For Love Amid War
by Douglas Penick
Perhaps it may seem the height of folly to reproduce now an almost unknown poem by a poet who, though endlessly praised by the greatest poets of his age, is always on the edge of being lost in our careless culture of amnesia. The poet (also a unique visual artist) is David Jones. He fought in WWI and wrote In Parenthesis, the great epic of the common man and the small intimacies amid the total violence of mechanised war. Nervous breakdowns followed. Later he wrote Anathemata to recapture the time spans and pilgrimages of those whose ancient task is war. Yeats, Eliot, Auden felt humbled by his work. Now, though it’s in print, it has not been assimilated into our ever more deeply discounted cultural stream. Its music is perhaps too close to blood and bone.
Late one night in September, 1940, bombs were falling; London was exploding and burning close around him. And Jones wrote the following poem to celebrate the marriage of two beloved friends:
At the time of the dooms
in the third quarter of the Reaper’s Moon,
in the island of Britain, in Troy Novaunt,
at the approach of the hateful and evil decision
at about the inception of the last round, toward
the time of the ultimate uncovering- when the
speaking is of no further consequence and naked
mechanism decides who will be master.
In flame-lap and split masonry,
where the high fires leap and the merchandise
of the merchants, under whatsoever deep
vaulting, rocks now, knows the blast, feels the
unpredictable violence. When the poor, in
ramshackle habitation or flimsy bunk-hole,
apprehend in their innocent bodies’ horrors
unnamed from the foundation of the world.
When Troy towers are a feeble analogy and
the Harrying of the North a child’s tale, when
fear rules and bombast pretends to competence.
Because of the detestable counsel, directly
because of the merchants’ rule. When there is
hurrying in the streets (these dive where the
architrave struts- or any appearance of
cover). At the time of the howling, in the days
of the final desolations, at the precise moment
of the eclipse:
Margaret (gentle as falcon, or
Hawk of the tower) with
Harman, my sweet friend
Spread in a vault their bed of unity, to mock
So I have heard bird-song, beneath the
trajectory zone, at Passschendaele, or seen
flowers lean towards each other, under the sun
that shined to delineate the hate and mutilation
of the Forward Area.
between 10.30 and midnight on
Thursday, Sept 12th, 1940
61 Kings Road Chelsea, SW#
This is best and most frightening when read aloud.
His poem makes us wonder at how, immersed in night after night of violent fear and vast destruction, the moment of love, of loving wishes, achieves such shy power simply by existing, by being articulated and given.
About the Author
Douglas Penick’s work appeared in Tricycle, Descant, New England Review, Parabola, Chicago Quarterly, Publishers Weekly Agni, Kyoto Journal, Berfrois, 3AM, The Utne Reader and Consequences, among others. He has written texts for operas (Munich Biennale, Santa Fe Opera), and, on a grant from the Witter Bynner Foundation, three separate episodes from the Gesar of Ling epic. His novel, Following The North Star was published by Publerati. Wakefield Press published his and Charles Ré’s translation of Pascal Quignard’s A Terrace In Rome. His book of essays , The Age of Waiting which engages the atmospheres of ecological collapse, was published in 2021 by Arrowsmith Press.
Prothalamion exists in public form thanks to Thomas Dilworth who has done so much to make it possible for us to read Jones now. Poem found in Wedding Poems by David Jones (Enitharmon Press, 2002. pp 32-3). The poem is under the copyright of The Literary Estate of David Jones until 2044. Republished here with permission.
The photograph is in the public domain.