27 June 1969: It’s impossible to fault Seamus Heaney's clean language and sensuous delight

In 1969, the poet Anthony Thwaite reviewed Seamus Heaney's collection Door into the Dark, alongside other newly-published works, under the heading "Country Matters". He found Heaney's poems to be without peer, but also strangely exotic in their appeal.

Door into the Dark
Seamus Heaney
Faber 15s

Ingestion of Ice-Cream
Geoffrey Grigson
Macmillan 30s and 12s 6d

Sandgrains on a Tray
Alan Brownjohn
Macmillan 30s and 10s

Arias from a Love Opera
Robert Conquest
Macmillan 30s and 8s 6d

New Numbers
Christopher Logue
Cape 25s and 12s

It may be that in our now densely urban Britain we tend to romanticise and overvalue the almost lost world of thatchers and farriers and rat-catchers and wild predators. A foreigner reading some recent English verse might imagine that we spend most of our time behind the plough or tickling trout, and that the town is still alien to us. I’ve had this in mind while reading Door into the Dark. As in Seamus Heaney’s much praised first book, Death of a Naturalist, the setting is usually rural Ireland and the exercise one of acute natural perception. ‘The Forge’, the poem from which the book takes its title, packs a lot of nicely phrased detail into its 14 lines (‘Inside, the hammered anvil’s short pitched ring./The unpredictable fantail of sparks/Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water’); ‘Rite of Spring’ is a laconic little piece of symbolism about de-icing a water pump, and ‘A Lough Neagh Sequence’ is an attractive group full of well-observed fishermen’s craft. It’s impossible to fault the clean language, sensuous delight, concise and modest statements; and I’m sure it’s all completely authentic. But I’m equally sure that the appeal of Heaney’s work is of an exotic sort, to people who can’t tell wheat from barley or a gudgeon from a pike. His poems are of a different, neater order from those of Ted Hughes, but I think he must be counted as one of what someone has called the Tribe of Ted; compare Heaney’s ‘The Outlaw’ with Hughes’s ‘The Bull Moses’, and see how both dwell lovingly on the animal as an image of massive power. In Heaney’s poem:

The door, unbolted, whacked back against the wall.
The illegal sire fumbled from his stall
Unhurried as an old steam engine shunting.
He circled, snored and nosed. No hectic panting,
Just the unfussy ease of a good tradesman;
Then an awkward, unexpected jump, and
His knobbled foreign straddling her flank,
He slammed life home, impassive as a tank...

Turbines and pylons for the 1930s: bulls for the 1960s. It’s an odd progression.

There’s a good deal of close looking at Nature, too, in Geoffrey Grigson’s new book, sometimes of a clinical sort, with qualifications with havering and hedging so that poems get lost in modifying brackets: quiddities become boring when too much insisted. Better are the asperities of the combative Grigson, dismissing MacDiarmid in a quatrain, tossing a squib at TV’s talking heads, observing a marriage in ‘Academic Affair’. Only once does he sound a more generous, poignant note, in ‘Old Man by a Lake in June’, which I find the best poem in the book. Here the details are restrained and economical: too often they become a dense clutter, as in ‘All Saints Occasion’:

But looking down out cliff, I see a house-spout
emitting steadily rain-water which curves, then
falls adding a stalactite crystal-grey
to now yellowed stalagmites beyond of Lombardy
poplars unbending, long in a river-bordering line dead straight

Heaney’s rural Derry, Grigson’s riverside France, are not only geographically but temperamentally remote from Alan Brownjohn’s territory, in which (in ‘A 202’) he goes.

Journeying between wired-off bombed lots glossy
                With parked Consuls, making diversions
Round bus depots and draggled estates
In circumlocutory One-Ways,
Netting aquaria in crammed pet store windows,
                Skirting multi-racial bingo queues...

To call it Larkin country is simply shorthand, drawing attention to the fact that both Larkin and Brownjohn write from the England that’s readily recognisable to most of us. What Brownjohn does with it is very different. Where Larkin is concerned with precise though resonant recording of moods (much more emotionally than he is generally given credit for), Brownjohn is intent on thinking in verse; there is a strong thread of prose argument. Thus ‘The Clouds’ begins:

The craftsmen in my line bred out.
I drive, but could I mend a fuse.
My father handled founts of words
My brain would catch and fingers lose.

I find fair excuse, to serve:
There has, in our society,
Been ‘social change’, which makes these skills
Much less of a necessity.

