Before his early death at forty-four, Robert Louis Stevenson confided to one of his best friends from his Samoan hideaway: “Were it not for my health which made it impossible, I could not find it in my heart to forgive myself that I did not stick to an honest commonplace trade when I was young… David Balfour is a nice little book, and very artistic and just the thing to occupy the leisure of a busy man; but for the top flower of a man’s life it seems to be inadequate… I ought to have been able to build lighthouses and write David Balfour too.”
Dana Greene’s excellent biography of the English poet Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001) puts one in mind of this quote because Jennings, like Stevenson, would never pursue any career other than writing, though, unlike Stevenson, despite all of the difficulties she braved to pursue her vocation, she never regretted it. Greene notes how Jennings, at the end of her career, would always field the question, ‘Are you still writing’ by responding, ‘Are you still breathing?’ For Jennings, as Greene shows in her terse, lucid, incisive pages, poetry “was her ‘moon and sun’… it could not be turned off and on.” If scores of previous critics have complained that Jennings wrote too much and too unevenly, Greene shows that it was her very profuseness that proved how vital poetry was to her.
Towards the end of her life, this investment in her chosen art only intensified. As Greene writes, Jennings “claimed it was a sacrament, a gift and a way to pray. It could heal the lonely and lost, haunt readers, and speak over continents. It was a gift of kindness and helped readers to grapple with fears. It brought contrition, fostered justice, and served as a harbinger of peace…” Although the occasional censures of reviewers could unduly upset her, she was always careful to persist in her accustomed copiousness. For Jennings, there was an “arc of good” in her work – all 27 volumes of it — and she never allowed her critics to keep her from making it possible. Greene’s book does full justice to Jennings’ dedication to her art by showing how much it was nurtured and sustained by her Catholic faith.
More than Philip Larkin or even John Betjeman (both good popular poets), Jennings was the darling of the general reader, or what Samuel Johnson called the common reader, by whose “common sense… uncorrupted by literary prejudice… must finally be decided all poetical honours.” Certainly, Michael Schmidt was right to claim that his bestselling Carcanet author was “the most unconditionally loved writer” of her generation. Writing of the things that preoccupy most readers – family, faith, love, loss, illness, hope, atonement, redemption – she not only won her readers’ trust but their affection. In light of the many false reputations that disfigure our literary landscape, Jennings’ unfashionably popular work is tonic, especially since so much of its appeal derives from its Catholic character.
Catholicism, in one way or another, meant a good deal to Jennings. Born in Boston, Lincolnshire, the daughter of a medical examiner, Jennings was educated at Rye St. Anthony, a Catholic private school and at Oxford high school before going on to St. Anne’s College, Oxford, where she studied English, acted in plays and made friends with Larkin and Kingsley Amis. It was hearing Chesterton’s poem “Lepanto” read aloud that first inspired her to be a poet. Several extended trips to Rome when she was in her thirties not only steeled her desire to be a poet but deepened her faith. Greene is particularly perceptive about how Jennings’s sense of religious and artistic vocation intertwined, a reality which few of her contemporary critics understood or respected.
Greene is also good when it comes to showing how Jennings stood out from her contemporaries. When the poet and historian of Stalinist Russia Robert Conquest included Jennings’ work in an anthology of young British poets, which included Larkin, Amis, Donald Davie, and Thom Gunn, the group was dubbed “The Movement,” though its members would never have much in common beyond their insistence on clarity and their use of traditional forms. What set Jennings 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.” In other words, it was her Catholic recognition of the primacy of love (true love, not the pinchbeck article that dazzles the pop culture) that set her apart. In one of her last poems, she writes of how “Matter never satisfies for long/Power dwindles fast and leaves us wondering/Why we pursued it. In the soul a strong/ Yearning for a personal truth brings/ Us to our knees and keeps us there…” For those similarly prostrated, Jennings’ honesty about her spiritual struggles is always endearing. As she entreats her Maker in a poem called “Prayer for Holy Week:” “Teach me how you love and have to die/And I will try/Somehow to forget myself and give/Life and joy so dead things start to live/Let me show now an untrammeled joy/Gold without alloy.”
