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Elizabeth Jennings 1926–2001

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(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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.)

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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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

Tributes (poetry) 1989

Times and Seasons (poetry) 1992

Familiar Spirits (poetry) 1994

In the Meantime (poetry) 1996

A Poet's Choice (poetry) 1996

A Spell of Words: Selected Poems for Children (poetry) 1997

Praises (poetry) 1998

Horace Gregory (review date Fall 1956)

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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 surround the campus, and verse written in this atmosphere cannot help reflecting the surfaces of everyday experience.

Another factor influencing the spirit of the verse written today was the belated “discovery” of Wallace Stevens. Of course, he had been “discovered” long ago; but in the postwar years it was not only the wit and inventiveness of Stevens’ work, it was the image of his success, both as an executive of an insurance company and as a poet, that caught and held the admiration of young men and women who wrote verse. It was rumored that he was rich, very rich, rich enough to escape all minor economic misfortunes and turns of chance. In the United States there has never been any sustained disrespect for wealth; roughness and the “homespun” manner are often enjoyed, but always with the hope of finding “a rough diamond” or “a heart of gold.” So far as the best of Stevens’ verse revealed him, he was a pluralist and a skeptic; and certain external features of his legend had become attractive to emulate. The new Zeitgeist quickly absorbed whatever it understood of this legend; then it acquired an air of “difference” from the forty years that separated it from the first publication of Harmonium. It disregarded conscious bohemianism and “sexual freedom,” as well as the Left Wing politics of the 1930’s, and the “academic” irony fashionable in the 1940’s that was best represented by the little magazine Furioso.

The conventions of the new Zeitgeist were being formed. The more “advanced” younger poets had become instructors and lecturers and behind academic facades embittered laurels were being watered and cultivated; old-fashioned excess (if any) and toasts drunk to the memory of F. Scott Fitzgerald were reserved for holidays, or discreetly converted into weekend faculty cocktail parties. These younger poets began to use the word “elegance” in praising each other’s writings, and if twenty years ago it had become fashionable to be “proletarian” in spirit, in the early 1950’s, it had become a virtue to say that one could not live on less than ten thousand a year, that if one did not have hidden sources of wealth, it was a disgrace to live at all. Stevens’ “elegance” was of mind and temperament, yet it was one that seemed easy to imitate in terms of the more garish advertising pages of Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue and The New Yorker, the kind of literature that for a brief, wholly deceptive moment makes the reader feel like a luxury product himself, ready to join the “International Set,” to be severe with middle-aged, wealthy American patronesses in Rome, and to drink at Harry’s Bar in Venice. The word “elegance,” like so many transitory usages of language in the United States, has become the choice of copywriters to sell everything the suburban matron wears. One might suspect collusion between the poets of Harper’s Bazaar and the shopkeepers of Westchester.

One effect of the suburban influence has been to revive a kind of writing that had been forgotten since 1914. What used to be called “magazine verse” forty years ago is back in print again, decorously written, and admirably fitted to fill empty spaces between fiction and feature articles. One might call it the New Yorker school of verse.

Though the offices of The New Yorker are in New York, its heart is in the suburbs. The magazine is certainly the handbook of the suburban matron throughout the country. The New Yorker publishes a quantity of light verse, which is nothing to be ashamed of; but light verse that lives beyond the moment is extremely rare. It is rare because poetic wit itself is a rarity; what often passes for it is something “cute,” something coy, something pleasant, harmless, or naughty-bitter. It should be well-formed; and not—by the same poet—reiterated too frequently in the same phrases. The cutting edge too frequently wears dull. Large indiscriminate doses of it tend to cloy. These truisms are probably known in the offices of The New Yorker and regretted—therefore, it has fallen back on publishing quasi-serious verse as well, constructed according to current formulas: certain verse forms used with enough caution to be recognized at once, certain images within the verses that recall the “happy-bitter” experience of childhood, the joy of collecting toys and the discovery that toys are perishable, the country places visited at home, the holiday from suburban security in Europe. The great discomfort in reading too much New Yorker verse is that the formula continually wears thin; it is not as cheering as it hoped to be—or as light and witty as Sandy Wilson’s parody of the 1920’s in his musical The Boy Friend. Reading too much New Yorker verse becomes a bore.…

To be derivative is not a crime; no poet lives in a literary vacuum. The question is: How derivative can you be and yet show the reader you have something to say that is your own—your own language, your own look at the world, your own music? If these remains are worth publication, well and good.

An example of divorce from the Zeitgeist is Elizabeth Jennings' A Way of Looking, a book of forty well-selected poems. (Miss Jennings, by the way, has contributed to The New Yorker, but is untouched by its formula.) Miss Jennings is English—and the curse of contemporary British verse is an imageless run of too many toneless words, in which, at their worst, these poems share. At her best, Miss Jennings knows her own mind; free of her instructors, her voice is heard in “Mirrors”:

Was it a mirror then across a room,
A crowded room of parties where the smoke
Rose to the ceiling with the talk? The glass
Stared back at me a half-familiar face
Yet something hoped for. When at last you came
It was as if the distant mirror spoke.
The loving ended as all self-love ends
And teaches us that only fair-grounds have
The right to show us halls of mirrors where
In every place we look we see our stare
Taunting our own identities. But love
Perceives without a mirror in his hand.

I think Miss Jennings has written a directly inspired poem that deserves respect and admiration from her contemporaries; she has set herself distinctly apart from other poets, and may, if all goes well, make her own world, the enduring “something new” that critics always hope to find, the place beyond the Zeitgeist.

John Heath-Stubbs (review date February 1959)

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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 very special emphasis of meaning not to give the effect of a stutter. This is the kind of thing I mean:

                                                  Yet there was
Such distance between words and what they 
                    spoke
About, the marvels would not stand but broke
Away.

It is curious to find Miss Jennings translating Claudel, of all people, and making quite a good job of it too. Her own exercise in a kind of Claudelian prose poetry at the end of the book, “Teresa of Avila,” is quite unlike any of her other poems, and seems to me much better. It suggests that her talent may one day take a new and fruitful turn, though perhaps this may be in the direction of prose rather than of (what then is the opposite?) verse or poetry.

