David Jones’s ‘The Grail Mass and Other Works’.

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 

'Three stories by Gerald of Wales' new poems

Three poems from A Presentment of Englishry are in the translation section of this month’s ‘The High Window’. Takes a bit of scrolling, I’m the ‘medieval Latin’ contributor, but the first of Gerald’s stories is worth the scrolling effort. And should you ever be in that position, you’ll know the correct answer.


A Presentment of Englishry will be published by Shearsman books in March of 2019.

Pierre Michon, 'Winter Mythologies' and Faking the Middle Ages.


 ‘Winter Mythologies’ contains two collections of very short stories by Pierre Michon: “Three Miracles from Ireland’ and ‘Nine passages from the Causse’.

Michon is a fascinating writer and there is so much to admire about these stories.  But what intrigues me is the way he fakes the middle ages, provoking the question: how to retell medieval stories, or stories set in the middle ages when it comes to dealing with matters of belief. 

Yale University Press publishes the English version, translated by Ann Jefferson, as Winter mythologies and Abbots. In the French ‘Edition Verdier’ Mythologies d’hiver the first three stories are called Trois Prodiges En Irlande. While prodige can be translated into English as miracle, it can also mean prodigy, which can apply to a thing or event as much as a person. ‘The fervor of Brigid’, ‘The sadness of Columbkill’ and ‘The levity of Sweeney’ are all prodigious. But none of them is a miracle in the religious sense of that word.  

At first glance they mimic the brevity of the medieval chronicles Michon purports to be using. But on closer rereading, it becomes obvious that Michon tells them from the view point of a skeptical modern sensibility, within the framework of modern understanding and belief and this leads to what I will call, for want of a better term, faking the middle ages.  

Medieval miracle stories are commonplace. Read Bede, or Gerald of Wales, read any early medieval chronicle, they are full of stories of the miraculous.  So are saint’s lives and the records of their cults and shrines. People went on pilgrimage in the honest belief that the Saint’s relics would cure them.

We know there were fakes and we know there were skeptics even in the early middle ages, but the evidence suggests that the majority believed in miracles; in the ability of saints to intercede on their behalf and the fact that while the world worked to laws that existed but were not well-understood, God had the ability to alter those laws to show His favor, displeasure, or power. It should also be remembered that there are still people who hold these beliefs.

Michon’s three Irish Stories refigure belief as a prodigious type of desire in search of an object. But this is a desire for something more than the tactile world can provide. It is an innate yearning that can never be satisfied.

In the first story, Bridgid wants to see God’s face. She is in earnest, so much so that she will kill herself and her sisters for the chance of seeing him. In the second, Columbkill wants a copy of the Psalter he has read. Denied his copy, in what’s sometimes called the first copyright case in Europe, he goes to war in order to own the original.

Both Brigid and Columbkill want, in both the older and more common usage of the word. In Michon’s perfect phrase, Columbkill discovers ‘The book is not in the book’ :‘Le Livre n’est pas dans le livre’.  We can’t know if Brigid saw the face of God. Having killed her sisters and committed suicide, her story ends: “They are implacably dead. They are contemplating the face of God’ (P.11). The lack of any grammatical link between the two sentences does not inspire confidence in the idea that one leads to the other or that the first is not a comment on the second.

Columbkill however, got what he wanted only to discover that the thing he gained is not the thing he wanted. ‘He searches the text for something he has read and cannot find, and the picture for something he has seen and which has vanished. He searches long and in vain, yet it was there when it wasn’t his’ (p.16).  Learning his lesson, he throws away the book and his warrior’s paraphernalia and, ‘…on the bald island of Iona he sits down, free and stripped of everything, beneath a sky which is sometimes blue’ (p.16).

If a defeated Columbkill learns to become ‘stripped of everything’ and accept the world as it is, then in the first three stories only Sweeney is happy with who he is and what he does. He is happy being a king. When Finbar curses him, he takes to the woods and lives as though he had become a bird. He is happy being a wild animal. Michon doesn’t say whether Sweeney’s acceptance of his life is a kind of sanity bordering on sanctity, or proof positive he’s mad.

While Michon is prepared to believe in the desire for what is not present, his attitude towards medieval faith is that of a modern skeptic.  At first sight his pared back prose seems to imitate the style of the medieval chronicles. But on closer inspection the stories are told in three voices. There’s the flat style which sounds like objective reportage. Brigid and her sisters go swimming:

‘All three girls run through the spring dawn. They reach the bottom of the embankment and throw their clothes under the foliage’ (p. 5).

