In two days time we shall be marking the moment in 1918 when the terrible fighting that cost the lives of millions in World War 1 came to an end. Amidst the most unimaginable suffering of trench warfare during WW1 men clung to their faith in God through the help of outstanding Catholic chaplains on both sides of the conflict. They gave heroic witness as they risked their own safety to bring comfort and the sacraments to the men of their afflicted regiments… and even beyond.
By K.V.Turley on CRISIS MAGAZINE
Recognition for a Much-Neglected English Catholic Artist
Unlike Waugh, Greene, and Tolkien, David Jones is not a name cited by many Catholics interested in the Catholic literary renaissance of the twentieth century. It is a pity. Not only because of Jones’s literary and artistic triumphs of the middle part of that century but also because this multi-talented polymath was a devout Catholic convert who understood his art in the light of the Incarnation and wrote about art as if it was a sacrament.
David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet by Thomas Dilworth is the recently published and definitive biography of Jones. It will spark renewed interest in the various aspects of the Londoner’s creativity.
David Jones was born in 1895 in London to a Cockney mother and a Welsh father. London and Wales were to play central roles in his formation: emotionally, culturally, and intellectually. An ordinary Edwardian childhood ended abruptly, as it did for so many, with the onset of the First World War. Just 18 years old, Jones enlisted in the London Welsh Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. He was to serve 117 weeks on the Western Front—longer than any other British writer. His wartime experiences haunted him for the rest of his life. Dilworth records that even in 1971 Jones was still saying that his experiences, especially those on the Somme in 1916, were so terrible that “my mind can’t be rid of it.” Dilworth traces Jones’s subsequent phobias developed in later years back to the horrors of the trenches.
Something else happened on the Somme though that, arguably, had a more profound impact upon Jones’s life than anything prior or subsequent to it. That experience was being present for the first time at Holy Mass.
Off duty one wet Sunday, Fusilier Jones wandered along the frontline looking for firewood. He came upon a byre where he thought he might find some wood. Putting his eye to a crack in the paling he spied two candles and a man dressed in liturgical vestments facing a stack of ammunition boxes covered in a white cloth. Half a dozen men knelt around this figure. Unexpectedly, the tinkling of a bell broke the silence, followed by Latin words, gently spoken. Jones was to express “marvel” at such a thing, which he realized was a Catholic Mass, taking place so close to the front line.
Jones had been brought up in a Christian home. His mother was Anglican, his father Non-Conformist. Jones had, therefore, an excellent knowledge of Scripture from an early age—Dilworth reckons as good if not better than any major twentieth-century writer. Nevertheless, by the time Jones “saw” the Mass for the first time, he was already being drawn intellectually and aesthetically to Catholicism. This moment of unlooked-for “sacramentality” impressed Jones deeply. He was never to forget it. In fact, his later ideas about art as “sacrament” were to be a constant lodestar.
After the war, Jones returned to London where he enrolled at the Westminster Art School. Soon after, he began to attend Mass at nearby Westminster Cathedral. There he greatly admired the recently erected Stations of the Cross created by the sculptor and artist, Eric Gill. The priest who was later to receive Jones into the Church in 1921 was Fr. John O’Connor. This priest had been instrumental in G.K Chesterton’s conversion, as well as the real-life model for Chesterton’s fictional detective, Father Brown. It was Fr. O’Connor who suggested that Jones meet his friend, Gill.
On becoming Catholic, Jones went to live at the artists’ colony founded by Gill. This semi-monastic community known as the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic was situated at Ditchling in Sussex. While there, Jones was initiated into various arts including engraving and painting. In addition, he was exposed to Catholicism as a way of life.
Unlike many artists, and poets in particular, Jones was recognized in his lifetime receiving various awards and a State pension for his services to Literature. Unusually as well, his poetic contemporaries lionized him. Eliot was a great admirer calling Jones’s In Parenthesis(1937) “a work of genius”; W.H. Auden thought Jones’s long Eucharistic poem The Anathemata (1952) the “finest long poem written in English this century.” Such acclaim changed Jones not one jot. He continued to paint, to write, to draw, and to pray.
Throughout his life, Jones was quietly devout. Dilworth’s biography marks his regular going to Holy Mass on Sundays, and to Confession, of his well-thumbed prayer book and Missal, and his love for the Latin liturgy. Jones lamented the liturgical changes of the post-Vatican II era, missing the musical forms and silences of the “old Mass.” In fact, Jones was one of the signatories of what became known informally as ‘The Agatha Christie Indult’—the 1971 permission to continue saying the Tridentine Mass in England—so-called because it is said Pope Paul VI immediately granted the request upon spying the famous crime writer’s name upon it.
In David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet Dilworth succeeds in weaving the private life of David Jones, the man, and the public life of Jones, the artist, into one recognizable and readable whole. Dilworth’s view of Jones is a sympathetic one. He is, however, not blind to the man’s foibles and eccentricities. On the subject of Jones’s Catholicism, Dilworth paints for the reader a warts and all portrait. Jones is a sinner as well as devout, a believer if one who struggled from time to time to make sense of his faith, but one who, in the end—he died in 1974—never lost that sense of mysterious wonder he glimpsed first upon a battlefield as Holy Mass was taking place.