David Jones: Examining Constructions of Empire in ‘The Roman Dinner Conversation’

David Jones, Portrait of a Maker, 1932, oil on canvas, Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales.

Next Meeting: Friday 19th July, 15:00-17:00, in Room 1.45 of the John Percival Building

David Jones (1895-1974) was an Anglo-Welsh modernist artist and poet. Born in London to Alice and James Jones, Jones began expressing a strong affinity with his father’s Welsh heritage from a very young age. Indeed, in his biography of Jones, Thomas Dilworth recounts a school-trip Jones took to the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey, ‘where, at the age of twelve (careful that no one was looking), he spat on the tomb of Edward I, the conqueror of Wales.’[1]

With the outbreak of World War One, Jones enlisted with the Royal Welch Fusiliers. It was whilst he was serving with the 38th (Welsh) Division that he stumbled upon the curious sight of a priest performing Mass in an abandoned outhouse in the wastelands of the Western Front. Soon after, in 1921, Jones wrote a letter home in which he announced his conversion to the Roman Catholic Church. His conversion to Roman Catholicism elicited mixed reactions from his parents; whereas James responded with an impassioned diatribe against the Catholic Church, Alice, who herself had learned the purest Catholic doctrine as a young girl, expressed far more ambivalent feelings towards her son’s conversion.

These disparate strands of Jones’ Welsh inheritance, his Roman Catholic theology, and his brutal experiences of the Great War became intertwined in his first publication, In Parenthesis (1937). Written as an attempt to articulate and understand his own experiences of the war, In Parenthesis was received with great critical acclaim, and remains the work for which Jones is most well-known to this day.

This month’s reading, however, is extracted from Jones’ lesser-known and more recently published manuscripts. Taken from Thomas Goldpaugh and Jamie Callison’s David Jones’s The Grail Mass and Other Works (2019), Jones’ ‘The Roman Dinner Conversation’ boasts a complicated compositional history. Initially, Jones planned for ‘The Roman Dinner Conversation’ to form a small part of a bigger writing project that was to encompass the majority of his writings from the late 1930s to the early 1940s. This large-scale project, however, failed to come to fruition. Through a process of re-arranging and revising the manuscripts he had already written in the ’30s and ’40s, Jones quarried material from this incomplete project to instead form much of his second epic-length publication, The Anathemata (1952).

It was not until the early ’60s that Jones returned to his unpublished writings of the ’30s and ’40s. Indeed, in a letter to Harman Grisewood, dated 28th May 1962, Jones writes that:

I’m trying to re-write that thing you liked – the dinner party with the old Roman blimp and the girl and the subaltern in Jerusalem at the time of Our Lord’s Passion. I used to feel it was crude and impious, but on re-reading it, I think I can make something of it.

David Jones, Dai Greatcoat: A Self-Portrait of David Jones in His Letters, ed. by René Hague (London: Faber & Faber, 1980), p. 192.

This overview of the history behind ‘The Roman Dinner Conversation’ as a continual process of re-writing and revision thus points to its stages of development, from a fragment intended for a bigger project to a separate text that is worthy of study in its own right.

‘The Roman Dinner Conversation’ is a series of dialogues held between a group of Roman intelligentsia. This group consists of an ‘old Roman blimp’ who is highly experienced in Roman administration, a young and inexperienced subaltern, and a young woman who is deeply interested in religion and the occult. The topic of their conversations range from the imperial expansion of the Roman empire, to the status of the colonised nations, and to the recent arrest of Christ at Gethsemane.

‘The Roman Dinner Conversation’, then, is an examination of the issues of empire and imperial expansion, all given from the perspective of the colonisers. Indeed, the voices of the colonised nations are silenced, non-existent within the text, even as their cultures are destroyed under the ruthless expansion of the Roman empire.

Questions/ Discussion Topics:

1)   How are medieval and classical influences used/repurposed by Jones in the text? What can they say (if anything) about discourses on empire in the mid-twentieth century?

2)   What do you make of each individual character? What are their views on empire and imperial expansion? 

  • the ‘old Roman blimp’
  • the subaltern
  • Julia

3)   How are the colonised nations/indigenous cultures constructed by this group of Roman imperial officials?

4)   What effect do you think it has that the colonised people do not speak/have a voice in this text? Why write a text on empire from the sole perspective of the colonisers?

5)   What do you think of:

  • the tone of the text? Are there any changes in the tone throughout the text? If so, where and why?
  • the structure of the text?
  • the aesthetics of the text? I’m particularly thinking of the geometric metaphors – how does Jones use them and to what effect?

6)   Are there any links between this text and any other of Jones’ writings/artworks you may have come across?

Also, if anyone can figure out what the line, ‘the eye and central keep, that the quincuncial fosse and fretted troia cats’ cradle a defence for, by traverse or horse-dance’ means on p. 171, then please do share! Jones is a brilliant writer, but some of his sentences do leave me at my wits’ end.

See you on Friday 19th, and happy reading!

[1]Thomas Dilworth, David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet (London: Jonathan Cape, 2017), p. 15.

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