Jennings, Elizabeth (Vol. 135)
Elizabeth Jennings 1926-
(Full name Elizabeth Joan Jennings) British poet and essayist.
The following entry provides an overview of Jennings's career through 1998. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 5 and 14.
Jennings is a highly regarded British poet whose lengthy career has been typified by the steady publication of critically acclaimed poetry on such subjects as religion, mental illness, and childhood. She is best known for her membership in “The Movement,” a group of poets and writers who achieved fame in the postwar period for their rejection of pretentiousness and decoration and their call for simplicity in literature. Jennings is known for her subtle, yet skillful, use of language and a strong interest in form that has sparked comparisons with Christina Rossetti, Edwin Muir and Robert Frost.
The daughter of a physician, Jennings was born in 1926 in Lincolnshire, England. She attended private Catholic school before transferring to and graduating from Oxford High School. As a teenager, she discovered a passion for classic poetry when she was introduced to G. K. Chesterton's poem “Lepanto.” She began to compose her own verse, exhibiting traits that would remain with her throughout her career: simple language, an interest in form, and the use of rhyme and meter. She graduated from St. Anne's College, Oxford, in 1949 earning an M.A. with honors in English. While at university, Jennings achieved success as a writer, publishing in Oxford Poetry in 1948 and 1949, as well as meeting and befriending writers such as Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, and Thom Gunn. Nine of these writers formed “The Movement.” Scholars have noted that Jennings differed from the rest of the writers as the only woman and devout Catholic. Nonetheless, Jennings writes that she felt a close compatability and common purpose among the members. After graduating, she worked for a short time in the advertising business, which she credits for tightening her writing. She served as a librarian at the Oxford City Library from 1950 to 1958 where she maintained close contact with Oxford students such as Donald Hall. In 1953, Fantasy Press published a small volume of her poems; it was the press's first poetry collection. She earned an Arts Council award for it, increasing her critical attention and approval. Jennings’s subsequent travels in Italy and her battle with mental illness, for which she was institutionalized several times in the 1960s, are prominent subjects in her poetry. During the last four decades she has published numerous collections of poetry, earned praise for her children's poetry and essays on poetics, and edited volumes of verse.
Critics note that there is a strong strain of continuity in Jennings's poetry, both in regard to form and subject matter. Jennings established her voice in her youth and has not deviated from it greatly throughout her career. In common with the other members of “The Movement,” Jennings writes simply and directly without academic pretense or heavy adornment. In her early writing she employed set forms, regular meter, rhyme, and preferred iambic pattern. However, as her career progresses, she primarily uses free verse and unrhymed poetry. Most of her poems are written in a few short stanzas; rarely does her poetry exceed one page. She favors startling line breaks, gaining impact by beginning a line with a strong verb. Throughout her career, Jennings has written about personal subjects, although she is not an autobiographical poet. Much of her work is about religion, particularly Catholicism, and her struggles with faith. In Recoveries: Poems (1964) and The Mind Has Mountains (1966), she considers her own mental illness and institutionalization. In addition, she composed several books of children's poetry, such as her well received collection Let's Have Some Poetry! (1960.)
From the beginning of her career at Oxford in the 1940s, Jennings has enjoyed critical approval. Looking for new and mature verse, Kingsley Amis included six of Jennings's poems in the 1949 edition of Oxford Poetry. In critiques of her early books, reviewers praise her lucid, simple language, citing her as a strong voice and a poet to watch. She received almost universal praise for her two collections of poetry Collected Poems (1967) and Selected Poems (1979), which provide an overview of her career. However, critics have found fault with Jennings too. Commenting on her collection In the Meantime (1996), Clive Wilmer remarks that “(s)he has been prolific without interruption, but the quality of her writing from book to book is strikingly uneven.” Other reviewers state that at times her poetry is too coy, her language wooden and uninspiring, that she fails to make connections, and that her work lacks energy. The most common criticism is that Jennings fails to vary her work enough, that her poetry is too similar. However, scholars agree that much of Jennings's poetry is first rate. Samuel French Morse praises her lack of pretension, the freshness of her language, and the high quality of her devotional poetry in Song for a Birth or a Death and Other Poems (1961). Robert Sheppard argues that she is the least well-known, but the best in quality, of “The Movement” writers.