Jennings’ ability “to forget herself” in her work and write of others is another of her virtues as a writer, about which Greene is perceptive.
Jennings’ ability to enter into the sufferings of others was born of her own vulnerability and strengthened by her religious commitment. She wrote of women who were single or infertile or who had miscarriages or abortions, adopted children, the elderly, the poor, the sick, prisoners, even murderers. Her capacity to empathize them was one of the unique qualities of her poetry and in part explains its popularity. In order to write in the first person about the shattered lives of outcasts Jennings needed artistry, craftsmanship, and a talent for “imagined experience.”
After working briefly at Chatto and Windus as a publisher’s reader, wading through reams of the usual unreadable rubbish, Jennings took a post as librarian at the Oxford City Library. After returning to Oxford from Rome in 1960, however, she resolved to make her living from her pen, a decision which may have reduced her to occasional beggary but kept her lyric gift in good serviceable trim. While readers may need to sift through dross here and there in Jennings own abounding output, her gold is never far away. Here is a little effusion called “Rain.”
Falling so softly
Such a delicate thing
The harvests need you
And some of the flowers
But we too
Because you remind
Of coolness and quiet
Of tenderest words
Come down rain, fall
Not too harshly, but give
Your strange sense of peace to us.
Although she would never marry, Jennings was fond of children. A beautiful child herself – the photographs that Greene includes in the book of the poet as a girl show her to have had “a beauty beyond beauty” — she never lost the ability to practice her faith and her art with a child’s wholeheartedness. Indeed, as a poet, she approached her subjects, as Thomas Traherne approached his, with a child’s wonder. “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.” A good deal of her own poems can be seen as variations on Traherne. In one of her late poems, for example, after describing what we in America call “Indian summer,” she writes:
I am a Summer child whose birthday
Is in July but here was Summer all over
Again, all over the late grass of our meadows…
I wanted to praise, I needed a new Book of Hours
Painted by unseen holy ones, enchanted
By God as man and creator of the world.
O it is sweet to be
Suddenly warm in October in suddenly green
In another poem, she confides to her readers: “There is no dead/Place for me. I have a pulsating land/Peopled with saints and children. These I need/To help me see in joy and pain, God’s hand.” In light of lines like these, with their stark pellucidity, it is no wonder that Jennings won little attention from the charlatans who pass for critics in the academy.
Traherne was such an abiding touchstone for Jennings because in his evocation of Eden her own sense of Eden’s loss would always find an insistent echo. That one of Jennings’ favorite poets, Edward Thomas, was also fond of Traherne must also have endeared the seventeenth-century devotional poet to her. No one can read anything by Jennings without seeing how much her poetry recalls Traherne’s catalogue of childhood’s graces. Here is a characteristic passage from the Centuries of Meditations, which Thomas quotes in his travelogue, The South Country(1906):
All appeared New, and Strange at the first, inexpressibly rare, and Delightfull, and Beautifull. I was a little Stranger which at my Enterance into the World was Saluted and Surrounded with innumerable Joys. My Knowledg was Divine. I knew by Intuition those things which since my Apostasie, I Collected again, by the Highest REASON My very Ignorance was Advantageous. I seemed as one Brought into the Estate of Innocence. All Things were Spotles and Pure and Glorious: yea, and infinitly mine, and Joyfull and Precious. I Knew not that there were any Sins, or Complaints, or Laws. I Dreamed not of Poverties Contentions or Vices. All Tears and Quarrels, were hidden from mine Eys. Evry Thing was at Rest, Free, and Immortal. I Knew Nothing of Sickness or Death, or Exaction, in the Absence of these I was Entertained like an Angel with the Works of GOD in their Splendor and Glory; I saw all in the Peace of Eden; Heaven and Earth did sing my Creators Praises and could not make more Melody to Adam, then to me. All Time was Eternity, and a Perpetual Sabbath. Is it not Strange, that an Infant should be Heir of the World, and see those Mysteries which the Books of the Learned never unfold?