Robin Skelton (review date Spring 1961)

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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 survey either, in spite of the title. It is a “Programme Anthology”, which is intended to illustrate certain attitudes of the editor. These attitudes, which are rather blunderingly and speciously expressed in the Introduction, are based upon the conviction that, “Poetry is concerned with the dark interior engines of the psyche”. In this post-Freudian Age, once we have got used to “such terms as the Unconscious, the Super Ego, the Collective Unconscious, or the Id, these abstractions have to be restored to the turmoil of emotional experience they have been distilled from, and known by the whole being.” In short, “poets are trying to give a local habitation and a name to the mysterious and savage fauna that are within us.” Whether or not this is an acceptable thesis, the consequences of believing in it could be exciting, but the choice of poems is not always understandable in terms of the thesis they are supposed to illustrate. Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles” fits, but “The Willow and the Stare” seems a little out of place. Larkin’s shorter poems fit, but does “Churchgoing”, admirable poem though it is? Moreover, thinking along the lines Mr. Blackburn indicates, one wonders at the absence of work by such explorers as Constantine Trypanis, Terence Tiller, and Norman MacCaig. One also wonders why many of the poems were thought suitable for inclusion, in particular the four quite dreadful poems by John Pudney, who would have served the book better if he had, as a Director of Putnams, devoted his time to seeing that the pages were larger, the print less cramped, and the whole production less sloppily set out.

If Mr. Blackburn deserves castigation for a sloppy job, Miss Jennings must be faulted for her cosiness. Her book (which is garnished with a peculiarly silly dust cover) is, in the main, a thoroughly admirable introduction to both the making and the reading of poetry, and should be in every school library. But it is at times far too cosy and simplified. An almost coy note appears in her voice when she discusses (very properly) some of her own experiences as a poet, and by the time one has reached the last chapter the vast simplifications have piled up so high as almost to disguise the fact that this is really a quite intelligent book. In the section on “Poetry in the Fifties”, however, a more serious flaw appears: the list of poets awarded certificates of contemporaneity is fashionable rather than perceptive. The expected names turn up with mechanical efficiency—Amis, Wain, Davie, Larkin, Gunn, Enright. To these are added Muir, R. S. Thomas, Ted Hughes, Jon Silkin, David Wright, and Jonathan Price. One wonders why poets such as (again) MacCaig, W. S. Graham, Tiller, Fuller, Norman Nicholson, who are now at the height of their powers, and who, in sober fact, published all their best work during the fifties, never seem to get a mention in these surveys. One has many such moments of doubt in this book. (How, for example, dare Miss Jennings refer to the “Eighteenth century calm concern with generalities?” Can she have forgotten about those angry and passionate men?) Still, this is a worthy book, and some of those who listen to Aunt Elizabeth on the Children’s Hour may well be tempted to stay tuned in for the sterner realities of The News.

Samuel French Morse (review date August 1963)

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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 Resurrection”, are as moving for their workmanship as they are for their substance. The sequence of six poems called “The Clown” shows what she can do with a conventional symbol simply by recognizing that what is conventional can be useful. Miss Jennings’s new book also allows one to take a tentative measure of her accomplishment as one of the most highly praised writers of the past decade. The freshness apparent in A Way of Looking, which showed signs of becoming a mannerism in A Sense of the World, has begun to deepen into poetry of quiet authority.

Alasdair Clayre (review date November 1967)

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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 Mishaps Perhaps, a book of prose and verse-fragments by Carl Solomon. In the ’fifties Allen Ginsberg dedicated Howl to him. At the age of twenty-one, he went into a mental hospital and asked voluntarily for a lobotomy. By travelling without the suitcases of dignity, he has moved through territories not often mapped in this way—worlds of mental hospital jargon, bureaucratic language, and post-beat prose—maintaining always the gentle and ironic speech-rhythms that form the continuity of his work. Here he sees himself being interrogated by a “sane” society:

Do you love your mother? Your finger-nails show dirt. Your breath is bad. Do you like girls?

And I have lost my credentials. I liked a girl but she left me for another man. Was she of good character? I thought so in the beginning.

From hospital, he does not write as a patient waiting for cure, but as a stylist and chronic victim rejecting, in the name of the homosexual world and of his own lucidity, the psychiatrists who give him shock treatment:

I couldn't understand what they (who drove me into madhouses twice) thought. I have never yet seen an attractive psychiatrist.

And of the way of life that the world seems to require of him (“Relationships”):

          I am utterly unconcerned with the necessity
for producing offspring
And have no need for happiness which is the
primary obsession of our day.
Are you happy?
Being of Jewish descent and
consequently
Unhappy of visage
I have no need for such contentments
As produce the gleaming smile
And the sonorous voice.

Michael Mott (review date May 1971)

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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.

“Hospital Garden”

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 we cannot recognize it as power.

John Lucas (review date 15 November 1985)

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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 you feel, ‘Well, but surely if she cares as much as she says she does she could have found some way of getting it across?’

J. D. Brophy (review date December 1986)

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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.

Sandra M. Gilbert (review date May 1987)

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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 history, literary history, Christian history. Her collection opens with a preface in which she declares that “Art is not self-expression while, for me, ‘confessional poetry’ is almost a contradiction in terms.” Yet many of her works use the strategies of what we have lately called the “confessional” in order, as the Catholic church would have it, to explore the (implicitly public) moral implications of private experience. “Family Affairs,” she points out in one poem, “can sever veins,” and in another piece called “My Grandmother,” she describes an antique shop that her grandmother kept, “—or it kept her,” admitting that “when she died I felt no grief at all, / Only the guilt of what I once refused”: the history of the antique shop, the antique history of the family.

Similarly, Jennings writes poems which recount her experiences in a mental institution and then, both through overt and covert allusion, contextualize such experiences in simultaneously metaphysical and modernist cadences. Her best poems, however—and those which, to my mind, most fully engage with literary and, in a sense, political history—are religious pieces in a half (T. S.) Eliotian, half (Christina) Rossetti-esque mode. On this continent, right now, we rarely see such work, a point that is in itself historically fascinating. For this reason, perhaps, it is in a curious way heartening to think that someone can still write, as Jennings did in “A Christmas Suite in Five Movements” (1980), a litany that both echoes and transcends the famous “Lady of silences / calm and distressed” passage of “Ash Wednesday”:

Girl of the fountains, come into our desert.
Mary of broken hearts, help us to keep
Promises. Lady of wakefulness, take our sleep.
You hold God in your arms and he may weep.

For Jennings, in fact, it is as urgent as it was for Christina Rossetti—or, in different ways, for T. S. Eliot and, more skeptically, Emily Dickinson—to clarify her relationship to theological origins. Indeed, in a poem entitled “Clarify,” she prays for a solution that would illuminate the future by releasing her from the guilt of the past. I quote the poem in its entirety:

Clarify me, please,
God of the galaxies,
Make me a meteor,
Or else a metaphor
So lively that it grows
Beyond its likeness and
Stands on its own, a land
That nobody can lose.
God, give me liberty
But not so much that I
See you on Calvary
Nailed to the wood by me.