The poem delicately and skilfully goes on to develop the debate from there, but already the danger is apparent: that prose argument can easily slide into the prosaic. And Brownjohn, for all his sensitive and scrupulous intelligence, too often lets this happen.

It doesn’t matter – is, indeed, part of the dry humour – in such lighter poems as ‘Somehow’ (which ‘satirises not the provinces but a certain provincial habit of mind’) and the trouvailles of ‘Common Sense’; but it runs to tediousness in ‘Winter Appointment’ – yet another poem about going to the dentist, a theme which by now seems ready for some barrel-scraping editor to make an anthology of. But I’m grateful for the observant and fine-drawn insights throughout Sandgrains on a Tray, that power which Brownjohn (in a memorial poem on Verson Watkins) isolates as giving ‘all quirks and details a sort of odd wonder.’

It seems to me that in his poems Robert Conquest’s problem has always been to get his intelligence and his impulses to mesh. You can see it in his first and second books (Poems, 1955, and Between Mars and Venus, 1962): the successful pieces are those in which you recognise that a warm rush of feeling has suddenly suffused the bony intellectuality and the poet has stopped frigidly cogitating on ‘art’ and ‘verse’. This is true of the new book too, in which some sort of ratio could be worked out showing the more warmly ‘the thing seen’ in the foreground, the better the poem. Examples are ‘Existences: Zurich’, ‘Far West’, and ‘Then’ – this last a well-focused wartime memory, handled with greater relaxation than Conquest generally allows himself. I wish, too, he would give his sense of the ridiculous (particularly the sexually ridiculous) greater scope: it winks out from ‘Revue Bar Strip’, but the taste for imported abstractions too often seems to win.

Christopher Logue sometimes looks like the licensed jester of the spasmodically dying capitalist West, the decorative rebel tolerated for his amusement value by the corrupt and effete masters whom his performances ostensibly satirise. Yet his 1959 book, Poems, had some excellent things in it, ranging from the ‘after Neruda’ lyrics on which ‘Red Bird Dancing on Ivory’ was based (one of the very few successful poetry/jazz combinations) to the Brechtian ‘Story About the Road’. Later there came his free but eloquent Iliad fragment, ‘Patrocleia’ (disappointingly followed by ‘Pax’, in which he appeared half-hearted not only about Homer but about language too). New Numbers is a ragbag of what Logue has been up to since: parts which read like variations, on those Private Eye ‘True Stories’ he assembles (see last week’s NS for an example), cheeky bagatelles (‘Come over here and sit on my sofa./I want to kiss you and lick you all ofa’), a ballade ‘for four organised criminals’, several black comic turns. It’s an entertaining collection, but terribly thin and perfunctory too. The pop poetry movement has overtaken him, so that Adrian Henri and Co. are reaping where Logue sowed; inevitably the whole thing looks a bit tired, as if he felt that poetry was, after all, a pretty futile occupation.

The poet Seamus Heaney, in a portrait taken in 1995. Photo: Getty
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Everything is illuminated: Rowan Williams on the art and faith of David Jones

Haunted by his time in the trenches and disturbed by the modern marketplace, Jones formed a world-view full of symbols and connections.

In 1967, the poetry magazine Agenda published a special David Jones issue, including a number of unpublished fragments of his work. The first of these was the brief piece entitled “A, a, a DOMINE DEUS”, often reprinted as Jones’s most poignant statement of his sense that the world of technology was making the writing of poetry – and indeed the other arts – impossible: “I have watched the wheels go round in case I/. . . might see the Living God projected/from the Machine . . ./my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible/crystal a stage-paste”.

He had elaborated on this two decades earlier in a note addressed to the doctor who was treating his paralysing depression and anxiety. We are living, he wrote, in a culture where objects are thought of in terms of their usefulness. An electric light bulb is designed to illuminate human dwellings or workplaces; if an artist wants to evoke something about light more generally, the light bulb is not a good metaphor, because it is merely a functional object. It is what it is because of the job it has to do. But we need images that are allowed to resonate more freely because they are not determined in this way – fires, stars, the sun. How then does the artist avoid “a kind of invalidity”, a corrupting distance from the actual world of his or her experience?

Jones often wrote about “the Break”, the cultural moment somewhere around the beginning of modernity when the European world-view shifted decisively. Instead of a world where things were unique but linked by an unimaginable density of connection and cross-reference, we had created one in which things were unconnected but endlessly repeatable and where everything could be exchanged in the market for an agreed equivalent: above all, for money. Jones saw his work – both as a visual artist and as a poet – as a sustained protest against the Break and an effort to show that the older picture could, after all, be brought to life.

