First Things - Religion and Public Life First Things on your tablet & mobile
Login forgot password? | register Close

David Jones:
Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet

by thomas dilworth
counterpoint, 432 pages, $39.50

The Sleeping Lord and Other Fragments
by david jones
faber & faber, 112 pages, £15.99

Epoch and Artist
by david jones
faber & faber, 320 pages, £17.99

The Dying Gaul and Other Writings
by david jones
faber & faber, 240 pages, £17.99

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

by david jones
edited by rené hague
faber & faber, 280 pages, £17.99

I do not know if it is quite correct to say that public interest in the work of David Jones (1895–1974) is enjoying something of a revival just at the moment, since it was never very lively to begin with. In his own time, Jones was recognized by the discerning as an artist of remarkable originality and range, and by the most discerning as perhaps the finest British artist of the twentieth century. Certainly he was the greatest “modernist” Britain ever produced, and among modern British Catholic poets and painters he was unequaled. He belonged to that very rare class of visionary artists who, like Blake, produce works that seem to reach into other realms of being. He seemed to have discovered worlds of mythic, religious, and aesthetic meaning that had never before been revealed, but that nevertheless felt as ancient and familiar as this world; and, also like Blake, he explored those other realms through both literature and the visual arts. Yet somehow his name never quite carried as far as the names of many of his contemporaries. Even the very literate are far more likely to have heard of the host of luminaries who knew him and praised his work than they are to have heard of him. Yeats, Eliot, and Auden thought him a genius—as did Stravinsky, Herbert Read, Christopher Dawson, Stephen Spender, Evelyn Waugh, Basil Bunting, R. S. Thomas, Geoffrey Hill, and many others. But still, to this day, his admirers are anything but legion; they constitute at most a coterie.

In part, this may be because Jones was not especially prolific, at least as a writer (as a painter, engraver, and illustrator, his works were reasonably copious). His literary fame rests chiefly on his two majestic epic poems: In Parenthesis from 1937 and The Anathemata from 1952. Other than these, his published writings consist in two collections of essays, a slender volume of poetic fragments, and a judiciously edited collation of some of his more interesting personal letters; and much of this material appeared posthumously. Moreover, his two major works offer few rewards to the casual reader. Both are at once deep and dense in allusions and evocations, but diffuse in structure. The language is beautiful; its power to convey a sense of the sacred is often overwhelming, and its cadences and images are captivatingly mysterious; but it is also a broken—at times almost splintered—language, scattered across the page in shattered paragraphs, unfinished sentences, orphaned phrases and words, all borne along on a dreamlike flow of haunting figures and ghostly voices and distant echoes of the historical and legendary past. It is very much a modernist poetry, an attempt to gather up again the fragments of a ruined world, to recover a lost enchantment, to restore a sense of harmony amid an age of indomitable chaos. Ultimately it is irresistible. Once one has reached the wellsprings of Jones’s singular lyricism, one can never tire of it. But, even so, one must make the effort to find those wellsprings.

Similarly, Jones’s paintings and engravings belong to no school and obey no conventions, and so make no appeal to any established set of tastes or aesthetic prejudices. In every phase of the development of his style, there is a kind of timelessness; it is a visual idiom at once deeply rooted in premodern traditions of representation and symbolism, and wholly modern in its exuberance, its tantalizing but always unconsummated flirtations with abstraction, and its utter rejection of the opulence and sentimentality of late Romanticism. As a poet, Jones was at least the equal of Blake (and certainly less prone to magnificent failures); as a visual artist, he was Blake’s superior in every sense. Whereas Blake’s best images are at most very arresting illustrations (often uncomfortably precursory of comic books), Jones’s greatest paintings are endlessly absorbing products of an extravagantly rich and genuinely unique sensibility. His most rapturously beautiful aquarelles, for instance, are radiantly elusive things, almost intangible, and yet never merely ethereal or vague. Many of his pictures are filled with dense tangles of vegetation, imponderably solid animal and human bodies, swirling fabrics, star-crowded skies. At times, figures emerge only gradually from coils and undulations of lines and colors, like figures in a puzzle. As in his poetry, in a great many of his pictures Jones was portraying not just an affective atmosphere, but depths within depths—layers of time, a European (and specifically British) landscape haunted by its pagan and Christian past, and occasionally transparent to a still deeper realm “in illo tempore” where memory and myth are one—while trying somehow to make all those depths visible at once. Again, one must make an effort. To appreciate what one is seeing, one must discover for oneself what it is in these images that makes them so fascinating. It is not, therefore, an art that will ever be vastly popular.

