Tome of the unknown soldier

The painter and poet David Jones served on the Western Front and was highly rated by both T S Eliot

If posterity has consigned the poet-painter David Jones (1895-1974) to obscurity, it is an obscurity of a strangely enviable kind. Most writers in need of a revival have suffered critical neglect or have fallen out of print, but that has not been Jones's fate. T S Eliot, Hugh MacDiarmid, Basil Bunting and W H Auden all garlanded him with superlatives; academic attention has remained steady; and his two book-length long poems, In Parenthesis and The Anathemata, have just been reissued. Yet Jones is an undeniably marginal figure, British poetry's very own Easter Island statue, combining cultic mystery with apparent obsolescence. In Parenthesis is one of the masterpieces of modern war poetry, but much discussion of war poetry simply bypasses him.

Philip Larkin pronounced him "about as good as Richard Aldington" and omitted him from his Oxford Book of 20th-Century English Verse (published in 1973). Christopher Ricks's 1999 Oxford Book of English Verse repeats the exclusion. In the age of the slim volume of poems, his style of ultra-allusive, polyglot epic looks more quixotic than ever, but no less impressive for that. Is this a writer in the unusual position of having not sunk, but risen without trace? Where does David Jones stand today?

He was born in Brockley in south-east London (then Kent) to a Welsh father and cockney mother. At the age of 14 he was still wearing short trousers; five years later he enlisted with the Royal Welch Fusiliers and was marching to Southampton for the boat to France and the Western Front. Jones was an enthusiastic combatant. Asking "Is it worth it?" in the columns of the Brockley parish magazine, he answered his own question with an unequivocal "Yes".

His regiment's long advance and induction into the rigours of trench life was a litany of tedium and squalor (as described in the opening sections of In Parenthesis) before Jones saw action; but when it came, his initiation was brutal. Like Siegfried Sassoon, he was at Mametz Wood on the Somme, where a bullet passed through his body; a second posting on the front ended in a bout of trench fever. A postwar spell in the west of Ireland completed his disillusionment with military life, and in 1919 he enrolled as a student at Westminster School of Art in London.

From Westminster, Jones moved to Ditchling in East Sussex to join Eric Gill's artists' colony and begin his career as an engraver and illustrator. When Gill shifted camp to Capel-y-ffin in South Wales, Jones followed him, but the entanglement was by now more than a professional one because Jones was engaged to Gill's daughter Petra. While that relationship seems to have been awkward, no inhibitions applied to the regular incestuous trysts Petra enjoyed (if that is the word) with her omnisexual father. Long-necked beauties in the mould of Petra would linger in Jones's art, but his later life sank into a pattern of solitude and depression.

Because of Jones's long concussion and shell shock, In Parenthesis, his first book, did not appear until 1937. As an account of war, it alternates between prose and poetry, narration and commentary (in his copious notes), but also between realism and intricate reworkings of medieval Welsh poems. Jones switches register with disarming ease, leaving us unsure, for example, whether "Miss Weston's thrown about belongings" refers to Jessie Weston, the author of From Ritual to Romance, and not perhaps a passing charlady.

For a high-minded raider of the myth-kitty, he had an incomparable ear for the speech rhythms of the common soldier. A note on hessian sandbags becomes a prose poem in itself, with its attention to the smallest detail of the hell that was the trenches. After the carnage of battle, the Queen of the Wood carries flowers for the Somme dead, threatening to end the poem on a note of sacral harmony before the injured Private Ball comes round and crawls off through the mud.

Jones's full-tilt experimentalism is a factor in readers' resistance to his work, but in other ways he fails to conform to modernist templates. Along with Eliot and Ezra Pound, who were excoriated by John Carey in his book The Intellectuals and the Masses for their flirtation with the far right and contempt for the herd, there runs a counter-strain of ecstatic Catholic modernism, whose emphasis on the incarnation licenses a sensuality wholly at odds with the young man carbuncular and bored typist of "The Waste Land". This is the informing spirit of Hopkins, Péguy, Rouault, Messiaen, Joyce and Jones himself. It is also, in Jones's case, sensuality of a peculiarly innocent kind - not least in comparison with the rapacious Gill.

Jones was not without his dark side: his revulsion at capitalist society led him to see in Nazism a spiritual revolution-in-waiting. The poetic fruit of this delusion can be seen in "The Brenner", which celebrates a meeting of Hitler and Mussolini. But Jones's better self soon prevailed: "this hate thing mars his whole thing", he said of Mein Kampf. And those who prefer their writers above reproach should make sure not to forget their Yeats, Pound, Eliot, MacDiarmid, Brecht and Neruda when purging their shelves of this reprobate.

That is not to trivialise the issue: having made a grave mistake (though not remotely on a level with the fascism of Pound or Wyndham Lewis), Jones made amends, both through personal admissions of error and in the radical Christology of his work. His poetics of love offers ways of reading other modernists against the grain of their fascist folly.

Jones thought the task of the artist is to "lift up valid signs": the "Anathemata" of his singular 1952 masterpiece are "things set up, made over to the gods". Water, he observes, is called "the 'matter' of the Sacrament of Baptism", but could the same be said for "two of hydrogen and one of oxygen"? This is not the usual post-Romantic deprecation of science, but part of a larger attempt to re-enchant the physical, historical and mythic underpinnings of the modern world.

Auden compared Jones's method to Saint-John Perse, while noting the Anglo-Welsh poet's earthier attachments. If Auden could confess he did not "get" a lot of the poem, small shame should attach to readers unable to reduce passages such as the following to paraphrasable content: "Past where the ancra-man, deeping his holy rule/in the fiendish marsh/at the Geisterstunde/on Calangaeaf night/heard the bogle-baragouinage." Its densely layered mythopoetics make The Anathemata not just a sequel to Finnegans Wake, but a potent influence on contemporary myth-makers from Ted Hughes to Iain Sinclair and Alice Oswald.

The present conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have inspired an outpouring of anti-war poetry, but the work of Jones the great war poet does not sit easily in this context. The notion of poetry as versified opinion could not be further from the spirit of his work. Paul Fussell has argued that the thrust of In Parenthesis, with its "appliquéd literariness", is "to rationalise and even to validate" the First World War by conferring on it the status of chivalric romance, but this is an overstatement. There is no mistaking Jones's wars for anything other than senseless abattoirs.

Writing about Jones in 1974, as the forests of Vietnam burned, Seamus Heaney compared the Celtic fragments of The Sleeping Lord to "the jungle's complaint to the napalm". It is the whole earth that comes alive in Jones's work with visionary energy and daring. In one marvellous fragment, he calls on a sleeping sub­terranean giant to stir himself, and asks: "Does the land wait the sleeping lord/or is the wasted land/the very lord who sleeps?"

Whether the giant wakes or sleeps, to open a book by David Jones is to walk in the ley lines of his dreaming, a dreaming offered to believer and non-believer alike. Like Blake, John Clare and D H Lawrence, he is one of Albion's great secret imaginers, his prophetic work radiant with "the splendour of forms yet to come".

“In Parenthesis" and "The Anathemata" are published by Faber & Faber (both £17.99)

David Wheatley's collections of poems include "Mocker" (Gallery Press, £9.95) and "Lament for Ali Farka Touré" (Rack Press, £4)

This article first appeared in the 16 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war against science