But the reportage is often disturbed by Michon’s adjectives. When Columbkill gives up everything and moves to Iona he crosses the ‘loathsome Irish Sea’ (p. 16). Why is the Irish sea ‘loathsome’?  And who thinks it’s loathsome: Brendan or Michon?  Brigid, swimming, sees that her flesh is ‘excessive’. Later when Patrick sees the sisters in the water, we are told ‘they are flagrant and excessive’. What is flesh in excess of? The similes that follow, ‘Like a dreaming King’ in the first example, ‘like Grace itself’ in the second, are not helpful. What does ‘Implacably dead’ mean?  

If the adjectives disturb the reportage, Michon’s third voice is the voice of the knowing modern skeptic. People in the past believed in Miracles, and gave witness to them. Michon translates that belief into a desire for the non-existent: there are no miracles, only things that can be explained away.

When Saint Patrick is introduced in the first story we are told that to convert the pagan Irish, ‘il suffit de quelques abracabras druidiques’ which sounds even more contemptuous than the English translation’s ‘all it requires is a few druidic spells’. Patrick is a fake who knows he’s a fake: a conjurer who is growing old.  ‘He would like a real miracle to occur, just once’ (p. 5). This desire explains his treatment of Brigid as does the sublimated sexuality between them which is hinted at in the story.

Because they are juxtaposed in the one book, it’s possible to read the story of Saint Enimie, which runs through five of the Nine Passages on the Causse, as an elaboration on a form of dishonesty. If people can suffer in varying degrees from a prodigious desire for something that is absent, then religion is what you get when that desire is given an object. Inherent in that idea is that manipulation and exploitation are inevitable. Those who desire can be manipulated and exploited by those who can supply and claim to control that object. It’s how advertising and propaganda work. It is hardly an earth-shattering observation until it is applied to religion and Medieval faith.

What Michon does not say is that today Saint-Enimie is a place, and that her existence as a historical person is dubious. She doesn’t warrant an entry in the standard dictionary of saints and unless your knowledge of French Kings is very good, it’s easy to miss the fact that centuries pass between each of the episodes in the development of her cult.

The saint is first mentioned in passing at the beginning of the second ‘passage’, ‘Saint Hilere’. ‘He has founded a community of brothers no one knows where on the banks of the River Tarn, doubtless on the spot where Enimie, the saint with Merovech’s blood, will later come’ (p. 28).

Enimie's own brief story: 'Enimie', comes next. It reads like a small fable. She is the daughter of the King. She becomes the abbess of a priory ‘on a river called the Tarn, in a place with an unpronounceable name’ (p. 32). It’s a joke. She never goes there. Her position is merely an administrative convenience. She has sex with the major of the palace. He drops her for someone else. She dies. ‘It is said to be leprosy’ (p. 33). 

Three centuries later, the monks of a small community on the Tarn need a saint to substantiate and defend their claim to ownership. The process of creating a posthumous career for Enimie, first writing her vita in Latin, then again much later translating that story into the vernacular, runs over three more stories. The difference between the stories  'Enimie' and 'Sancta Enima' are commentary on the process.

Sancta Enimie is a fake: her posthumous career is created by the shifting needs of the monks and their literary abilities.

If people can suffer in varying degrees from a prodigious desire for something that is absent, then religion is what you get when that desire is given an object. Inherent in that idea is that manipulation and exploitation are inevitable. Those who desire can be manipulated and exploited by those who can supply and claim to control that object. It’s how advertising and propaganda work. It is hardly an earth-shattering observation until it is applied to religion and Medieval faith. Accept the desire; deny the reality of the object of that desire.

And that’s where the modern mind and the medieval one part company.

Christianity has a bad press. Fundamentalists make the headlines.  The deviant behavior of some of its clergy is used to damn the whole of the Catholic Church. Modern knowledge, from Biology to Medicine to Meteorology, can supply convincing explanations of many miracle stories. Atheism is trendy.

Whether or not a modern writer believes in saints and miracles, people in the past did. The question is then how to deal with this belief if writing about the past.

Michon translates those beliefs into a narrative underwritten by modern skepticism.  We know the church as an institution became corrupt. We know its beliefs became easily exploited by the greedy and unscrupulous. There were enough fragments of the true cross in Europe to build a decent house and some of John the Baptist’s many fingers looked a lot like chicken bones.