When I consider that this text was first collected in 1985, I am myself bemused by the vagaries of literary and intellectual history. And charmed by them. The Rossetti-esque intensity of Jennings’s faith, or desire for faith, is not something I would wish to lose in the bleakly existential world over which Finkelstein’s and Hull’s “tide of voices” incoherently washes.

Yet there is, of course, something deeply alien to us, at least to us in the United States, about Jennings’s beautifully formed and formulated phrases. I don’t think we believe in most of them, much as we’d like to, and therefore I don’t think we trust a lot of what she has to say. In an early poem, “Answers” (1955), she intuits “all the great conclusions coming near,” and thirty years later, in “A Class-Room,” she remembers experiencing a “high call” that is no longer available to many of us, certainly not to modest, somewhat muddled writers like Finkelstein and Hull, and she casts her memory in diction that seems as excessively high-flown as the idea of a “high call”:

… from a battle I learnt this healing peace,
Language a spell over the hungry dreams,
A password and a key. That day is still
Locked in my mind. When poetry is spoken
That door is opened and the light is shed,
The gold of language tongued and minted fresh.

At the same time, however, Jennings is a woman who can write a really glowing line like “Leaves fall / As if they meant to rise.” Her notion of history, with its oddly anachronistic evocations of a nineteenth-century Christian teleology, may not be ours, yet it is surely one to which we ought to attend, if only because its complex attention to enduring desires and ancient difficulties is so compelling.

Robert Sheppard (review date 21 August 1987)

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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 Larkin prop). When this personal vein is exhausted, there’s a mine of information in newspapers (particularly in headlines and personal ads) to provide epigraphs, odd lines and even whole poems. However, explanatory footnotes are generally more interesting than the poems which trump up facts into style.

Of the poets here, Elizabeth Jennings is the most serious, even drearily so. Eclipsed by her fellow male Movement poets, and separated from them by a lyrical and mystical streak, it is right that a new Collected Poems should redress the injustice. Her work has shown various attempts at escaping the Movement style, although the vatic sweep of the early ‘Song for a Birth or a Death’ still strains in its rhythmical and tonal prison.

Last night I saw the savage world
And heard the blood beat up the stair;
The fox’s bark, the owl’s shrewd pounce,
The crying creatures—all were there,
And men in bed with love and fear.

Her Catholicism was allowed full expression in such poems as ‘To a Friend with a Religious Vocation’ but, within a few years, the release from social decorum in subject matter led to the more ‘confessional’ ‘On a Friend’s Relapse and Return to a Mental Clinic’. However, she is not a Lowell or Plath. The middle poems, which deal with mental illness, maintain a cool compassion while negotiating fear, dread and oblivion. These subjects, which Larkin addresses from the outside, are addressed repeatedly by Jennings from the inside, as it were, and they remain thematic throughout the book. In the face of a retiring deity, opportunities for epiphany are few: ‘Even in spring I see an elegy.’ Later poems display a rhythmical variety, allowing a more relaxed voice, but it is often Movement through and through in its use of ‘we’ as a rhetorical-moral embrace that can pre-empt a reader’s free response:

We are nothing, we are
A dream in a cosmic mind,
We are a solitude, an emptiness,
We only exist in others’ thought … Why
Are we set here, frightened of our reflections,
Living in fear yet desperate not to die?

Glyn Maxwell (review date 5 May 1989)

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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, but not quite.

The “confessional” quality of Tributes is ideally suited to Jennings’s quiet faith in form. Inside the strict frame and limits (the apparent absence of which seems almost to be a principal of art she says “However inward; it must come. To keep off sprawl and chaos”) she emmciates with clarity the honest failure to get it quite right and the calm indestructible sense of having learned:

You loved the monosyllable and it
          Runs through your music, I
Can hear between its graces music yet
          More deep and much more high.
You have released my spirit, sent it on
Audacious flights by what you’ve said and done.

The line-breaks after “I”, a gracious pause before a large assertion, and, after “high”, a deep breath (which chimes with “spirit”) and the use of “Audacious”—which is audacious—express, as much as the words do, the debt, the reason for tribute, and its strength and depth, which stem naturally from the imperative need not to dis“grace” Herbert’s memory.

“Grace” seems to be to Elizabeth Jennings what “Luck” is in the early Auden: a concept of light and worth peculiarly personal, but universal in the sense of its infusing all that the poet values. Therefore the “lyric grace > so rare now” which she praises in Charles Causley, holds a much more expansive and affirmative value than the knackered old phrase itself, and it’s also a much brighter (in all senses) and quite contemporary light. In “Tate Gallery”, Warhol, Pollock and Hockney are described as “bearers / Almost of ungrace” but are, slowly and with some difficulty, absorbed; Jennings accepts “the difficult sturdy beauty in all unlikeliness”.

Similes ought to cast sunlight, not, as so often nowadays, striplight, a cleverness of angles. They are less charming than metaphors, but much more honest (metaphors along with exaggerations, euphemisms and poems themselves, being versions of the thing that is not). In these lines of Jennings’s—

                                                                                I met
So much kindness from simple Italians and some
 English priests and poets. It was as if
An unhappy childhood was handed back and altered

—one almost has to look twice to notice that the simile springs from nowhere, but it seems natural, and it casts light.

Where Jennings’s translations of The Sonnets of Michelangelo (first published in 1961) fail, they fail for noble reasons, as an English lady brings proud masculine endings to the great artist’s verses, which are of failure and humility. This, however, produces its own intriguing echo, as Jennings’s own tributes—not to mention the tribute of translation itself—reflect, through a veil of time and language, these devotions of genius to deity:

Thus, in a thousand years all men shall see
How beautiful you were, how I was faint
And yet how wise I was in loving you.

Lawrence Sail (review date Autumn 1990)

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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 variations which seem to plane away surface after surface in search of a defining core. The danger of the method, to which some of these latest poems also fall prey, is a misleading impression of a writer almost at ease in unease, or else an overworking of stylistic plainness to the point where it falls flat. Occasionally, too, such pronounced tendencies as beginning a number of poems with ‘It’ or with a question can come close to mannerism. Nonetheless there are enough really impressive poems to bring the poet’s intentions to life and, as in previous collections, the poems about childhood are particularly strong. Jennings is surely one of our most acute writers when it comes to embodying the immediacies of childhood, as here in ‘Psalm of Childhood’:

Children are adept and swift at praise undivided
From the lion’s wild ways to the zebra’s astonishment at
Its audacious stripes that it can never hide.
I lay in the humming grass or hay, I hid among shrubs and hedgerows
And smelt the rain on the wind and plucked the vetch and convolvulus
And saw its shrinking with tears.

