The English poet Elizabeth Jennings 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.
The sorrows of poets are legion, and their failures commonplace. Why does the case of Elizabeth Jennings deserve special consideration? Despite her worldly failures, her artistic career was a steady course of achievement. Jennings ranks among the finest British poets of the second half of the twentieth century. She is also England’s best Catholic poet since Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Jennings was a writer of prodigious productivity. She published twenty-seven collections of verse and a half-dozen critical volumes. Her reputation would be larger had she published less. Few scholars have come to terms with the intimidating scale of her oeuvre. Her posthumous Collected Poems (2012), edited by Emma Mason, contains more than 1,300 poems, and it did not reprint everything. “I write fast and revise very little,” Jennings declared. Her huge corpus is uneven. How could it not be? The early work is stronger and more consistent, but she wrote superb poems at every stage of her career, if one has the stamina to find them. (There is an urgent need for a new selected volume of her verse.)
Jennings always had a few champions among fellow poets. Anne Stevenson claimed that Jennings had written “some of the finest lyric poetry of the twentieth century.” Anthony Thwaite once ranked her and Larkin as his two favorite poets of The Movement. In the small society of British letters, however, Jennings’s personal decline eroded her critical reputation. As Martin Booth observed, Jennings was “great as a poet, but she doesn’t look it.” 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.
Although mocked by the press and neglected by scholars, Jennings enjoyed a popular readership in the U.K. Her Selected Poems (1979) sold more than 50,000 copies. Her poems became A-level texts for secondary schools. Her steadfast publisher, Michael Schmidt of Carcanet, claims she became his bestselling author—“the most unconditionally loved” poet of her generation. In the U.S., however, Jennings remains unknown, even among Christian literati, whose knowledge of British Catholic verse often ends with G. K. Chesterton.
Jennings was born in Boston, Lincolnshire, in 1926, the younger daughter of a doctor who served as county medical officer. When she was six, the family moved to Oxford, where the poet would remain for nearly all of the next seventy years. The Tolkien family members were fellow parishioners, and their daughter, Priscilla, became Elizabeth’s lifelong friend. Jennings attended a Catholic primary school and then entered Oxford High School. Her teenage years were lonely and unhappy, “a very, very dark period,” she later recalled. From 1944 to 1947 she studied English at St. Anne’s College, the first women’s college at Oxford. These were happier times, as Jennings pursued poetry and boys pursued her. She attended C. S. Lewis’s lectures and acted in the Experimental Theatre Club. Her literary talent was recognized by other Oxford poets, such as Larkin and Amis, whom critics would soon group with her in The Movement. After graduation, she followed an older man, who had been a Japanese prisoner of war, to London, where she worked as a copywriter. Both the job and her engagement soon ended. The disappointed Jennings returned to Oxford, where she found a position at the city library. Neither jobs nor love affairs proved long-lasting.
In 1957, however, the Maugham prize required Jennings to spend three months abroad. She chose Rome. Her time in Italy not only inspired some of her most radiant poetry, but also revitalized her Catholic faith. Her religious upbringing had left her tormented with guilt. Now in the historical center of Catholicism, she experienced her faith as a joyful presence in the churches and art. “I really found happiness,” she recalled forty years later in a BBC interview. Rome also enlarged her artistic vision—supplementing her vivid sensory imagination with a metaphysical dimension. Her next collection, A Sense of the World (1958), contained a section of devotional poems animated by what critic Margaret Willy termed the struggle to find “the elusive language capable of expressing the numinous.”
Back in England, however, Jennings’s life slowly fell apart. For two years she worked unhappily as a publisher’s reader for Chatto and Windus, spending part of each week in London. The strain led to a physical and emotional collapse. Jennings resolved to make her living as a freelance writer. Money troubles soon followed. She drank heavily. Her elderly parents moved from Oxford. Another romantic relationship ended. Jennings made a series of suicide attempts. In 1962 she was sent to Guy’s Hospital in London. Calmed with drugs, she was placed in psychotherapy, a process that she found painful and unproductive. She was also shocked by the suffering of her fellow patients, whose private infirmities were not easily cured in that era of electroconvulsive therapy, Freudian analysis, and heavy medication.
