British and Irish Literature David Jones
Thomas R. Dilworth
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0031


A Londoner of English and Welsh parentage, the visual artist and poet David Jones is one of the great modernists. His first published writing, In Parenthesis (1937), is an epic poem based on his experiences during the First World War, during which he served longer than any other war writer. W. B. Yeats praised In Parenthesis effusively and at length upon meeting him. W. H. Auden considered it “the greatest book about the First World War” (A Certain World [New York: Viking, 1970], p. 373). Michael Howard called it “the most remarkable work of literature to emerge from either world war” (The Lessons of History [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997], p. 185) And Adam Thorpe wrote, “It towers above any other prose or verse memorial of . . . any war” (Poetry Review 86 [Spring 1996]: 56). Jones’s second published poem, The Anathemata (1952), is also epic length, a dramatic and symbolic anatomy of Western culture. Jones himself considered it far better than In Parenthesis, and for T. S. Eliot it established Jones as a writer of great importance. In 1977 Auden regarded it as “probably the finest long poem in English” in the 20th century. Jones subsequently published The Sleeping Lord (1974), containing mostly mid-length poems, which the American poet W. S. Merwin regards as among Jones’s “great splendors.” Jones began writing poetry in 1928, when he was already an important engraver and painter, exhibiting in London galleries with the Seven and Five Society, which included Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, and Barbara Hepworth and would soon include Henry Moore. Jones’s output as a visual artist was curtailed by two severe nervous breakdowns—one in 1933, the other in 1947—and decades of depression, owing largely to what was then called shell shock (post-traumatic stress disorder). Nevertheless, he was able to write, and after his second breakdown, he painted important pictures of mythic figures, still lifes, and lettered inscriptions (an art form he invented). Because he was first a visual artist, he had a strong sense of spatial design, which was unique among modern poets and which allowed him to unify his long and mid-length poems in ways that increase their symbolic power. Jones also published essays on aesthetics and culture, most of which are collected in Epoch and Artist (1959) and The Dying Gaul (1978), essays in which he delineates an original theory of culture, which informs the later poetry.

Primary Sources

In addition to engravings, paintings, and painted inscriptions, Jones published three books of poetry: In Parenthesis (1937), The Anathemata (1952), and The Sleeping Lord (1974). These established him as an important literary figure. He recorded readings of his poetry on three long-playing records (1965, 1967, 1972) and published a collection of essays on art and culture, Epoch and Artist (1959), which illuminates the thinking behind his second and third books of poetry. Since his death in 1974, more of his poetry has been published, most importantly a collection of draft material, The Roman Quarry (1981), and work he was prevented from publishing by the outbreak of World War II, Wedding Poems (2002). Also posthumously published was a second important collection of essays, The Dying Gaul (1978).

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