And yet, all this having been said, this past year has seen not only the reprinting by Jones’s British publisher, Faber & Faber, of the four “minor” volumes I mentioned above, but also the release of a large, lavishly illuminated, and beautifully produced biography by Thomas Dilworth, perhaps Jones’s most indefatigable champion today. None of this is likely to inaugurate some great cultural recovery of Jones’s contribution to modern British poetry and painting. The days when long, difficult poems were read by more than the tiniest and most eccentric minority, or when strange and wonderful pictures could divert any appreciable number of eyes from the vacuous spectacles of the popular media, are long past. But it is encouraging to see Jones receiving even a small measure of the attention he deserves.

The principal attraction of Dilworth’s biography, I should say upfront, is purely physical. It is not only a handsomely designed volume; it is a treasury of rare photographs and (most delightful of all) lovely reproductions of an enormous number of Jones’s paintings, engravings, and drawings. For these alone, the volume is more than worth its price. It is also an exhaustive chronicle, and for those who want to follow the entire course of Jones’s life from cradle to grave, it provides all the essential and incidental information one could reasonably crave. And it succeeds in conveying a fairly clear picture of Jones’s personality, dispositions, and opinions.

At the same time, it suffers from a few small but conspicuous defects, the most grating of which are its occasional lapses into Freudian psychoanalysis. Admittedly, Jones was himself intermittently susceptible to the Freudian superstitions of his time; he was also, in the judgment of his great friend Eric Gill, a “highly sexed” individual who maintained his chastity by the severest discipline of the will; and he was definitely given to depression and anxieties. But nothing is gained by Dilworth gratuitously interjecting the observation that, in regard to this or that aspect of Jones’s life, “A Freudian might say . . .” That is a sentence that need never be completed (any more than one beginning, “A carnival fortune-teller might say . . .”). And the effect is at times not merely obnoxious, but ludicrous, as when Dilworth casually observes that a self-portrait painted by Jones (since it depicts only head and torso) might be taken as a form of “self-castration”—or as when he gravely opines that Jones’s frequent bouts of ill health might be explained by the Oedipus complex because they allowed him to “return to the womb” by retiring to bed (a substitute for copulation for those who suffer a fear of castration, according to Freud). At such moments, it is tempting to stop reading the text altogether and simply immerse oneself in the pictures. But the temptation should be resisted.

If nothing else, Dilworth succeeds at disentangling Jones’s sensibility and achievements from the thickets of any supposedly larger, more general “movement” of modernism in the arts. As it happens, the list of Jones’s predecessors and contemporaries who might be said to have inspired his style is quite different from what many of the critics of his time imagined it was, or what we might now naturally assume. Many of the first readers of In Parenthesis and The Anathemata were certain they saw Joyce (in the former case) or Pound (in the latter) lurking in the background—both of whom Jones came to appreciate, but neither of whom actually exercised an influence over either work. Jones did acknowledge, for instance, the effect that Saint-John Perse’s Anabase (in T. S. Eliot’s 1930 translation, Anabasis) had on him and on the development of In Parenthesis, but on the whole he was not an imitator of any vogues in the arts. By his own account, the fragmentary form of his poetry, the allusions, the symbolic heterogeneity were a consequence of the epoch of cultural and religious dissolution in which he lived. His “modernism,” like that of his contemporaries, was not a school or aesthetic philosophy, but simply the spirit of the age.

So it is good of Dilworth to reconstruct the history of Jones’s readings and special enthusiasms. It aids one in appreciating the distinctiveness of Jones’s voice to know how deeply he drew on Sir Thomas Malory, Celtic Arthurian lore, Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the verse of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and so on. It also sheds considerable light on a certain austere but curiously appealing impersonality in his art to learn how naturally he came by his very “modern” distaste for late Romantic sentimentality, affective excess, and self-expression—his spontaneous affection for Gregorian chant, say, or his dislike of Wagner, or his commendable inability to read The Testament of Beauty with interest, or his impatience with everything mannered, dainty, emotionally exhibitionist, and self-indulgent.