Jennings’s experiences with mental breakdown and hospitalization parallel those of several of her American “Confessional School” contemporaries—Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, John Berryman, and Sylvia Plath. As in their work, collapse, confinement, and rehabilitation became subjects for poetry. Her next collections, Recoveries (1964) and The Mind Has Mountains (1966), contain powerful accounts of mental illness, most notably her “Sequence in Hospital,” which chronicles her time at St. Guy’s. It was characteristic that her poems attended to the plight of other patients as much as to her own dire predicament.
The woman who emerged from St. Guy’s was a vulnerable and chastened person. Her youth was over, and her resources drained. She would never marry nor enjoy a reliable source of income. Her life would be plagued by recurring penury, loneliness, alcoholism, and depression. For the next four decades she survived on the margins of Oxford, helpless to reverse her fortunes—“Orphaned and elderly and yet a child.” Her creative energy, however, remained undiminished. Jennings published nearly two dozen more collections of verse. The agony and humiliation of her breakdown also changed her work. Not only did her language and meter relax, her perspective shifted. As an unsigned obituary in The Telegraph observed, she developed “from an essentially thinking poet to a poet of feeling and suffering.”
There are two ways to introduce an unfamiliar poet. The first and less effective way is to describe the particular qualities of the work. Critics have struggled to characterize what makes Jennings’s work so attractive. The words most often used are “introspective,” “formal,” “reticent,” and “clear.” Those adjectives are not inaccurate, but they miss her poetry’s compelling intimacy and delicate beauty. Thwaite comes closer by pairing the work’s contradictory qualities. Jennings’s poetry, he proposed, is “rational but open to mystery, tender but unsentimental, expressed in forms and words that were almost always pure, clear, gravely lyrical and committed to a sense of hard-won order out of chaos.”
The second way to introduce a poet is simpler. Quote the work. Here is the opening of “I Feel.”
I feel I could be turned to ice
If this goes on, if this goes on.
I feel I could be buried twice
And still the death not yet be done.
I feel I could be turned to fire
If there can be no end to this.
I know within me such desire
No kiss could satisfy, no kiss.
The poem’s language is direct, musical, and intense. The strict form feels less like an abstract framework than a cauldron barely able to contain its scalding emotions. The poem’s impact is so immediate and tangibly personal that it is easy to miss its quiet but profound engagement with the Catholic literary tradition. The paradoxical combination of ice and fire imagery goes back at least as far as Petrarch. More interesting, however, is the poem’s connections to Christian mysticism. Although “I Feel” initially seems an expression of erotic longing poisoned by despair, close examination reveals it can also be read as a tortured expression of spiritual hunger, the mystic’s excruciating desire for rapturous union with God.
Christianity was not a secondary concern to Jennings. Asked for a personal statement about her work by Contemporary Poets, she replied, “My Roman Catholic religion and my poems are the most important things in my life.” Much of her work is explicitly religious. Among her best poems are vivid representations of Gospel episodes—“The Annunciation,” “The Visitation,” and “Lazarus.” These devotional poems are neither pious nor abstract. Jennings places herself directly in each scene as an observer—in a manner similar to Ignatian meditation—and experiences the mysteries in human terms. In “The Resurrection” Jennings imagines herself a doubting Thomas at the empty grave. Written in her signature form, rhymed quatrains, it begins:
I was the one who waited in the garden
Doubting the morning and the early light.
I watched the mist lift off its own soft burden,
Permitting not believing my own sight.
If there were sudden noises I dismissed
Them as a trick of sound, a sleight of hand.
Not by a natural joy could I be blessed
Or trust a thing I could not understand.
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.
Twentieth-century British Catholic literature is an odd and lopsided affair. The novelists stand at the center of the modern tradition. Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Muriel Spark, Anthony Burgess, and J. R. R. Tolkien are canonic authors. By contrast, the poets constitute a motley group of outsiders and eccentrics. G. K. Chesterton, Alfred Noyes, Siegfried Sassoon, Hilaire Belloc, David Jones, Edith Sitwell, George Barker, Peter Levi, George Mackay Brown, and Elizabeth Jennings are not authors much read in many college poetry courses, not even at Catholic universities. Aside from a common creed, the poets have no group identity. They shared no aesthetic or cultural vision. Their styles ranged from traditional (Chesterton and Noyes) to experimental (Jones and Sitwell). Their temperaments included the romantic (Noyes), realist (Sassoon), academic (Levi), visionary (Jones), and satiric (Belloc). For many, poetry was a secondary medium. Chesterton and Belloc were primarily prose authors, though their verse was masterful. Jones was a painter. Brown was a novelist and playwright.
