David Jones' Mabinog's Liturgy

The Liturgy is part VII of The Anathemata which many of us feel is the best long poem of the 20th century. Being of this view I find it hard to confess that some bits in this particular chapter aren't very good and that I have, heretically, been known to skim over some of the less successful passages. Let's be clear, this isn't a catastrophic drop in quality- the weaker bits are still light years ahead of the vast majority of serious work published in the last hundred years, it's just that some things seem to miss their mark. What follows is a muddled and provisional and tentative stab at a few brief examples.

For those that don't know, The Anathemata is occupied in its entirety by the Passion of Christ but it also has Many Things Wales, Rome and London along the way with chunks of Mallory interjecting from time to time. Here we appear to be mostly concerned with Christ's birth and death, the Welsh Gwynevere, and the paying of homage to the Virgin Mary. Although some of the references are Very Obscure Indeed, there are many notes provided by Jones which make things less formidable. There's also additional qualifications and contexts scattered through parts which might be part of my Readerly Problem. Our poet was an auto-didact and in Mabinog he might be trying a bit too hard. I find on this fairly attentive re-reading that the 'feel' of the text is let down by a kind of insistence of sharing his knowledge with us. Having a similar non-academic background, I can appreciate and will defend a certain anxiety in the notes (which Jones later regretted including) but, in this particular chapter this goes a bit too far for my taste.

The most glaring examples are the references to Guenevere (referred to by her Welsh name, 'Gwenhwyfar', in the poem) and the various contexts provided in brackets in the text;

....standing within the screen (for she was the wife of the Bear of the Island) and toward the lighted board; in cloth of Grass of Troy and spun Iberian asbestos.

The notes for this are;

C.f the thirteenth-century gloss of a MS of Nennius, which reads: 'Artur, translated into Latin means ursus horribilis. There is also the exceedingly obscure passage in Gildas where he calls the ruler Ursus, the Bear. There seems every reason for rejecting the suggestion that Gildas here refers to Arthur; but it may be noted that in Old Celtic the word for bear was artos, modern Welsh arth.


The stuff called gwellt troia, 'Grass of Troy' mentioned by medieval Welsh poets, like a maiden's hair, the Son's countenance in 'delicate embroidery', and in the same poem, ystinos, asbestos, is mentioned, 'A stone we know is stone come from Great India to Gwent', And in 1346, Stockings of thin brilliantly white asbestos; and this is what asbestos is- a precious brilliantly-white stone, which is found in Farthest Spain, which can be spun'. And in 1520, 'Bi-coloured sheen of Greek embroideries, fit for nobles of the Round Table..... a work of fire'. See F. G. Payne, Guide to the Collection of Samples and Embroideries, Nat. Mus. of Wales, Cardiff, 1939.

The inclusion of 'asbestos' grated on the initial re-read because the sound of the word seemed, cadentially, like a sore thumb. On the second run through I tried reading the full paragraph aloud and couldn't / can't get rid of the clunk which really does disrupt Jones' usual lyrical strength. On the third run through I read the notes with care. I still have no idea why the 'Bear of the Island' is included as a reason for Guenevere to be stood within the screen and I'd be quite happy if the whole qualification had been omitted. The note compounds the problem by grasping at a couple of straws in an explanation which read more like justification. The usual charge levelled against The Anathemata is one of extreme obscurity. In this instance i don't think references to Gildas and Nennius are all that far removed from the mainstream but what rankles is that it's a distraction.

It now also occurs to me that all the qualifications placed in brackets 'feel' like later additions to the original text. Without delving too far into lit crit, it seems to be accepted by Those That Know that Jones did have real problems putting the whole poem together and these may be present as an attempt to get things to cohere more effectively.

Unfortunately there's an entire passage in this chapter that I now realise is quite naff. This is a technical term of my own devising which needs to be differentiated from 'clunky' which usually denotes cadential failure- Geoffrey Hill's Oraclau is a prime example of Cadence Gone Wrong. The clunky is always apparent when the lines are read aloud. This particular part of the Liturgy is naff because it is both ill-conceived and poorly executed. In this reader's entirely subjective view it shouldn't have been included and I'll try to explain why.