Poems (poetry) 1953
A Way of Looking: Poems (poetry) 1955
A Sense of the World: Poems (poetry) 1958
Let's Have Some Poetry! (poetry) 1960
Every Changing Shape: Mystical Experience and the Making of Poems (essays) 1961
Song for a Birth or a Death and Other Poems (poetry) 1961
Recoveries: Poems (poetry) 1964
The Mind Has Mountains (poetry) 1966
Collected Poems, 1967 (poetry) 1967
The Animals’ Arrival (poetry) 1969
Lucidities (poetry) 1970
Relationships (poetry) 1972
Growing-Points: New Poems (poetry) 1975
Consequently I Rejoice (poetry) 1977
Moments of Grace (poetry) 1979
Selected Poems (poetry) 1979
Winter Wind (poetry) 1979
A Dream of Spring (poetry) 1980
Italian Light and Other Poems (poetry) 1981
Celebrations and Elegies (poetry) 1982
Extending the Territory (poetry) 1985
In Shakespeare’s Company: Poems (poetry) 1985
Collected Poems, 1935–85 (poetry) 1986
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SOURCE: “The Poetry of Suburbia,” in Partisan Review, Vol. XXIII, No. 4, Fall, 1956, pp. 545-53.
[In the following excerpt, Gregory praises Jennings for her unique and strong voice.]
The recent Zeitgeist in American culture is of suburban colors, manners, dress. Those who are currently publishing verse are affected by its daily habits and ambitions, and more than a few have mistaken its presence for a visitation of the Muse. The importance of the suburban Zeitgeist may not be enduring, but since the end of the Korean War, its influence has spread cross-country from the suburbs of Boston to the state of Washington, far beyond the toll-gates of large cities; and it can be heard and seen as vividly on a college campus as in Westchester or nearby Long Island. It is nourished by the magazines I find in my dentist’s office: The New Yorker, Life, and Time. It may seem strange that popular culture should invade, and so thoroughly and quickly, the landscapes of academic life; it may not (I am sure it does not) represent academic thinking at its centers, yet on the fringes of the campus it is very much alive, geared to the speed of a two-toned—strawberry-pink and gingham-blue—station wagon. It is well known that most of the verse published today is brought forth in the temporary shelter of universities. Suburban culture has spread its wings over all the activities that...
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SOURCE: Review of A Sense of the World, in Encounter, Vol. XII, No. 2, February, 1959, p. 74.
[In the review below, Heath-Stubbs argues that Jennings is not disciplined enough in her writing and produces work with a flat, muted tone.]
Miss Jennings’s work has received so much praise from those whose judgment one must respect, that one hesitates to dissent. One recognises the sensibility and the intelligence, but there is a curiously muted quality about her poetry. It is as if one was listening to someone murmuring to themselves in their sleep. Granted that this is, in Mr. Eliot’s phrase, essentially poetry overheard rather than heard, yet one longs for her to wake up and speak out. Her technique does not seem to help. Her rhythms are generally flatly iambic, and blank verse or rather unambitious stanza forms predominate. This leads her, too often, into a weak, meandering syntax, which the discipline of either more adventurous, or stricter verse forms, or indeed of prose, might mitigate. Furthermore, it is time it was said that the scrupulous adherence to the prose order of the words (which has become almost de rigueur for poets to-day) can lead to results as awkward, if you’re not careful, as the clumsy use of inversions. For if a pronoun is separated from its verb or an adjective or a preposition from its following substantive by the break at the end of the line, it requires some...
