Peter Larkin


(The Coleridge Bulletin Conference Issue, [unnumbered] July 1996, pp 2-20)


While working on his ten Ancient Mariner engravings, David Jones was already experiencing the eye problems which were to cut short his career as an engraver. Writing to Douglas Cleverdon, the Bristol-based bookseller who had commissioned the work in 1927, Jones remarks wryly: ‘Damned annoying my eyes giving such trouble — I’ve got to go to some eye bloke — & the best of ‘em are all shooting grouse or some kind of bird’. [1] The irony of the remark made by someone who had been steeping himself in Coleridge’s Rime for over a year can hardly have been unconscious. The Mariner had haunted him from his childhood, and he had seized hold of the recently published The Road to Xanadu as soon as it came out. Though but little known as an engraver in the 1920’s, he was to be an inspired choice, and undertook his commission with great seriousness and devotion. From the first, Jones saw his task as not one of simple illustration, but as the attempt to realise in visual terms the symbolic imagery arisen from the deeps of Coleridge’s imagination. Jones tells us that between 150 and 200 preliminary drawings were made in response to the commission, all of which were subsequently destroyed apart from the 10 preserved and inserted, one per copy, in the special de luxe vellum-bound edition which Cleverdon produced as part of an over-all print-run of 470.


David Jones faced his task with foreboding as well as love, being particularly concerned with the print-quality he could hope to obtain from his plates. For one thing, he was more experienced as an engraver on wood, whereas Cleverdon seems to have specified copper as the medium, presumably not just out of a fit of literal-mindedness to the needs of a ‘hot and copper sky’. ‘I suppose the Ancient Mariner must be copper? not wood. I believe I am better at wood— however—’. [2] Jones was to plead in vain. He had only learnt to work with copper a few years previously while working at Capel




y-ffin under the tutelage of Eric Gill in the mid-twenties. Wood-engraving he had picked up much earlier in the decade, mainly from his friend Desmond Chute, and in this medium Jones had accumulated a reasonable degree of experience, developing a flare for the lighter, wittier type of design. Gill’s erstwhile partner, Hilary Pepler, was to write of Jones’ achievements in this field:’ He had the grace to love the wood & the feel of it; all his work has that fine quality of co-operation between artist & material. Eric Gill imposes his will on wood or stone alike, but David discerns the nature of the substances he handles & brings their life into his own’. [3]  Jones was to find bringing the nature of copper to life an uphill struggle, but from the first he realised its potential. In his introduction to a second edition of his Mariner engravings, produced over 30 years after the first, he refers to his original feeling of ambivalence in approaching the task. He thought of himself as still a novice on metal, and therefore nothing elaborate could be attempted. There was a difference in kind, not of degree (Jones adopts this Romantic distinction) between the two media: he would go for simple incised lines, reinforced here and there, but as sparingly as possible, with ‘cross-hatched areas’. These were to be essentially linear designs. Nowhere does Cleverdon tell us just why copper was insisted on, but from some of Jones’s remarks paraphrased above we may gain a clue. Printing from David Jones’ wood engravings was always to be a demanding assignment for the printer, mainly owing to Jones’ love of fine gradations of texture achieved through minutely varying depth of line. Poor printing can ruin or ride rough-shod over such delicate effects, and Cleverdon, who had only just begun to publish, may have felt the risk of an unsatisfactory end-product on the page to be too great. Jones, with his art school training, was by no means alone in demanding more from the medium of engraving than could straight-forwardly be accommodated: Eric Ravilious, a slightly younger contemporary, was facing similar hard choices, and having to fall back on resort to a bolder and less




erratic outline in his work on wood. Cleverdon may have sensed that David Jones would be far less likely to make such a compromise, so that the simpler gradations of texture copper demanded would prove the more dependable technique. As it was, Jones was nearly in despair when the first trial proofs from the ten completed plates were forwarded to him from the printer: ‘Seems to me one has to do the whole damn thing from start to finish to get life...They make ‘em look so thin and without body,& all unity departs - of course if one engraved "professionally" I suppose it would be alright - it’s my blasted "subtlety" that does it!’. [4] To obtain more ‘body’ beyond the bare copper outlines, Jones had used not only hatching but called also for an inked undertone across the whole area of each plate so as to aid the feeling of unification. Over thirty years later, Jones thought he could claim it as legitimate practice, but was quick to add that, legitimate or not, the designs were made with their bluish-green undertone in view, and would fall to pieces if printed without it. He optimistically notes that the process is ‘easily and naturally achieved in copper-plate printing by not wiping the plate totally clean of ink before putting it in the press’ [5] ; in fact, one feels the process must be more demanding than that in order to ensure the absolute evenness and consistency of background tone required. A further headache for the printer!


There was, of course, a positive aspect to the choice of metal, which Jones, with his sensitivity to the genius of materials, was not slow to discover. He tells us that he found working on copper ‘ a somewhat arduous process’ and that ,a ‘certain intractability and resistance’ was encountered, altogether absent in wood. Once this initial difficulty is mastered, though, ‘the result is one of linear freedom and firmness hardly obtainable in any other material’. [6] At first, Jones admits, he tended to skid all over the place, like an ‘unpractised skater’, but soon, as his skill increased, a particular felicity and facility came to the gouge made by the




sharp steel burin, or (and here Jones triumphantly cites The Mariner): ‘The furrow followed free’. [7]


It is sad to note that, after so much care and effort, the edition of The Mariner, with its ten engravings, had very little success when it appeared in 1929, a time of depression when the bottom was soon to drop out of the market for fine books. By 1933 unsold stock, containing what many now see as some of the greatest Ancient Mariner illustrations of the century, was being remaindered in Blackwell’s for 7s 6d! A further edition of 115 copies eventually appeared in 1964, again under the supervision of Douglas Cleverdon, and Jones came to regard this printing as containing the finest realisations of his original plates, more even and luminous than hitherto. Others are not so sure. Jones had abandoned the close work of engraving due to deteriorating eyesight by 1932. Were his eyes as critically acute in 1964 as they had been in 1929, at the time of the first edition? That edition, though certainly more uneven, has a richness of its own that does not disgrace the hopes of its creator.


Before looking at the ten engravings in more detail, and reading them alongside the remarkable commentary on The Mariner which Jones was to produce in old age, it would be helpful to know something of this man, an artist who, like Coleridge himself, worked in several domains simultaneously in pursuit of his own imagination. With the engravings we encounter the visionary soundings of a great Romantic poet. In many ways, however, it was the poem and not the poet which drew David Jones. He was no great enthusiast for things romantic in general, and shunned what he saw as an excess of individualism ungrounded in any fruitful supra-personal tradition. As an artist he was bound to the integrity of craft rather than to aesthetic formalism; as the writer he was to become, he was a modernist, eschewing any more lyrical approach. More basic even than these preferences was Jones’s commitment to the nature of the sign: he believed




human beings are, and always have been, basically sign-makers. A sign in his sense must be understood as something gratuitous: it has no utilitarian function as such. Rather, it is something over and above the basic necessities of life which recalls or ‘makes over’, re-presenting the gift of human life itself, and rendering human beings as distinctively religious or ‘cultic’ animals. The artist, Jones said, must be dead to himself while engaged upon this work. He liked to point out that the root meaning of ‘art’ was the Latin ‘ars’, denoting a skill in joining or fitting things together. ‘Ars’, he wrote,’has no end save the perfecting of a process by which all sorts of ends are made possible’.  [8]  Legend, tradition, myth and romance were more important to him than either realism or the lyrical and highly idiosyncratic reworking of romance which becomes Romanticism. For him, The Ancient Mariner was more genuine romance than romantic artefact. As such, behind the popular ballad form were concealed and disclosed those deeps and ‘strata of meaning where Abyssus abyssum invocat . [9] The poem operates at a number of levels, he thought, like all great creative works; its deceptive surface has an ease and simplicity of artistry as though written without effort equally to be enjoyed in a simple or in a sophisticated way. The Rime has a natural appeal to an island people, and the voice of the ‘water-floods’ which resounds in it also ‘resounds throughout so much of our heritage-store’.  [10]  The Ancient Mariner is cherished by Jones for its ability to draw upon a common heritage of elemental mystery and spiritual voyaging, and he believed it had succeeded in transmitting and enhancing that tradition beyond the terms of Romantic self-consciousness.


How did David Jones come to acquire such a perspective? If for him the calling of art was, as he believed, to investigate or make a shape out of the very things of which we ourselves are made, what were the elements that had shaped him? Jones was a Londoner, born just over one hundred years ago, of a Welsh father and an English mother




(though there was also some Italian blood on the maternal side). Much to his later chagrin, it was not thought necessary or wise for him to learn Welsh, and from this early deprivation was to come a hankering for Welsh legend and culture enduring a lifetime. He was not quick at school and was successful with little else other than drawing. He absorbed in his own way, however, the stories and books that were read to him at home: Pilgrim’s Progress was a great favourite. In later life he spoke admiringly of the fact that his mother’s father, Ebenezor Bradshaw, would read nothing but the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer and Milton. Eb. Bradshaw exerted a strong influence on the boy in another direction: as a shipwright and mast-maker in the Pool of London he fed the young Jones’ growing fascination with the sea and ships, while exemplifying at close range all that being a craftsman in wood might mean. Jones formed the ambition of becoming an illustrator, of either animal or Welsh subjects, and succeeded in getting himself to art school, but this was soon interrupted by the eruption of war in 1914. He was to remain a private in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, ‘one of the essential foot-mob’, throughout his time in uniform, being wounded and sent home for a spell in the summer of 1916. The war-contorted landscapes he came to know profoundly affected him, a waste land, but for him there were also traces of mysterious and mythic overtones, further intensified by the camaraderie and idiosyncratic rituals of trench life; here we glimpse suggestions of an imagination not straight-forwardly English. The experience of being jolted out of the humdrum secular world of pre-war London was to lead him to Roman Catholicism in the 1920’s. Now he had access to the sort of circles in which Eric Gill moved, and was drawn to abandon the formal preoccupations of the studio art of his day in favour of a workshop or craft-based ethos which stressed the manual production of artefacts revealing universal and symbolic truths behind the secular, deracinated surfaces of modern life. It was at this time also he came across the not wholly orthodox theology of Maurice de la Taille, and he




was to be permanently impressed by the Frenchman’s insight that the Christ of the eucharist and the crucifixion had entered ‘into the order of signs’. In the 1920’s, while maintaining his interest in water-colours, Jones was to develop as a wood engraver, living, learning and working in a small community of Catholic craftspeople at Ditchling. What attracted him to engraving was its function of intimately accompanying texts, and from this he began to feel his way towards making ‘ a shape out of words’, to see whether he could do in words what he had already learnt to do in paint or line.  [11]  So, just about the time he was engaged on The Ancient Mariner, he also began trying his hand at a distillation, partly in poetry, partly in prose, of his war experiences, to be called In Parenthesis, eventually appearing, at the behest of T.S.Eliot, in 1937. Though crystalized by personal experience, this was not the focus of his writing, which was, rather, to evoke the suffering of the war in terms of the persistent endurance and faithfulness of the common soldier throughout the western tradition, and he drew on echoes from Welsh elegiac poetry and from Malory to achieve this texture, at once richer and more impersonal than any purely individualised reminiscence. A further world war in the 1940’s saw Jones at work on another long, Modernist, allusive piece of writing, The Anathemata, published in 1952. based upon the rubric of the Tridentine mass, it is also an incantatory celebration of the ancient ‘matter of Britain’, stretching from the earliest geological periods to Tudor times. A basic motif is the transmission of western culture outwards from the Mediterranean by means of the sea-borne routes. Underlying that is the deeper metaphor of the whole of human life as a continual voyage in search of a spiritual haven. And an essential clue to the nature of his Anathemata, Jones was to proclaim, was The Ancient Mariner.


Let us take a closer look at this privileged metaphor of the voyage upon which Jones was drawing while making his Mariner engravings, and which was to mature further, by




way of The Anathemata, until he came to write up his distinctive understanding of the Mariner in the 1960’s. At the time of his engraving commission, living at his parents’ home in 1928, we are told he even went so far as to strip the carpet from his room (much to his mother’s outrage), as the bare boards put him in mind of the decking of a ship! Ships and the sea are a constantly recurring motif in paintings executed during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Two favourite sites were Caldy island (the view across the sea to Tenby informs his rendering of °mine own country’ in the engravings), and Portslade, near Brighton, where his parents often took a villa on the seafront for the summer. Being ‘at sea’ rhymed with Jones’s sense of a threateningly chaotic and storm-prone world, but against this he set the persistence and purposefulness of the frail human vessel entrusting itself to the deeps and dependent on its skill in the art of world= navigation. Turner was often in Jones’s mind when he painted off Portslade, and what Jones valued in Turner was the capacity to hint at the lurking potential of storm even on a calm day. Sitting on the verandah of his parents’ bungalow, Jones could produce in water-colour studies variations on the three elements which haunted him as symbols: light (coming off the sea, emerging from the depths of the picture space), the vessel (riding both sea-wave and sea-light), and timber (the wooden uprights of the verandah, hinting at both mast and salvific cross). For Jones it is Christ himself who is the supreme thalassic navigator, the ship’s master, a Christian typology woven into the concrete signs of ship, keel, mast and cross which recall some of the earliest human symbols for the human journey and its havening impulse. In his essay on Coleridge’s poem, Jones makes the observation that the Greek and Latin fathers saw the ship, the mast, and its voyagings, perils and ordeals as a type for the Church’s voyaging: the vessel of ecclesia ‘pitching in the world-waters, drenched with inboard seas, lured by Siren calls, but secure because to the transomed stauros of the mast was made fast the "Incarnate Word" ‘.  [12]  This was precisely the




theme of his greatest literary achievement, The Anathemata. There, he made much play on the philological insight (had he been better educated, he would have been a philologist rather than a poet, he once remarked) that the Old English word ‘beam’ can denote not just a tree or log, but also a ship, a cross, or a cup. Those last two meanings enshrine the two basic Christian symbols so vital for Jones: immolation on the cross and the oblation of the eucharist. The Anathemata is clearly influenced by Coleridge’s Rime in the way it combines a serious exploration with demotic relish: Jones runs together the colloquial and the solemn, rather as, Coleridge knotted together a tangy yarn and a spiritual pilgrimage in his ballad. In The Anathemata the ship’s master is always a type for Christ but is never less than the bibulous, hoary sailor, the ‘bright-eyed marinus’ as Jones salutes him. Echoes of the Coleridge poem abound throughout The Anathemata: ‘a kindly numen’ guides the vessel through fog as it reaches up the English Channel, becoming a page later a ‘brumous numen’ (pp.110-11). Of another voyage, the mariner speaks of the ‘vengeance of great white birds’ and also of ‘shiny exhalations/as appeared ‘bout bait-time of storm height’ (pp.141-42). In the section entitled ‘Ram, Keel, Stauros’ a ship’s company is evoked as ‘the true-hearted men so beautiful’ and the phrase ‘cheerily cheerily’ is an allusion to ‘push on, push on,/ Said the hermit cheerily’ (p.175).


With all this in mind, it is time to return to the ten Ancient Mariner plates, completed in January 1929. Jones had expressed some ambivalence to Cleverdon when accepting the commission: pleasure at being offered the chance to illustrate a text so congenial to him mingled with a painful awareness of technical inadequacy when it came to metal work. He had considerable problems with getting the spars of the skeleton-ship to look right in the fourth plate, and the eighth, depicting the procession to the kirk, had to be entirely re-engraved to improve the design and obviate a central hollowness. Here, it should be said, it was David Jones who was his most severe




critic. Other modifications were wished on him by Stanley Morison, the distinguished typographer, who had been called in to advise on matters of overall design and layout of the text. At his insistence, both the headpiece (depicting the little harbour) and the tailpiece, originally rectangular, were replaced by squarer designs. It was Jones’ own idea to include in the tail-piece a Latin inscription taken from the mass (which in English runs: ‘May the Lord kindle in us the fire of his love and the flame of his charity’) against the motif of a pelican feeding its young from its own breast - a traditional symbol for the church. These words for him tallied with Coleridge’s ‘He prayeth best who loveth best’. The lovingly generous descenders and ascenders of Jones’ cursive script were over-ruled in favour of a version in squarer capitals, which ‘rhymes’ less well with the flowing lines in the pictorial plates. Nonetheless, the whole enterprise was a considerable achievement, and the eight illustrative plates witness to the freshness and directness of David Jones’ art with very little impairment.


Space doesn’t allow of a detailed examination of every one of the set of eight principal plates, so let me begin with the second engraving. ‘The Albatross’, which, besides being the most often reproduced must also count as the finest individual achievement of the commission. No illustrator of The Ancient Mariner can fail to respond to the words ‘With my cross-bow/ I shot the ALBATROSS’ and here also lies the deepest challenge. Jones literally rises to it, giving us an extreme, aerial perspective in which the decking is no longer visible and the peaks of the ice-bergs only barely so: we are suspended between heaven and earth, with the mariners climbing up the shrouds, but a long way below. Is this the moment of the shooting, or just after? We do not see the Mariner deliver the shot, the killing of the bird has already become too elemental, inevitable though gratuitous. The albatross is both caught in flight and as if already pinned by




the arrow to the mast yards, its neck upreared toward heaven, but also inverted as if to suggest a cosmic disaster. The outstretched wings hint at an early representation of Christ in Triumph upon the cross, and the head, as such, is not dejected or listless, but still, as it were, in flight. In no other plate does David Jones so strikingly claim comparison with the great Gustave Doré, who also made use of bold aerial perspectives in his visual interpretations of the poem. Jones’ design does not aim at dynamic intensity alone; rather, it depicts his own vision of the fatal bolt-shot, a blow which provokes an encounter between a feckless human action and the symbolic determinations it releases and accumulates: as Jones laconically remarked: ‘I presume that infelicitous act is not unsymbolic of the Felix Culpa. [13]


The fourth engraving, ‘Life-in-Death’ is another considerable achievement, depicting the skeletal ship and the two macabre dice-players. This was one of the plates that caused David Jones some headache: the balancing of the hollow spars undergirding the two figures took some time to get right, and he accidentally omitted the numeral 4 on the dice-board (his solution of re-inserting it as part of one of the dividing lines on the board is ingenious, and averted the need for a fresh plate). We are shown the two protagonists, Death together with Life-in-Death, in a strange suspended state of exultation above the yawning spars. The horizon runs aslant across the picture-space as in the second engraving-here perhaps evoking not just the sea-swell but the turbulence of the spell itself. The feet of the two figures are crossed in a grim dalliance, bleak bones against leprous pale flesh. the objects about them seem to dream-float, beaker, pair of dice and dice-board. The left-hand dice carries a triangular figure which can also be read as a rudimentary ‘A’, while the single dots on two of the faces of the other dice-cube hint at the shape of zero. Is this a reference to some binary, aleatory system, or a veiled suggestion of the working out of an alpha-omega scheme by means of chance? The dots rhyme




with the prominent beauty-spot or patch on the thigh of the courtesan. Jones’ Life-in-Death figure is certainly more seductive than ghastly, despite her somewhat etiolated figure. This is offset by the elegant graphic rhyme of breast and bodice, and by the extraordinary delicacy of the fingers and toes, a Jones hall-mark. Is he suggesting a reserve of innocence and childlikeness about her? He certainly sees her as a magical figure, even though he is fully aware of her role in the poem, involved not simply in a life-death struggle, but in the more devious rivalry between an outright death which negates life, and a death which seductively infiltrates life itself, for Coleridge the greater spiritual enemy. David Jones permits himself some wry sympathy for the female figure, particularly where she cries ‘I’ve won’ and ‘whistles thrice’. Here Jones comments: ‘With extraordinary skill and a touch of humour Coleridge conveys that slight whiff of idiotic, but very human, excitement that games of chance seem to engender’.  [14]  There is something Valkyrian about her, he speculates, she is a kind of enchantress, or puts him in mind of the Old Norse ‘chooser-of-the-slain’. Nearer to home, he relates her to the Welsh gwrach, a hag or female goblin connected, in rural superstition, with the demise of a person. At some time in their history, they may have descended from enchantresses, he suggests, and concludes with a wry observation that twits the cultural belatedness of the modern West: ‘We all deteriorate, we all lose our looks, and of nothing is this more true than the figures of a discredited cult’.  [15]  Here, Jones acknowledges, Life-in-Death operates as a chooser-of-the-living, and she is to win the Mariner back to a life of sorts, even though one subject to her caprice. Her sway, the outcome of chance, is for Jones ‘deficient of reality’, but as such ironically akin to what he makes of the cultural predicament of the twentieth century, increasingly insensitive to spiritual reality and the incarnate life of symbols. In a culture where objects have only a factual life, and though Life-in-Death has no sense of that ‘fixed lode, the greater Real’, it is not for us to throw




stones, Jones retorts: ‘her glass house at least was magical, whereas ours is merely glass’. [16]


The fifth engraving, entitled ‘The Curse’ responds to another potent moment in the text, which no visual interpreter can afford to pass by: ‘But oh! more horrible than that/ Is the curse in a dead man’s eye!’ Under the spell of Life-in-Death, the Mariner is haunted by the glazed unseeing stare of the ship’s crew, through seven days and seven nights, the length of the world’s creation, which for Coleridge may now suggest a length of penitential re-creation. In Jones’ plate the dead eyes are emblematic and innocent: they may reproach but do not transfix, in a mode closer to early medieval iconography than any Gothic hyper-realism. Two sea-creatures swim alongside, with the usual frank unblinking eye which all Jones’ animal figures tend to possess. The Mariner has adopted a more Christ-like stance himself, and the albatross also recalls the crucifixion with its arrow-pierced side: both, with their closed eyes, form a composite figure suggesting the intertwining and transformation of their linked fates. The Mariner’s outstretched hands seem to reach out towards the animals of the deep and the wider ocean itself. The living death of the Mariner is shown through eyes closed in shame, those eyelids bearing all the burden of the murdered (and shut) eye of the bird and the open-dead eyes of the crew. There is a strange stillness about the plate: Gothic extremity would not answer here. The gaze of the dead men appears more elemental than menacing, as though confined to the severe charm of a spell rather than to an existential nightmare. This visual mutation of the Mariner’s torment towards a larger sense of mystery is at one with Jones’s later quoting from Y Goddodin , a Welsh elegiac poem which portrays the haunting quality of the slain outside more immediate connotations of death: ‘the English sleep...with light in their eyes’. [17]




Plate Seven, ‘The Town’ again presents the full-length figure of the Mariner. His home town in the background contrasts strangely with his exhausted and be-capped person. The hilltop above the roofs suggests the beloved Twmpa of Jones’s Capel-y-ffin period, whilst the clustered houses themselves take something from the St Ives drawings of Ben Nicholson, a colleague in the Seven and Five Society for a time. The sailors are now very dead, part of a general flotsam or wreckage, prostrate, eyes mostly not shown, no longer haunted or haunting. Anchors proclaim the nearness of land and of spiritual reclamation. The Mariner is naked at the torso but seamlessly garbed lower down. With his cap and beard he seems an almost druidical figure, with his tall, upright, prophetic stance, the left hand raised in a Roman salute, or gesture of benediction. He leans against the shrouds, his feet projecting over the gunwhale of the ship, at the very point of release from it. David Jones came to feel that at this point in the Rime the elements of a pagan myth of ordeal, and the underlying Christian history of redemption are most in conflict. The hermit is an explicitly Christian figure, but his shriving has no power to cancel the life-long penance which has already befallen the Mariner: ‘The man hath penance done/ And penance more will do’. Jones takes this seriously enough to point out a travesty of the sacrament of penance, it being no part of that sacrament to impose a repetition-compulsion. Coleridge, he feels, knew quite well the theology was wrong, but disregarded it in the interests of his ballad schema, in favour of its haunting, unownable quality. This is a serious problem for Jones, and we sense his quarrel with Romanticism rising to the surface again. He had already applauded Coleridge for dropping the beautiful phrase ‘The furrow follow’d free’ once it no longer accorded with his shipboard observations (though Jones lovingly quotes it himself); he now reproaches Coleridge, opining that ‘ no artist is at liberty to distort what he has himself deliberately chosen as part of his materia poetica’. [18]  This, of course, is what lay behind Jones’s own painstaking research for texts




like In Parenthesis and The Anathemata: facts could only be rendered sacramental if they were facts. In the same spirit Jones will point out that many of the qualities of the Mariner’s sea-voyage, a heavy sea-mist, the concerted cries of sea-birds, are in fact more indicative of North Atlantic latitudes, and that for him, the strange ordeals which the Mariner passes through at the Pole are Arctic rather than Antarctic in feeling. Poet himself, Jones is not slow to concede the depth of Coleridge’s psychological insight and his allegorical inventiveness. Jones can’t take the hermit seriously, however, regarding him as nothing more than a comic stage-property. What drew him to The Ancient Mariner was a shared sense with Coleridge of the older myths and terrors that underlie Christian salvation history. Coleridge’s Christian confessor, he notes, is more like an agent of the gods placing a fate upon a mortal, and he observes: ‘the notion of a compulsion laid upon a mortal by the gods or their agents runs through all the ancient deposits with which he [i.e. STC] was so familiar’.  [19]


Vespers’, the eighth engraving, follows the Mariner’s narrative to its conclusion at the kirk, amid ‘a goodly company’. The ships are again at rest in the harbour below, it is once again the tile of the marriage-feast, and the Mariner has returned to his wide-brimmed hat, all as it was in the first plate. The cross-hatching of the hat-rim rhymes with the roof-slates, netting and shrouds incised on this last illustration. The Mariner is beardless, and part of a family group. Is this the Mariner, or is it a projection of the self he would like to be, processed to the kirk, and presumably freed from his interminable penance? His female companion bears a basket of fishes, indicating the gathered Christian soul and the sacramental meal. David Jones was to use the fish emblem as part of the cover design for his Ancient Mariner essay when it was eventually separately published in 1972. the sea-gulls suggest the blessing of unhampered flight as they hover amid the archway to the kirk. Do they indicate the




albatross itself is now reconciled? Another gull appears to accompany the goodly company up the steps. At bottom right there is a rather loosely-placed fishing net, perhaps on the path to the church but as easily floating above it. Is this a harbinger of some sort of release for the Mariner, or does its presence remind us of all that is still entrammelling him, driving him to the compulsive rehearsals of his tale with the possibility of only temporary relief? The sea itself is glimpsed far below, in the harbour, shrouded in semi-darkness, though the ladder-like shrouds on each boat can be read as a figure for a climb beyond darkness. The focus of light is neither the sun nor moon, since a cloud still hovers above the high, swinging horizon as it has done in so many other plates; it is, rather, the candle-bearer beside the altar within the kirk, a figure anticipating the role of the candle-bearer who is such an important presence within a much later Jones fragment, The Sleeping Lord. And whose kirk is it? It certainly doesn’t look much like Coleridge’s, with all the post-Reformation overtones of the word. Jones, however, firmly reminds us of the ballad’s pre-Reformation setting, and his depiction of a be-coped priest censing the altar was the one feature that drew the most criticism when the engraving first appeared in 1929. It all forms a considered part, though, of Jones’s development of the theme of vespers, taking his cue from the nine vespers kept by the albatross above the Mariner’s vessel, and more immediately from the little vesper-bell which summons the wedding-guest to prayer. David Jones’s insistence on the intimate relation between exactitude and an efficacious art induces him to introduce an element of liturgical precision here: ‘It is at Vespers that the altar is censed during the singing of the Magnificat, her song who is called the Star of the Sea [ie. the Virgin Mary]. At one period... the ship’s compass was called the Stella Maris as well as the star itself’.  [20]


There is no way of avoiding the fact that David Jones was none too impressed with the elegiac ending of Coleridge’s




poem. Though the wedding-guest arises the next morn a wiser man, a little nearer to Hagia Sophia, he is also a more romantic one,’of sense forlorn’, and ‘sadder’ before ‘wiser’, a touch Jones conceded could ‘hardly be avoided within the Romantic tradition’. He was clearly uneasy with this touch of exquisite melancholy, within which the wedding-guest’s Damascus experience seems only minimally transfiguring, just as the Mariner’s shriving seems to have afforded only an intermittent resolution. ‘Blake might have managed without it,’ Jones snorts, ‘but Coleridge was not Blake’.  [21]  It’s a judgment which points to the limitations of David Jones’s interpretation of the poem, but partakes of the bias which also underlay his fresh and decisive encounter with it. From an academic perspective, his reading doesn’t strike one as terribly original, and appears inevitably dated, even for its own time; he seems to overstate the normative moral and Christian aspect, at the expense of the more riddling and subversive Romantic strands in the ballad. He suspected, of course, that such riddles were empty unless still embedded in the root symbols of our culture, which cannot but have a determined significance, however intermeddled they are with more random deposits — a blended richness he greatly prized. He remained wary though of any cultivation of excess, of any elaboration of material aiming at gratuitous aesthetic affect rather than revealing the abiding gratuity of signs and symbols which human beings freely offer towards a transcendent horizon. For him such signs must remain traditional , as they were the roots of cultural vitality, and they could not but be exact because they constituted the real. ‘No matter what the media, all the arts depend for the perfection on exactitude’, he wrote.  [22]  ‘[I]f unsullied light and infinite agility are part of our image of celestial beings’, he comments on the spiritual ‘hand-over’ at the crossing of the Line in The Ancient Mariner, ‘ a seraphic exactitude would seem to me to be part of that image too’.  [23]  It is in this spirit, which is not one of literal mindedness, that Jones can demand that the accurate narration of mundane facts matters: ‘In poetry




everything matters, and the greater the poetry so much the more is this true’.  [24]  In particular, Jones was fascinated by the way the mundane is closely intermeshed with the supra-mundane, with the unearthly or eerie that is both disturbing and macabre, but opening too on a ‘fantasy of a delectable nature, sometimes with celestial vision’.  [25]  These were the qualities which drew him to The Ancient Mariner, and to its artistry, to its ‘allusions elusively presented’, to the ‘metamorphic quality’ of its imagery, images a little like the ‘shape-shifting figures in Celtic mythology’.  [26]  Jones found fantasy in the poem, but one largely free of whimsy; rather, here was a ‘magic and illusion’ which spell-binds.


Evaluating Jones’ belated introduction to his Ancient Mariner engravings, not written until he was in his sixties, his friend Harmon Grisewood concludes that, far from being a resumé of old ideas, here was an opportunity taken to break new ground. Jones had never focussed on the theme of personal guilt and redemption as steadily before, and it was Coleridge who stimulated him to consider further the redemptive power of woman in our tradition.  [27]  Ultimately, though, David Jones’s response to The Ancient Mariner as illustrator, poet and commentator commands our attention as the re-creation of one powerful imagination by another. An artist of Jones’ stamp continues the Mariner theme, rather than perfecting our detached understanding of it. He felt that all artists need material of their own time which can be transmuted into a valid human cultural sign. At a time of global mechanization he found an increasing dearth of such material, a situation already arising during the Romantic period itself. Jones rejoiced in the realisation that Coleridge had found in his ballad-form a vehicle for significantly re-presenting material deposited in the western tradition, though already falling into abeyance or being exploited to vacuous effect. Jones, whose vocation was to reshape the shapes out of which our experience is made, numbered The Ancient Mariner among those formative elements, and he points to




ways in which we can go on being actively contemporaneous with it, and it with us. If for David Jones that poem was never less than pentecostal, retaining its strange power of speech, so his artistry ensures we cannot choose but attend to the re-awakenings of its theme.




This paper is based on the talk I gave with slides at the Friends of Coleridge study weekend at Kilve, September 1995. I am deeply grateful to Reggie Watters for providing this opportunity to present David Jones to Coleridgeans during his centenary year, and to both Reggie and Shirley for much practical assistance given both before and during the weekend. Reggie Watters and Alan Halsey also very kindly made it possible for me to have access to an edition of the 1929 Ancient Mariner engravings during the preparation of the talk. To Alan Halsey I am further indebted for his contribution during the talk, and for the invaluable opportunity to discuss with him some of the finer points of engraving, about which he knows far more than I do. See his ‘Afterword’.


[1] D.Cleverdon, The Engravings of David Jones (London, 1981 ) ,17.

[2] Ibid., 14

[3] Ibid.,  4

[4] Ibid., 17

[5] D. Jones, The Dying Gaul  (London, 1978), 187.

[6] Ibid., 187.

[7] Ibid., 187

[8] D. Jones, Epoch and Artist (London, 1959), 151.

[9] Dying Gaul, 189.

[10] Ibid., 189.

[11] H Grisewood, David Jones (London, 1966), 8.

[12] Dying Gaul, 215

[13] Ibid., 197

[14] Ibid., 198

[15] Ibid., 199

[16] Ibid., 201

[17] Ibid., 194

[18] Ibid., 213

[19] Ibid., 214

[20] Ibid., 225

[21] Ibid., 224

[22] Ibid., 210

[23] Ibid., 195

[24] Ibid., 207

[25] Ibid., 196

[26] Ibid., 190

[27] Ibid., 13.