Elizabeth Jennings

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Jennings, Elizabeth (Vol. 5)

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Jennings, Elizabeth 1926–2001

Elizabeth Jennings is an English Catholic poet and scholar who established her literary reputation as a member of "the Movement," a group of writers which included Kingsley Amis, Thom Gunn, and Philip Larkin. The dignity and composure that characterized the early work of the "Movement" writers is evident in all of Miss Jennings' poetry.

In declining to use rhetorical gestures, startling images and metaphors, or to render the physical world with any vividness, Miss Jennings severely limits her range. She asks to be read as a poet of the mind, to be read for her insights and the play of ideas. And she selects topics about which one might write a prose essay. She likes such subjects as the nature of symbols, myth, kingship—all of which call for intellectual reach and subtlety. (p. 125)

William Van O'Connor, in his The New University Wits and the End of Modernism (copyright © 1963, Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Southern Illinois University Press, 1963.

[Elizabeth] Jennings's poetry inhabits a moral world, and that is a rare thing these days when the pat phrases of ideological indignation are as far as many of our poets get in exploring the universe ethically considered. Didactic poetry, like didactic judgment, can appear harsh and off-putting; but her poems are saved from this by her vulnerability to the fact of pain and her fund of sympathy. She is also a wise, as well as compassionate poet and knows that self-pity is 'death to the human heart'; which is one reason why she tells us 'Never blame/Anyone but yourself.'

Her most frequent themes are hurt, sorrow and aloneness (whether of herself or others), but she does not seek to hug these states, rather to understand and transcend them. So she sees the roots of so many of our moral and spiritual dilemmas in an egoism turning inward…. (pp. 100-01)

Derek Stanford, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Derek Stanford 1972), December, 1972.

In 1967, Elizabeth Jennings' Collected Poems appeared. Edmund Blunden described her poetry as uniting "the deepest sensibility with a poetry of restraint and yet of great candour". [Here is] … a formal restraint rather than a tentativeness of statement. Her prose poems are her most successful deviations from strict form, while the free-verse or aformal poems at the end of the Collected are the least successful. Miss Jennings requires traditional form, and she uses it with authority. Her temperament is not innovative in this sense. With her, form helps to discover order or disorder, rather than … order or disorder discovering form. Form is a primary poetic necessity rather than a device in Miss Jennings' poetry. Early on, she saw it, rather as Donne did, controlling the otherwise inarticulable. (p. 82)

Her central preoccupation is not, then, with technique—something she takes for granted and uses skilfully. Nor does she worry much about "what poetry is"—she recognises that it is essential to her, and it would be solipsistic in her to tease out the reasons for this urgent necessity. If anything, poetry is a mode—perhaps the only mode—she has of reaching beyond her individual isolation and discovering relationship. When her poems are aesthetic in preoccupation, she is usually exploring the applicability of art to experience, or its vital relationship with experience. Most often her preoccupation is with suffering of various sorts, with loss, and occasionally fine celebrations of love. She is … a poet who is still developing, within her chosen formal confines, towards a new clarity. She began as a love poet and has developed...

(This entire section contains 1019 words.)

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into the poet of complex relationships. Her best poems are not descriptive but exploratory of relationships. She seems at present to be putting aside rather than losing her earlier, more complex language, her aesthetic frame of reference, and her for a time obsessive mental hospital themes for direct confrontation with relationships. Some of the recent poems strike one as sentimental: simplifications rather than lucidities. But the best of them are her finest work to date, rediscovering meaning in apparently overused words, finding a linguistic spareness and clarity which render the poems direct and to the heart. The stylistic transition is almost complete.

Love, shadows, the mind, silence—all these are basic themes in her work. Time, too, obsesses her, and time rather than space is the poet's plane, through which she moves. Her images from nature are usually explicated, allegorised. The poems with plots (especially the early poems) become archetypal in her treatment, and effectively so. (pp. 82-3)

From this tendency to archetypes, Miss Jennings has proceeded on her course. The imagined and generalised has become realised. Intellectual preoccupation, where the mind implied thought, has become preoccupation where the mind implies perception in the widest sense—moral and human perception. There is no more hypothesis. The experiences of loss, the uncertainty of continuous identity, unfulfilled or frustrated longing, the ephemerality of landmarks and timemarks, a failure to find roots and security, to establish permanent relationships with nature or with human beings, have become the burning concerns of Miss Jennings' poetry. "It is acceptance she arranges", one of the recent poems says—perhaps this is the almost sacramental function of her art, expressed earlier in "Visit to an Artist". There the host and wine, the offering—which the experience underlies, validates, sanctifies—are most real and impart an ultimate validity to the poetic act.

"It was by negatives I learned my place…." Without ever having been a genuinely confessional poet, Elizabeth Jennings has explored more territory in more depth than most poets writing today. Her recent work continues with the preoccupations of the earlier, but moves always closer and closer to bedrock. It is strange for a poet, at the outset of a career, to foresee intellectually most of the problems which will become realities for her later on. To have kept course and cut always deeper as she went and goes is a remarkable achievement. (pp. 83-4)

Margaret Byers, "Cautious Vision: Recent British Poetry by Women" (copyright © by Margaret Byers), in British Poetry Since 1960: A Critical Survey, edited by Michael Schmidt and Grevel Lindop, Carcanet, 1972, pp. 82-4.


Jennings, Elizabeth (Vol. 14)