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Elizabeth Jennings

Over a long and troubled life, Elizabeth Jennings defied the odds to become one of Britain's most well-received poets. Here we will look at the poet's life and look into some of the poems and themes explored by Elizabeth Jennings.

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Elizabeth Jennings

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Over a long and troubled life, Elizabeth Jennings defied the odds to become one of Britain's most well-received poets. Here we will look at the poet's life and look into some of the poems and themes explored by Elizabeth Jennings.

Elizabeth Jennings: biography

Elizabeth Jennings's Biography
Birth:18th July 1926
Death:26th October 2001
Father:Henry Cecil Jennings
Mother:Mary Turner
Cause of death:Natural causes.
Famous Works:
Nationality:English
Literary Period:Postmodernism, The Movement

Elizabeth Jennings was an English poet born in Boston, Lincolnshire, on 18th July 1926. When Jennings was six years old her family relocated to Oxford, England, where she lived for the rest of her life. While Jennings' poetry was not initially seen as autobiographical, her later work became more personal. Jennings' poetry was deeply influenced by her Roman Catholic faith.

Elizabeth Jennings was educated at the University of Oxford and decided to become a writer upon graduation. Jennings' poetry was featured in many British magazines, and her first collection, A Way of Looking (1955), was published when she was 29. The book won the Somerset Maugham Award that year, and the money earned afforded Jennings the opportunity to visit Italy for three months. The trip to Italy had a profound effect on Elizabeth Jennings and her poetry. Jennings' faith in Catholicism deepened, and her poems became more revelatory about her life.

Jennings struggled with mental health for large periods of her life. In 1962, Jennings suffered a nervous breakdown which she wrote about in the collections Recoveries (1964) and The Mind Has Mountains (1964). After her breakdown, Jennings' poetry became more experimental and less well-received by critics.

Jennings was part of the literary collective known as 'The Movement' with fellow poets Philip Larkin, Kingsly Amis and more. The group believed that poetry should be simplistic, using traditional forms. In 1992 Jennings was awarded a CBE (Commander of the British Empire). She caused a stir in the British press due to her appearance at the ceremony. In the years following her CBE, Jennings' mental and physical health declined as she became impoverished. Elizabeth Jennings died in a nursing home in October 2001.

Elizabeth Jennings: themes

In this section, we will look at some of the more common themes found in Elizabeth Jennings' poetry.

Suffering

Perhaps unsurprising due to her troubled personal life, suffering features heavily in Elizabeth Jennings' poetry. Following her breakdown, Jennings wrote explicitly about her difficulties with mental health in poems such as 'A Mental Hospital Sitting Room' (1966). In the poem, Jennings reflects on her attempt to recover her mental well-being while expanding on the nature of the National Health Service.

Jennings also suffered from loneliness in her life and often wrote about the subject in her later years. The poem 'As the Rooks Are' (1980) is an unflinching look at the suffering the speaker's loneliness cause them.

Elizabeth Jennings, Theme of Loneliness, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Elizabeth Jennings's poems often explore themes of mental health and loneliness.

Relationships

Despite her loneliness in life, Elizabeth Jennings still wrote frequently on the subject of relationships. Jennings wrote on both familial and romantic relationships. She wrote of the complexities of love in her early poem 'Delay' (1953). The poem uses an extended metaphor of starlight to explore how love can be difficult to find.

In the poem 'My Grandmother' (1961), the speaker expresses their regret for not spending enough time with their grandmother while she was alive. Many of Elizabeth Jennings' poems tackle the complex nature of forming and sustaining relationships.

Religion

Elizabeth Jennings was a devout Catholic whose faith deepened after her trip to Italy in 1955. After visiting Italy, religion featured more prominently in Jennings' poetry. In the poem 'World I Have Not Made' (1959), Jennings explores the idea of poetry being used in an attempt to find religion. The poem makes the connection between the Biblical creation myth and other forms of creation, like writing poetry.