Dilworth also brings out well the connection in sensibility between Jones’s art and his Catholicism. At least, one sees in his faith the same combination of a fascination with traditions from the deep past and a very modern fatigue with everything merely conventional or doctrinaire. He especially valued Catholicism’s continuity with classical culture and its sacramental power to collapse the historical distance separating the present from Christian antiquity. For this reason, he lamented the abandonment of the Latin Mass, which he saw as severing a precious tie to the ancient world. At the same time, he was no traditionalist of the sort who pines for the vanished lace and satin of Baroque Catholicism. His taste in ecclesial fashion came from an earlier, sterner age. In fact, he regarded the Council of Trent as bringing about a tragic narrowing of Catholic intellectual life. He loved the scholastic period and spoke earnestly of the spiritual nourishment that Aquinas and Scotus had provided him. He also, however, was sympathetic to the figures of the previous century who had been abused as “modernists.” And he regarded the formula extra ecclesiam nulla salus as abominable nonsense if taken in anything but the most expansively latitudinarian sense.

All of this is worth learning, and Dilworth’s book provides a considerable service in bringing it into the light. In the end, though, he cannot entirely surmount the one great obstacle that would inhibit any attempt to tell Jones’s tale: To wit, it is extremely boring. Other than his service during the Great War, practically nothing ever actually happened to Jones. There were no great or especially heroic exploits. There was his one abortive engagement (to Eric Gill’s daughter), and there were a number of hesitant, almost spectrally insubstantial infatuations with a variety of interesting women, all pursued with poignant ineptitude on his side, but there were no great or tragic romances. As is the case with many artists or thinkers, all his grandest adventures occurred within; all his great discoveries were of the spiritual variety; all his conquests were achieved over problems of technique or conceptual content or artistic form. His talent was monumental; his personal history was banal.

The whole narrative, in fact, can be distilled into a few compact paragraphs without significant omission. Jones grew up in Brockley, on the east side of London, born to a father who was Welsh but who never taught his son the language (having himself been discouraged from mastering it by his family, for fear it would harm his social prospects), and to a mother whose “high church” taste for sacramental religion helped form the young Jones’s general religious dispositions. His gifts as a visual artist appeared early (he drew quite a fine picture of a dancing bear when he was only seven), and his interest in Welsh myth and ancient poems (Old English and Latin chiefly) appeared soon thereafter. From 1909 to 1914, he studied at the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts. Then came the war. From 1915 to 1918, he served as a private in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, almost entirely at the front, in the trenches, watching a great many young men dying horribly. The experience marked him, obviously, for life. In later years, the recurrent trauma of the war would cause Jones breakdowns and periods of creative paralysis, but it would also make its grim contributions to some of his most splendid artistic achievements.

After the war, he returned to his studies, now at the Westminster School of Art, where from 1919 to 1921 he worked under the tutelage of (among others) Walter Sickert. In the first year after the armistice, he also experienced his only recorded period of religious doubt, prompted in part by reading too much Jessie Weston and James Frazer, but it was extremely brief. In 1921, largely under the influence of Eric Gill, he converted to Roman Catholicism and apparently never looked back. He was especially drawn at that time to the books of Jacques Maritain, and in 1924 he became a tertiary Dominican. This was also the period, not at all coincidentally, of the first great flowering of his distinctive style as a painter, engraver, and illustrator. His faith now gave him a great overarching theme under which to gather his diverse aesthetic intuitions and impulses. During more or less the whole of the 1920s, he belonged to the Guild of St. Joseph and St. Dominic, a society of Catholic artists in Sussex committed to the ideals of distributism and devoted to aesthetic experimentation, all under the watchful but generous eye of Gill. It was a time of extraordinarily rich accomplishment, and to all appearances Jones was destined for a distinguished career simply as one of the most original visual artists of his generation in Britain. All the while, however, he was also writing.

Books gestate more slowly than canvases do, of course. Even so, the first of Jones’s two literary masterpieces would have probably been finished sooner than it was had he not suffered a series of nervous collapses in the 1930s (an especially severe one in 1932), of the sort that would now be diagnosed as delayed “post-traumatic” reactions to his experiences in battle, but that in those days was largely written off as evidence of neurotic frailty. Then again, but for those collapses, In Parenthesis would probably be neither as hypnotically lovely nor as starkly harrowing as it is, nor so perfect a union of the beautiful and the grim. One sees this even in simple episodes, such as a long, entrancing, simultaneously gnarled and lyrical description of soldiers slowly roused from sleep by the light of dawn to resume their journey:

Fog refracted, losing articulation in the cloying damp, the word of command unmade in its passage, mischiefed of the opaque air, mutated, bereaved of content, become an incoherent uttering, a curious bent cry out of the smarting drift, lost altogether—yet making rise again the grey bundles where they lie. . . .
As grievous invalids watch the returning light pale-bright the ruckled counterpane, see their uneased bodies only newly clear; fearful to know afresh their ill condition; yet made glad for that rising, yet strain ears to the earliest note—should some prevenient bird make his kindly cry.

