Charles Moore Charles Moore

The Spectator’s notes | 12 April 2017

His work is religious but not pietistic, and Holy Week is the best time to look at it afresh

Each Easter, I think of David Jones (1895-1974). He was a distinguished painter and, I would (though unqualified) say, a great poet. There is a new, thorough biography of him by Thomas Dilworth (Cape). A sympathetic review in the Guardian wrestles with why he is not better known: ‘The centrality of religion to Jones’s work offers a clue to his obscurity.’ Jones recognised this possibility himself, writing about ‘The Break’ in culture, which began in the 19th century. He thought it had to do with the decline of religion, but more with a changed attitude to art, caused by mass production and affecting what he called ‘the entire world of sacrament and sign’. Jones’s work is indeed religious, so Holy Week is the best week of the year to look at it afresh, but it is not pietistic. It is better understood as an artistic quest — a lifelong effort to collect and connect the sacraments and signs strewn by our history, implanted in our language and available to our senses. In some ways, it is a high-art version of that game called ‘Word Association Football’, invented by Monty Python, in which each new word or phrase must spark the next. The end of John Cleese’s original monologue goes: ‘…about human nature, man’s psychological make-up some story the wife will believe and hence the very meaning of life itselfish bastard, I’ll kick him in the Ball’s Pond Road’, an ending which is almost Jones-like.

The preface to his greatest work, The Anathemata (‘devoted things’), expounds: ‘If the poet writes “wood” what are the chances that the Wood of the Cross will be evoked? Should the answer be “None”, then it would seem that an impoverishment of some sort would have to be admitted. It would mean that that particular word could no longer be used with confidence to implement, to call up or set in motion a whole world of content belonging …to the mythus of a particular culture …This would be true irrespective of our beliefs or disbeliefs… The arts abhor any loppings off of meanings or emptyings out’.

Here are four lines from the final section of the poem, concerning Good Friday:

As the bleat of the spent stag toward the river-course
he, the fons-head pleading, ad fontes

his desiderate cry:

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