Secret Library

The Lost Modernist Epic: David Jones’s The Anathemata

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle salutes the lost modernist, David Jones

Which poem is being described here? Published in 1952, this long modernist poem might be described as a modern ‘epic’ poem. It is highly allusive, drawing on, among others, Arthurian legend, Jessie Weston’s 1920 book From Ritual to Romance, and the opening words of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. It is written in free verse, makes many references to the Thames, takes in many different languages, describes a waste land, ends with a description of the quest for the Holy Grail, and describes April as the cruellest month. The poem was so difficult and demanding that its author included notes with it when it was published. Its author was British – but not ‘English’ in a straightforward sense.

If this sounds like T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, then one thing sends us awry: Eliot’s poem was published in 1922, not 1952. No, in a typical trademark ‘swerve’ I’m probably annoyingly all-too fond of, I’m referring to the poem which gives its name to this week’s column: David Jones’s remarkable long work The Anathemata, a 250-page masterpiece that W. H. Auden described as ‘very probably the finest long poem written in English this century’.

I’ve spent the last few months of lockdown immersed in poetry. This isn’t all that different from my usual life, but poetry has taken on additional significance this year. I think poetry always comes to the fore at extreme times. David Jones’s work constantly makes us rethink what we mean by ‘poetry’: is it free verse? Prose poetry? Something else again? And he is difficult. But I’d actually suggest that it’s difficult poetry, rather than simple, direct poetry, that we need in times of crisis. Emotion too easily won from literature is no good when emotions are running high enough as it is. Instead we need something that will take us onto a different mental plane, and – ideally – transport us to a whole different world altogether.

The Anathemata certainly does this, through the very texture of its language and allusions. In some ways, comparisons with Eliot make less sense than parallels with James Joyce (indeed, Eliot included Jones alongside himself, Joyce, and Ezra Pound as one of the four people who had helped to create literary modernism in English). It seems to spring as much from Finnegans Wake as from Four Quartets or The Waste Land. But such comparisons play down the individual vision that drives The Anathemata: the work is distinctive and distinct.

Modernist literature is often concerned with moments: moments of epiphany or, in Woolf’s phrase, ‘moments of being’. The Anathemata is one moment of epiphany, daydream, free-association, and stream-of-consciousness: the idea or conceit underpinning it is that the entire poem consists of seven seconds in the thought processes of an English Catholic during Mass, when his mind wanders to thoughts (if we can call them ‘thoughts’) of England and Wales’s distant past. If we can have a book called Proust Was a Neuroscientist, one wonders what a literary scholar with a neuroscientific interest might do with The Anathemata. The title of the poem, by the way, is from a rare ancient Greek word meaning ‘things set apart’, suggesting the unconscious chain of random (or not-so-random) things which are suggested to the poet during Mass. Indeed, the whole poem might be regarded as a form of worship or communion: the words of The Anathemata are meant to summon things, and the poem is an evocation in a keener sense than even ‘normal’ poetry is.

The Anathemata is divided into eight sections: ‘Rite and Fore-Time’ (covering the Catholic Mass but also the deep geological time of the British Isles), ‘Middle-Sea and Lear-Sea’ (as the title suggests, this covers the history of the Mediterranean sea), ‘Angle-Land’ (a shorter part focusing on Britain), ‘Redriff’ (dealing with Britain’s long tradition as a nation of seafarers), ‘The Lady of the Pool’ (centring on fifteenth-century London as a great port city), ‘Keel, Ram, Stauros’ (an almost religious meditation on, of all things, wood, focusing on its importance in shipbuilding, i.e. ‘Keel’, warfare, i.e. ‘Ram’ as in battering-ram, and the Cross, i.e. ‘Stauros’, an ancient Greek word used to refer to the Cross on which Christ was crucified), ‘Mabinog’s Liturgy’ (focusing on Celtic history, including the figure of Gwenhwyfar, the original form of the name for King Arthur’s wife), and ‘Sherthursdaye and Venus Day’ (taking in various Christian rituals before returning us to where the poem began, the Catholic Mass). You can find a fuller discussion of David Jones’s poem here.

The Anathemata is, like Pound’s Cantos, a ‘ragbag’: it sometimes seems to want to take in all of history, or all of British history, anyway. Or, more specifically, English and Welsh history, but then Jones – born in Kent in 1895 to an English mother and Welsh father – knew well that the Welsh had descended from the earliest native Brits, who had strong connections with Wales. It summons worlds and eras long lost to us, and brings them sharply into focus at times. I won’t pretend to understand all of the poem; I won’t even pretend to understand one-hundredth of it. Like the Catholic Mass to an illiterate peasant in the Middle Ages, unable to speak Latin and yet in awe of the recital of the Latin Mass at church, full ‘understanding’ is not necessary for appreciation. All that’s necessary, to borrow the word of another modernist, Dorothy Richardson, is ‘immersion’. And after all, if W. H. Auden found it difficult, what hope have the rest of us got?

Sadly, after being reprinted by Faber and Faber back in 2010 in the paperback edition pictured above, The Anathemata has fallen out of print again. Copies online are scarce (I was lucky enough to get mine for just over a tenner a few years ago). If you see one going for a reasonable price, snap it up. The poem won’t give you an easy ride, but it will take you somewhere you haven’t been before.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

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