Poetry Influences Style and Themes
Echoing T.S. Eliot in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, Jennings found community in fostering connections with poets, both living and dead. In her volume Tributes, she dedicates her work to other poets (and painters) and intertextual resonances emanate from, and occasionally clutter, much of her writing. Her anthology, A Poet’s Choice (1996) self-confessedly indicates some of the poems that shaped her. Whereas American-born Eliot sought literary innovation, Jennings places herself in the line of English poets whose formalism and sense of tradition she preserved with her search for order and belonging. One strand of her writing vitalizes English mystical verse in which she was steeped. In idiom, she joins the stream that starts with the anglo-saxon alliterative poets then flows through ballads, the Romantics, the anti-elitist Thirties poets and the postwar anti-heroic Movement. Jennings gradually broke from the zeitgeist of intellectualism that surrounded The Movement, and the New Critics before them, to more freely develop her what we might term an intelligence of feeling that would engage her readers. For her, this also involved breaking ‘the tight cases of stanzaic form that was an obvious feature in New Lines’ (Poetry Today, 1961) Poetry To-day registers her principles of clarity and order from which she did not deviate over the next forty years of her writing career. It is also a useful document about poetry from a contemporaneous perspective and Jennings is at her best in her integration of the macro and micro, providing an overview, comparisons and close reading.
Jennings preserves the traditional property of the lyric, offering aesthetic compensation for the subject’s expressed suffering. While ‘identity politics’, that characterizes literary theory and practice since the 1970s, seems to pass her by, arguably Jennings’ sense of personal and literary marginality formulated the voice of the solitary individual that connects the fragmentary psyche across the specific outsiderdom of gender, race or place. Her best poems provoke a moment of astonishment, akin to an epiphany, in the pain or pedestrian pace of living.
Jennings and the English tradition
A Poet’s Choice (1996), her anthology of English poetry from Chaucer through to Wilfred Owen, reflects the enthusiasms that she wanted to share. (See comments from her correspondence in Carcanet Press Archives). These are reiterated in other correspondence, her notebooks, talks, reviews and other critical works. The following extracts, mainly from interviews in her final decades, reflect comments that are typical throughout her life.
- William Shakespeare: ‘He is a part of your imagination and mind.’ 1
- George Herbert: ‘wonderful poet’, especially ‘Prayer’.1
- Thomas Traherne: ‘I think the 17th century had some wonderful poets. Traherne’s ‘Centuries of Meditation’, although in prose, is really a long concentrated series of prose poems. I think he is a very great poet, even greater than Donne; and Donne I think is also a wonderful poet. The sermons and the poems of the Metaphysicals …’. 2
- Gerard Manley Hopkins: ‘a great poet … I used a lot of alliteration and assonance, but I didn’t do it consciously’.1 The title of her volume The Mind has Mountains is taken from one of his desolate sonnets.
Jennings wrote a lengthy study of Hopkins that was never published. [The draft resides in Washu at St Louis.] She connected with his fight against ill health, psychological ‘desolation’, Roman Catholic faith and struggle for recognition as a poet in his lifetime. His life and work validated her sense of vocation and belief in the inextricable dyad of personal suffering and creativity. She ends the biography thus:‘So here is what many members of the literary world thought or think. For Hopkins, his years of unhappiness and loneliness ended when he contracted typhoid in Dublin and died there in 1889, a man in his prime. But he had achieved great work and the last desolate poems are his gift to the world. Wrought out of suffering, they continue to enrich the world. But the poet himself must have the last word. In his Dublin Notebook, he wrote, “And for the other things on earth – take it that weakness, ill health, every cross is a help”.’(MS186, F73-8, Delaware)
- Matthew Arnold: Jennings wrote an unfinished BLitt thesis on Matthew Arnold and cites his statement on the role of poetry in the context of declining religion ‘“we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us”’.1
- G.K. Chesterton: reading his ‘Lepanto’ (1915) is what started her devotion to poetry. Its nationalistic high diction is not, however, evident in her own writing.