What modern British Catholic poets mostly had in common was that they were converts, full of the special zeal and combative energy of Roman arrivistes. Some were late-life celebrity converts. Sitwell was baptized at sixty-seven; Sassoon at seventy-one. The few cradle Catholics were an unusual lot—reflecting the English Church’s marginal position as the faith of immigrants. Barker, Levi, and Belloc were products of international marriages. Belloc was born in France to an English mother and a French painter. Levi was the son of a Sephardic merchant from Istanbul and an English Catholic mother. (He spent twenty-nine years as a Jesuit before leaving the priesthood to marry.) Half-Irish Barker left the Church early, professed atheism, and practiced free love (fathering fifteen children by four women). He reconciled shortly before his death, confessing he had broken every commandment except “Thou shalt not kill.” In this curious company, Jennings occupies a singular position simply by being so ordinary. She was a lifelong Catholic from a middle-class English family who earned an undergraduate degree and wrote poems.
The ordinary nature of Jennings’s background is crucial in understanding her extraordinary place in English Catholic letters. Born Catholic, she eschewed the personal dramas of conversion that preoccupied many of her Romanized contemporaries. She likewise lacked the visionary fervor of the mystics. Jennings is the poet of quotidian spirituality—a real woman living in real places touched by divine grace. Her religious sense was never detached from her physical senses. Her adult reawakening occurred in Rome, where Christian history took material shape in churches and shrines. The sacred spaces spoke to her soul. Her renewed faith was never fussy and self-dramatizing but a quiet and joyful return to her core identity. One anecdote from her time in Rome illustrates her commonsensical approach. As she climbed the Scala Santa on her knees, Jennings remembered a skeptical priest who doubted that the ancient steps were actually the stairs from Pontius Pilate’s praetorium, which Christ had mounted to stand trial. It didn’t matter, she decided; authentic or not, the shrine was “hallowed by centuries of penitence.”
This communitarian sense of Christianity as a mystical body uniting the living and the dead enlarged Jennings’s vision. Her early work had been intensely individual and personal in its perspective, dominated, she later claimed, “by two overriding themes—self-analysis and a sense of place.” Both impulses were refined in Rome. She advanced beyond the purely personal by empathetic observation of other people. Always alert to her sense of place, Jennings now responded to the metaphysical dimensions of her surroundings. “Nobody wants any more poems about . . . foreign cities,” Amis declared in 1955, voicing The Movement’s insular disdain for the postcard poetry so popular then and now. Although Jennings was a genuine English provincial, contentedly spending her life in Oxford, she never flaunted the Little Englander xenophobia of Amis and Larkin. As a Catholic and intellectual, she saw Rome as a universal and eternal city at the heart of the Western and Christian traditions. Her Italian poems share in this tradition of urbi et orbi, local but universal in their ambitions.
Jennings was not a great poet. “Greatness” had no appeal to her. She admired epic visionaries, such as Dante, Milton, and Eliot, who offered sublime visions of civilization and belief. She recognized, however, that her muse was lyric. Jennings’s “great” subject was how the individual—fragile, isolated, but alert—worked her way through life’s difficulties and wonders. Her sensibility was romantic, but her style was neoclassical. The characteristic Jennings poem presents the ache and exhilaration of romantic yearning expressed in exquisitely controlled rhyme and meter. She acknowledges her own confused romantic longings—emotional, artistic, and religious—but subjects them to lucid analysis. Her goal is not to resolve the contradictions but clarify them. Here is her brief poem “Delay”:
The radiance of that star that leans on me
Was shining years ago. The light that now
Glitters up there my eye may never see,
And so the time lag teases me with how
Love that loves now may not reach me until
Its first desire is spent. The star’s impulse
Must wait for eyes to claim it beautiful
And love arrived may find us somewhere else.
