Jennings, Elizabeth 1926–2001
Jennings is an English Catholic poet and critic who established her literary reputation as a member of "the Movement," a group of writers that included Kingsley Amis, Thom Gunn, and Philip Larkin. The dignity and composure that characterized the early work of the "Movement" writers are evident in all of Jennings's poetry. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64.)
The good things about Elizabeth Jennings are as good as ever in [Recoveries], and the limitations just the same. When a poem of hers comes off, she manages to cancel the impression made by those fluent, limp, iambic lines by some line (often a last one) which, equally fluent and rhythmically unexciting, concentrates the whole meaning of the poem, hits the bull's-eye in fact. The measured stillness sometimes comes out just as dullness, but much more often it is rescued in this way. Her best and natural state is contemplation, and the poems tend to be about the debits and credits of the contemplative attitude…. By a fine and conscious stroke of art Elizabeth Jennings places in the middle of her own grey and cloistral verses a translation from Camus, ecstatically hymning an Algerian morning, which has, in that context, the effect of blazing sun through cloister arcades.
P. N. Furbank, "Books: 'Recoveries'," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1964; reprinted by permission of P. N. Furbank), Vol. LXXII, No. 1843, July 23, 1964, p. 137.
The characteristics of [Elizabeth Jennings's] poetry, from her first remarkable Fantasy Press volume 14 years ago, have been ingenuity, wit, and a persistent interest in the relationship between visible and imagined worlds. The tone is often lyrical, but the poems [in her Collected Poems] are metaphysical conceits. Some are about love, all are basically involved with the nature of reality. Can we really trust what we see?…
These are Miss Jennings's poetic concerns [in Collected Poems], and she carried them through from the first with intelligence and a powerful sense of form. It is a pleasure to see poems that are organised, like those of Graves or Housman, that start from an evident point, move to a designed coherent end, and are written in a language that is always clean and clear. As a stylist she sprang ready-armed with her first book and has developed little, but her subjects have changed. In a British Council pamphlet she defined the function of poetry as the discovery of
order amid chaos, meaning in the middle of
confusion, and affirmation at the heart of despair.
Many of her own later poems make this kind of affirmation. They are about admission to a mental home, diagnosis and treatment, psychiatrists, attempted suicide, a nurse going sick, a friend's relapse and return to a mental clinic, and almost all 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.
The most exact tribute one can pay to Elizabeth Jennings's poems is that among chaos and personal unhappiness order is always there, not merely pushing through but triumphantly asserted. The dreams are dark enough, but they are both wild and serene.
Julian Symons, "Clean and Clear," in New Statesman (© 1967 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 74, No. 1909, October 13, 1967, p. 476.
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…. (p. 110)
(This entire section contains 128 words.)
disorder within and without, Elizabeth Jennings seeks courageously for order. In such poems asA 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. (p. 111)
Michael Mott, "Recent Developments in British Poetry," in Poetry (© 1971 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXVIII, No. 2, May, 1971, pp. 102-14.∗
Elizabeth Jennings has been a poet of solid if modest achievement, but her decline [in Relationships] is catastrophic. This new collection includes a poem addressed to Emily Dickinson, and one guesses that the American served as the model for much of it. 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. (p. 389)
Alasdair Maclean, "Marble Fun," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1973; reprinted by permission of Alasdair Maclean), Vol. 89, No. 2295, March 22, 1973, pp. 389-90.∗
It's good to see a poet breaking back out of a lean period. Elizabeth Jennings, one remembers, was brought in as the 'sensitive' dimension to the no-nonsense Movement of the Fifties. Her early poems were precise, beautifully rounded and very personal broodings on topics which her immediate contemporaries refused to have truck with: love, childhood, religion, travels in southern places. Her work was never less than accomplished, and could be memorable in its quiet, unstrained way. But subsequent books tended to be only as interesting as the new things she had to say, and these were few. And new ways of saying them were fewer still. Now, just when she seemed set to take a minor, if very respectable, place as a gentle mid-century romantic and modest allegorist, Growing Points shows us a poet who has suddenly and impressively increased the scope and richness, and the technical variety and command, of her writing.