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SOURCE: Review of Let's Have Some Poetry, in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 1, Spring, 1961, pp. 89-90.
[In the following review, Skelton argues that Jennings's penchant for simplifying and her coy tone weaken an otherwise admirable work.]
The annual P.E.N. Anthology of New Poems usually contrives to achieve a high level of competence without being in the least exciting, and the latest in the series is no exception to the rule. There are 64 poems by 51 contributors, and, if one ignores the presence of Edith Sitwell’s ridiculous and pretentious La Bella Bona Roba, one could fairly say that every poem deserves its place. Nevertheless, doubts cross one’s mind. Are there no young poets nowadays attempting to break new ground? Were none of the editors captivated by an eccentric poem, or tempted by an unfashionable one? It is good to see more work by such admirable and as yet uncollected poets as Graham Hough and Zofia Ilinska, but did 1960 produce no new good poems from George Barker, W. S. Graham, Norman MacCaig, Thomas Kinsella, or Robert Graves? This Anthology pretends (by its very title) to be some sort of survey of the poetic output of a year, but the 1960 volume, like all the others, leads one to suspect that the title should be changed to “Poems that Three People Could Agree About”. It appears to be nothing more.
Thomas Blackburn’s Anthology is not a...
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SOURCE: Review of Song for a Birth or a Death, in Poetry, Vol. CII, No. 5, August, 1963, pp. 330-34.
[In the following excerpt, Morse praises the quality and content of Jennings's poetry, arguing that she is gaining authority in her work.]
For the poets of the fifties and after, the veterans of the thirties as Donald Davie calls them, were concerned with “agonies” that have become “highbrow thrillers, though historical”, and their feats are “quite strictly fabulous.” “And yet,” he adds, “it may be better, if we must,/ To find the stance impressive and absurd/Than not to see the hero for the dust.” Davie’s own poems do not disguise their admiration for some of the heroes of the thirties, and they may be the better for it. But the young poets whose books are at hand belong not only to another age but to a different world. Elizabeth Jennings, it is true, reminds one here and there of Anne Ridler; and Norman MacCaig has an eye as sensitive to the colors of the commonplace as Louis MacNeice’s. The tones, however, are very different, as they should be. The somewhat detached intimacy of Miss Jennings is delicately contrived. She publishes nothing that is clumsy or embarrassing, and Song for a Birth or a Death immediately attracts one because of its lack of obvious pretense. Her devotional poems, such as the “Notes for a Book of Hours, A Confession”, and “The...
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SOURCE: Review of The Mind Has Mountains, in Encounter, Vol. XXIX, No. 5, November, 1967, p. 76.
[In the review below, Clayre argues that these experimental poems do not reflect Jennings's skill or her voice.]
Miss Elizabeth Jennings, in The Mind has Mountains, takes the reader through an English mental hospital, after her attempted suicide. These poems keep close to a single consciousness, which we see re-establishing, in alien territory, the unassuming, observant kindness of its everyday life. The poems are compassionate. In certain lines we can hear Miss Jennings’ voice:
There should be peace for gentle ones, not pain
But the versification in this volume is often limp, and produces shapeless effects which I do not think the author can want:
Because of all of this, it was a shock to find that you were really bad, depressed, withdrawn from me more than I knew.
And her experiments in broken verse-forms at the end of the book do not seem to be exactly in her own voice—a voice that in visionary poems like “A Dream of Birth” has spoken with complete assurance, in a technique that seems to have grown out of a given rhythm of feeling, rather than out of the conscious decision to write in lines of ten syllables or of irregular patterns.
Also about madness, but from a very different point of view, is...
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SOURCE: Review of The Animals’ Arrival, in Poetry, Vol. CXVIII, No. 2, May, 1971, pp. 110-11.
[In the following review, Mott contends that Jennings exhibits power and bravery in her work.]
