The extraordinary David Jones is impossible to pigeonhole, and perhaps – despite being judged one of the major figures in 20C literature by T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden, no less – that’s why he remains so little known. But already I have pigeonholed him. He was also a powerful and original painter, with an all-embracing vision.
My own discovery of David Jones is only just beginning, and follows an inspired tip-off. Earlier this year I mentioned to a friend a new anthem I’d been commissioned to write for St John’s College Choir. I was impatient to get started, but couldn’t find a text that I wanted to set. With an instrumental work, if you want to get started, you get started – or at least you try. But a vocal piece like this there’s little point in sketching if you have absolutely no idea what the text will be; without it, you can go nowhere.
I was delighted when the friend sent me a photocopy of a single page from Jones’ long, unfinished and wonderfully strange poem The Sleeping Lord. And it was brilliant of her to send me that particular page, too. If by chance I had found the poem myself, I would certainly have found it fascinating and unusual, but would quickly have dismissed any idea of setting it – certainly for this anthem. However, the passage singled out for me, while absolutely typical of the ruminating, deep-digging, long-ranging quest pursued across the poem’s 30+ pages, also encapsulates it in something that has the jewel-like precision and crystalline form of a sonnet.
At the root of this poem is the idea of Christ as somehow dwelling in the modern landscape, indeed, being the landscape, bodily – with all its scars as well as its beauty. If you’ve read a little of the poem and have felt the way Jones identifies body and land contours so vividly, it’s almost impossible to view the picture above without seeing the same vision, though it was painted decades before the poem.
This was excitingly vivid, thought-provoking and unusual imagery to work with, and from then on writing the anthem was a great pleasure. I look forward very much to hearing the first performance from the magnificent choir of St John’s conducted by Andrew Nethsingha, next year.