Putatively the narrative of one Private John Ball and his regiment of mixed English and Welsh infantry—proceeding from their departure from England to their participation in the Battle of the Somme seven months later—it is an altogether mesmerizing mixture of realism and dreamlike dissociations, history and myth, the maintenance of rifles and the quest for the Grail. Take its description of men marching at night under the light of the moon:

The rain stopped.
She drives swift and immaculate out over, free of
these obscuring waters; frets their fringes
splendid.
A silver hurrying to silver this waste
silver for bolt-shoulders
silver for butt-heel irons
silver beams search the interstices, play for breech-
blocks underneath the counterfeiting bower-
sway; make-believe a silver scar with drenched
tree-wound; silver-trace a festooned slack;
faery-bright a filigree with gooseberries
and picket irons grace this mauled earth—
transfigure our infirmity—
shine on us.
I want you to play with
and the stars as well.

The journey the poem describes, in terms of ordinary time and space, passes through the English and French countrysides, over the Channel, under falling artillery shells and past rain-gorged trenches, over trip wires and revetments, through mud and mire, all the way up to the line, on its way to the violence of the front and, at the last, to the final, monstrous devastation of the Mametz Wood engagement (where, in fact, Jones received a bullet wound to the leg).

In terms of mythic time and space, however—always just there on the other side of the thinnest of narrative partitions, and often breaking through to this side—the journey passes through Badon Hill and Camlann, the plains of Troy, the Song of Roland’s Roncevaux, the shadowy lands of the Preiddeu Annwn, the Mabinogion, and Y Gododdin, the fields of (Shakespeare’s) Agincourt, King Pellam’s wasteland, even Wonderland; the literary and biblical allusions are legion, the religious imagery is all-encompassing. Earthily blunt depictions of men under arms mingle with fantastic revenants, like the figure of Dai Greatcoat, the deathless soldier who at one point boasts at length (like Taliesin before Maelgwn) of all the battles he has seen down the ages, war after war, legendary and historical alike:

I was the spear in Balin’s hand
that made waste King Pellam’s land.
I took the smooth stones of the brook,
I was with Saul
playing before him.
I saw him armed like Derfel Gatheren.
I the fox-run fire
consuming in the wheat-lands; . . .
I was in Michael’s trench when bright Lucifer bulged
his primal salient out.
That caused it,
that upset the joy-cart,
and three parts waste. . . .

At the climax of the narrative, in the aftermath of the final battle, the genius locifeminine, of course—walks among the dead, crowning them with garlands of flowers:

The secret princes between the leaning trees have diadems given them.
Life the leveller hugs her impudent equality—she may proceed at once to less discriminating zones.
The Queen of the Woods has cut bright boughs of various flowering.
These knew her influential eyes. Her awarding hands can pluck for each their fragile prize.

Here, in the seventh and final section of the narrative, the language slowly melts into disconnected fragments of poetry, and slowly fades away. Throughout the epic, the music of Jones’s language remains fluent and captivating, while remaining largely devoid of conventional ornamentation; and, for this reason, its final broken phrases are almost indescribably haunting in their lyricism and inconclusiveness.

The book won not only the praise of the brightest and the best readers and writers of the time, but also the very prestigious Hawthornden Prize. Eliot was astonished at the depth of its genius. Yeats, on meeting Jones for the first time, very ceremoniously (if a little fatuously) bowed from the waist in tribute to “the author of In Parenthesis.” It was not a popular success, of course, but was certainly a critical one, and had Jones continued publishing at anything like a regular pace, he might have become more of a fixed star in the British literary firmament than he did. But his temperament, especially in its routinely shaken condition, was not well suited to courting public attention.

He continued to produce paintings and illustrations with reasonable consistency, and earned very good notices, but at his writing he labored slowly and irregularly, and it appeared for a time as if—having produced a single remarkable large poem—he would now devote himself exclusively to visual art. He continued to write, however, and if anything was becoming a more daring and innovative poet. Another particularly debilitating nervous breakdown in 1947 diverted him from his poetry (and from everything else) for a while, and he continued to struggle with bouts of depression and episodes of erotic frustration. At the last, however, he issued his second great work, The Anathemata, which some would argue was his supreme literary achievement. Auden, for instance, pronounced it the single greatest long poem written in English in the twentieth century (which, given the number of very long poems Auden himself had published, was anything but nonchalant praise).