But that doesn’t mean it was all faked. Bede and his audience expected miracles both from dead saints and living holy men and women. Miracles were the visible, tangible proof of an invisible power or an exceptional grace. When the Pagan priests and the Christian missionaries faced off in post Roman Britain, it wasn’t the equivalent of a conjurors’ Ok Corral. Writing it as though it were is entertaining and comforting to the modern mind, but another conjuror’s trick. 

The Laȝamon Project: using poems to think, or revisiting Pound's 'scholarship poem'.

‘Laȝamon remembers Ireland’ is a small part of a much bigger project. 

You can read the poem here:

 http://www.meniscus.org.au/Vol6Iss1.pdf  (on pages 72-73)

There’s an introduction to Laȝamon's Brut on this website here:  http://www.liamguilar.com/articles/#/lawman-lived-here/

I’ve been reading and then reading and writing about the Brut since about 1981, when a disgruntled undergraduate, me, was told he couldn’t use Malory for his Honours thesis but should ‘do something with Laȝamon’.

The questions that interest me now are ones that a conventional academic approach, confined by the discipline of whatever methodology, cannot answer. This is not to denigrate scholarship. Without scholarship, mine and others, what I’m trying to do would come untethered and drift off into pseudo-historical fantasy-writing.

If writing a poem can offer a unique way of thinking through and in language, then writing poems, retelling stories, can lead beyond the various walls that hedge academic scholarship to suggest ways of thinking about the Brut, its author and their time. A question as simple as, ‘Why does Locrin put Aestrild in an ‘earth house’ with ‘ivory doors’? lead to the Bronze age tin trade. Whatever the poem suggests can then be tested against the evidence. It’s a fascinating process because it leads into areas logic and reason might not consider.   It’s Pound’s ‘scholarship poem’, or Graves’ ‘poetic method’ taken seriously.  

I set out to retell four stories from the Brut. But as the project developed, it became a many-sided conversation with a strange variety of textual participants: the history of Dark Age Naval power, tin trade in the Bronze age, Homer, Virgil, Herodotus, the archaeology of post Roman Britain, the history of early Medieval Wales and England, the English Parish clergy in the 12th century, the writings of Gerald of Wales…and while trying to translate the prologue, I found I’d started writing about Laȝamon himself. 

The Poet

First question: Should I conscript a name and hang a set of beliefs and values on it that probably weren’t his, or should I try to recreate the man and risk gagging on his alterity. 

Answer: the second option, though it’s much riskier to attempt to strip back the associations that Priest, Poet, Poem, Literature have accumulated. 

As soon as I write ‘Laȝamon is one of the first named English poets’ or ‘he was a priest’ I have activated a series of responses which unavoidably muddy the discussion. 

What we know about Laȝamon is contained in ‘The Prologue’: the first 35 lines of the poem. He was a priest, at one time living at Aerely Kings. He decided to tell the noble deeds of the English. He went looking for books and then started writing. Other than that, his French was good.  

The current church at Arely was rebuilt in the 19th century. The Norman Church may have been small, about thirty-five feet by fifteen according to Tatlock. Though Laȝamon calls it a church it was probably a chapel. It is about ten miles from Worcester, not ‘the middle of nowhere’, there was a ford crossing the river on a road to Wales and a ferry at Redstone, but it was a small living. In the later 13th Century the income of the church was valued at £5.13s.4d when the national average seems to have been about 10 pounds.

Call him a poet and you can imagine him coming up with the idea of his poem and then scribbling away at his desk in the evening after a hard day’s priesting.  But he couldn’t just go to the local shop and buy paper or notebooks or go online and order a copy of Wace from the Book depository or pop into the local library and ask them to organise an interlibrary loan.

Areley was not the kind of place where those resources were available. Although he claims it was his idea, if he were the priest at Areley, then someone told him to write this and they were prepared to fund the necessary materials. Who that someone was, whether individual or institution, and why they wanted him to do it are unanswerable questions given the lack of evidence. Nor is there any evidence to suggest he’d written anything previously:  the Brutstumbles at the beginning as though he’s learning as he goes along. It may be the only ‘poem’ he wrote.

