David Jones' Arthur

And what of Arthur in the 20th century (it is too early to speak of the 21st)?

There were T.H. White's whimsical offerings The Sword in the Stone and The Book of Merlyn but, amusing as they might be, and delightful in their own way, they cannot constitute any sort of serious Arthuriad.

There were the writings of Charles Williams, which certainly deserve to be taken seriously. His Arthurian Torso attempted an analysis of the significance of the material and his long poem Taliessin Through Logres, if eccentric, does attempt a contribution to the tradition rather than a restatement of it. But both of these, in literary terms, have vanished without a trace.

Which leaves David Jones. His luminescent account of Gwenhwyfar praying in a chapel at Christmas occupies a significant point in the labyrinth of his spectacularly labyrinthine writing The Anathemeta. Then there are the two poems (though called 'fragments') published in The Sleeping Lord. 'The Hunt' is an evocation of Arthur in the medieval Welsh tale 'How Culhwch Won Olwen' while 'The Sleeping Lord' poem itself presents Arthur as a densely symbolic figure.

These works deserve to be better known. T.S. Eliot put Jones in the same league as Ezra Pound and himself. But, in spite of 'The Waste Land', with its echoes of Jessie Weston's study of the grail legends From Ritual to Romance, in spite of Pound's self-conscious echoes of The Odyssey, neither of these came as close to a deep engagement with the mythological deposits they used as did Jones. Perhaps Joyce - a particular favourite of Jones' - did in thoroughly modernising his mythological engagement with the soul of Ireland.

Jones' "what's under works up" is nowhere more concisely expressed than in his Arthurian poems. In 'The Hunt' , Arthur hunts the boar Trwyth and engages him with due respect "life for life". 'The Sleeping Lord' on the other hand, presents a more passive figure, the very essence of the island of Britain rather than it's defender. Just listen to Jones cadences here and savour the wealth of symbolic detail:
(from the conclusion of a poem covering 26 pages):

Yet he sleeps on

very deep in his slumber:

how long has he been the sleeping lord?

are the clammy ferns

his rustling vallance

does the buried rowan

ward him from evil, or

does he ward the tanglewood

and the denizens of the wood

are the stunted oaks his gnarled guard

or are their knarred limbs

strong with his sap?

Do the small black horses

grass on the hunch of his shoulders?

are the hills his couch

or is he the couchant hills?

Are the slumbering valleys

him in slumber

are the still undulations

the still limbs of him sleeping?

Is the configuration of the land

the furrowed body of the lord

are the scarred ridges

his dented greaves

do the trickling gullies

yet drain his hog-wounds?

Does the land wait the sleeping lord

or is the wasted land

that very lord who sleeps?

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