Born in 1895, he had family roots that helped to shape his interests from the beginning. His mother’s father had been a London shipwright and his father’s origins were in North Wales. Both Wales and London kept a central place in his imagination throughout his life. It was not surprising that when the First World War broke out, he enlisted in the 1st London Welsh Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His 1937 masterpiece, the astonishing book-length poem In Parenthesis, describes the experience of foot soldiers in the First World War, revisiting his own experiences up to and including the disastrous engagement at Mametz Wood in July 1916. Jones was wounded in the leg during the battle (a wound described by the medical orderly as “a beautiful blighty” – serious enough to get him off the front line, yet not life-threatening). But he was back in the trenches in a matter of months.

The traumas of war stayed with him to the end. In Parenthesis, which he struggled with painfully over many years, is one of the most unsparing accounts of the life of infantry soldiers in the trenches and of the horrors of the Somme; but at the same time it meditates on any number of connections – echoes of conflict, from Troy to the struggles of the British against the Saxons in the 6th century to Malory’s Arthurian narratives, and, woven through it all, the founding act of bloodshed that is the death of Christ. Jones was raised an Anglican, but by the time he wrote In Parenthesis he was a Catholic, and believed passionately that the Church’s sacramental theology was what made sense of a world of symbolic connection, where nothing existed as an atom but where everything enriched the perception of everything else. For him, all art rested on the conviction that God had made a world of endless cross-reference, and that humanity was most fully human when it acknowledged this. Art was humanity doing what only humanity could do.

Thomas Dilworth’s welcome (and superbly produced) biography will clearly be the point of reference for Jones’s life for a long time to come. Dilworth has already written extensively about Jones, most recently a full and valuable account of the wartime years, and his research is exhaustive. He quietly corrects a number of errors in earlier biographical sketches and provides a wealth of detail at every stage – and he tells us that this substantial book is only part of a longer document that he intends to publish online. In all the detail, it is hard to pick out a single thesis; but in so far as there is one, it is that Jones is “the foremost native British modernist”, as Dilworth claims in his concluding paragraph.

This may sound strange, given what we know about “the Break”. But in fact, Jones himself believed that the modernist, post-impressionist aesthetic was a decisive break of its own kind – a break with representation as a sort of substitution, a recognition that a work of art is a thing in which something else is allowed to come to life, in a new medium: a picture is the scene or the human figure existing in the form of paint, as the Mass is the flesh of Jesus existing as bread. He insisted that his Catholic conversion began with his artistic conversion, and tried persistently, in his superb essays as well as his artistic output, to show what this meant.

The artistic conversion was dramatic enough. Dilworth reproduces some of the technically skilful and aesthetically awful work of Jones’s early art-school days, as well as some startling propaganda pictures from the war years: languishing virgins being threatened by hairy medieval Teutons, and so on. Jones needed to rediscover the extraordinary talent of his early childhood, when he produced sketches of a delicacy and vigour that foreshadow the very best of his mature work. Immediately after the war, back at the art school in Camberwell, he let his imagination be opened up by a variety of new impulses, ranging from El Greco to Samuel Palmer and Pierre Bonnard.

But Jones’s distinctive touch as an artist came to life when he threw in his lot with his fellow Catholic convert Eric Gill. He shared the life of the Gill family frequently for nearly a decade, in both Sussex and the Welsh borders, imbibing Gill’s distinctive artistic philosophy and gently but steadily distancing himself from it, and was for a while engaged to Gill’s second daughter, Petra. Gill mocked Jones for continuing to paint watercolours, insisting that carving and engraving were intrinsically more serious matters because of the manual work involved: watercolours were just decorative, the worst possible thing for a work of art to be, in his book. The Gill circle was a crucial stimulus for Jones, but ultimately one that allowed him to sharpen up his own understanding rather than adopt an orthodoxy. The watercolours, gouaches and engravings of the 1920s show a striking confidence. In 1928 he was nominated by Ben Nicholson for membership of the “7 & 5 Society”, probably the leading group of artistic innovators in 1920s Britain.

