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The real Elizabeth Jennings

Dana Gioia, writing in First Things, introduces us to Elizabeth Jennings. No, not the Soviet deep-cover agent brilliantly portrayed by Keri Russell in the FX show The Americans: the real Elizabeth Jennings was an English Catholic poet of considerable talent, tragedy and accomplishment.

[She] had the peculiar fate of being in the right place at the right time in the wrong way. Her career began splendidly. Her verse appeared in prominent journals, championed by Oxford’s new generation of tastemakers. Her first publication, Poems (1953), launched the acclaimed Fantasy Poets pamphlet series, which would soon present the early work of Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Thom Gunn, and Geoffrey Hill. Her first full-length collection, A Way of Looking (1955), won the Somerset Maugham Award and became the Poetry Book Society recommendation. She was the youngest poet featured in the first Penguin Modern Poets volume (1962). Meanwhile Jennings achieved enduring notoriety as the only female member of “The Movement,” the irreverent and contrarian group that dominated mid-century British poetry. By age thirty, Jennings was a celebrated writer.

“To be lucky in the beginning is everything,” claimed Cervantes, but Jennings’s luck did not hold. In the great expansion of universities and literary publishing following World War II, her Movement peers gained academic appointments, lucrative book deals, and critical esteem. Jennings’s career stalled. Her fame as a Movement poet proved a dead end. She never belonged in that Oxbridge boys’ club. She shared The Movement’s commitment to clarity and traditional form, but her politics were to the left of their mostly conservative stance. Deeper than politics, however, were two fundamental differences between Jennings and her peers. “I was a woman and also a Roman Catholic,” she later observed, “which meant that I wanted to write about subjects which were simply uninteresting to most Movement poets.” Her emotionally direct verse, which pondered love, art, and religion, had little in common with their detached and ironic attitude toward experience.

There were also personal impediments to her continued success. Physically and emotionally frail, Jennings was not able to sustain a practical career. She lacked the temperament for any employment but poetry. She drifted between failed jobs and impossible lovers. She was hospitalized for mental illness. By forty, she had sunk into poverty, rescued only by the occasional publisher’s advance or literary prize. Alone and destitute in old age, Jennings moved from one short-term lodging to another, a shabby eccentric haunting Oxford cafés.

What in a rock star or Communist celebrity would meet with indulgence — dissipation, poor comportment in public, eccentricity — was with the lady Jennings treated roughly: “When she was appointed to a British order of chivalry by the queen in 1992, the impoverished poet wore a knitted hat, duffle coat, and canvas shoes. The tabloids dubbed Jennings ‘the bag-lady of the sonnets.’ The epithet stuck.” “In her later years, reviewers often treated her with condescension and hostility. One young critic mocked her as a ‘Christian lady’ and ‘emotional anchorite’ inhabiting a world of ‘shapeless woolens, small kindnesses and quiet deaths’ — an odious remark even by the snotty standards of British reviewing.”

But Gioia ably demonstrates that Jenning was a poet of no mean quality, woman, Catholic, English, penurious, dissolute or otherwise. I have already ordered two of her volumes on his rec alone.

She also wrote very good critical works.

In her absorbing study of the mystical tradition, Every Changing Shape (1961), Jennings announced her concern for “the making of poems, the nature of mystical experience, and the relationship between the two.” Beginning with St. Augustine, the volume traces the European tradition from The Cloud of Unknowing and Julian of Norwich through T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. The poet-saints of the Spanish baroque, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, held a special fascination for her. Jennings, however, lacked the rare capacity for mystical experience. Her mind was too analytical and self-conscious to extinguish itself in wordless union with the divine.

Hungering for deep connection with the divine, Jennings shaped her poetry into a medium that could approximate, if not quite realize, mystical transcendence. As critic Anna Walczuk has argued, Jennings recognized an affinity between poetry and mysticism since both “operate on the principle of joyous rapture and concentration.” Jennings believed that both the poet and the mystic seek to describe experiences that are inexpressible in prosaic terms. Jennings understood that she had no religious vocation in the orthodox sense, though she envied priests and nuns in whose consecrated lives “mere breathing is a way to bless.” Her romantic entanglements, emotional fragility, and literary ambition impeded the necessary dedication. Her writing, however, assumed the role of a spiritual mission—simultaneously a form of contemplation, prayer, and praise.

The analytical female, oppressed by society, who longed for mysticism; why hasn’t this tale been told? Surely the intersectional re-reading of English Lit has not neglected this fine artist. Oh yes, but there is the matter of her attachment to that weird cult of the Christ who dies and yet ever lives.

I should add that Gioia, himself an accomplished poet and writer, who won the American Book Award in 2002, really shines in this essay. He’s given the woman the plaudits she evidently deserves.

Catholic iconography portrays martyrs in their heavenly glory displaying the instruments by which they were tortured and killed. St. Sebastian sports his arrows, and St. Catherine slings a friendly arm around her spiked wheel. By the same method, is it possible to understand Jennings’s achievement by considering her supposed liabilities as defining virtues? What happens if the standard reservations about her work are rephrased as neutral observations? Let’s try.

Jennings was a lyric poet. She mastered short forms. She wrote from an educated woman’s perspective. Her work is personal but not blatantly confessional. In a literary era obsessed with style, she focused on content. Her poems cluster around a set of recurring themes—love, religion, art, and relationships. Her poetry reflects her Christian worldview. Her stylistic approach was not to innovate but to perfect. When free verse represented the vanguard, she crafted her signature poems in rhyme and meter. She wrote prolifically.

Well, in light of a fair rendering, who wouldn’t want to read Elizabeth Jennings’ poetry?

Comments (1)

I love Gioia and respect his opinion; I'll have to check out this poet for sure. Thanks for posting this, Paul.

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