Elizabeth Jennings 1926–2001
(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.