It never left him

David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet. By Thomas Dilworth. Counterpoint; 432 pages; $39.50. Jonathan Cape; £25.

THIS is a story of undeserved neglect, the first full telling of the life of a shy, awkward and generally poverty-stricken man who hid his light beneath a bushel and so neglected his appearance that he was often taken for a tramp. David Jones, who was born in 1895, was a poet and a painter; some regard him as the greatest painter-poet since William Blake. His achievements as a Modernist writer rank him alongside T.S. Eliot and James Joyce.

Jones grew up in south London, the son of a printer’s overseer. His childhood was Dickensian, his schooling fitful and he was often sick. But his knowledge of scripture was prodigious and his reading wide-ranging. From a young age Jones became passionately attached to the idea of Wales (his father was Welsh), and the wrong that had been visited upon the Celts by the English. The death of Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffydd in 1282 not only put paid to the political identity of Wales; it would occupy the painter-poet’s thoughts for the rest of his life. Mining the myths of Wales would be central to his work. One of his greatest regrets was that, though he studied Welsh on and off for decades, he never quite mastered it. His Welshness was, as his biographer, Thomas Dilworth, writes, “an imaginative acquisition”.

He went to art school at the age of 13, having already drawn a magnificent dancing bear when he was seven. In 1915, aged 19, he joined the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and was sent to the Somme. He spent 117 weeks at the front, a terrible experience which, when finally expressed in words more than two decades later, would result in “In Parenthesis”, one of the greatest poetic responses to the first world war. Remembering the conflict would be a disease of which he could never rid himself.

Jones’s paintings and poetry appeared successively, not simultaneously. Whereas his poetry was usually dense and allusive, worked over again and again (and thus of great appeal to commentators), his paintings could be quickly made. When complete, they were diaphanous and airy, full of wondrous and immediate beauty, especially when he painted flowers at a window. There was a letting go about these works and a marvellous naivety. Jones’s religion—he converted to Catholicism in 1921, much to the horror of his parents—grounded and enriched him. For the painter-poet art was sacramental, a setting apart and a raising up. Nothing pleased him more than listening to Gregorian chant on his scratchy gramophone.