Elizabeth Jennings has been accused at times of quietness, if not tameness, but it would be grossly unfair to accuse the poet of The Animals’ Arrival of any such thing. Like Abse’s recent poems, if these are not shrill, they are bravely concerned with harrowing experience and a still more harrowing vision of it:
My inward needs and fears still stir and grow Into a hideous and nightmare form.
Seeing disorder within and without, Elizabeth Jennings seeks courageously for order. In such poems as “A Pattern”, she achieves it at least in the high standard of her own art. But where order is not to be had outside her poetry she admits it. A child can respond to sickness in a simple way; she cannot, projecting one illness far beyond the dimensions it would have for the child:
Illness for me has no true absolute Since so much of my daily action is Dressed up in pain. Why am I lying here, Voice gone, lips dry, chest fiery, mind quite wild Begging the past back, longing to be a child?
“A Simple Sickness”
There is a restrained power here, but our responses are diminished indeed if...
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SOURCE: Review of Extending the Territory, in New Statesman, Vol. 110, No. 2851, November 15, 1985, p. 28.
[In the review below, Lucas finds fault with Extending the Territory, arguing that the poetry is vapid, the language unvaried, and the subject matter uninteresting.]
With Elizabeth Jennings’s Extending the Territory we are, I fear, back with the kinds of experiences which ask to be taken on trust. ‘But six years of my childhood are precise’, she says in ‘An Absolute’, and goes on: ‘I see the berries // On bushes as imperial as music, / Poised as poetry’. She may be able to, but I’m darnned if I can. Nor can I summon up much interest in ‘The Circuses’ where downs are said to be ‘energetic’ and horses ‘sprightly’. And the ‘untarnished marvel’ of ‘A Sky in Childhood’ doesn’t do a great deal for me, either.
When she gets beyond the world of children (‘before time takes their lands / And lowers the sun’—now where have heard that before?) matters improve, but not to any great extent. Even the pain of ‘Anger’ and ‘Certain Lesson’ and ‘A Death Alive’ drains away through the smooth, unvarying grid of language, stanza and metric norm. ‘Will all that glowing joy, those long / Excited conversations be the past?’ It seems unfair that so much raw, wounding experience should turn into verse of such vapidity, but then...
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SOURCE: Review of Collected Poems, 1953-1985, in Choice, December, 1986, p. 625.
[In the following review, Brophy outlines Jennings's importance as a poet.]
Jennings is an original member of the British literary movement disarmingly called “The Movement,” which appeared in the early 1950s in part as reaction to what its founders thought were the excesses of Dylan Thomas and his romantic ilk. Philip Larkin was the best known group member; to readers in the US, Jennings was and remains the least familiar member. This collection is not a “Complete Poems,” but a selection by the poet of all the work she wishes to preserve from her 17 books that have appeared between 1953 and 1985. An earlier Collected Poems was published in 1967. Since her best work is considered to be her earlier poems—the British critic Anthony Thwaite speaks of the “thinning away” of her later work—some libraries that already own a selection of her previous books may not wish to order this one. But no academic library should be without some of her lucid, dignified poetry, and this present collection would be an excellent choice for libraries that have too little or none of her work.
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SOURCE: Review of Collected Poems, in Poetry, Vol. CL, No. 2, May, 1987, pp. 106-09.
[In the review below, Gilbert argues that while Jennings's culture is foreign to Americans, her work is of great merit and importance.]
Though she not only thinks about the significance of history but, as one of Britain’s more important recent poets, she has a significant personal and literary history, Elizabeth Jennings hardly seems to inhabit the same language, much less the same world, as the one in which Caroline Finkelstein and Lynda Hull dwell. Indeed, the Atlantic that divides the lives and works of these writers seems not only miles but centuries wide, a gulf in time as well as a gap in space. Beautifully—even, as I shall suggest, too “beautifully”—articulated, conceived in a mode of high formalism, Jennings’s poems appear at first to be artifacts of a culture so distanced from the varieties of American minimalism that it is difficult to imagine her as our contemporary. And, drawing on powerful monuments of unaging intellect, deploying Yeatsian lines and metaphysical references, citing Traherne, elegizing Auden, and translating Michelangelo, Jennings herself seems like a sort of theatrical relic, an exemplar of what history means as well as an interpreter of its meanings.
