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:
Is on the drama lived in each man’s soul,
His battle with his flawed
Aspirations and you make him whole
Telling of his Lord
Who battled too though God in every pore
And pity. No one wrote like this before.
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.
In 1993, she was awarded a CBE—although the tabloids mocked her for turning up for the honor in characteristically shabby dress. Rules, the London restaurant, and the Randolph Hotel in Oxford considered her an “undesirable customer” and later closed their doors to her. Like many poets of her generation, she could be a reckless drinker.
In the mid-1960s, Jennings began to suffer bouts of mental illness. In one of her unpublished poems, she writes of a stint in the hat factory: ‘Rest, rest,’ they cry / You might as well say ‘rest’ to a grasshopper. Her poems dealing with sickness and hospitals are some of her best. Unlike Sylvia Plath, she never mined illness for sensational effect; instead, illness called forth a kind of tender detachment from her, an attentive objectivity. In hospital, for example, she first encounters the grim specter of euthanasia, about which she writes with gallows aplomb:
Will the executioner
Be watching how I go?
Others about me clearly feel the same
The deafest one pretends that she can hear
The blindest hides her white stick while the lame
Attempts to stride. Life has become so dear.
In our current critical ethos, which prefers fashionable opacity to anything concrete, Jennings’s lucidity is tonic. Few poets of any era have taken up the theme of Good Friday with her unsettling immediacy:
We nailed the hands long ago,
Wove the thorns, took up the scourge and shouted
For excitement’s sake, we stood at the dusty edge
Of the pebbled path and watched the extreme of pain.
But one or two prayed, one or two
Were silent, shocked, stood back
And remembered remnants of words,
a new vision.
The cross is up with its crying victim, the clouds
Cover the sun, we learn a new way to lose
What we did not know we had
Until this bleak and sacrificial day,
Until we turned from our bad
Past and knelt and cried out our dismay,
The dice still clicking, the voices
The family is another major theme of hers. Here, she asks questions that some of us spend our lives failing to answer:
Have we then learnt at last how to untie
The blood of birth, umbilical long cord,
So that we live quite unconnected by
The blood we share? What monstrous kind of sword
Can sever veins and still we do not die?
Elsewhere she writes:
Later, we hide the weapons and pretend
There was no war, and yet we cannot meet
In any honest way. Our voices send
Beginnings vanish; we can see no end.
Jennings’s ability to speak of the sorrows of family with both authority and accessibility is doubtless one reason why she managed to sell well. Her last collection sold astoundingly well—85,000 copies—and Emma Mason, in her afterword to this newest edition, persuasively cites other reasons for Jennings’s popularity: “Now firm, now hesitant, Jennings’s poetry addresses those matters—love, friendship, compassion, nature, time, memory, faith—deliberately neglected by her peers, and with a tenderness that avoids sentimentality by finding its bearings in discernment and kindness.”
In compiling his anthology of 20th-century verse for Oxford University Press, Larkin included five poems from Jennings—more than he allotted many other poets of whose work he approved. Clearly, his reservations about her work were not as decided as he had perhaps imagined. When Oxford publishes its next volume of contemporary poetry, the work of Elizabeth Jennings should figure even more prominently.
Edward Short is the author of the forthcoming Newman and His Family.