A Faithful Poet
From the darkness of her existence, Elizabeth Jennings comes to light.
Feb 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 22 • By EDWARD SHORT
When John Betjeman was charged with helping find a proper recipient for the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1977, he contacted Philip Larkin and suggested Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001), who had befriended Larkin and Kingsley Amis when they were undergraduates together at Oxford. Larkin considered Jennings “serious and worthy,” and praised what he considered the “individual note” of her poetry, but thought she was writing “too much” and “too loosely” in her later work and, worse, “bothering too much about Art and Religion.” Indeed, given her propensity, as he thought, “to churn out acres of meaningless pieties,” Jennings reminded him of an inferior Christina Rossetti.
These criticisms were not altogether just. Jennings did publish copiously, and not all of her writing was of a high standard, but she was more consistently readable than most contemporary poets—never forgetting, as Coleridge once put it, “How difficult and delicate a task even the mere mechanism of verse is.” If Jennings was not always inspired, she was never meretricious. She had no illusions about the demands of her profession: What poets have to say, she writes in one poem, was difficult from the start.
And of course, knowing nothing of religion himself, Larkin was hardly a reliable judge of Jennings’s poems about art and religion. Jennings returned to this insistent theme again and again because it was at the heart of her own heart. And in her tribute to the great devotional poet George Herbert, she laid claim to a tradition that has produced some of the finest poetry in English, including the work not only of Herbert but of Robert Southwell, Richard Crashaw, Henry Vaughan, Thomas Traherne, John Dryden, Gerard Manley Hopkins, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Anne Ridler:
This tradition also reinforced Jennings’s respect for form. When heckled by a young man who claimed that poetry never should be cast / In form but come without control and fast, her response was typically sensible: Why did I not think to say / Nature has limitations? Trees can’t move / Away from roots. They only grow that way.
In another poem, Jennings emulated Herbert’s adroit use of monosyllables to exemplify the simplicity vital to a certain kind of good religious verse: God, give me liberty / But not so much that I / See you on Calvary, / Nailed to the wood by me.
She summons the same dispatch to identify the purpose of time: Time is not clocks but moves within / The discourse of the learned heart / It is the way our lives begin.
Born in Boston, Lincolnshire, the daughter of a medical examiner, Jennings was educated at a Roman Catholic private school and at Oxford High School before going on to St. Anne’s College, Oxford, where she studied English. It was hearing G. K. Chesterton’s poem “Lepanto” read aloud that first fired her love of poetry. After working briefly at Chatto & Windus, she took a post as librarian at the Oxford City Library.
When Robert Conquest included her work in an anthology of young British poets (which also included Larkin, Amis, Donald Davie, and Thom Gunn), the group was hastily dubbed “The Movement,” though its members had little in common. One wit remarked how Jennings, the only Catholic and the only female, fit into the group “like a schoolmistress” thrown together “with a bunch of drunken marines.” What set her apart from the other poets of her time can be summed up in a few lines from her last collection: You said we only share what intellect / Provides us with. I can’t agree with you / Surely we share our love.
From 1960 onwards, Jennings made her living by her pen. Although unmarried, she was fond of children and approached her subjects, as Thomas Traherne approached his, with a child’s directness. Your ‘Centuries’ are noble, rich, serene, she writes in homage to Traherne, Leaping with love and dancing with delight / And it is clear exactly what you mean. Here she gives voice to what she nicely calls “the pure issue of my ready heart,” which animates all of her work.