- Georgians: ‘some nice lyric poetry but they didn’t have this new careful language that really hits you’. 1
- Robert Graves: ‘a great lyric poet … he was a strong influence on my early poetry’. 2
- W.H. Auden: She stated that his technique was too individual to have influenced her, except for ’the surprising adjective’. She admired his care with language and how he wrote in every possible poetic form, especially ‘syllabic and unaccented verse. I love that late poem “Praise of Limestone”.’ 1
- Louis MacNeice: the ‘most satisfying and most accessible of the Thirties poets’ for being more private than politically engaged; she believed that for him, like her, poetry was primarily ‘communication’.1
- T.S. Eliot: ‘a great man’ – she had tea with him when she was working at Chatto and Windus and he advised her on Every Changing Shape. She liked best the Four Quartets and cited John Holloway’s view that they continue an English literature that is ‘often quiet, sincere, intimate, unhappy – sometimes reminiscent of the meditative verse of Arnold.’ The title of two of her volumes, Consequently I Rejoice and Song for a Birth or a Death are taken from Eliot’s poems on faith and doubt, ‘Ash Wednesday’ and ‘Journey of the Magi’ respectively.1
- D.H. Lawrence: wrote ‘beautiful poems’ striking for their unique rhythms.1
- Ted Hughes: she professed not to be influenced by his work because she did not see him as a ‘symbolist or allegorist’ but she liked his early books.1
- Larkin: She loved and reread The Less Deceived (Letter to Michael Schmidt, 18 Feb. 1990.)
- Geoffrey Hill: she judged ‘Funeral Music’, ‘Pentecost Castle’ and parts of ‘Peguy’ ‘very fine’. However, she had reservations: ‘I think I am often too clear myself, but Hill’s opacity seems positively to patronize his readers, and, after all, you must write to communicate not just to express something, don’t you? It’s interesting that his very early work like ‘Genesis’ has a lot in common with ‘Pentecost Castle’.
- Betjeman: she identified with his mixture of contemporary language and traditional forms along with his themes of ‘love, lust, religion and religious doubt’ (Poetry To-day, 1961, p. 29.)
For more discussion see Schmidt/Lindop, 1972.
Note1 Interview with Gerlinde Gramang (1993)
2 Interview from Acumen 1 (1985, pp. 8-16)
Jennings was a fervent admirer of the American confessional poet, Robert Lowell to whom she wrote an elegy; she also wrote ‘In Memory of Dylan Thomas’; she was enthusiastic about receiving a copy of Raine Maria Rilke from Michael Hamburger (4 August 1986). She was open to American writing, getting into Wallace Stevens later in life and in 1999 requested a copy of Les Murray’s work from Carcanet.
Style and development
Frequently, in her critical writing and poems, such as ‘For my mother’ or ‘About these things’, Jennings refers to the human yearning for order. There is a consensus by critics that she did better with formal verse than when she tried to break away from it in order to suit literary fashion. She took the feedback on board and largely experimented with various stanzaic forms; she believed that in Extending the Territory (1985), she expanded her linguistic reach with more variation between quatrains, vers libre and other stanza forms. (Letter to Michael Schmidt, 12 Feb 83) Her adherence to order partly explains why she did not much revise her poems after the initial drafts.[Her notes on drafts, revisions and proofs for Extending the Territory are instructive of her method. CPA Rylands] However, Jennings was sensitive to the view that her adherence to conventional forms meant that she could not be seen as an innovator. She would have relished the review by Will Eaves on Times and Seasons, ‘poetic form can be restorative, providing a ceremony in which the impulses of solstice, season and sacred ritual are to be renewed.’ (TLS, 15 Jan. 1993).
Jennings’ consistently clear direct speaking voice is her strength and limitation: it engages the reader but the absence of ambiguity leaves less to the imagination. The best are strong in metaphor which affords more evocation than the tendency to ‘tell’; in the weakest, didactic commentary intrudes on the lyric suggestiveness. The intriguing paradox of her concealing self-disclosure in the apparently personal lyrics places her in a renovated genre of confessional poetry.
Note1 Interview from Acumen 1 (1985, pp. 8-16)
Jennings as a ‘Confessional’ Poet
Jennings has been labeled ‘confessional’ but the pejorative nature of the term in English literary criticism meant that she shied away from its association. For example, she contradicts the above statement in the London Magazine with ‘Growing Points (1975) is, in a way, my favorite book, and this maybe because in a lot of poems there is no “I”.’ Her solution was to make personal experience into an expression of shared humanity: “Song for a Birth or Death” is about a particular person, but normally the meaning is a bit more general. I think Auden once said that lyric poetry operates on a level where passion is general. I think that’s true. But you have to be in love with poetry.’ * Many of Jung’s principles in ‘On the relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry’ (1922) can be found in criticism and practice. Most centrally he commends the ‘autonomous creative complex: ‘The special significance of a true work of art resides in the fact that it has escaped from the limitation of the personal and has soared beyond the personal concerns of its creator’. (C.G. Jung, The Spirit of Man, Art and Literature (London: Routledge, 1984, p. 71).