In a poem entitled “From Light to Dark” from her collection, A Dream of Spring (1980), Jennings gives her own sense of these mysteries when she writes of how “a strange homesickness/Haunts us, not for some place where we have been/Happy. It is for one place we’ve not seen/ But where we feel we fit. An Eden is/Our long desire…” And to make sure her readers do not imagine that she is gratifying any vague nostalgia in speaking of this “strange homesickness,” she ends the poem by describing our collective lost Eden. “Among its many trees/One stands and mocks us, one whose fruit is gone/This is our lost home. Cannot we put back/The forbidden fruit? We can’t, since we lack/The proper love, the selfless one. We’re sick/With an old pain…” In another poem entitled “Eden,” she is more explicit still about why this loss is so acute: “Something is/Wrong at the heart of us…”
The theme of Eden also informs Jennings’ understanding of art. In her poem, “Order,” she insists that our yearning for order in art is akin to our yearning for the order of the prelapsarian Eden.
Were driven from that garden, we’ve shown how
There must be patterns. We lost liberty
Of one kind but we’ve fashioned others. Now
In our wild world of misrule we insist
On shapeliness and balance. Most of us
Do this to our gardens. Tough weeds persist
Until we’ve plucked them. We make curious
Designs for garden-beds. O we exist
To make new order since our Eden loss.
In the mid-1960s Jennings began to suffer bouts of mental illness, which the ministrations of a smug Freudian psychiatrist from the Radcliffe Infirmary only exacerbated. A wonderfully witty riposte to this sadist (too long to quote here) can be found in her poem entitled “The Interrogator.” Luckily, she had many good, loyal, and resourceful friends – including Vivian Greene, Graham Greene’s estranged wife and Veronica Wedgewood, the popular historian – all of whom came to her rescue at different periods in her often troubled life. Even the actor John Gielgud sent her gifts of money now and again, though he never met the beneficiary of his eleemosynary largesse.
If Jennings’ mental distress brought out the kindness of friends and well-wishers, it also brings out the virtues of her biographer. Although unfailingly sympathetic, Greene never gives way to psychobabble or prurience. On page after page of this admirable book, it is clear that she has had her prayer answered for what Robert Lowell called “the grace of accuracy.” No unseemly tittle tattle mars her pages.
Greene shows that some of Jennings’ best poems are those treating of hospitals; and, here, we can contrast her with Eliot. In “East Coker,” Eliot sees hospitals as a useful metaphor for the irredeemable world.
The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.
In “Sequence in Hospital,” Jennings kicks away such rhetorical stilts and descends instead into the actual world of infirmity and fear that hospitals never entirely allay.
Though death is never talked of here,
It is more palpable and felt –
Touching the cheek or in a tear –
By being present by default.
The muffled cries, the curtains drawn,
The flowers pale before they fall –
The world itself is here brought down
To what is suffering and small.
The huge philosophies depart,
Large words slink off, like faith, like love,
The thumping of the human heart
Is reassurance here enough.
Unlike Sylvia Plath and the American confessional poets, Jennings never exploited her illness for effect. As the literary critic and biographer Julian Symons nicely put it: “No one has ever written less hysterically of hysteria.” This is doubtless why she wrote so fondly of clowns and scapegoats. Illness elicited from her a wry detachment. In a poem about visiting the sick in hospital, she writes:
You are the one to whom I bring distress
The troubles, dreams, and all the broken things.
The roles reverse and I’m the one who brings
Solicitude and help and tenderness
And yet it is a mask I wear, an act
Where terror hides behind the look of tact.
