Essay: To be a dancing bear

A note on David Jones’s animal drawings by Tom Sleigh
Dancing Bear, drawing 1902, by David Jones. By kind permission of the Trustees of the David Jones Estate.
Dancing Bear, drawing 1902, by David Jones. By kind permission of the Trustees of the David Jones Estate.

Imagine that you are seven years old, at an upstairs window in your attached flat in Brockley, south-east London, and down below in the street you see a dancing bear. The bear is standing upright, and there is a leather muzzle over its jaws, which is attached to the back of its head by a strap that loops around its ears. And now imagine that you are the bear: your paws are held out, your claws flexed, and on your face is the bewildered look of a child who is trying to please an adult, but doesn’t quite know what the adult wants. Your eyes stare up at your master, who isn’t in the picture, but holds the leash of your muzzle somewhere beyond the drawing’s frame, and your lips are pulled down in a slight frown. Your only consolation, as you balance on your hind legs, your stub tail looking a little ridiculous, too small in relation to your massive thighs and short legs, is the creaturely at-homeness you feel inside your fur, thick and luxurious. If you were a human being, or if you were free of your muzzle and comfortably down on all fours, your perplexity, your confusion, would seem more understandable. But since you’re somewhere between the human and the animal, awkwardly erect on your hind legs, you look peculiarly vulnerable, despite your massive paws and girth.

David Jones, the Anglo-Welsh poet and artist, is the seven year old who drew the bear, and he often said that in a lifetime of making art, this was his favourite drawing.

Now imagine that you’re a rat, two rats in fact, and you’ve been scavenging for scraps in a trench. And then you hear a pistol shot: your body and your ears explode with a sharp, percussive crack which, in its violence, seems cruel and absurdly disproportionate to whatever offence you’ve unwittingly given. You lie unmoving in the bottom of the trench, and wherever a rat’s spirit goes, that’s where your spirit goes. From your animal spirit world, you see the soldier holster his pistol and get to work again with a spade and shovel, deepening and widening the trench – and then he sits down to roll a smoke.                

Drawing by David Jones inscribed ‘November 1916 / Rats shot during the pulling down of an old dugout in Ploegsteert Wood’. By kind permission of the Trustees of the David Jones Estate and the Regimental Museum of the Royal Welch Fusiliers.
Drawing by David Jones inscribed ‘November 1916 / Rats shot during the pulling down of an old dugout in Ploegsteert Wood’. By kind permission of the Trustees of the David Jones Estate and the Regimental Museum of the Royal Welch Fusiliers.

It’s 1916, and David Jones is now in the trenches, a soldier who describes himself as “a knocker-over of piles, a parade’s despair”. But he has his sketchbook with him at all times, and he draws these two dead rats with a tenderness and accuracy that make the rats’ shorter forepaws and longer hind legs, right down to their nails, look unsettlingly alive. The scaliness of their tails and the way their front paws clasp together, as if in prayer, or a mockery of prayer, plus one rat’s front teeth jutting out, makes it seem as if the rats are only dreaming. Their bodies haven’t gone rigid from the build-up of gas, and all their agility, lithe and dismayingly vital, seems wholly intact. It would seem that Jones drew them just moments after they’d been shot.

In these drawings, in their transmission from eye to hand, there’s no impediment. This is before Jones had studied with Eric Gill, and the hieratic abstraction of his later drawings and paintings would take his work away from the immediately incarnational to the symbolically incarnational. The quickness and lightness and deftness of his line give the bear and two rats not only the look of creatures caught mid-gesture, but display the empathetic nature of his imagination in making the human and the animal a seamless continuum, rather than opening a gulf between fundamentally different beings:

[…] you can hear the rat of no-man’s-land
rut-out intricacies,
weasel-out his patient workings,
scrut, scrut, sscrut,
harrow-out earthly, trowel his cunning paw;
redeem the time of our uncharity, to sap his own amphibious paradise.

Uncharity and paradise, the digging rat and the digging soldier, the split-second freeze-frame of a living creature and the eternal freeze-frame of a creature now dead. In a photograph taken just after his enlistment in a London-Welsh regiment, the soft-eyed Jones in uniform, his shoulders sloping and hunched a little like the bear’s, stands in his greatcoat, staring out at us: he hasn’t yet been wounded in the leg in Mametz Wood during the Battle of the Somme, and he looks green, gentle, as yet undismayed – still unwrecked, as the wood is unwrecked – though soon to be reduced to stumps and sheared-off branches by shell fire. Seamus Heaney’s comment that Jones’s late poem, ‘The Sleeping Lord’, is like “the jungle’s complaint to the napalm”, also fits these pre-Gill drawings – except they don’t protest so much as present our vulnerability at its most fragile and vital.

‘Study of pigs’, drawing 1926, by David Jones. © Tate, London, 2015. By kind permission of the Trustees of the David Jones Estate.
Study of pigs, drawing 1926, by David Jones. © Tate, London, 2015. By kind permission of the Trustees of the David Jones Estate.

Another photograph of Jones shows him after his wound, still in the same greatcoat, but recuperating in England in hospital. His eyes look a little glassy and too wide, one side of his mouth droops, his partially open lips seem as if he were about to say something when the photographer caught him unawares. It’s tempting to think that he looks haunted by what he’s been through at the Somme, but by his own account, while the war was going on at least, he felt a sense of belonging that he would never find again for the rest of his life. It was only after the war, when he was demobilised, that his life-long shell shock would lead to two extended major breakdowns and to his increasing isolation. But his drawing of the bear and of the rats, and of other animals, like pigs, cows, horses and cats, are preternaturally alert to the facts and consolations of the body. His drowsing pigs possess the slung bellies of the rats, and the same sense of arrested motion; but their long snouts and heavy-fleshed indolence exude a sense of well-being and creaturely ease – their sleep has nothing to do with the stillness of rigor mortis setting in.

One pig, two rows of nipples sketched on her belly, lies fast asleep on her side, her mouth seeming to curl in an almost human grin. Another pig stands nearby, and stares down at her with a curious, contemplative look – almost a look of sadness – as if to say, as Jones would say about his comrades and himself: “the whole world would slip back into a mollifying, untormented dark; their aching bodies knew its calm.”

On the reverse page of this drawing is a drawing of the Angel Gabriel blowing a horn, his wings precisely and lightly sketched in, his flat forehead and rows of feathers, suggested by squiggled scallop shapes, making him look more animal than divine, and even more animal than human, since his wings dwarf his human-looking torso. This interpenetration of animal, human, and the divine derives from Jones’s passionate belief in St Thomas’s assertion that “nothing is in the mind unless first in the senses.” Gabriel on one page, pigs on the other – and to my eye the pigs, lying on their bellies half-dozing, are suffused with a radical innocence rediscovered in the body, and which Jones seeks out in a bear, a rat, a pig, a wounded soldier, and an angel.

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First published in The Poetry Review, 106:2, Summer 2016 © The Poetry Review and the author. Tom Sleigh’s latest collection, Station Zed, is published by Graywolf. He teaches at Hunter College, New York, and has worked as a journalist in the Middle East and Africa.