So late in time: David Jones’ Liturgical Geology in “Rite and Fore-Time”

30 September 2021

Catherine Enwright, Boston College

“Rite and Fore-Time”, the first section of David Jones’ long poem The Anathemata (1952), begins in the present tense. A priest, using the particular Latin formula of the Roman Catholic Mass of Jones’ day, is consecrating a host. Stripping away the specificities of rubric, the poem focuses on the strange action of the priest: ‘We already and first of all discern him making this thing other…’[1] He is engaged in consecration, the act of making a holy object, a thing set apart for God, anathema in its forgotten sense. Before the word only meant expulsion from a human community, anathema was also used to describe ‘a thing consecrated or devoted to divine use’.[2] The title’s reclamation of the word’s gentler meaning sets in motion Jones’ larger project: to consider the strange action of the Catholic priest as an event occurring at the end of a long history of man creating anathemata, things of no use except worship.

Jones grew up in an age of discoveries about the depths of time. Born in 1895 and living until 1974, he learned about the age of the earth and its abyss of epochs, the archaeological discoveries of ancient societies and artefacts, and the evolution of species. From the perspective of these temporal vistas, the priest becomes de-familiarized, ‘this man, so late in time, curiously surviving.’[3] Knowing that every pebble is shaped by the far-off movements of some glacier, so in the priest’s rites ‘there’s conspiracy’ – a great confluence of material and cultural forces that lead to the particular moment where ‘he implements inside time and late in time under forms indelibly marked by locale and incidence, deliberations made out of time, before all oreogenesis’.[4] Orogeny, a term first used by G. K. Gilbert in 1890, describes the geological processes that form mountains. With this word, Jones both signals his own time period and begins to go back into the depths of geological time.

The priest’s consecration of the host is for Jones not just a symbolic reminder of Christ’s suffering and death, but a time-travel device. It delivers him to a particular place, ‘not on any hill | but on this hill’ – Calvary.[5] He considers the creation of Calvary over the long ages of the Earth and, alongside it, other mythic hills: the seven hills of Rome, and ‘Nine-strata-d Hissarlik’ on which stood Troy, the Temple Mount, and Wale’s many colles Arthuri, the hills of King Arthur.[6] He imagines Troy, ‘matrix for West-oppida | … still submerged ‘down | under, sheet-darkt Hellespont’.[7]Here, Jones subsumes Troy, fertile nexus of myth and history, under a still larger matrix, the waters and moving tectonic plates of early Earth. In another beautiful image, the priest’s breaking of the host becomes the breaking of glacial ice, the geological prerequisite to Calvary’s hill: ‘This is how Cronos reads the rubric, frangit per medium, when he breaks his ice like morsels, for the therapy and fertility of the land-masses.’[8] This vertiginous perspective reminds the reader that our myths do not occur sui generis but from particular landscapes. The settings of our great stories are formed at once inevitably and contingently by the movements of Earth’s surface.

If ‘the world’s a stage | … with metamorphosed properties’, so too, human evolution and culture represent a narrative of continual change.[9] Seeking to understand the strange actions of the priest, Jones seeks the lost moment when man emerges in history:

the mimes deploy: | anthropoid | anthropoi…who knows at what precise phase…the Master of Harlequinade, himself not made,…called us from our co-laterals out, to dance the Funeral Games of the Great Mammalia, as long, long, long before, these danced out the Dinosaur?[10]

Here, Jones searches for a moment where human consciousness emerges, setting man apart from his ‘co-laterals’- his many ancient biological relatives. In answer, just as glacial freeze and melt begins and ends ‘all sorts of worlds’, so Jones links man’s beginning, his ‘freeings of the waters’ to the earliest examples of man as artist or ‘master-of-plastic’.[11]Contemplating early twentieth century archaeological discoveries like the Venus of Willendorf (1908), the Caves of Lascaux (1940), Jones considers their makers and recognizes them as the progenitors of the priest. He sings the first artists’ requiem:

FOR ALL WHOSE WORKS FOLLOW THEM

among any of these or them

dona eis requiem.

(He would lose, not any one

from among them.)[12]

Echoing John 3:69 in his parentheses, Christ’s promise to lose none of his sheep, Jones gathers all artists together as makers of anathemata, which he defines as ‘those artefacts in which there is an element of the extra-utile and the gratuitous’.[13] As makers of artefacts, they are indispensable progenitors to the type of human making that culminates in the priest.

From his traversal of geological and archaeological pre-history, Jones arrives back at the moment of consecration, but now sees it not as an opaque cultural expression, but as a particularity which both fulfils and depends on the entirety of earth’s history. The ritual is now backlit by ‘the New Light’ of God, as Christ but also as primordial Creator shining through

… era, period, epoch, hemera,

Through all orogeny:

group system, series, zone.

Brighting at the five life-layers

species, sub-species, genera, families, order.[14]

In the light of these ancient and continuing processes, Jones re-situates the landscape, the emergence of man as maker, and finally man’s salvation through Christ and his sacrament as a cosmic inevitability as necessary and mysterious as the formation of a particular hill. “Rite and Fore-Time” ends with a series of rhetorical ‘How else’ questions which marvels at each of us (‘How else we?’), particular landscapes, Christ himself, and the Eucharist, as the impossibly particular, yet only possible results, of gargantuan, ancient natural processes.[15] From this renewed perspective, the sacrament not only signifies the specific moment of Calvary, but also a co-operation of all of God’s creation to enact His saving design in a particular place and time.


Image Credit / Caption: David Jones, Montes et Omnes Colles (1928)

Sources:

[1] David Jones, The Anathemata (London: Faber & Faber Limited, 1952), p. 49.

[2] “anathema, n.2”. OED Online. September 2021. Oxford University Press. <https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/325203?rskey=xkogfd&result=2&isAdvanced=false&gt; (accessed September 14, 2021).

[3] Jones, pg. 50.

[4] Ibid., p. 51

[5] Ibid., p. 53.

[6] Ibid., p. 55.

[7] Ibid., p. 57.

[8] Ibid., p. 69.

[9] Ibid., p. 62.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., p. 58.

[12] Ibid., p. 65.

[13] Ibid., p. 65.

[14] Ibid., p. 74.

[15] Ibid., p. 75.

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