Here and elsewhere the reader may assent to the proposition about poetry in one of several poems about philosophers, ‘Thinking about Descartes’, which ends—‘So maybe poems sing out the greater questions / But questions which expect the answer yes’.

Jerry Bradley (essay date 1993)

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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

Even in Jennings’s earliest poems a sense of form predominates, and the primary characteristics of her mature verse—regular rhyme and meter—are evident. Moreover, they frequently display the simple vision of childhood in an emotionally honest, clear manner.

Jennings moved to Oxford as a child and was educated at Oxford High School and later St. Anne’s College, taking an M.A. in English language and literature with honors in 1949, having earlier failed her B.Litt studies, which concentrated on Matthew Arnold as both a romantic and classical poet. At Oxford she met Philip Larkin and John Wain and enrolled in a court handwriting seminar with Kingsley Amis. Despite his youth Amis already held strong opinions on literature and art, and he introduced Jennings to jazz. They spent hours together in record shops and cinemas, but he was never critical of her conventional preference for classical music. Amis also read and admired her poetry, and both had poems in the 1948 Oxford anthology. When Amis and James Michie edited it the following year, they looked for hard, modern poems to print. They selected six of Jennings’s poems for publication.

After graduation her verse began to appear in various magazines, including the Spectator, the New Statesman, and the Poetry Review. Jennings worked for a short time as an advertising copywriter, employment which she believes made her style increasingly slick, relaxed, and more publishable. But Jennings was fired from the agency, and in 1950 she hired on as an assistant at the Oxford City Library, where she worked until 1958. Oxford undergraduates interested in her poems or in writing poetry themselves visited her there regularly and often invited her to dinner and the theater. Among those students were Geoffrey Hill, Adrian Mitchell, Anthony Thwaite, and Alan Brownjohn and Americans Donald Hall and Adrienne Rich, all of whom were to achieve their own recognition as poets and critics.

When Jennings had assembled enough poems for a book, she sought a publisher. In time she was introduced to Oscar Mellor, a private printer living in the small village of Eynsham outside Oxford. Mellor issued a pamphlet of her work, thus beginning the Fantasy Press Poets Series, which would come to include works by Gunn, Davie, Larkin, Amis, and Holloway among its distinguished contributors. The success of this inaugural volume prompted Mellor to put forth a full-length book of Jennings’s verse, Poems, which included three of her poems from Oxford Poetry 1949 and earned her an Arts Council prize in 1953. Fantasy Press also issued the first full-length books of poems by Gunn (Fighting Terms, 1954) and Davie (The Brides of Reason, 1955).

As a result of her Arts Council award Jennings was interviewed and photographed by local and London reporters and became one of the first Movement writers to have her fame established primarily through poetry, although Amis and Wain had both published novels by then, and Davie’s Purity of Diction in English Verse had received considerable critical attention. She began to feel that she should have at least one poem or book review a week in the important journals. She nearly succeeded. Time and Tide and the Spectator asked her to contribute articles and reviews, and Stephen Spender asked her for poems for his new magazine, Encounter. John Lehmann’s New Soundings radio program had included a poem by Jennings in its first broadcast, and he included three more by her in the first issue of London Magazine, prominently placing her work alongside that by Thom Gunn and T. S. Eliot, who wrote a special introduction for the issue. And she was included in Enright’s Poets of the 1950s and Conquest’s New Lines anthologies, the two collections that fixed the roll of membership in the Movement, although Conquest humorously claimed that Jennings’s relationship with the Movement was comparable to that of a schoolmistress with a bunch of drunken marines.

From the outset her lyrics were distinguished by their brevity (usually fewer than five stanzas in length) and simplicity. Her vocabulary resists strange and unusual words, and there is a noted absence of proper nouns in her work. Preoccupied with the themes of the individual’s fears and essential loneliness, her poems became noted for their wit, lyrical innocence, and exploration of nuances of the spirit.

“Delay,” the opening poem in the volume, exhibits the tentativeness and rationality commonly found in Movement verse. The poem is one of her best; Jennings chose it for her Collected Poems and Selected Poems and Larkin included it in The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse. The poem, a short formal lyric, seems well suited to Jennings’s talent as she fashions an analogy that compares the speed of light to the speed of love. Despite its emotional subject, the poem’s regular stanzas and exactness of language enhance its logic. Jennings emphasizes the colossal distance between lovers by springing from the first stanza to the second on the word love.

The radiance of that star that leans on me
Was shining years ago. The light that now
Glitters up there my eyes may never see,
And so the time lag teases me with how
Love that loves now may not reach me until
Its first desire is spent. The star’s impulse
Must wait for eyes to claim it beautiful
And love arrived may find us somewhere else.

(Jennings CP, 3)

Her diction is plain and exacting, yet the understatement in the poem’s last line is both tender and poignant.

Jennings’s preference for such emotional and syntactic spareness is consistent with the erudite attitudes of other Movement poets, although she was the only member of the group who never worked full-time in academia. While her poems occasionally seem detached in their attempts to demystify emotions, Jennings did not wish to be limited by an intellectual aesthetic. A cradle Catholic, she maintained a lifelong faith in Christianity, which Enright failed in doing, and poems of religious belief always occupied an important place in her work.

Jennings published her second volume, A Way of Looking, two years later in 1955. Its 40 poems also display the cool, natural, uncontrived style found in Poems. As its title suggests, the volume is interested more in probing ways of looking than in developing particular subject matter. Even when her topics are factually based and drawn from historical record, she rarely employs detailed settings and considers actuality merely a point of departure from which self-understanding may be abstracted. Physical reality serves more as a speculative premise in these poems than as a reminder of verisimilitude. “Not in the Guide Books,” from the book’s last section, is one such lyric, a travel poem in which public experience gives rise to private understanding. The formula is comparably employed in “For a Child Born Dead” and “The Recognition.” And in “Tribute” she directly acknowledges the importance of poetry to this associative process:

The poem is enough that joins me to
The world that seems far to grasp at when
Images fail and words are gabbled speech:
At those times clarity appears in you,
Your mind holds meanings that my mind can read.

