Jennings, Elizabeth (Joan)

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JENNINGS, Elizabeth (Joan)

Nationality: British. Born: Boston, Lincolnshire, 18 July 1926. Education: Oxford High School; St. Anne's College, Oxford, M.A. in English language and literature. Career: Assistant, Oxford City Library, 1950–58; reader, Chatto and Windus Ltd., publishers, London, 1958–60. Since 1961 freelance writer. Guildersleeve Lecturer, Barnard College, New York, 1974. Awards: Arts Council award, 1953, bursary, 1965, 1968, 1981, grant, 1972; Maugham award, 1956; Richard Hillary memorial prize, 1966; W.H. Smith award, 1987. Agent: David Higham Associates Ltd., 5–8 Lower John Street, London W1R 4HA. Address: 11 Winchester Road, Oxford OX2 6NA, England.



(Poems). Oxford, Fantasy Press, 1953.

A Way of Looking. London, Deutsch, 1955; New York, Rinehart, 1956.

The Child and the Seashell. San Francisco, Poems in Folio, 1957.

A Sense of the World. London, Deutsch, 1958; New York, Rinehart, 1959.

Song for a Birth or a Death and Other Poems. London, Deutsch, 1961; Philadelphia, Dufour, 1962.

Penguin Modern Poets 1, with Lawrence Durrell and R.S. Thomas. London, Penguin, 1962.

Recoveries. London, Deutsch, and Philadelphia, Dufour, 1964.

The Mind Has Mountains. London, Macmillan, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1966.

The Secret Brother and Other Poems for Children. London, Macmillan, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1966.

Collected Poems 1967. London, Macmillan, and Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, Dufour, 1967.

The Animals' Arrival. London, Macmillan, and Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, Dufour, 1969.

Lucidities. London, Macmillan, 1970.

Hurt. London, Poem-of-the-Month Club, 1970.

Folio, with others. Frensham, Surrey, Sceptre Press, 1971.

Relationships. London, Macmillan, 1972.

Growing-Points: New Poems. Manchester, Carcanet, 1975.

Consequently I Rejoice. Manchester, Carcanet, 1977.

After the Ark (for children). London, Oxford University Press, 1978.

Moments of Grace: New Poems. Manchester, Carcanet, 1979.

Selected Poems. Manchester, Carcanet, 1979.

Winter Wind. Sidcot, Somerset, Gruffyground Press, and Newark, Vermont, Janus Press, 1979.

A Dream of Spring. Stratford-upon-Avon, Celandine, 1980.

Celebrations and Elegies. Manchester, Carcanet, 1982.

Extending the Territory. Manchester, Carcanet, 1985.

In Shakespeare's Company. Shipston-on-Stour, Warwickshire, Celandine Press, 1985.

Collected Poems 1953–1985. Manchester, Carcanet, 1986.

Tributes. Manchester, Carcanet. 1989. Times and Seasons. Manchester, Carcanet, 1992.

Familiar Spirits. Manchester, Carcanet, 1994.

In the Meantime. Manchester, Carcanet, 1996.

A Spell of Words: Selected Poems for Children. London, Macmillan, 1997.

Praises. Manchester, Carcanet, 1998.


Let's Have Some Poetry. London, Museum Press, 1960.

Every Changing Shape (religion and poetry). London, Deutsch, 1961.

Poetry Today 1957–60. London, Longman, 1961.

Frost. Edinburgh, Oliver and Boyd, 1964; New York, Barnes and Noble, 1966.

Christianity and Poetry. London, Burns Oates, 1965; as Christian Poetry, New York, Hawthorn, 1965.

Seven Men of Vision: An Appreciation. London, Vision Press, and New York. Barnes and Noble. 1976.

Editor, with Dannie Abse and Stephen Spender, New Poems 1956. London, Joseph, 1956.

Editor, The Batsford Book of Children's Verse. London, Batsford, 1958.

Editor, An Anthology of Modern Verse 1940–1960. London, Methuen, 1961.

Editor, A Choice of Christina Rossetti's Verse. London, Faber, 1970.

Editor, The Batsford Book of Religious Verse. London, Batsford, 1981.

Editor, In Praise of Our Lady. London, Batsford, 1982.

Editor, Collected Poems, by Ruth Pitter. London, Enitharmon, 1996.

Translator, The Sonnets of Michelangelo. London, Folio Society, 1961; revised edition, London, Allison and Busby, 1969; New York, Doubleday, 1970.


Manuscript Collections: Oxford City Library; University of Washington, Seattle.

