AS a poet, visual artist and essayist, David Jones is regarded as one of the great Modernists. TS Eliot called him “one of the most distinguished writers of my generation” while Dylan Thomas said: “I would like to have done anything as good as David Jones has done.”
But although he was admired by some of the finest cultural figures of the 20th century, he is not known or celebrated in the way that Eliot, Samuel Beckett or James Joyce have been.
What’s even less well known is that although he was born a Londoner, Jones’ father came from Holywell in Flintshire, and passed on a deep sense of his Welsh identity to his son, who was to devote a lifetime to the study of a Welsh culture that he felt was lost to him.
“The variety of his gifts reminds us of William Blake, although he is a better poet and a greater all-round artist,” says Dr Thomas Dilworth, whose new biography of Jones was recently chosen as BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week.
“Jones was an extraordinary engraver, painter and creator of painted inscriptions, but he also belongs in the first-rank of 20th century poets.”
Jones was born Walter David Jones on November 1, 1895 in Arabin Road, Brockley, Kent, now a suburb of South East London, and later lived in nearby Howson Road.
His father, James Jones, had been born in Holywell, Flintshire, to a Welsh-speaking family but was discouraged from speaking his native language by his father, who, in common with many Welsh-speaking parents of the time, believed that habitual use of the language might hold his child back in his career.
James Jones had moved to London to work as a printer’s overseer for the Christian Herald Press, and it was here that he had met his wife, Alice, a Londoner born and bred. They had three children: Harold (who died at 19 of tuberculosis), Alice, and David.
“During his first eight years, the family did not visit Wales,” says Dr Dilworth.
“His mother got on badly with her in-laws and when they visited, she would leave the sitting room and bustle about the kitchen, banging saucepans and slamming doors.”
When Jones finally set his eyes on Wales it was, according to Dr Dilworth, “a life-changing moment”.
“James had no close Welsh friends and belonged to no society of London Welshmen but was proud of being Welsh,” he says.
“He told his children stories of his native Flintshire and conveyed a sense of place in which his identity was rooted.
“David later wrote that he found that the ‘otherness’ of this place, seen for the first time, left ‘an indelible mark on the soul’.”
The young David became more and more interested in the history of North Wales on holidays with James’ older sister Elizabeth and her husband James Tozer, who lived in Rhos-on-Sea.
He began to insist that people referred to him as ‘David’ rather than Walter.
Jones was encouraged in his enthusiasm for Wales by Thomas Evans Timothy, the vicar of St George’s Church, Rhos-on Sea. Timothy was a classicist and Welsh patriot, avidly interested in the antiquities of his parish who urged Jones to learn Welsh and read the Welsh poets.
In 1910 Timothy was transferred to a Rhes-y-Cae in Flintshire. David and his father visited him there, and Timothy spoke to David of local fighting in 1149 to win back for Wales what had been part of English Mercia for centuries.
At the wall of the vicarage garden, Timothy pointed out hills that David’s father had often mentioned as landmarks of his boyhood - Moel Famau, Foel-y-Crio and Moel Arthur.
With his father he visited Ysceifiog, the birthplace of his Welsh grandparents. Offa’s Dyke is presumed to have run close by, and Jones began associating his grandfather with the earthwork.
“Jones would go on to become more profoundly influenced throughout his life by the landscape, language and myths of Wales than any of his contemporaries,” explains Dr Dilworth, who has written three other books on the poet and artist.
With the outbreak of the First World War, Jones enlisted with the Royal Welch Fusiliers and served on the Western Front from 1915 to 1918 with the 38th (Welsh) Division.
He served longer at the front than any other British war writer and his experiences in the trenches were to prove important in his later painting and poetry, especially his involvement in the fighting at Mametz Wood, where he served alongside many other men from the Flintshire area and and was subsequently returned to England to recover after being shot in the thigh.
“Every July for the rest of his life, he would relive his experience at the Somme, saying in 1971, ‘my mind can’t be rid of it’,” says Dr Dilworth.
Jones died in 1974, having lived a long and prolific life. His most famous work, In Parenthesis which recounted his experiences at the Somme, was published in 1937 and subsequent works included The Anathemata (1952), Epoch and Artist (1959) and The Sleeping Lord and other Fragments (1974).
He continued to paint and engrave and 13 of his works are held by the Tate Gallery, including Aphrodite in Aulis (1940-41) and The Garden Enclosed (1924).
In 1938 Eliot hailed In Parenthesis as a “work of genius”, and Graham Greene, in 1980, “among the great poems of the century”. WH Auden regarded The Anathemata as “one of the most important poems of our time”, and called it in 1977, “probably the finest long poem in English” of the 20th century. In 1962 Igor Stravinsky considered Jones “perhaps the greatest living writer in English”.
“He is overlooked because his best writing is imbedded in two book-length poems making it difficult to anthologise,” adds Dr Dilworth.
“He was a shy, reclusive man, psychologically damaged by his time in the trenches, and loathed any kind of self-promotion but he was a complete and original poet-artist and a true genius.”
David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet by Dr Thomas Dilworth is published by Jonathan Cape.
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