Moments of Grace was published nearly thirty years after Elizabeth Jennings gained recognition as one of the original nine members of the post-World War II British literary movement simply called the Movement, a group that valued straightforward, rational verse over the romanticism that typified the works of Dylan Thomas and the emotionally weighted imagery of earlier English poetry. The plain diction and cool treatment of poetic subjects that had earned Jennings her place in the 1950’s Oxford group alongside Kingsley Amis, Thom Gunn, and Philip Larkin still imbues Moments of Grace; the 1979 poems remain quiet and restrained as they plumb such charged topics as loneliness, abandoned relationships, and spiritual epiphanies. The scope of Moments of Grace—from light musings about lowly insects to quietly reverential poems and pithy reflections on death, law, and misrule—is broader than it was in Jennings’s early work.
Early in Jennings’s career, critics noted that she was the only woman and the only Catholic in a movement of “angry young men” with working-class roots and political agendas. A physician’s daughter with religious inclinations and classical tastes, young Jennings favored formally structured poems that observe rather than moralize; singularly among Movement members, she adhered to traditional, nonpolitical subjects such as love, nature, and the passage of time. Critic Robert Conquest amusedly likened her position in the firebrand Movement to that of a schoolmistress among drunken marines. Nevertheless, by the time Jennings wrote Moments of Grace, the heyday of the Movement had passed; the Oxford-based poet had weathered stints in advertising, librarianship, and book publishing; and, since earning a 1949 master’s degree from St. Anne’s College, she had written, edited, or translated more than twenty volumes of poetry. By 1979, Jennings was a seasoned poet at midlife, probing increasingly religious and philosophical questions as well as some controversial issues.
Moments of Grace opens with “Into the Hour,” a decidedly religious poem about healing. The speaker asserts...
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