David Jones and the Craft of Theology: Becoming Beauty by Elizabeth R. Powell. London: T&T Clark. 2022. 168pp. £28.99.
The work of David Jones, the 20th-century Welsh Catholic poet and painter (1895-1974) is less well known today than many of his British contemporaries. Yet it exists not simply alongside but beneath and within such work. T.S. Eliot described Jones as “one of the most distinguished writers of my generation.” Dylan Thomas, who said once that he “would like to have done anything as good as David Jones has done,” participated in an abandoned attempt to popularize Jones’ epic In Parenthesis as a radio theater. W.H. Auden proclaimed Jones’ The Anathemata as “one of the most important poems of our time.” Despite this, Jones’s own work remains chronically underread; among a gathering of poets and painters, a few may be familiar with it, but beyond some esoteric artistic circles, he is largely unknown.
To many readers and viewers his work feels inaccessible, like relics of a strange civilization. There, words behave like objects; paintings shift and pan like shots in a film; engraved quotations are as dynamic as sculptures. It can be disorienting, off-putting. We do not immediately know how to live in this world. We need someone to teach us, certainly, but we also need to just live there, inhabiting the world of Jones’ art like children, observing and exploring, handling the art and the poems, testing them out, seeing what they do.
Elizabeth R. Powell’s new book David Jones and the Craft of Theology offers a space and a method for both direct instruction about and joyful inhabitation of Jones’s world. Curiously for a scholarly book, it could serve a newcomer as much as a devotee. For readers already familiar, Powell illuminates Jones’s many theological insights, putting his work in direct conversation with the tradition of Christian theology. For newcomers, Powell’s book serves as a marvelous primer to Jones’ diverse oeuvre. She selects three of Jones’ artifacts—a poem, a painted inscription, and a wood engraving—and delves deep past the surface to explore his mode of creating, a mode shot through with theological convictions that have the force to transform the lives of all believers, artists or not. “My hope,” she writes, “is to practice the mode of loving attention elicited by their nature as sacramental signs.” (9)
Powell’s book proposes a new audience for Jones’ work: ordinary Christians who are engaged in theological questions, devout, trying to be faithful to the tradition, but “annoyed by the complete badness [of church aesthetics],” as Jones himself said. This is, truly, a sizable audience. Powell writes, “This book arises from the conviction that scholars, no less than poets, still long, as a matter of course, to make things possessing that quality we call beautiful.” (7) She calls us to “recover our awareness of theology as a human practice, or in Jones’ terminology, a gratuitous sign-making and so an inherently sacred practice.”
Jones was an artist, not an activist; but he recognized the threats to our humanity from modernity. He lived and worked during the rise of globalization–a force which has crushed local markets of handmade goods and annihilated customs, cultures, and even whole languages; an increasingly impersonal international market has shattered the process of making, so that many of us fill our homes and lives with objects that we have no significant relationship with, while we ourselves are losing the basic skills required to meaningfully shape our surroundings. This, Powers suggests, is a theological problem, one rooted in a distorted understanding of the creation God has given us and of our relationship to it. Jones, she suggests, offers a “modern recovery of a Thomistic metaphysics in which creation is a gift,” rather than a mere tool.
Powers argues that for Jones, attending to our surroundings–recognizing that we live in a world of things, not reproductions or images of things–is “an essential form of resisting an encroaching spirit of utility.” (15) “The utile,” she quotes Jones as saying, refers to anything that is “vulgarly and generally understood as “merely utilitarian” or “simply functional.’” (15)
Viewing creation as utile violates more than creation, Powers says; it undermines our nature as humans and bars us from flourishing in our identity as bearers of the image of God. “Human beings,” she writes, “particularly participate in the gift of Being through the mode of sacramental making.” Our identity as “material and spiritual, both embodied and rational,” means that our “mode of creativity is sacramental,” meaning that it “mediates ‘earth’ […] and ‘heaven.’” (15)
Powell does not merely make these theological claims; she shows how Jones’ work illuminates them. In all his work—painting, engraving, poetry—Jones has a knack for telescoping, for altering perspective to bring the massive and distant right up next to the tiny and at-hand. This telescoping is part of Jones’ commitment to “sacramental making,” and works within time as well, drawing the ancient into the present (or, sometimes, the present deep into the past). For Jones, all things, in the end, telescope their way up to the God who made them. Powell quotes Jones’ friend Kathleen Raine, who says, “‘Incarnational’ was perhaps for David the most significant word of all” (84). All created things are forms of incarnation for Jones; all things that are “capable of being loved and known” manifest God.