The change is not always a matter of the form of the poems—though it is heartening to see how the longer poems here, especially some with a new long line allowing a freer, less circumscribed diction, achieve a much more successful release than some of her previous experiments (those occasional, uncomfortable prose poems in books like Recoveries and Lucidities). The real improvement is in the ordering of ideas within the familiar Jennings framework, and a new freshness and surprise in the ideas themselves: all at once the neat stanzas have a new bite…. As before, her poems of formal tribute or address ('Hopkins in Wales', 'Mozart's Horn Concertos') are a bit stiff and reverential, and she can still turn out too easily the kind of small-scale, sensitively introspective poem which loses its point in vagueness. But there are more poems here which turn the recognisable Jennings themes and properties to good, and moving, effect than in any volume we have had from her for a decade. Growing Points is a book which amply merits its title. (p. 732)
Alan Brownjohn, "Hymenoptera," in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 89, No. 2306, May 30, 1975, pp. 732-33.∗
Women's poetry has become an industry since Elizabeth Jennings began to publish in the 1950s. It is to Miss Jennings's credit that she has not allowed herself to be swept along with the tide. In her new collection, Growing Points, the poise and tenderness of her early work is reaffirmed. She is still too nice to stand up and spit at life—a gesture not incompatible with the reverence she obviously feels for it—but in some of these poems she shows us that she probably could if she would.
I feel I could be turned to ice If this goes on, if this goes on. I feel I could be buried twice And still the death not yet be done.
If only there were a few more poems like this in the book; but too often, 'literature' takes over…. Miss Jennings is a better religious poet. The sequence with which the book begins is masterly in technique, and enhanced by perception and deep feeling, but it has little force. A few lines, though, do possess the necessary cutting edge that makes poetry stick in the mind after the book has been closed. (pp. 572-73)
Anne Stevenson, "A Need for Reverence," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1975; reprinted by permission of Anne Stevenson), Vol. 94, No. 2430, October 30, 1975, pp. 571-73.∗
Elizabeth Jennings's [Growing-Points] reveals most of her strengths and fewer than usual of her weaknesses. All the Jennings hallmarks are here: scrupulous deployment of the iambic, purity of diction, psychological shrewdness, that parabolic movement from particular to general which crystallises in eye-catching, aphoristic last lines. Some of the limitations are also sporadically in evidence: a slightly too kidgloved, reverential, excessively wistful treatment of emotional states, a faint tremulousness which seems inseparable from the attractive delicacies of feeling, a lack of irony, suggestive ambiguity and dramatic dynamism. Nevertheless, the collection shows more variety, vigour and open-endedness than has been evident in Miss Jennings's recent work, and even though her best effects still work in terms of meanings rather than physical images, the purity of structure and verbal clarity she always strives to sustain can now accommodate richer, more complex realisations without being overloaded. If Miss Jennings's poems give the impression of being shapely, crystalline distillations from pain,… [her writing] aims for a compensatory coolness and poise. (pp. 79-80)
Terry Eagleton, "New Poetry: 'Growing Points'," in Stand (copyright © by Stand), Vol. 17, No. 1 (1975–76), pp. 79-80.
Throughout [Growing-Points], poems in Ms. Jennings's familiar meters and stanzas alternate with largely unsuccessful attempts to find a substitute for the largely unsuccessful experiments with prose poetry and free verse of earlier volumes in experiments with long lines, irritatingly printed in ugly run-ons.
