual appeal, varied style, sensitivity to sound, or technical virtuosity, but also in the beauty and resonance of the images and thoughts evoked by its language. Jones's supreme achievement in this domain, as well as in all these others, ensures that The Anathemata can truly be considered, as Blamires suggests, the poetic counterpart of Finnegan's Wake,(12) - in other words, a great modernist poem.
1 On the front cover of the Viking edition of The Anathemata W.H. Auden wrote "very probably the finest long poem written in English in this century".
2 David Blamires, David Jones: Artist and Writer, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972, p. 194.)
3 In his introduction to In Parenthesis, T.S. Eliot wrote, "The work of David Jones has some affinity with that of James Joyce … and with the later work of Ezra Pound, and with my own,"but he says," I stress affinity, as any possible influence seems to be slight and of no importance." (p. viii).
4 David Blamires, David Jones: Artist and Writer, p. 114.
5 This should not be taken to imply that form and content are really separable.
6 N.K. Sandars, "The Present Past in The Anathemata and Roman Poems", David Jones: Eight Essays on His Work as Writer and Artist, ed. Roland Mathias (Llandysul, Dyfed: Gomer, 1976), p. 72.
7 David Jones, The Anathemata (New York: Viking, 1965), p. 214.
8 J.C.F. Littlewood, "Joyce-Eliot-Tradition", Scrutiny, 19:4 (October, 1953), pp. 336-340.
9 John Berryman, "Epics from Outer Space and Wales", New York Times Book Review, July 21, 1963, pp. 4-5.
10 Rene Hague, David Jones, University of Wales Press, 1975, pp. 39-40.
11 "David Jones the Artist", in David Jones: Eight Essays on His Work as Writer and Artist, p. 10.
12 David Jones: Artist and Writer, p. 194.
(Anne Carson Daly is Assistant Professor, English, University of Notre Dame, Indiana.)
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