Dai Greatcoat: A Self-Portrait of David Jones in His Letters

Paul Keegan writes:

‘You ought to be in a kindergarten,’ a Canadian nurse exclaimed to David Jones, aged twenty, awaiting transfer home in July 1916 after being wounded in Mametz Wood. Even a decade later, photographs show a wary child or an understudy for an adult. Prudence Pelham, the staunchest of his extended female fellowship, described him as ‘completely unsexed’. He himself felt anomalous in the 1920s, and by the decade’s end ‘incredibly ancient’; at some point he slipped from seeming younger to seeming older than everyone around him. He was a self-taught modernist with an allegiance to medieval romance and Celtic art, a Londoner who was out of place in London, a Welshman who didn’t speak Welsh. He was an artist who constructed images out of words – in his painted inscriptions – and whose poems took in the observable world, including everything glimpsed in his peripheral vision. There was the hand-held and eye-level, frame-by-frame actuality of In Parenthesis (1937), his poem of the trenches, noise-saturated, full of chiaroscuro and stalked by horror, but recorded with intricate stylistic detachment; later, there were the ever receding vistas of The Anathemata (1952), his epic about the matter of Britain.

(LRB 7 November 2019)

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