In sharing such experiences so candidly with her readers, Jennings brought them into the very making of her poetry, which is another reason why she managed to command such unusual popularity. She saw the same relation between Traherne and his readers, as she pointed out in an essay on the poet in her collection of essays, Every Changing Shape (1961):
Traherne wears no masks, casts no concealing shadow. He is, in the deepest sense, a man possessed. What possesses him is a sense of God, and this he wishes to share… But his sharing is not done from any lofty height; he demands neither reverence nor awe, not because his work is not penetrated with these things but because we, his readers, are admitted to the heart of his experiences where reverence and awe have other names. Traherne’s work becomes, in fact, our property, part of our life.
In sub-titling her biography, “The Inward War,” Greene stresses Jennings’ debt to another Catholic poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose spiritual struggles resembled Jennings’ own. In his poem on Saint Alphonsus Rodriguez, Hopkins described how:
Honour is flashed off exploit, so we say;
And those strokes once that gashed flesh or galled shield
Should tongue that time now, trumpet now that field,
And on the fighter, forge his glorious day.
This was one type of heroism. Yet Hopkins knew that his own heroism would be quite different. Strokes that gash flesh or gall shield make visible war.
But be the war within, the brand we wield
Unseen, the heroic breast not outward-steeled,
Earth hears no hurtle then from fiercest fray.
This is the interior war that Hopkins chronicled with such unflinching fidelity. Jennings’ spiritual struggles were similarly fierce, though, unlike Hopkins, she lived to survive their harrowing, thanks, in large measure, to her indomitably faithful art. In “Against the Dark” from her collection Tributes (1989), she speaks of this survival with no-nonsense gratitude.
I have lived in a time of opulent grief
In a place also of powers
Where self-indulgence can break your purchase on life
But now I inhabit hours
Of careful joy and rousing gratitude
My spirit has learnt to play
And I have willed away the darker mood
And now I want to say
That verse is hostile to shadows and casts you out
When you have mourned too long.
Images always rise from the root of light
And I must make my song
Truthful, yes, obstinate, too and yet
Open to love that takes
Language by the hand and ignores regret
And also our heartbreaks.
This lovely poem is central to understanding Jennings’ work as a whole and should be read in toto, exhibiting as it does her hard-earned artistry, Fortunately, readers can read this and all of the poems quoted here in Emma Mason’s wonderfully rich edition of Jennings’ Collected Poems (2012), published by Carcanet.
In 1987, Jennings received an honorary Doctor of Divinity from Durham University and in 1993 she was made Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE), though the English tabloids mocked her for turning up for the honor in characteristically tatty dress. Nonetheless, there are moving photographs in the book of Jennings shaking hands with Queen Elizabeth and standing with her sister after she had received her CBE. It is a tribute to Greene’s book that by the time the reader encounters these photographs in her pages, he feels a personal affection and esteem for their subject.
Poets are not inveterately well served by biographers. Take, for example, the plodding biography that Robert Crawford recently wrote of T.S. Eliot (whom he has the effrontery to address as “Tom”) or the equally impertinent biography of Robert Lowell by Kay Redfield Jamison, who effectively claims that the poet’s periodical mental illness, not his art, produced his poetry. What distinguishes Greene from these duffers is not only her good judgement but her tact, indeed, her self-effacement. In “Seers and Makers” from In the Meantime (1996), Jennings memorably extols this sine qua non of good art.
There is one quality in common which
Artists and men of prayer
Display when we think back on them. They were
Eager to disappear
Within the words, paint, sound, and praying: each
Wished to be hidden. Thus we can
Always mark off the honest from the sham.
In Elizabeth Jennings: The “Inward War”, Dana Greene has written an exemplary life of a praiseworthy poet by revealing not only the hidden artist in Jennings but the faithful pilgrim as well.
Elizabeth Jennings: “The Inward War”
by Dana Greene
Oxford University Press
Hardcover, 258 pages
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