Using poems as a way of thinking about all this, I found I’d attached Laȝamon to Gerald of Wales. (you can read the poem, ‘Laȝamon remembers Ireland’ here: http://www.meniscus.org.au/Vol6Iss1.pdf on pages 72-73)

J.S.P Tatlock had suggested Laȝamon had been in Ireland. His argument has been dismissed not because it was implausible but because of the evidence he used to support it. Playing with the idea, I sent him to Ireland with John, not yet a King. But why would he have been there? He would have been useful; possibly trilingual and able to write. He could have gone as a clerk in the retinue of one of the lords, he could even have been attached to John’s household. But the main source for John’s expedition is Gerald of Wales, and his name fitted the rhythm of the line. A scribe in the household of Gerald of Wales, worked whereas ‘A scribe in the household of John, not yet King…sounded naff. 

Everything else in that poem can be footnoted EXCEPT the essential premise that Laȝamon was there.

But the idea seemed worth following.  Focussed on the scarcity of ‘English poetry’ in this period, it’s easy to forget how much writing does survive from the 12th Century. And the comparison with Gerald is revealing.  

Gerald is visible in ways Laȝamon is not. Over the twenty or so works he produced, he tells his readers enough about himself to produce a biography. There’s even something that can be called his ‘autobiography’. He was born into a marcher family with connections to many of the Welsh nobility. His grandmother Nest, had been Henry 1’s mistress. He was educated in France and had lectured in Paris during the great academic explosion of the 12th century. He held a  position at the Angevin court and had direct contact with the King and his family. He was sent with John to Ireland; his family, the FitzGeralds had played a major part in the Norman conquest of the Island. He visited Rome more than once. 

Gerald remains a vital if contested source for the history of Ireland and Wales in this period. He fought verbally with Kings and Archbishops and wasn’t averse to correcting the Pope.  

Unlike the priest at Areley, Gerald had the financial and institutional resources to be able to decide that he would devote time and materials to producing books. He had the independence of the well-connected and relatively well-off that enabled him to choose his own topics.

Ironically, because he wrote in Latin, Gerald is, unlike Laȝamon, much more recognisable as an ‘author’ in the modern understanding of the word. As a writer, he had a powerful sense of the tradition he was working in. He knew the church fathers and the Latin poets. His writing is scattered with quotations and allusions to both. He also seems to have had a sense of himself as a participant in that tradition, as a creator of literature and perhaps he saw himself as on a par with those glorious dead. He certainly believed his writing would win him posthumous fame. 

Perhaps career is the wrong word, but he had a sense of the trajectory of a dedicated writing life: I have written; I will write. The well- known books he describes as juvenilia: the great work was where it usually is, somewhere in the future at the end of the rainbow. 

He tried to use his writing as a way of gaining preferment, his prefaces flatter the great men he dedicated each work to and are the usual combination of self-advertisement, flattery and hope for reward.

He died an old man, hopefully at peace amongst his books. 

Gerald is an antidote to the idea that writing ‘literature’ was a way of gaining advancement or that the church automatically rewarded talent. In the 12th Century there were great men whose careers went from modest beginnings to positions of wealth and power: William the Marshall and Hubert de Bugh are the obvious examples. But ‘poetry’ and ‘literature’ were not a career path to wealth and prestige, a fact Gerald often bemoans. 

I can’t see Laȝamon writing the Brut as a way of advertising his talents to the church hierarchy. Nor can I accept the once popular ideas that the poem is Angevin propaganda and/or an example of popular literature offered to the lower orders. 

In a world of patrons and power, someone wanted this done. Who that was is now unknowable. But why it was done has, I think, a boring answer. Our mysterious patron, whether person or institution, had the resources and wanted the story in English. And Laȝamon was the man who was given the task. Why he was given that task is another intriguing mystery. 

My educated guess is that the Brutis an example of the small scale, localised production of texts, which has left little trace in the record because the odds were against the survival of one or two manuscripts in a language even the most educated would struggle to read until the 19th century. Such writing, as Christopher Canning has argued, would have been idiosyncratic by our standards, varying from writer to writer because there was no English tradition as fixed and glittering as the Latin one: no named glorious dead to quote and emulate.   

Laȝamon wrote the Brut because he was the best man available for the job. I think it makes sense to see it as a job and him as a jobbing writer. I don’t see either description as being in any way belittling. 

Unlike the essay marching to its preconceived conclusion, the poem opens up the conversation.  It lead to Pierre Michon's "Winter Mythologies' and the problem of writing about the Middle Ages. Which should be the next post.