(Jennings CP, 35)

In their reviews of A Way of Looking, some critics denounced the unfulfilled potential promised by Jennings’s first collection. She reflected, “A second book of verse is always a hazard. Critics are waiting to pounce and declare, ‘It doesn’t live up to the promise shown in her first book.’ If you have enlarged your scope in the matter of theme and form you are unlikely to win even then, for journalists will say, ‘She is uneasy with her new subject matter’” (Contemporary, 110–11). Nevertheless, the book won the Somerset Maugham prize for 1956; the award stipulated that the recipient must spend at least three months abroad in a country of her choosing. The financial remuneration of 400 pounds enabled her to spend three months in Italy, which she declared to be the happiest and most worthwhile time of her life, and to return to England with 80 pounds left over.

The poems she wrote in Rome became the basis of her third book, A Sense of the World (1958), and naturally many of them, such as “Fountain,” “St. Paul Outside the Walls,” and “Letter from Assisi,” contained Roman themes. The poems record her love for Italy and her Catholic heritage, but they are more than postcards intending to conserve the itinerary and topography of her travels. The settings also provide juxtaposition for her spiritual dislocation. Jennings’s poetry was becoming decidedly less confessional, and her concerns turned to children, old men and women, storms, religious motifs, and the passage of time. Unlike her Movement colleagues, Jennings never felt comfortable writing poems about popular issues and current events, believing that successful poems absorb writers wholly and completely and not just for the moment. While she admitted that good poems might be written about such matters as nuclear warfare, modern art, popular advertising, and scientific experimentation—all of which had served as topics for Conquest, Larkin, and other Movement writers—she found those subjects generally less compelling than the familiar themes of love and death with which poets had traditionally dealt. “The best poets writing today are those who are most personal, who are trying > to examine and understand their own emotions, behaviour or actions, or those of other people” (“Comments,” 32). By writing about familiar subjects in orthodox ways Jennings felt she was participating in the proud English tradition of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Eliot.

Moreover, satisfied with no single political party, Jennings was not interested in writing political verse, though unlike her New Lines colleagues she was devoutly committed to exploring themes of Roman Catholicism. Her Catholicism is especially conspicuous in A Sense of the World. While her religiosity and absence of social correctives may at first glance appear uncharacteristic of Movement verse, she explains their relevance. “I believe firmly that every poet must be committed to something and, if his religion or political convictions mean anything to him at all, I do not see how they can fail to affect his poems” (“Context,” 51).

Although the verses in A Sense of the World are primarily lyrical, she began to experiment with other poetic forms, including free verse, the prose poem, and a good deal of terza rima. She returned to England but visited Rome again in February 1957; she then quit her job, and in April 1958 returned to Rome for 13 weeks.

Upon coming home she became a general reader for Chatto and Windus, the publishers of William Empson and F. R. Leavis, and the position afforded her the opportunity to attend literary teas with T. S. Eliot and Edith Sitwell. Her reputation grew, earning her a membership in the Royal Society of Literature in 1961, and her work was included in the first Penguin Modern Poets series, published in 1962, which also contained the work of Lawrence Durrell and R.S. Thomas. The book went through three additional printings in the next five years and spawned subsequent volumes in a long-running sequence of titles.

In her second year at Chatto and Windus, Jennings suffered a severe mental breakdown and attempted suicide. She consequently left Chatto’s and would eventually write two books devoted to her struggle with depression, which are discussed later in the chapter. But during her recovery she completed work on Every Changing Shape, a book about mysticism and poetry, reviewed novels for the Listener, and worked on four other books: a new book of poems, Song for a Birth or a Death; a poetry book for children, Let’s Have Some Poetry; a translation of Michelangelo’s sonnets; and a pamphlet she was editing for the British Council, An Anthology of Modern Verse 1940–60.

Song for a Birth or a Death (1961) was composed in Italy, and it deviates from the Movement themes of insularity and secularity. The poems are profoundly religious, at times even mystical, and they display a distinct lack of irony. In “To a Friend with a Religious Vocation,” she struggles to articulate her religious vision:

                                                  I see
Within myself no wish to breed or build
Or take the three vows ringed by poverty.
          And yet I have a sense,
Vague and inchoate, with no symmetry
Of purpose.

(Jennings CP, 114)

In “A World of Light” she basks in “A mood the senses cannot touch or damage, / A sense of peace beyond the breathing word” (Jennings CP, 92), and in another poem she derives a calming tranquility from a Roman mass, even though she does not understand Latin. Though mystical experiences are by nature fundamentally private, Jennings suggests in “Men Fishing in the Arno” that they can become the basis for a whole community with

Each independent, none
Working with others and yet accepting
Others. From this one might, I think
Build a whole way of living.

(Jennings CP, 117)

Jennings justifies religion’s close connection to her art, believing that the host, wine, and offering contribute to a sacrosanct vision “of art as gesture and as sacrament, > art with its largesse and its own restraint” (Jennings CP, 104).

Jennings laments that the sense of the sacred is vanishing from modern life, “so the poetic gift, which still remains something mysterious and inexplicable has tended to be ignored along with many other intangible things.”2 Her obeisance to the idea of salvation through art prompted Wain to dedicate his “Green Fingers” to her, claiming “Your art will save your life, Elizabeth.”3

In contrast to Song for a Birth or Death, her anthology seems a clear celebration of Movement virtues. Beginning with the publication of Eliot’s last great poem, An Anthology of Modern Verse 1940–60 (1961) covers “twenty years of suffering, restlessness and uncertainty,”4 a period marked by an urge for formal order and clarity in verse in defiance of the chaos and confusion of postwar society. Most of the poets she includes were children or adolescents when World War II began. “The war was for them, therefore, little more than a rather vague, unhappy memory. They began to write their mature poems in an atmosphere of political and, indeed, cosmic uncertainty. Yet, paradoxically, it is in their work that we can see the most striking evidence of the desire for form, style and order, and also of a wish to stress the dignity of human personality” (Anthology, 9).

Believing that such ruthless honesty and underlying passion had been best exemplified by poets whose love of simplicity and disdain for poetic artifice were common to her own work, Jennings selected all nine Movement poets for inclusion in her anthology: two poems apiece from Amis, Conquest, Davie, Enright, Holloway, and Wain, three from herself (one each from her first three volumes, including her favorite poem, “Fountain”), and four from Larkin and Gunn.