For more discussion, see Jane Dowson, ‘Towards a New Confessionalism: Elizabeth Jennings and Sylvia Plath’ in The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth Century British and Irish Women’s Poetry, ed Dowson (Cambridge University Press, 2011)
Jennings found some commonality with women but, like others of her generation and most obviously Virginia Woolf before her, she expressed the mixed messages that surrounded the female artist: that women were different, that they should not be segregated and they should be judged with men on equal terms. (See her introduction to the radio broadcast, ‘Three Women Poets’, 1971. The three are Jeni Couzyn, Patricia Whittaker and Elaine Feinstein). Nevertheless, in An Anthology of Modern Verse (1961) Jennings includes more women than most editors: Patricia Beer, Jenny Joseph, Ruth Pitter, Anne Ridler, Lynette Roberts, E.J. Scovell, Edith Sitwell and Helen Spalding. In Poetry To-day she conceded that Jennifer Joseph and Patricia Beer were emerging talents. On other occasions, she expressed admiration Anne Stevenson.
‘Emily Dickinson and the Poetry of the Inner Life’ (1962), is telling about Jennings’ own merging of the personal with the universal. The following extracts illuminate her aim to combine feeling with thought, echoing Woolf’s attempt to define a man-womanly/man-womanly creative imagination:
- ‘Emily Dickinson’s poems are the story of her inner life, a life in which thought is always inseparably united with feeling.’ (p. 87).
- ‘She [Dickinson] is, in one sense, always speaking with herself. This is intense poetry in the very best sense, taut and vibrant not with emotions and ideas which the poet has already formulated outside her poems, but alive with the very process of thought and feeling. A vision is thus caught on the wing, not trapped but held and halted momentarily, just long enough for the poem to be written.’ (p. 81)...
- ’Yet she is not a domestic poet, nor a writer who has found a comfortable niche among matters and subjects which are usually thought to be the special province of women poets. Her poems are as bare as Emily Bronte’s, as ecstatic as some of Blake’s shorter lyrics. If her poems are short, if she is economical and extremely severe with herself, this is because her subjects are so large that they are more effectively presented, more resonant, if they are only hinted at rather than considered at length or extended into long meditations.’ ... (p. 83)
- ‘The so-called New Critics who, in recent years, have laid so much stress on the examination of the poem on its own terms without regard to its history or to biography of its writer, are, in my view, on to a very important truth. They have released poetry from the fallacious “art for art’s sake” belief yet at the same time have preserved the autonomy of the poem itself, its right to its own life regardless of literary history or influences.’ (p. 86).
Jennings edited and introduced a selection of verse by Christina Rossetti (1970) whose ‘perfect’ lyric ear she admired. Among her observations are, ‘Like other women poets, such as Emily Dickinson and Charlotte Mew, she is always close to the melancholy, the withdrawn, the broken things.’ (p. 10) and ‘the “sense of something lost” lies over all her work.’
Jennings’ writing lends itself to Freudian psychoanalytical readings, especially in conjunction with her personal papers. She read up on Freud when she was undergoing psychotherapy and knew that her autobiography could be construed in terms of her tricky relationship with her father. Her ambivalent attachments to other men and addiction to dolls’ houses in her declining years glaringly expose the shadows of her unhappy childhood. However, in artistic terms, she became more interested in Jung and his theories of a universal unconscious expressed through archetypes. His approach to symbolism chimed more with her emphasis on the artist’s role as a commentator on the human condition: ‘I write a lot about nature. I write a lot about love, and, of course, about death as well.’1
Although a Roman Catholic, Jennings was not a religious fundamentalist. She liked Camus and translated ‘The Wedding Rites of Tipasa’. She ‘read a slim book by Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism’ and agreed, ‘Your essence is what you’re born with and existence is what you make with your life.’ ** She avoided the local so that the reader could appropriate the poem to their own situations: ‘Unless you are a satirist, you should not too consciously try to reflect your age.’1 Notable exceptions include, ‘Child in Chechnya’, ‘Child with Downes Syndrome’, ‘Torture of a political prisoner’ and the topographically specific, ‘Oxford, Heatwave Tourists’.
Most of all, she always came back to the artist’s quasi-divine role in pointing to and providing the order for which the human mind and heart yearned. An early draft of her autobiography (MS186 Delaware) is headed by an extract from Wallace Stevens’ ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’:
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred;
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.’
Note1 Interview from Acumen 1 (1985, pp. 8-16)
Jennings and the Mystical Poetry Tradition
‘Homesickness’ is one of Jennings’ strongest poems about yearning for Eden as a basic human impulse. Many are internal monologues of faith and doubt. She was fascinated in the relationship between poetry and mysticism as she explores in Every Changing Shape (1961) and Seven Men of Vision (1976).