This is an aesthetic creed, to be sure, but it is even more so a theological claim, and not a trivial one (as is so often the case with contemporary use of the word “incarnational”, which can be tacked on to justify just about any supposedly Christian artistic indulgence). If what Jones thought is true, it affects everything. Jones recognized the enormous implications of his own beliefs, writing,
There is not a scale of beauty, extending from the merely useful objects […] to the culminating point in vestments and sacred vessels. It is subconsciously felt that the searching eye of Almighty God will overlook the radiator casing and the electric button so long as the priest’s chasuble is graceful and costly. (1)
This subconscious feeling, Jones warns, is wrong, for all created things—all of them—have the capacity to incarnate, to manifest, to reveal, to participate in God.
We, like God, look at created things and make them into something new that can more fully manifest God’s own nature. We see a tree, we thank God for it, and then we make it into the pillar upholding our home, or into serving bowls to share hospitality with strangers, or into a crucifix. We see a stone, thank God for it, and make from it a millwheel to grind wheat, which we then make into bread, through which God then grants us participation in the body of Christ. Each of these made things—the pillar, the bowls, the statue, the wheel, the bread—is a unique manifestation of God’s nature, brought into being by the special privilege of imagination and art God has given to Man the Maker. Each of these things, rightly made, is in its own way a sacred object, because it is an object with unique value for revealing God.
Powell gives a splendid close reading of Jones’ only short poem, “A, a, a, DOMINE DEUS,” to illustrate Jones’ anthropological claim that humanity, the God-Image-Bearers, are unique participants in God, because only we can consciously make. She shows how this poem creates meaning not only in the words it uses, but in the actual shapes and relationships between those words. See, for example, the interplay between these lines from the poem:
I have felt for His wounds in nozzles and containers. I have wondered for the automatic devices. I have tested the inane patterns without prejudice. I have been on my guard not to condemn the unfamiliar. For it is easy to miss Him at the turn of a civilisation.
Reading these lines feels like ascending a ladder, coming step by step down from something. Jones gives that effect through the language as well as through the shape of the poem. But what are we descending? Different critics read this differently, for descent is a tragic theme, and the language of the poem lends itself to tragedy. But Powell offers a new vision. She argues that the physical shape of the poem is not merely a ladder, but a cross on which the poem hangs. The ladder-like shape of the poem ends on a heap of un-lineated prose-like poetry—a hill, perhaps, the hill of shapeless shambling death from which the shape of a cross rises. This argument about the shape of the poem transforms the language, for if we are descending not a ladder but a cross, the whole theme of tragedy and confusion shifts; this descent, resonant with Christ’s descent from the Cross, is a descent that will lead to a new rising.
The shape of this poem, Powell argues, allows Jones to offer a theological claim about the anguish of his era. Jones’ career spanned the twentieth century; during his lifetime, he witnessed dramatic upheavals in the way humans live in the world. He fought in the trenches in World War I, and saw first-hand the diabolical way in which Man the Maker can twist creation; he saw the collapse of making and the rise of consumption, where humanity no longer shaped and used the world around us, but instead mechanized, bought, and sold it. When he writes, “I have felt for His Wounds/in nozzles and containers,” the speaker of this poem has seen the impoverished state of the modern world; he has searched for Christ there; and he allows us to search alongside him. Powell’s unique insight that the physical shape of the poem evokes a cross indicates that perhaps, despite all evidence, Jones wishes to offer hope that we will find Christ.
Powell’s reading of this poem is not merely a careful recounting of other critical readings. She offers insights that go beyond what others have written and gives us a glimpse of how deeply Jones’ interest in making saturated everything he did. She offers similar insights into the other two pieces of art featured in the book, a painted inscription blending a quotation from the Preface to the Tridentine Christmas Mass with a line from Greek mythology, and Jones’ last completed engraving, a vision of the Church entitled “Bride.”
This slight volume is a significant contribution to scholarship about David Jones, but it is far more than that. In it, Powell presents a theology that has the power to shape our day-to-day existence. Here, in the obscure and difficult art of an impoverished Welsh Catholic, we find a thread leading out of the labyrinth of our age, an age rapidly stripping away cultural, linguistic, and creative differences in pursuit of a bland, commercialized globalism. The stakes are high; if we are truly only fully human when we create, we stand to lose not only our traditions, but ourselves. For Jones, and for Powell, theology is no ivory tower hobby, but a mode of existence that has the power to save not only our souls in the world to come, but to fill out lives in this world with meaning.
J. C. Scharl is a poet and essayist. Her writing has appeared in many publications throughout the English-speaking world, including the BBC, The European Conservative, The New Ohio Review, The Hudson Review, Dappled Things, Plough Quarterly, and many others. She lives with her husband and two children outside Detroit, Michigan.
*Image Credit: “David Jones, Human Being,” 1931 / Private Collection©Trustees of David Jones Estate.