But An Anthology of Modern Verse 1940–60 notwithstanding, Jennings’s gradual dissatisfaction with the characteristic Movement style was becoming apparent. Writing in London, she paid homage to the past but also declared her intention to break with its traditions:

I don’t myself always want to write the rhyming lyric of thirty-odd lines. Indeed, I do at times feel positively inhibited and exasperated by the form. At the moment, I am extremely eager to write longer poems, dramatic verse (I would, for example, like to write the libretto for an opera), and prose poems. But I am still as fascinated as I was when I was thirteen by the marvellous variety within strict English lyric verse. As for the “poetic language” of today—there are times when I feel that it is too dry, too intellectual, sometimes, even, too facile. Maybe it needs a little rough treatment, though I can see absolutely no virtue in confusion or obscurity for their own sake.

(“Difficult,” 51)

Jennings worried that she was becoming too slick and feared that her talent might dry up before she mastered her craft. She sought to be less an observer and commentator and more a vehicle for her personal experiences, perhaps as a curative for her mental illness. Her tortuous recovery from depression through hospitalization and analysis was detailed by Jennings in Recoveries (1964) and The Mind Has Mountains (1966). The verses in these two collections are remarkable, given their subject matter, for their lack of sentimentality; they are not the ravings of a broken spirit, nor do they display an open sense of self-pity. Rather she views all those in the mental hospital—patients, doctors, and nurses—with detached compassion, and they are hardly the type of commonsense poems on which the Movement was established.

Jennings’s best poems always seem contemplative in nature, and the hospital setting was appropriate for her meditations on psychological pain. The remarkable stillness in these poems is achieved by her clear, spare language. She concentrates meaning in the poems’ fluent final lines as momentary stays against disorder, allowing her to transcend for a time the hurt that prompted the utterance. In this way Jennings uses her art to exorcise the demons of her breakdown by transforming the chaos of her dark dreams into a kind of serenity. In “Works of Art” she asserts that, although art so often “appears like an escape >We want more order than we ever meet / And art keeps driving us most hopefully on” (Jennings CP, 137). Though these poems are frequently disquieting, Jennings retains control in them. She examines her illness lucidly and without resorting to self-confession or linguistic confusion.

The Mind Has Mountains, which won the Richard Hillary prize, derives its title from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s explorations into the abyss of mental despair. Identifying with other creative artists who have suffered extreme mental distress, Jennings proclaims in “Van Gogh” that madness may be an important component of art’s tranquility:

There is a theory that the very heart
Of making means a flaw, neurosis, some
Sickness; yet others say it is release.
I only know that your wild, surging art
Took you to agony, but makes us come
Strangely to gentleness, a sense of peace.

(Jennings CP, 176)

Jennings’s sympathy with her fellow sufferers and patients is strong. She insists in “Madness” that

It is the lack of reason makes us fear,
The feeling that ourselves might be like this.
We are afraid to help her or draw near
As if she were infectious and could give
Some taint, some touch of her own fantasies,
Destroying all the things for which we live.

(Jennings CP, 173)

Jennings was hospitalized on several occasions, and she attempted to gain some peace through the efficacy of poetry, believing “the act of writing a poem is itself an implicit affirmation of the possibility of order” (“Difficult,” 30). The composure which she sought in her own verse and valued in that of others became the goal of her personal life, and her poetry often seems a courageous effort to discover a sense of order within, although she confesses in “In a Mental Hospital Sitting Room” that “It does not seem a time for lucid rhyming” (Jennings CP, 171), and she laments in “On a Friend’s Relapse and Return to a Mental Clinic” that “It is the good who often know joy least” (Jennings CP, 188). The Mind Has Mountains displays a heroic dedication to return to the placidity of the poems she wrote before her breakdown. She bravely tries to come to terms with her turbulent illness, but some poems offer little more than pious pronouncements. And while the poems are highly personal in nature, they retain a formality antipodal to their subject and are never particularly revealing in an autobiographical kind of way.

Jennings’s Collected Poems was issued in 1967, drawing its material from the seven books she had written over a 14-year period. The collection reprints 207 of her 243 previously issued poems. Its publication renewed critical interest in her work, and it was reviewed widely as critics used it as a benchmark to assess her artistic development. Anthony Thwaite noted her “steady and persistent contemplative gift”5 and appreciated her unsentimental lyrical verses. He proclaimed that the volume “shows a remarkable unity of tone and theme, repetitive and yet gaining strength from that very fact. The most notable development has been one of giving greater prominence to the immediate and circumstantial, and yet clearly the later poems of mental agony and illness come from the same person who wrote such pure and clear lyrics and meditations as the early ‘Delay,’ ‘Reminiscence’ and ‘The Island.’”6

Julian Symons praised her ingenuity and wit and remarked favorably on her ability to construct metaphysical conceits. He found sources for her organization and technical clarity in Robert Graves and A. E. Housman. Although he charted little stylistic development in Jennings’s verse, Symons observed a change in her subjects. Even the mental illness poems “are composed with the cool firmness of the early poems. Nobody can have written less hysterically about hysteria, yet the sense of personal involvement is always there.”7

The themes of her next book, The Animals’ Arrival (1969), are decidedly shopworn, however, and the verses themselves shrill as Jennings sought to emerge from the writings about her breakdown by creating what seemed to her more vital poetry. The book is dedicated to her friend poet Peter Levi, but her concerns here are less personal and more aesthetic. In “Of Languages” she demands a new poetic, believing that the hour is nearing when language must be made sudden and new and images sharp and still. A call for honesty also appears in “Resolve,” where she vows not to write so glibly of the ill, choosing instead warmth, sanity, and health. But on the whole, the poems are not especially engaging.

Jennings’s poetic decline continued in Relationships (1972), which Alisdair Maclean labeled “catastrophic.”8 He blames the decrement on her use of Emily Dickinson for a poetic model. Although the resemblance of Jennings’s verse to Dickinson’s had been approvingly noted by John Thompson in his review of A Sense of the World, Maclean complains that “for Emily Dickinson’s apparent simplicity, however, Miss Jennings too often supplies bathos, and for phrases like ‘zero at the bone’ substitutes a language colourless to the point of invisibility. The trouble seems to be a lack of any real pressure in the creation of these poems” (Maclean, 389). He also faults her language as stilted, inverted, and awkward, as in “Simply because they were human, I admire”9 (“In Memory of Anyone Unknown to Me”). Only her pain and vulnerability, best articulated in “Sympathy,” keep the poems from seeming overly didactic.

