Elizabeth Jennings Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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


(The entire section is 135 words.)

Horace Gregory (review date Fall 1956)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1318 words.)

John Heath-Stubbs (review date February 1959)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 371 words.)

Robin Skelton (review date Spring 1961)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 799 words.)

Samuel French Morse (review date August 1963)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 339 words.)

Alasdair Clayre (review date November 1967)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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


(The entire section is 486 words.)

Michael Mott (review date May 1971)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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”


(The entire section is 234 words.)

John Lucas (review date 15 November 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 252 words.)

J. D. Brophy (review date December 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 193 words.)

Sandra M. Gilbert (review date May 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 934 words.)

Robert Sheppard (review date 21 August 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 570 words.)

Glyn Maxwell (review date 5 May 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 entire section is 695 words.)

Lawrence Sail (review date Autumn 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 459 words.)

Jerry Bradley (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5541 words.)

Will Eaves (review date 15 January 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 834 words.)

Michael O'Neill (review date 25 December 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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”....

(The entire section is 416 words.)