The skillful rhyming, sinuous syntax, and soft metrical beat of the poem—written when the author was in her early twenties—creates such lyric charm that most readers are unprepared for the fatalistic final line. For Jennings, no joy exists untouched by jeopardy. Yet the poem manages both to revel in delicate hope and dismiss it. We indulge in the pleasures of sentiment and stoicism, our emotions mixed like a classic cocktail—bitter spirits plus sweet. Is it any surprise that young Amis, choosing the poem for the university anthology Oxford Poetry 1949, crowed to his co-editor that Jennings was “the star of the show, our discovery”? Years later Larkin reprinted the poem in his Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse, which presented Jennings as one of the major figures of her generation.
Finally, something more needs to be said about Jennings as a woman poet. She never portrayed herself as a feminist, but she wrote from an explicitly female perspective. There is no way to understand her career without seeing how her sex shaped her personal and public identities. She began writing at a time when being female was a grave disadvantage. In the mid-twentieth century, women had an established position in British poetry—second place. They were published but not taken too seriously. The world of letters assumed that men led literary culture. Female poets were typecast as minor lyrists, concerned with personal matters. Tradition assigned men the larger, public themes and more capacious style. These assumptions allowed critics to recognize the more traditional elements in Jennings’s work (her elegant lyricism and formal mastery) but miss or misjudge its bolder aspects (her sacramental imagination and lacerating psychological insight).
Women were underrepresented in anthologies and mostly omitted from literary history. If this claim seems exaggerated, look at the leading anthologies of the postwar period. George MacBeth’s Poetry: 1900 to 1965 (1967) contained twenty-one men and two women. Edward Lucie-Smith’s British Poetry Since 1945 (1970) featured eighty-one men and six women. The most influential anthology of the period, Al Alvarez’s The New Poetry (1962), contained no women at all. When Alvarez revised the volume in 1966, he included two women to balance the twenty-six men. Both female poets were Americans. No British woman was deemed sufficiently “new.” The Movement, which had earlier launched Jennings, consisted of seven men and one woman. It was challenged by “the Group,” which included no women at all. This was not a milieu in which women poets received fair critical appraisal.
Jennings’s literary reputation never surmounted the limits imposed on women of her generation. By the time of her death in 2001, the situation for female writers had become less grim, but her Catholicism isolated her from the feminist vanguard leading the cultural change. 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. Jennings understood the dilemma and bore it, but not without a touch of bitterness. (Few Catholic poets extend the concept of redemptive suffering to include their own bad reviews.)
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.
So stated, the list hardly constitutes an indictment. Essentially, the case against Jennings is that her poetry was different in form and perspective from the sort leading critics preferred. She was not the average professor’s idea of a modern poet. Jennings deserves to be judged on her own merits. Her pure and transparent style, her understated mastery of form, her quiet but secure religious convictions, and her indifference to literary fashion are what made her work individual. Is it any wonder that she has never lacked readers? Even if one concedes that she wrote too much, it is good to remember Anthony Burgess’s notion that artistic devotion “is primarily manifested in prolific production.”
Posterity does not judge poets by their average performance. It evaluates their best work and compares it to the tradition. Jennings never wrote the singular, ambitious poem that secured her place in literary history. There is no “Kubla Khan” or “Dover Beach” guarding her place in the anthologies. Instead, she authored dozens of perfect short poems. Like Thomas Hardy, she needs to be read in depth if one is to understand her real achievement. No English poet of her generation, except Larkin, wrote better love poems. In a secular age, she wrote persuasively about religious experience. Her female perspective makes her work meaningfully different from the mostly male canon of modern Christian poetry. It is a modest claim to call her England’s finest modern Catholic poet, the competition being so narrow. It is more useful to say that her work returned the Catholic perspective to the mainstream of British verse. Her poetry requires no special pleading either by feminists or Catholics. It speaks for itself with the authority of a classic.
In her poem “Clarify,” Jennings prayed:
Clarify me, please,
God of the galaxies,
Make me a meteor,
Or else a metaphor . . .
Isn’t it time to answer that prayer, at least in literary terms? Criticism needs to clarify Jennings’s significant place in the contemporary canon. Let her life be a metaphor of artistic dedication, held bravely against the odds. Her poems flash like meteors illuminating what it means to be human.
Dana Gioia is the poet laureate of California. He is currently Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California.