A stronger Jennings emerged in Growing-Points in 1975, one admittedly determined to gather strength from her pain. She continued to experiment technically with a variety of verse forms, and the volume seems aptly named. The poems themselves have grown longer, thereby freeing up her diction from the restrictions of regular meter while still remaining essentially pure, and her poetic line has been lengthened as well (though sometimes leading to irksome runons, as in “An Abandoned Palace,” where the lines sometimes exceed 20 syllables). Experiments with free verse and prose poetry alternate with traditional poems in an attempt to bring a new force to her work. The poems still frequently end in aphorisms, but the volume shows just how far Jennings had begun to stray from Movement dictum. Her trademark homilies and quiet lyricism are still visible, but her realizations are more labored, muddled, wistful, and complex than before.

Her divergence from Movement themes and techniques is quite evident in her myth poems on Orpheus, Persephone, and the Minotaur and in her muted, unfocused imagery, which all too often falls into clichés and stereotypes—sunsets, falling leaves, and the like. Her poems of tribute and direct address to famous artistic, literary, and religious figures are on the whole sanctimonious and sentimental. The volume includes poems to Mozart and Hopkins, homage to Van Gogh, Thomas Aquinas, Mondrian, Rembrandt, Wallace Stevens, and Auden. And there is a bold but ill-considered monologue projected by Christ on the cross.

Religious themes compose the dramatic substance of Consequently I Rejoice (1977), an ample collection of 88 meditations on Jennings’s Christian faith. As in Growing-Points, she records the pain and suffering of a convalescing Catholic, and there are again dramatic monologues from religious figures, here Christ and Mary. While still an intensely personal, lyric poet, in Consequently I Rejoice Jennings turns a bit abstract in her longing for faith, for the book attempts to universalize her campaign against despair. It begins similarly to her previous collections by documenting her nightmares, and there are the familiar lines of self-flagellation, as in “Elegy for Aldous Huxley”—“You put away / The novels, verses, stories where the ‘I’ / Dominates, makes us masochists”10—and of pleading, as in “Cradle Catholic”—“O take my unlove and despair / And what they lack let faith repair” (Consequently, 36). But she expands the scope of her study beyond the personal as she traces her spiritual and intellectual development through a year-long cycle. Seasonal and cyclical patterns (poems of parents and infants, images of sun and moon and night and day) accent the soul’s passage until at the cycle’s end the last nightmares are no longer uniquely hers but everyone’s—especially the elderly, who either dwell in or remain bereft of lasting spiritual peace. Her “Old People’s Nursing Home” is mindful of Larkin’s “The Old Fools”; though her poem is more compassionate and intuitive than Larkin’s, it surely lacks his distinctive irony.

By compressing the journey of the soul into one year’s time, Jenning’s book invites comparison to In Memoriam, though it was certainly conceived on a smaller scale. Tennyson’s “swallow flights of song” are designed to chart the soul’s passage. Jennings too avails herself of bird metaphors, for her poems are haunted by auguries of flight and birdsong meant as hopeful reminders that her spirit may one day again soar. “Wisdom is in our bloodstream not in brain,” she affirms in “Song for the Swifts” (Consequently, 15).

Throughout the poems Jennings equates religious doubt with her self-doubt as a writer, and in penning poems of tribute to other artists (Huxley, Edward Thomas, D. H. Lawrence, Paul Klee, Cézanne, and Virginia Woolf her examples here) she actually seeks self-illumination and understanding; the artists’ identity seems consequential to her own. Tennyson felt himself a lesser artist than Hallam, but for Jennings it was Thomas (“For Edward Thomas”) who embodied the quiet, principled, amiable nature she wished to capture in her verse. Her meditations on other artists are but another form of self-reflection, and it is instrumental to both her faith and poetic achievement in that she views the relationship between the individual soul and God akin to that between artist and creation.

The title of her next offering, Moments of Grace (1979), refers to those brief occasions when despair and frustration are eclipsed by moments of spiritual transcendancy. Jennings’s religious verse consistently subscribes to the Wordsworthian notion that daily human experience is laden with potential revelations. Suspending the soul between the natural and supernatural seems her aesthetic goal, but all too often she depicts her aloneness and sorrow without achieving that measured balance. Jennings openly acknowledges that prayer and the sacraments of her faith have not always sustained her. That her devoutness could not allay her religious dismay proved especially troubling; a life-long Catholic, she struggled perpetually for the protection and blessings of God.

Moments of Grace is not about her mental illness, and it includes Jennings’s first poem to address a public issue, “Euthanasia.” More than in her earlier works, she attempts to witness the unification of God and nature. As a result the strong lyricism of prior volumes is diminished by her emphasis on what is essentially more ponderous, philosophic matter. Perhaps she had previously been afraid to explore such deep, ruminative questions, but in Moments of Grace she is ill at ease with her speculative subject matter. She confesses her awkwardness and alienation, and is uncertain when probing the grace afforded by the natural world. Undoubtedly Jennings believed the Wordsworthian premises articulated in her verse, but she is a gentle arguer and seems envious of those able to overcome their estrangement and attain those rare “moments of grace.”

Perhaps her reticence is strategic, meant to suggest that she is unworthy of spiritual consolation, that she is to remain in awe forever before God. In any case, the poems are often interrupted by mild interjections that reverse the course of her ideas but allow her to adhere to her metrical pattern (her fondness for terza rima persists). She seems as restive with her fellow humans as she does with herself, and is at times overly apologetic and colloquial, as if her vicarious experiences were more important than her personal ones.

Selected Poems appeared in the same year as Moments of Grace. Ninety-one poems from her Collected Poems, three with slight verbal changes, appear in Selected Poems. That few changes appear in the poems is unsurprising, for 12 years earlier she conceded in an interview with John Press that she wrote swiftly and revised little. Surprisingly, though, three-quarters of the poems written between her Collected and Selected Poems, that period of her great mental torment, were omitted presumably because Jennings felt they lacked the impact of her earlier work and thereby did not warrant inclusion.

In the 1980s Jennings was again drawn to Italy and southern travel, issuing Italian Light and Other Poems in 1981 and the Bibbiena poems, Celebrations and Elegies, the following year. Her Lincolnshire childhood is the subject of her fourteenth book of poems, Extending the Territory (1985). Her more recent poetry, like that in her first books, is marked by restraint and understatement. Elizabeth Jennings “is not the kind of poet who is likely to find it acceptable to ‘say something a bit more interesting’ than she means.”11 She has remained a quiet, readable poet preoccupied with suffering and pain, and she has a musical ear, a talent fashioned out of decades of plumbing her own ephemerality and isolation. Her growth as a poet has been modest, though she is still craftsmanlike in her approach to verse and continues to prefer rhyme and traditional meters as ways to balance form and content. A lyrical writer who shuns lengthy descriptions, Jennings is more a temporal than spatial poet; her romanticism and imagery tend toward intellectualization and allegory and away from plot.