Christianity Today (1965) was what she called a ‘personal book’, dealing with ‘problems of taste and fashion, dogma and belief, style and form, tradition and the avant-garde’ (p. 7). She confronted the danger of the Christian label, with its associations of didacticism and moralizing. For her, it was about taking a Christian lens to all subjects, following on from Chaucer, Milton, Dryden, Patmore, Hopkins and T.S. Eliot. She refers to Peter Levi being a Jesuit, W.H. Auden’s piece ‘Christianity and Poetry’ in The Dyer’s Hand and David Jones’ application of his Catholic heritage to his poetry and painting. The chapters are titled: Anglo-Saxon; Middle English; The Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries; The Seventeenth Century; The Eighteenth Century; The Nineteenth Century; Women’s Visionary Poets – Emily Bronte and Emily Dickinson; The Twentieth Century. “Foreigners and Mystics’ that includes Dante, Claudel, Peguy and Baudelaire. With these examples, she concludes that poets write in their time, the ‘interplay between the poet and reader is essential’ (p. 113) and that a writer should neither preach nor conceal their creed. She mentions hymns as a sub-category but find few to be worthwhile as poetry. Her bibliography includes C.S. Lewis’s Allegory of Love and The Discarded Image, and Martin Tunell, Modern Literature and Christian Faith, 1961. Jennings submitted poems for a new journal called Christian set up by A.E. Dyson (See Manchester CQ archives).
The following extracts indicate the continuity and changes in her preoccupation with literature and belief:
- ’It was from Plato that Hopkins derived much of his early thinking about poetry – and also from Augustine who was the first great Christian writer to explain Christianity in Platonic terms.’ (London Mag 6.9 1975-8, p. 75.)
- ‘The Unity of Incarnation: a study of Gerard Manley Hopkins’, Dublin Review 234 (1960), pp. 170-84: ‘Poets and mystics who have experienced some close, personal but supra-rational awareness of God have always carried away from such moments of illumination an increased subtlety, a profoundly original understanding of human experience and of the apparent contradictions even in the physical universe.’ … ‘Poetry is not rationalization but revelation and what is healing in it, both for the poet and his readers, is the ability to depict conflict at its most vulnerable point; with Hopkins, this point is the wrestling of man with God, - but also the surrender of man to God.’ … ‘It is in such words as these [‘Henry Purcell’] that Hopkins demonstrates his really original contribution to English poetry, and it is a contribution not so much of prosody or versification as of subject-matter. No other poet, religious or secular, has ever before used poetry as a means whereby men may encounter one another’s inmost beings unprotected by masks and veils.’
While frequently making parallels between poetry and religion, Jennings teases out the differences between the mystic and the poet: the poet wants to communicate ordinary experience while the mystic moves away from it. In her review of Henri Bremond, Prayer and Poetry (1927), Dublin Review 1960, she writes that Bremond traces erosion of belief in supra-rational experience since Romanticism, going back to Plato’s dismissal of the poets. ‘In the lyric poet, the poet who is speaking from the heights of his own supra-rational experience, the communication is immediate and personal. Poetry bridges the gaps and gulfs between the profoundest parts of the personalities of writer and reader.’ (p. 87)
In ‘The Poetry of David Gascoyne: The Restoration of Symbols’, (The Twentieth Century June 1959 vol 165, p. 567) Jennings works through poetry’s capacity to both distinguish and join up the past and the present. She calls Gascoyne ‘The only living English poet in the true tradition of visionary or mystical poetry.’ Furthermore, ‘If David Gascoyne’s work is not directly influenced by it, it does undoubtedly lead back to seventeenth-century religious verse such as that of Vaughan, Herbert, and Traherne. Yet his poetry is emphatically of this time and this place – concrete, rooted, exact; it takes the symbols and traditions of its own time and then transcends them.’ (p. 567).
Childhood and Children’s Poems
After the Ark, a series of dramatic monologues by animals, are brilliant pieces of their kind. We can make connections with other examples from Aesop to Ruth Pitter.
Several of Jennings’ poems can be conceived in the ekiphrastic tradition. Her whole volume of translations, The Sonnets of Michelangelo, forge the overlay between verbal and visual art. She was especially inspired by fine art and sculpture on her trips to Italy and crystallizes her thoughts on them in the brilliant meditation ‘Fountain’ (NCP, p. 29).
Typically, she takes a ‘both/and’ approach rather than an oppositional one: ‘Painting means a tremendous amount to me. If I had to choose between music and painting, I’d probably choose painting. I love to look at pictures and scenes and my favourite painter is Rembrandt, and some of the impressionists or post-impressionists, Manet and Cezanne. But there is something else, they were right when they said, these Renaissance people, in a way all the arts – specifically painting, sculpture, poetry and music – they are all the same eventually. All express the aspirations and the failures of human beings, though I do think, perhaps music is the highest of all.’