Jones’s acute and recurrent depression and worsening anxiety held back his output in the 1930s, though he struggled through to the completion of In Parenthesis. The later visual works – drawings, paintings, inscriptions – display an exceptional range of idioms and are increasingly characterised by abundant detail that is of filigree precision as well as unusual fluidity. There are religiously themed pictures: Vexilla Regis (1948), the great symbolic tree in the forests of post-Roman Britain standing for the cross as a sort of world-tree; the Welsh hill landscape framing the Annunciation in Y Cyfarchiad i Fair (1963), with its abundance of exquisitely observed small native birds. There are the “calix” paintings of glass vessels holding flowers, which deliver an effect of profound translucency. There are the inscriptions of Latin, Welsh and English texts, a unique corpus of work in which he defined a new approach to “monumental” lettering as an art form. These are perhaps the lasting legacy of his apprenticeship to Gill, yet they are anything but derivative.

In the middle of all this, in the postwar period, he continued to write, producing another unclassifiable poetic masterpiece, The Anathemata (1952), an exploration of both personal and cultural history, with the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday at the centre of everything. Other “fragments”, many of them very long, were worked on over years but never found their connecting thread; most of these were not published until after his death.

Dilworth provides a comprehensive account of Jones’s struggles with mental health. He was fortunate enough to find a sympathetic therapist who strongly encouraged him to keep working; but later on, a formidable regime of antidepressant and other drugs left him less able to focus – “groggy and slow”, as he said – and his productivity declined sharply. A temperamental indifference to social encounters combined with tormenting agoraphobia to make him ever more of a recluse in a succession of north London boarding houses and nursing homes until his death in 1974.

Yet his friendships were immensely important to him – friendships with members of the lively and critical world of Catholic artists in the 1920s, with younger artists and writers, to whom he was unfailingly generous, and with the two young women, Prudence Pelham and Valerie Wynne-Williams, who were the recipients of his strongest (but unconsummated) attachments. The breaking of his engagement to Petra Gill had been a great trauma, and his lifelong celibacy seems to have been the result both of this shock and of a deep-seated conviction that his artistic vocation could not accommodate ordinary family life.

He was a wonderful letter-writer; anyone wanting to get to know Jones should start with Dai Greatcoat, the selection from his letters published in 1980 by his friend René Hague (Gill’s son-in-law). Funny, ­affectionate, eccentrically learned, curious, irreverent and sad, they give a good sense of why Jones was so deeply loved by those who knew him. He viewed the world – and his own work and calling – with a gentle and vulnerable bafflement, but also with patience and humility. He seems to have had no malice in his make-up.

Dilworth does not, however, shirk the embarrassing fact that Jones expressed a measure of sympathy for Hitler in the 1930s. This should not be misunderstood. What Jones says is that, having read Mein Kampf, he feels it is almost right, but ruined by hatred and racial triumphalism. Hitler appears to him more appealing than most of his opponents, who represent international finance and impersonal bureaucracy, or Marxist collectivism. He later admits that he was simply wrong. But it is a revealing wrongness: he accepts at face value a rhetoric that opposes the market, and he seems to see Hitler’s passion and violence as at least a more honest response to national or global crisis than the “business as usual” of mainstream politicians. And how far are Hitler’s “opponents” being tacitly understood as the cosmopolitan financiers of anti-Semitic myth? Dilworth does not absolve Jones for dipping his toe into this swamp; but he does note that Jones was – more than many of his Catholic colleagues – intolerant of the anti-Semitism of much traditional Catholic thought and shocked by the persecution of the Jews in Germany. It is another sidelight on his fundamental artistic problem: a disgust with managerial, commodified mod­ernity that, in his case as in some others, can make a quite different anti-modernity, the fascist refusal of public reasoning and political pluralism, fleetingly attractive.

The other delicate issue that Dilworth handles carefully and candidly is whether Jones was aware that Eric Gill had sexually abused two of his daughters (including Petra). His conclusion is that it is very unlikely, and this is almost certainly right. And yet, looking at Jones’s haunting painting of 1924 The Garden Enclosed, with its depiction of himself and Petra embracing awkwardly, Petra apparently pushing him away, with a broken doll lying on the path behind her, it is hard not to believe that he intuited something deeply awry somewhere. The background presence of Gill’s omnivorous sexual appetite can hardly not have been a further complication in an already complicated relationship.

Jones’s reputation has probably never been higher. There have been several important exhibitions in recent years and Dilworth’s assessment of his standing among British modernists is increasingly shared. His thoughts as an essayist on theology as well as aesthetics have been increasingly influential. This biography is a landmark. It would be good if it stirred an interest not only in Jones as an artist and poet, but in the questions he faced about modernity: what happens to art in a culture where each thing is no more than itself, or its market price?

"David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet" by Thomas Dilworth is published by Jonathan Cape (432pp, £25)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution