MRG #3 – ‘He’ll latin-runes tellan in his horror-coat standing’ – Francesca Brooks

Find today’s handout here.

Inside the David Jones archive, National Library of Wales. Photo: Francesca Brooks

Today’s session very much indulged in the pleasure and romance to be found in archival research: the thrill of deciphering a handwritten scribble, discovering hidden-away postcards used as bookmarks, tracing someone else’s thoughts across pages and scraps.

Francesca Brooks introduced her research as trying to find a way ‘to read with David Jones‘, the modernist poet and artist. This led her to spend several weeks last summer within the David Jones archive at the National Library of Wales, rifling through his collected books and papers. She was looking for evidence of Jones’ medieval learning, searching for clues that might give away the inspiration and creative process which informed his long poem The Anathemata (1952).

She explained how the poem is Jones’ exploration of his idea of ‘man as a sign make’, a maker of meaning through symbol and language. Her specific interest in the poem is his play with Old English words, especially in ‘Part III: Angle-Land’. Francesca explained how Jones’ interest in Old English stemmed from his desire to explore languages of early Christianity in Britian: he also had an interest in Latin and, naturally, Welsh. The desire to return to origins being a marker of his modernism which appears across his written and visual work.

David Jones Tate.png
David Jones, Exiit Edictum, 1949. Image from Tate

Apparently, Jones always professed to not really knowing Old English. But Francesca explains how she was able to trace his studentship of the language through his books: noting how his readings of Guthlac, of Old English poetry, his underlinings and notes suggest thought processes that develop from simply glossing words, to translating, to ‘transluding’. James Joyce’s coined word is a perfect fit for describing the sort of linguistic play that is evident in Jones’ scribblings in his Old English glossaries, and in drafts of The Anathemata. His drafts of the particular line ‘he’ll latin-runes tellan in his horror-coat standing’, apparently describing a preaching Guthlac – made at once exemplary priest and warrior – is exemplary of both the influence of his experience of war, religion, and his studentship; they reveal a seriously playful scholar of Old and Middle English at work: a love of all aspects of language, etymologies, sound, sense, form on the page, inform Jones’ processes.

Questions and conversation following Francesca’s presentation led to musings on both the written word and how words become other forms of visual, material, or oral culture. How, or, did, the possibility of voice recording or live performance changed how modernist poets laid out poetry on the page or played with sound? How might language be a witness to history, to time passing? What does Jones reveal to us about Anglo-Saxon stories or the Old English language in his playful enquiries? We’d love to hear your thoughts!

– the MRG team

Francesca Brooks is doing her PhD with the English Department at King’s College London, her research looks at the influence of Old English on the twentieth-century poet and artist, David Jones. @frangipancesca

Francesca will be giving a paper ‘Multilingual and Multimedia Passion Narratives: David Jones’s ‘Dream of the Rood’ Inscription in The Anathemata’ at Leeds International Medieval Conference July 2016, session 1503 #IMC2016 #s1503.


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