Consequently, she continues to receive the complaints, long leveled against Movement verse, that her work is emotionally diffident and self-conscious, that it is frequently too literal, didactic, and banal, and that it lacks vivid descriptive appeal.

William Blissett assesses her contribution to the period as follows: “The student of literary history will discern in Elizabeth Jennings the marks of her generation and The Movement—the continuity of rhyme and reason, of syntax and stanza (as if Ezra Pound had never lived), the easy rhythms, the eschewing of decoration, the control of metaphor; but he will also notice how the one woman and the one Catholic stands apart from the others, in the special insights given her by the enjoyment of Italy and the suffering of illness, by her librarian’s nonacademic love of literature, and by her lifelong religious concern.”12

Notes

  1. Elizabeth Jennings, “Elizabeth Jennings,” in Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series (Detroit: Gale, 1987), 107; hereafter cited in text as Contemporary.

  2. Elizabeth Jennings, “The Difficult Balance,” London Magazine, November 1959, 28; hereafter cited in text as “Difficult.”

  3. John Wain, Letters to Five Artists (New York: Viking, 1969), 55.

  4. Elizabeth Jennings, An Anthology of Modern Verse 1940–60 (London: Methuen, 1961), 7; hereafter cited in text as Anthology.

  5. Anthony Thwaite, Twentieth-Century English Poetry: An Introduction (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1978), 44.

  6. Anthony Thwaite, “Elizabeth Jennings,” Contemporary Poets (London: St. James, 1970), 559–60.

  7. Julian Symons, “Clean and Clear,” New Statesman, 13 October 1967, 476.

  8. Alisdair Maclean, “Marble Fun,” Listener, 22 March 1973, 389; hereafter cited in text.

  9. Elizabeth Jennings, Relationships (London: Macmillan, 1972), 19.

  10. Elizabeth Jennings, Consequently I Rejoice (Manchester: Carcanet, 1987), 54; hereafter cited in text as Consequently.

  11. John Matthias, “Pointless and Poignant,” Poetry, March 1977, 350.

  12. William Blissett, “Elizabeth Jennings,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 27 (Detroit: Gale, 1978), 170.

Will Eaves (review date 15 January 1993)

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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 this tension between the multiform spirit and the single creed pausibly resolved. Jennings’s God is attractive because one senses that He is the sort of humanist God who reads His horoscope. There are celebrants who share Jennings’s star-gazing persona, but almost none, apart from her fellow Oxford poet Anne Ridler (from whom a Collected Poems is urgently required), for whom poetry as “The poise of time. The history of speech. / Articulation. Subject brought to heel” can still tackle the big questions so directly—and make them new, as Jennings does, on a regular basis. The main thrust of the new book develops this credo: that poetic form can be restorative, providing a ceremony in which the impulses of solstice, season and sacred ritual are to be renewed.

As ever, the genius loci of this ceremony is to be found in the Jennings sonnet:

Spirit of place. Spirit of time. Re-form
The rugged oaks and chestnuts. Now they stand
Naked and pallid giants out of storm
And out of sorts. It is the Autumn’s end
And this is Winter brought in by All Saints
Followed by All Souls to keep us in
Touch with chill and death. Each re-acquaints
Us with the year’s end.

Characteristically, the first line’s invocations melt into meditation, though the wintry heart of the poem is in the rhythmical ellipsis that freezes the metre momentarily after “Touch”; Jennings is a great believer in leaving doors open to “Allow, admit the brave, attentive verb”, even if it turns out to be the silent harbinger of “chill and death”.

Silence is also germane to verse which takes time to reflect on the pause between good linguistic intention and imperfect expression. Unspoken potency—the erotic impulse of most creation—informs “In the Beginning”, which recasts a well-documented sympathy for the Virgin in primordial terms: “The child was small among / All angry drifts but Mary kept her work / And it grew in her womb”. Linguistic purpose is conceived in a fallen landscape which awaits seasonal redemption; like the Gawain poet (and Christ’s many appearances as the Green Man reinforce the comparison), Jennings anticipates “a meaning that’s delayed” by waiting for the natural cycle to take her “back to the start and to the source”.

But Elizabeth Jennings’s silences have a hard classical edge as well; and the secondary note of loss in this collection has more to do with Platonic regret than it does with a green eschatology. The old comforts are still in evidence (art, nature, childhood, innocence, dreams, embattled optimism), but the distance she maintains from her work—her insistence that each poem is written away from the self—is growing more strained; and the sense that form endures while words can only point to what has already been lost deepens the grief shed in the book’s core sequence, “For My Mother”.

     Nothing is innocent,
Nothing unable to alter, to carry a word
     Of yours. Each element
Is charged with a copy of you or carries a chord
     Or echo of something you said.
Today in a blackbird’s joyful cry I heard
     You speaking from the dead.

That feeling of ambivalent innocence, it is suggested, is probably the best you can hope for in poetry; God’s “purposes out of time” may provide the ineffable inspiration, but language still has to do the leg-work. And so it’s hard to take Jennings’s metaphysical astronomer entirely seriously when she faces the stars and claims. “Our words make them grow less / As we waylay them to define”. The stars are surely not so vain as to snub one of contemporary English poetry”s major sublunary assets.

Michael O'Neill (review date 25 December 1998)

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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 were whispered / Into our childhood ears / Stay with us somehow somewhere.” The poem persuades through the rhythmic skills that ensure Jennings’s poetry is close to song yet in touch with the flow of speech. Occasionally, her preference for a plain style gives her language a shopworn air, as when she writes “you know how to make magic happen”. But the next line, “It's here before me with the curtains open”, rides to the rescue, its disciplined music suggesting that “magic” is, indeed, possible. Praises treats interconnected subjects (the mysteries of religion, the significance of the apparently insignificant, the reality of transience and pain, the power of art), until the different poems seem to merge into a single, endlessly self-modifying work. This is not an adverse comment, even if there is a degree of repetition between poems. On the contrary, Elizabeth Jennings’s poetic inexhaustibility is a matter for gratitude—and praise.

Additional coverage of Jennings's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 61-64; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 8, 39, 66; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 27; Major 20th-Century Writers, Vol. 1, and Something about the Author, Vol. 66.

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Jennings, Elizabeth (Vol. 14)