Critical Studies: By Margaret Byers, in British Poetry since 1960, edited by Michael Schmidt and Grevel Lindop, Oxford, Carcanet, 1972; "Symbolic Situations: The Shrimp and the Anemone" by W.D. Maxwell-Mahon, in CRUX (Pretoria, South Africa), 12 (2), 1978; A Parallel Study of Two British Women Poets: Ruth Pitter and Elizabeth Jennings (dissertation), n.p., 1981; "Rage for Order: The Poetic Heroism of Elizabeth Jennings" by Mary Anne Schofield, in Notes on Contemporary Literature (Carrollton, Georgia), 13 (3), May 1983; "'"Here Is a Humility at One with Craft': The Thematic Content of the Poetry of Elizabeth Jennings" by Erwin A. Sturzl, in On Poets and Poetry: Fifth Series, edited by James Hogg, Salzburg, University of Salzburg, 1983; "Elizabeth Jennings and Gerard Manley Hopkins" by Michael Wheeler, in Hopkins among the Poets: Studies in Modern Responses to Gerard Manley Hopkins, edited by Richard F. Giles, Hamilton, Ontario, International Hopkins Association, 1985; "Elizabeth Jennings: 'Against the Dark"'" by Sabine Foisner, in English Language and Literature: Positions and Dispositions, edited by James Hogg and others, Salzburg, University of Salzburg, 1990; The Poetry and Poetics of Elizabeth Jennings (dissertation) by Mary Brodkorb, University of New Brunswick, 1993.

Elizabeth Jennings comments:

I do not much care for writing about my own poems. The main reason for this is, I believe, that it makes one too self-conscious. However, I would like to say that I am always interested in what I am writing at present and hope to write in the future. I like to experiment with different poetic forms, and at this time I am constantly seeking for more and more clarity. I am working on a series of prose poems about paintings (painting is my second favorite art) and a series of poems, in various forms and from several viewpoints, on religious themes. I have also been writing poems about craftsmen and various aspects of nature, particularly skyscapes. For me poetry is always a search for order. I started writing at the age of thirteen and wrote only one four-line poem I now wish to preserve from childhood. My Roman Catholic religion and my poems are the most important things in my life.

*  *  *

Elizabeth Jennings was the only woman to be included in Robert Conquest's anthology New Lines. In her lucid diction, her use of traditional meters, and the keen and subtle intelligence in her exploration of ideas, she shares with the other so-called Movement poets a "coolness which is worked for," to quote her own description of a Chinese painter.

Jennings's absorption in the processes of "art with its largesse and its own restraint" has led to many poems that attempt to enter the experience of fellow writers and artists in other media: the sculptor, the composer, the dancer, and painters ranging in time from Rembrandt to Rouault and from Botticelli to Cézanne, van Gogh (recurringly), and Bonnard. She is also especially interested in childhood and aging. Her portraits of children are based on personal recollections of a timeless peace and safety from adult ambiguities but still more on the distresses that ultimately "built a compassion that I need to share." In addition, she writes about the feelings of the very old with a tender, intuitive sympathy. The poet's insight into contemplative states of being has resulted in intense imaginative projections into the lives of such personalities as St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Catherine, and St. Augustine. She has pondered the nature of the Virgin in fine poems like "Annunciation" and "The Visitation" and has even explored the loneliness and human conflicts of Christ. Jennings's prose poems and dramatic monologues, her translations of Michelangelo's sonnets, and an increasingly adventurous freedom and flexibility in her rhythms and verse patterns demonstrate the versatility of her gifts.

Italy, where Jennings has traveled extensively, is the background for a number of poems that epitomize her great difference from the rest of the Movement group. A profound religious conviction colors her vision of life and permeates all of her work. As a foreigner at confession, at a Roman mass, or at Assisi "where silence is so wide you hear it," she communicates the quietism most vividly realized in the magnificent "San Paolo Fuori le Mura," where the cool stillness of stone engenders an interior calm that functions as "a kind of coming home." In "Song for a Birth or a Death" the mystic's apprehensions of reality are as eloquently articulated as anywhere in contemporary poetry. "Notes for a Book of Hours" conjures the raptness of the visionary and his struggle for the elusive language capable of expressing the numinous. "A World of Light" re-creates "A mood the senses cannot touch or damage, /A sense of peace beyond the breathing word," which grows in "a dazzling dark" as reminiscent of Vaughan as later poems like "Winter Night" and "Let there be dark for us to contemplate."

Jennings is, however, equally and bitterly familiar with another kind of darkness, one of doubt, desolation, and despair, the abysses of Hopkins's "winter world" as implied in her title "The Mind Has Mountains." Recurrent breakdowns led to spells in a mental hospital, and the guilt, bewilderment, frustrations of unfulfilled love, and "very absolute of fear," which culminated in a state "clothed in confusion," are conveyed with poignant directness in many poems of her middle period. Yet this agonized experience of "climates of terror" and compassionate vulnerability to the sufferings of her fellow patients led to a recognition that "perhaps to know no desert is a lack" and an acceptance of the necessity of "the painful breaking /Which brings to birth."

The recovery chronicled in "Growing-Points" and "Consequently I Rejoice" shows a greater maturity of acceptance, a full repossession of her lost capacity for contemplative stillness, and a renewed receptivity to moments of mystical revelation. The notable broadening of range in her choice of subject and a more objective awareness of the contemporary world and of problems and predicaments other than her own are matched by a new assurance and virtuosity in the handling of language. Jennings's words describing a disabled countryman apply with equal aptness to her own impressive testimony, courage, and spiritual resilience: "gentleness /Concealing toughness," which takes "pain as birds take buffets from /The wind, then gather strength and fly and fly."

—Margaret Willy

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Jennings, Elizabeth (Joan)

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