David Jones’s ‘The Grail Mass and other Works’. Edited by Thomas Goldpaugh and Jamie Collision. Bloomsbury, ‘Modernist Archives’, London etc 2019
This is a publication by ‘Modernist Archives’. The editorial statement claims Bloomsbury’s ’Modernist archives’ series ‘makes available to researchers at all levels historical archival material that can reconfigure received views of modernist literature and culture’.
This book cost me over two hundred Australian dollars, so I have to wonder what that ‘at all levels’ means. The first question to address then, is that if you’re not an institution, but an admirer of Jones’s work, and you save your pennies or cents to buy a copy, is it worth it?
The answer, in this particular instance, is an unqualified yes.
Firstly, it’s a beautiful book. Nice binding, boards, good paper, good font. It sounds daft, but there are familiar fragments in here, and they are much more enjoyable to read on good white paper in a clean font than in the slightly slurred font on stale paper that is my Faber copy of ‘The Sleeping Lord and other fragments’ (To save time, hereafter TSL).
Secondly there is a lot of material here and some of it is in the ‘not seen before category’. ‘The Grail Mass’ is reconstructed as a coherent sequence/poem from Jones’s manuscripts into approximately 126 pages of text. Some of this has appeared before as published fragments, some was integrated into ‘The Anathemata’, but the presentation of the whole realigns the fragments. More on this later.
There are two further sections of writing: one called ‘A True fragment, an Extraction and A Variation’, and the other ‘Origins and Endings’.
In total something like 200 pages of Jones’s writing.
There’s also a critical apparatus detailing how the text was put together from manuscripts, how the versions here differ from other printed versions, and a guide of sorts to the grail mass. My previous experience of critical writing on David Jones lead me to ignore all this the first time I read the book. This was probably unfair. Without the painstaking work of the editors I wouldn’t be reading the book but Jones tends to exceed his exegetes far more thoroughly than most writers.
However, quite unintentionally the ‘Guide to the Grail Mass’ does raise one of the defining problems of reading David Jones. The editors identify the speakers in the first three segments. It’s hardly earth shattering.
But the effect of this simple piece of information on rereading the poems is like walking through an opened door into a realigned landscape. The question, which I have no answer to, is given that the ‘dramatic monologue’ is the basic form of several of these pieces, what did Jones gain by not indicating who is speaking, so the reader was orientated from the start?
The next question: Given that Jones himself was unsatisfied with the project, and didn’t feel it was ready for publication, does rifling through his files and reconstructing it, do his memory justice.
And again, the answer has to be yes.
The editors claim that ‘It is our contention that the parts forming the Grail Mass…can be read as continuous and unified whole that can be judged on its own merit’.
I think they’re right. The Grail Mass, as presented here, stands comparison with both In Parenthesis and The Anathemata, with two qualifications, that it is unfinished, and his speakers: Judas, Caiaphas, his Roman Soldiers, humanise the material in a way that’s missing from The Anathemata. It’s funny in places, recognisably human, with all the poetry intact.
So you’ve got a copy of ‘The Sleeping Lord and other Fragments’, or ‘The Roman Quarry’. Do you need this book?
I’d say yes. Although Jones quarried the unfinished project and published fragments, they take on a new life when re-contextualised, presented in the sequence they grew out of. High Priests, grumbling squaddies and troubled tribunes add to, confirm, contradict and redefine each other’s views of the world in a structured movement that mimics the layering of detail Jones used in some of his paintings. Bunting’s ‘Then is now’ has rarely been taken so seriously and dramatized so thoroughly.
And, again, it sounds daft, but the reading experience is much more enjoyable moving through the sequence, rather than reading the isolated fragments.
The versions published here are also different from those previously published, which allows insight into Jones’ working methods. Some of which I find baffling.
The irony of the book’s price is that you could give this Grail Mass to any reader of poetry, let them know who is speaking, and it could win Jones far more readers than those who have shipwrecked trying to read The Anathemata.
If you are a devotee of Jones’ writing, and there must be one or two more out there, you probably need a copy of this book. For once the content is definitely worth the daunting price of admission