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David Jones' The Anathemata: Angle-land.

Angle-Land takes along the English Channel and into the North Sea. This journey skips several centuries from 'Middle Sea and Lear Sea', taking place after the Romans have left these shores and Britain undergoes a series of incursions from Northern Europe.This section is packed full of names and many of these are obscure to us now but the 'mix' of names does reflect the varied nature of our cultural past.

I think it's important at this point to think about the sea voyage(s) that run throughout this brilliant work. Of course, as an island race, we have always considered the sea and things nautical as integral to our idea of the nation but Jones is not just working with the sea as part of our cultural goods and signs, he's also foregrounding the idea of the ship as the church. This particular metaphor/symbol was prevalent in the early church and Jones sees a deeper and more complex connection between the upper room where the Last Supper takes place and sea-going vessels. This tallies with the centrality of foundations of the Catholic Mass in The Anathemata- the most important and enduring of our cultural signs.

The other issue that needs to be clarified is that of historical accuracy. Jones read the standard scholarly works of his time ut also accepted than many ideas about the past would be overturned by further research and discovery. This is the case here but it also needs to be said

The narrative is reasonably straightforward but Jones' method of telling it remains uniquely dense. We start with the Isle of Wight:

    Did he strike soundings off Vecta Insula?
               or was it already the gavelkind igland?
    Did he lie by
           in the East Road?
    Was it a kindly Numen of the Sleeve that headed him clear of
    South Sand Head?

Jones' note to the second line reads:

When I wrote this I was associating the system of gavelkind with the Isle of Wight solely on account of its being occupied by Jutes, who also occupied Kent, which county is particuarly associated with that system and there is of a sort of succession by gavelkind in the Jutish area in Hampshire opposite Wight.

Before we get to gavelkind, 'Vecta Insula' could be a Roman name for the Isle of Wight although most Roman writers referred to it as 'Vectis' which may have derived from the proto-Germanic wextiz.

'Igland' or 'iegland' is the Old English name for England. 'Numen' refers to a deity, the figure of a benign guardian spirit runs strongly through Jones' work.

The 'Sleeve' is another name for the channel because of its shape. In French 'manche' means sleeve and this is the French name for this stretch of water

South Sand Head is the southern tip of Goodwin Sands and remains a real danger to shipping to this day.

Gavelkind is a type of land tenure whereby land may be inherited by all the sons instead of just the eldest. I can't identify this 'sort of succession' in any areas of Hampshire although some sources to allude to it being present in other parts of England. It was present in parts of Wales and Ireland throughout the medieval period.

The use of the question.

Angle-land mostly proceeds by a number of questions rather than a direct account and many of the names and terms that are used are reasonably obscure, which will cause most of us to pause frequently when reading the text. However this changes significantly if the questions are read aloud because this produces an incantatory effect which is quite compelling even if we don't full grasp the 'sense' of what is being said.

Using the question format in this way also produces a kind of insistence and urgency that is missing from the ordinary statement or description. Without getting too carried away, there's also the 'feel' of an interrogation where none of the answers are supplied:


    wealisc man lingo speaking?
                   or Britto-Romani gone diaboli?
    or Romanity gone Wealisc?
    Is Marianius wild Meirion?
    is Sylvanus            
                   Urbigena's son? 

The density of difficult or oscure proper nouns and the use of foreign words usually leads to charges of elitism and obscurity but that would be to miss or overlook one of Jones' main points which relates to the diverse and multi-facted nature of our British identity expressed here in language as well as names, both of which accrue different levels of importance and meaning with the passage of time.

One of the problems for the reader is to just see the swathe of names and allusions and to overlook the brilliance of the poetry. This is a brief example of Jones' poetic genius at work:


        He might have been deeped in the Oaze!
   Or
        by the brumous numen drawn on
   or
        in preclear visibility
   by the invisible wind laboured
   it might have been Dogger or Well
        to bank her a mound
   without a sheet to wrap her
   without a shroud to her broken back.
        Past where they placed there ingas-names
   where they speed the coulter deep
        in the open Engel fields
   to this day.

I don't know of many poets of the 20th century who were able to write scenes like this with such confident vigour and elegance in the same breath.

Towards the end of this section there is an odd change of place and time in that we seem to move from the North Sea in the fifth or sixth century to the Battle of Trafalgar which took place in 1805 off the coast of Spain and then back again. This 'works' as poetry but I'm not clear that this kind of shift makes complete sense in terms of the chronology of the poem. The move starts from an allusion to Nelson's place of birth and ends with a reference to the dispatch to the Admiralty giving an account of the battle:


past the weathered thorps and 
                          the Thorpe
that ore, that bred
                          him whom Nike did bear
her tears at flood
and over the scatter of the forebrace bitts
                          down to the orlop
at twenty five minutes after one of the clock
in the afternoon, on a Monday
twelve days before the Calends of November   
outside the Pillars     
                  where they closed like a forest
                    .... in thirteen fathoms water
unanchored in the worsening weather.
                                    Far drawn on away
from the island's field floor, upwards of a hundred fathoms
over where, beyond where, in the fifties, towards the sixties,
north latitude

Jones does provide a note at 'thirteen fathoms water' which gives the dispatch as the source but we do have to work a bit to get to Burnham Thorpe as Nelson's birthplace and few of us would know that an orlop is "a platform covering the hold of a ship and forming the lowest deck, esp. in a ship of more than three decks". Rene Hague quotes from one of Jones' letters on the forerace bitts which may have scattered by French canon fire just before Nelson recieved his fatal wound from a musket but this doesn't explain why Nelson should be here at all unless he represents (along with Wellington) the height of British military success as it is conjured in the national psyche.