Nevertheless, history is not just what Jennings incarnates; it is also her theme: personal...
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SOURCE: Review of Collected Poems, in New Statesman, Vol. 114, No. 2943, August 21, 1987, p. 22.
[In the following review, Sheppard compares Jennings's career with fellow Movement members, contending that her work exudes greater seriousness and mysticism.]
The poetry of the Movement orthodoxy won’t go away: Larkin’s death clearly wasn’t the end of it. Indeed, in some of these recent books, Larkin is an excuse for pious, elegaic production by some of his followers. They mourn him, rightly, as a more consummate poet. ‘I do not want him to be dead!’ pleads Vernon Scannell, as if the whole thing might not function without Larkin. But, obviously, it does.
As one might expect, these poets broadly share a faith in a poetry of anecdote and measured tone, in which irony is used to both project and shield a reserved self. There is an ambivalent respect for traditional form: Anthony Thwaite has a ‘sort of ballade’ and Gavin Ewart produces a ‘so-called sonnet’. Themes recur, too. These poets are all getting on a bit and can celebrate a pivotal birthday—whether 52 or 61—with ironic resignation. Schooldays become a source of nostalgic epiphany (those fragrant schoolmarms who first stirred the male poets’ sexuality!); elderly relatives offer easily exploitable pathos. Dying—not death—is popular, particularly terminal illnesses in dehumanised hospitals (a...
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SOURCE: “Faith in Form,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4492, May 5-11, 1989, p. 495.
[In the following review of Tributes, Maxwell praises Jennings's subtle use of simile and her successful use of form.]
This is a craftswoman working, so watch the vowels;
It is not only great stars or the sun I owe so many debts to. I now state A poet here, a painter there, a place That’s altered all I do. So I relate My debt and give back what I’ve taken, grace.
Lyric poets, if honest and well practised, know enough to let the sounds run towards them and gather. Elizabeth Jennings is here writing a poetry of A's, with all the light, the aye-saying, the openess and the admission— both confessional and a letting-in—which that vowel affords.
“Tributes” (the poem quoted) strikes, naturally, the keynote of the collection, which includes paeans to Goya, Caravaggio, Turner, George Herbert and Larkin (“Your secret self, the self that exposed itself / To believe in nothing after death” … ) along with a good deal of breathless awe of Rome, several descriptive lyres the least valuable: phrases such as “a delicate softness”, “music of colours” and “magic of love” need strong opponents these days and have nothing to fight here), and the formal sighing-at-passing-Time that this poetess does almost too often and too seamlessly,...
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SOURCE: Review of Tributes, in Stand Magazine, Vol. 31, No. 4, Autumn, 1990, pp. 48-50.
[In the following review, Sail cautions that Jennings risks bordering on mannerism in some of her work but proclaims that she is one of the greatest poets at capturing childhood.]
Like Roy Fuller, Elizabeth Jennings knows the strength of ‘energy leashed in’, as she writes in one of the poems in Tributes. This new collection continues the reflective notes of her Collected Poems, sustaining a meditation on the nature of poetry and the other arts, especially music, and on love, faith, joy, sorrow, friendship, childhood and the passage of time. The preoccupation with music is dominant, so to speak, and there is a strong religious element in her affirmation of the artist as an instrument of God’s glory. The poems are entirely accessible, often intensely human in their vulnerability, and set firmly within the context of gratitude explicit in the book’s title. This underlying sense of joy, despite a real darkness that cannot be ignored, beautifully informs the sequence ‘A Happy Death’, about the death at 57 of one of the poet’s friends, a Dominican priest. These four poems cover the same ground and ought to be repetitious merely, but mysteriously they are not—indeed they are very moving. They might be taken as representative of the Jennings method at large—that is, a series of...