My guess is that Ms. Jennings writes too much and probably publishes all of it. There are some very good poems and passages here, all right, but you need to do a lot of weeding. What is particularly upsetting is to find, say, a truly exceptional quatrain—and there are several of these—in a poem that is otherwise uninteresting, or a distinguished and original line sandwiched between banalities. It's too bad. My objections, in general, are to clichés of diction and imagery which appear with some regularity, from the autumn leaves of the first poem to the sunrise and sunset of the last; to the habitual and unoriginal use of literary stereotypes; to breathless questions at the conclusions of poems … or, alternatively, barren unresonant statement …; to awkward hyphenating …; to gushiness of all kinds …; to the abstractions, sentimentality, and laboriousness I mentioned earlier; to the frequent lack of energy…. There are a lot of bad moments in poems about artists and thinkers…. And there are things that "ring true", gardens which inevitably become "a metaphor for Eden", "pangs" upon seeing, "breath-taking" beginnings and "breath-regaining" pauses, "worn-out thoughts", "scars of doubt", and even poems which should never have been seriously considered, like the monologue spoken by Christ on the cross.
The extraordinary thing is that Ms. Jennings can turn two-thirds of these faults into virtues. It is, in a way, a matter of taking risks. Had she not been willing to risk writing the unresonant statement "I/Am amazed still at the authority of your perception, your gentleness", she might well not have written elsewhere the equally abstract but very resonant "Self-portraits understand,/And old age can divest,//With truthful changes, us of fear of death."… [In] many of the best poems in Growing-Points Ms. Jennings is very particular, very specific indeed…. One often finds the precision, the sensuousness, and the exactness of observation she admires in Christina Rossetti's work. She is on record these days as aiming chiefly at clarity and simplicity…. Ms. Jennings is not the kind of poet who is likely to find it acceptable to "say something a bit more interesting" than she means. And that will indeed limit her range, her development, and her appeal. But perhaps it will also yield poems and passages—in Growing-Points there are only passages—that achieve something like Yvor Winters was asking for when he wrote of "the ability to imbue a simple expository statement of a complex theme with a rich association of feeling, yet with an utterly pure and unmannered style." She achieves this, I think, in certain lines of several poems in Growing-Points, notably, for example, in the conclusion of Rembrandt's Late Self-Portraits…. (pp. 348-50)
John Matthias, "Pointless and Poignant," in Poetry (© 1977 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXXIX, No. 6, March, 1977, pp. 340-55.∗
[Elizabeth Jennings's] title, Consequently I Rejoice, is a brave and appropriate one for her new collection, in which she shows herself better able to face up to the realities of anguish than many more self-indulgent poets. Her themes are the naturally dramatic themes of the religious poet: pain, longing, hope, faith, love and, finally, if not victory, at least triumph. (p. 487)
Anne Stevenson, "Snaffling and Curbing," in The Listener (copyright © British Broadcasting Corp. 1977; reprinted by permission of Anne Stevenson), Vol. 98, No. 2530, October 13, 1977, pp. 486-87.∗
In Consequently I Rejoice, a substantial collection of eighty-eight poems, experiences are ordered with that meticulous precision we have grown to expect, and the whole book is marshalled impeccably so as to lead us from the preliminary night-thoughts, stirrings of creative activity, through a cycle of the year, dominated by bird-flight and bird-song, to a world of men and women: the old, who have attained wisdom or declined from it. Conscious of the timeless equation of bird and soul, we pass to a sequence of meditations on the Christian faith, some cast in the form of dramatic monologues by Christ and Mary, and so to a group of poems whose theme is the relationship between the artist and his achievement.
Elizabeth Jennings's world is lucid, topiaried. When she moves deeply inside herself, the poems have that edgy feeling of the convalescent for whom the small event bears a press of tears or anger…. It may not be the function of a poet to count the streaks on a tulip, but substance in these poems is refined again and again to essence. The sudden metaphors … enter her landscapes with particular felicity. Her poems for people are warm and moving: the understanding shown in "Old People's Nursing Home" makes Larkin's "The Old Fools" seem a piece of theatre, and her tribute for Edward Thomas illuminates both poets, a description and self-description….
Peter Scupham, "Sacred Encounters," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3953, December 30, 1977, p. 1530.∗