The Anathemata is a wilder, more dreamlike, more heterogeneous, and in many ways more sublime poem than In Parenthesis. Its exotic allusions are even more profuse, its language more incantatory, its form more magical. The imagery at times defies any single explanation, but bears one along in its currents nonetheless.

On rune-height by the garbaged rill
the scree-fall answers the cawed madrigals
and there are great birds flying about.
And (to sustain his kind)
the mated corbie
with his neb
forcipate, incarnadined—
prods at the dreaming arbor
ornated regis purpura
as his kind, should.
Each, after his kind, must somehow gain his kindly food:
ask of the mother thrush
what brinded Tib has said.
What does the Gilyak tell
to the gay-kerchiefed bear?

As a whole, the poem does not necessarily command the same kind of emotional power as the earlier work, simply because it does not deal with anywhere so tragic a theme, but it brings together the forces of historical recollection, mythic imagination, and religious longing with greater freedom, inventiveness, and inspiration than any other work in the Anglophone modernist canon. It is almost a world unto itself—though a world contained in fewer than ten seconds, at least according to the poem’s plot (if that is the right word). The poem supposedly, for all its enormous length, recounts the succession of thoughts passing through the mind of an English Catholic at Mass during the course of roughly seven seconds. But each thought, of course, has its layers and its depths—historical, mythic, sacred—and the poem descends through them all.

The poem’s larger theme (again, if that is the right word) is the presence of Christ’s sacrifice at the center of history and creation, and the countless ways in which that centrality is foreshadowed and echoed in history, legend, ritual, and religion, and in the full scope of, specifically, Britain’s past.

Upon all fore-times.
From before time
his perpetual light
shines upon them.
Upon all at once
upon each one
whom he invites, bids, us to recall
when we make the recalling of him
daily, at the Stone.
When the offerant
our servos, so theirs whose life is changed
not taken away
is directed to say
Memento etiam.
After which it is allowed him then to say
Nobis quoque.

In a sense, it is a long meditation on all the differing dimensions of Britain’s particular praeparatio evangelica, and on the power of the Mass to make all those dimensions present again in sacramental anamnesis. 

At the low entry
stirs the sleeping dog?
in Bedlam-byre once his bed.
(Long years beyond the twentieth year!)
Here, in this high place
into both hands
he takes the stemmed dish
as in many places
by this poured and that held up
wherever their directing glosses read:
Here he takes the victim.
At the threshold-stone
lifts the agéd head?
can toothless beast from stable come
discern the Child
in the Bread?

Really, the imagery of the poem is far too rich and diverse to characterize. There is, however, a recurrent motif of ships at sea that bears much of the weight of the poem’s continuity, and that rises to a sort of symbolic climax in the figure of the whole cosmos as a ship whose mainmast is the cross of Golgotha and whose keel is the divine Logos.

It was the last great literary labor of the soul that Jones would complete. The years that followed were largely uneventful. In the early 1960s, very belatedly, his two epics were published in the United States, and he was surprised not only by the critical enthusiasm they enjoyed here, but by how very well many of the American critics understood them—better, indeed, than most of their British counterparts. (Though, to be honest, it should probably have occurred to him that the literary culture that produced Eliot, Pound, H. D., and so forth was one more than hospitable to long, challenging poems brimming over with obscure allusions.) He continued patiently to write and to paint. In 1974, recognizing that his time was growing short, he published The Sleeping Lord, which contained various fragments of what had been intended as another long work, continuing the larger project of The Anathemata. That same year he suffered a stroke, and died not long thereafter.

As I say, not a life that naturally lends itself to gripping narrative. But a life of incomparable richness nonetheless.

It is a happy circumstance that the Faber & Faber reissues coincide so nicely with the appearance of Dilworth’s book. They fill in the details of the story far more substantially than any biography can. The Sleeping Lord, if nothing else, affords the uninitiated a taste of Jones’s lyrical voice and of his imaginative range. Admittedly, by themselves, the various poetic fragments that make up the book are only suggestive traces of the far fuller vision expressed in Jones’s large poems, but they are enough to convey something of his sensibility, and even something of his genius. On the other hand, Dai Greatcoat, a book of Jones’s letters, provides a broad and invaluable entryway into some of the more interesting inner chambers of his personality. It makes vivid much that Dilworth’s book makes only sketchily visible. Jones emerges from these pages as an appealing but by no means ingratiating character. The reader is exposed to his wit and mental nimbleness, but also to his disappointments, distastes, indignations, and doubts. He was most definitely an opinionated man, sometimes inflexibly so. But he was also a man of wide sympathies, with no capacity for sanctimony, and all of his most passionate convictions were clearly pervaded by his innate kindness. Above all, the letters bear witness to a powerful intellect.