I'm referring to the appearance of the sisters between pp 210 and 215. The main point that appears to be being made is the key role of women as mothers and especially Mary as the flesh and blood mother of Christ. This isn't the place for a detailed discussion of Marian cults but it does seem to me that the point is already made in earlier parts of the poem. This wouldn't be a problem if it was well made, unfortunately it isn't. It's also one of the most heavily annotated parts of the entire poem which suggests the auto-didact's anxieties alluded to above. The Anathemata has a deserved reputation for both obscurity and difficulty but I find this passage to be reasonably straightforward after a couple of readings. What I do find tricky is the fact that it doesn't work which is in complete contrast to the rest of the poem which clearly is a brilliant success.

Before we get to the detail, I think I need to make clear the fact that, for all their faults, these pages are still head and shoulders above what currently passes for important modernist work. There are a few bits that match the brilliance of the rest, it's just that the naff bits predominate and detract from what might be going on in the rest of the Liturgy.

Here's a glaring example from p 211;

Dear me, and who learned in you the historias, the cosmo-
ologies and topographies, the genealogies and nomina, leaving
aside the rhetorics, sister? Very appetitive ar'n't we- or
was your knowledge infused?

and this from p 213;

                            -you in your stockings of blue?
Where did you pick 'em up, Marged? in Maridunum market 
or were they salvaged from the silvered booths of Ruthin,4
or wand wove are they by the conjuror of Arfon, or was you
in Doclau5Swansea with a môrleidr6 black, or did you win 'em
from the white Gynt7 of Iwerddon?
We know you get about!

The notes for the second extract are;

4 The Sack of Ruthin (rith-in) on the eve of the great Fair of St Matthew, in 1400, signalled the Glyn Dwr revolt. So that the words 'Ruthin Fair' have certain proverbial connotations, comparable to e.g. the words 'Drogheda' or 'Bunker Hill'.

5 Doclau, dok-yi, docks.

6 môrleidr, môr-lei-derr, accent on the first syllable; viking; môr, sea, lleide from latro.

7 Gynt, gint, g hard, from gentes, Scandinavians.

Iwerddon, ee-wer-thon, Ireland. Norwegians were called 'White Heathen', Danes 'Black Heathen'.

(The odd/inconsistent use of punctuation, spacing and emphases is as it appears in the 2010 Faber edition).

Throughout The Anathemata much of the content is framed as a series of questions and these are two examples. This device is highly effective but here things seem to fall flat on their face. The culprit in the first is Very appetitive ar'n't we which I'm guessing is intended to be a knowing aside but destroys the cadence of the paragraph when read aloud as well as being an ugly attempt to mimic the colloquial- something Jones excels at elsewhere in the poem. It's also a superfluous remark- given that she is learned in these subjects we may safely assume the nature of her appetite for knowledge.

The second extract is more of a worry. I'm leaping to the assumption that the stockings of blue are real stockings but also stand for a woman of learning, one with a university education. The possible sources of these seem to bear little relation to each other - Maridunum is Carmarthen and I'm taking Merlin to be the conjuror. Unlike the first passage, there seems to be little or no attempt at cadence (which grates Quite a Lot) and the whole thing is childishly undermined by the final question. This heavy-handed suggestion of immorality, together with the Swansea docks quip is also at variance with the praise of womanhood which seems to be the sisters' overarching message. The reader is also likely to read 'black' in the ordinary sense rather than to a Norwegian- something Jones must have intended when he wrote it. The defence I would normally mount here is that this kind of casual race / sexism was commonplace in men of Jones' generation but, unlike others, I feel there's something more than usually unpleasant going on here.

It would perhaps be less of a problem if these two were isolated aberrations but they aren't- the good bits are greatly outnumbered by the bad.

I know that Jones had problems in putting The Anathemata together and it does feel that the sisters episode has been pushed in with a heavy implement. If that is the case then someone should have gently advised him to pull it out and walk quietly away.

To conclude, as usual I've written this to try and work out what I think. I've been reading and re-reading The Anathemata with increasing admiration on and off for the last seven years. Looking back, I think I've always encountered most difficulty with the Liturgy and have only recently come to the view that the problem is about its quality rather than my ineptitude. This realisation hasn't done anything to diminish how highly I rate The Anathemata but it does firm up the ways in which I judge what I read.