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SOURCE: “Elizabeth Jennings,” in The Movement: British Poets of the 1950s, Twayne Publishers, 1993, pp. 87-100.
[In the excerpt below, Bradley provides an overview of Jennings's career, placing her work in the context of other Movement writers.]
Elizabeth Jennings is unique in two particular ways: she is the Movement’s only woman and its only Catholic. Born Elizabeth Joan Jennings in Boston, Lincolnshire, on 18 July 1926, she was the daughter of Henry Cecil Jennings, a physician. As a teenager she studied poetry in school and was swept up by G. K. Chesterton’s battle poem “Lepanto.” She wrote an essay on the work and soon was eagerly studying the great romantics—Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, and Shelley. Her godfather-uncle was a poet, and he encouraged Elizabeth to write poems herself. She recalls that her first one came to her almost automatically at 13 while she was waiting at a bus stop. From the start Jennings was intrigued by the fascinating variety of poems that could be produced from formal metrical patterns, so she turned her interest to sonnets, ballads, and odes, though she admits that only one four-line poem of her juvenilia warrants preservation. At 15 she began sending out her verse with no success, but she was encouraged by a handwritten rejection from the now-defunct New English Weekly, which affirmed, “These poems show talent.”1
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SOURCE: “Ceremonial Forms,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4685, January 15, 1993, p. 23.
[In the following review of Times and Seasons, Eaves discusses Jennings's use of time, form, and language.]
Time is a continual, if not quite perpetual, worry for Elizabeth Jennings. At its crudest, it represents distance from God—a mechanical, clockwork intrusion into the Garden. At its best, as she refers to it in a poem from her collection, Extending the Territory (1985), it is an elemental art that “moves within / The discourse of the learned heart”. But while the second condition is clearly the one to which her poetry aspires, the combination of primal faith and “learned” love that is supposed to get her there makes for a God with a rather complicated set of responses to culture and the gods of unruly nature.
Concluding an Advent poem in the new collection’s Christmas sequence, she voices the conventional metaphysical non placet: “It is a mystery / How God took time and entered history”. The language is always innocent, but ambivalently so. Her Catholicism asks for awe at the prospect of the Incarnation and Passion, knowing that God is too various for awe, sensing that His Easter festivals are quickened by the proximity of seasonal rite: “Let us blossom and believe. / Risings are everywhere”.
In few other contemporary poets is...
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SOURCE: Review of Praises, in The Times Liteary Supplement, No. 4995, December 25, 1998, pp. 28-9.
[In the following review, O'Neill argues that although there is a repetitive quality to Jennings'’s work, her writing deserves praise.]
At one stage in Praises, Elizabeth Jennings asserts, “Stars are a bright simplicity”, reaffirming her affinity with Henry Vaughan for whom “Stars are of mighty use”. The points of likeness and difference between the twentieth-century Catholic poet and the Metaphysical mystic are fascinating. Like Vaughan, Jennings values intimations of “An unfallen world”. Unlike him, she is “not after visions or prayers”. Like him, she places emphasis on childhood. Unlike him, she finds in childhood a forecaste of adult suffering. Like him, she has become an elegist, entitling the collection’s opening poem “For my Sister, now a Widow”. Unlike him, her elegy is this-worldly in its recollections of “The way he washed up the breakfast, hoovered the floor”. Yet if the grave dazzle of “They are all gone into the world of light” lies beyond Jennings, it is the case that for her, as for Vaughan, “strange thoughts transcend our wonted themes”. She has a gift for making something unparaphrasably individual out of what may seem, initially, to work at the level of a proposition. In “Myths within Us”, she claims that “All the great myths that...
(The entire section is 416 words.)