Part of that power lay in Jones’s willingness to think long and hard about the very particular things that mattered to him. To pluck a passage almost at random, but one addressing a theme to which he returned relentlessly throughout his life when thinking about either the sacramental or the artistic realm, and one perhaps central to the problem of “modernism” of every kind:

The root trouble about a materialistic conception lies here—if things are thought of as simply utile—as for instance a radiator or a gas-fire or an electric bulb—then a kind of conflict arises in the mind of the artist with regard to them, and he tends to go to earlier forms of light and heat, as candle and wood-fire, when he is expressing the universal concepts of fire and light. This in turn creates a kind of loss of touch with the contemporary world—his world, after all—and a kind of invalidity pervades his symbols—it sets up a strain. However unconscious, it produces a neurosis. Previous ages did not know this tension.

On things, however, lying outside the immediate circle of his interests, he squandered very little reflection indeed. He was not, for instance, especially perceptive or coherent regarding political matters; it is not even worthwhile speaking of left or right in regard to his views, such as they were. He could be beguiled by Spengler’s rather too bloodied-and-soiled defense of Kultur against “civilization” or genuinely moved by the simplest egalitarian pieties; he was as suspicious of modern civil democracy as he was impatiently contemptuous of class privilege. At any given juncture, he could be reactionary, liberal-minded, conventional, seditious, credulous, or canny, and on the whole it is better to regard his political philosophy as a kind of general abstention from ideology.

At the same time, his larger cultural insights were extremely acute, and arose from long and intense contemplation of the place of the arts in society. On the whole, though he had no pronounced tendency toward any specific economic creed, he never departed far from the distributist perspective he adopted during his days in the Guild of St. Joseph and St. Dominic. He was also deeply shaped by the aesthetic and moral thought of William Morris and John Ruskin. Above all, he was convinced that the consumerist ethos of modern capitalism is the most implacable enemy of a truly Christian social life, because it is the force most corrosive of a sacramental understanding of culture: It distorts the very nature of human beings as spiritual “makers,” peculiarly open to creation and to the supernatural, because it alienates them from the work of their own hands and orients their desires toward false and immanent ends. 

The most important of Jones’s essays is “Art and Sacrament,” written in 1955 and included in Epoch and Artist (1959). It is here that he gives his fullest exposition of his beliefs regarding the inherent connection between artistic poiesis and sacramental worship, and between their respective powers of “re-presentation” in signs—of, that is, the “making present again” that which is past or far away “under other forms.” For, in Jones’s words:

Because the Church is committed to ‘Sacraments’ with a capital S, she cannot escape a committal to sacrament with a small s, unless the sacramentalism of the Church is to be regarded as a peculiar and isolated phenomenon. We know that such a view is not to be entertained and that the sacramentalism of the Church is a thing normal to man and that a sacramental quality is evidenced in the past works of man over the whole period of his existence so far known to us.

It is an essay that should be read alongside two others, “Art in Relation to War and Our Present Situation” and “Use and Sign,” both of which appear in The Dying Gaul (1978). Taken together, these pieces provide as complete an account of Jones’s philosophy of the artistic act as he ever produced. His was a singular vision, to say the least, and one that was wholly internally consistent. More than that, it was also wholly consistent with Jones’s art. It makes everything he created intelligible in a way that only adds to the power of his paintings and engravings and poems, and to their capacity to awaken the imagination to those other dimensions of time into which he seemed to be able to peer.

In the end, his is an art fully acquainted both with the tragedies of history and with the peculiar homelessness of modern humanity, but it is also an art that overwhelmingly argues that both can be escaped, and even redeemed, by the cultivation of a special kind of sacral memory. It offers intimations of eternity precisely through its embrace of time’s fullness. It seems to come to us from a deep past that all of us can almost—though not quite—recall, and from a radiant and restored future that all of us can almost—though, again, not quite—imagine; and thus, above all, it “reminds” us of a creation unmarked by the wounds of fallen time.

David Bentley Hart is a contributing writer at First Things and a fellow of the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Studies.

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.