Elizabeth Jennings: poems

Some of Elizabeth Jennings' most well-known poems include 'In Praise of Creation', 'My Grandmother', 'Delay', and 'One Flesh'. These poems in particular cover the more common themes in her work.

'Delay' (1953)

The poem reflects on the fleeting nature of time and the inevitability of ageing. The speaker describes a moment of indecision, a hesitation to act that ultimately leads to missed opportunities and regret. The poem explores themes of uncertainty, fear, and the passage of time, as well as the idea that life is a constant balancing act between risk and caution.

The language is simple yet powerful, with vivid imagery and a melancholic tone that captures the poignancy of missed opportunities and the struggle to make meaningful choices in the face of uncertainty. The rhyme scheme is ABAB.

'One Flesh' (1966)

The poem is a melancholic reflection on the gradual decay of a long-term marriage. Through vivid imagery and simple language, the poet portrays a couple who have spent a lifetime together and now face the inevitability of ageing and death. The poem is filled with powerful metaphors and contrasts between light and dark, life and death, and the fleetingness of time.

Despite the sadness of the subject matter, the poem offers a subtle sense of hope, suggesting that even in old age, the couple remains united in their love and memories of the past. The rhyme scheme is mostly irregular.

'In Praise of Creation' (1987)

In this poem, the speaker expresses how the beauty of nature must 'testify' to the existence of God. The speaker looks at the behaviour and appearance of animals, like birds and the tiger, and believes them to be divine creations. The speaker feels that their faith allows them to be more open to the world's charms.

The poem includes common themes to Jennings, like religion and nature. The poem consists of five quatrains with a rhyme scheme of ABAB. There is no strict use of meter in the poem.

'My Grandmother' (1961)

The poem 'My Grandmother' reflects on both regret and memory, with the speaker expressing guilt over not spending enough time with their grandmother.

On one occasion, the speaker admits to refusing to go out with their grandmother as a child. The speaker relates their grandmother to an antique shop that she used to run. This means that familiar antiques remind the speaker of their grandmother and, consequently, their guilt.

The poem consists of four sestets, that is, four stanzas each with six lines within them. The point of view switches between the third person and the first person with each stanza. The poem has a consistent rhyme scheme of ABABCC.

Elizabeth Jennings: facts

This section will look at some facts regarding Elizabeth Jennings and her life.

  • In 2001, Elizabeth Jennings was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Divinity from Durham University.
  • After receiving her CBE, the British tabloids labelled Jennings 'the bag lady of the sonnets' 1 due to her choice to wear casual clothing.
  • Jennings became close friends with Graham Greene's wife, Vivian, after meeting her in a hospital.
  • Elizabeth Jennings was first inspired to write poetry while studying at St Anne's College at the University of Oxford. She decided to become a poet after taking a job in advertising.

Elizabeth Jennings: quotes

Here we will look at some quotes from Elizabeth Jennings' poetry with a brief description.

The light that nowGlitters up there my eyes may never see,

'Delay' (1953)

In this quote, the speaker is comparing love with starlight. The speaker notes that the radiance of the star is long dead despite being able to see it. This is used as part of an extended metaphor of love being as difficult to capture as starlight.

The only hope is visitors will come

And talk of other things than our disease…

'A Mental Hospital Sitting Room' (1966)

Here the speaker is in a psychiatric hospital while trying to recover their mental health. They express their hope in being able to talk about anything other than their mental well-being and possibly someone who isn't suffering from the same difficulties.

That one bird, one star,The one flash of the tiger’s eyePurely assert what they are,Without ceremony testify.

'In Praise of Creation' (1987)

In this opening stanza of the poem 'In Praise of Creation', the speaker begins to state how nature and its animals quietly prove their faith in God. They go on to praise the unique elements of nature as proof of God's existence.

Elizabeth Jennings - Key takeaways

  • Elizabeth Jennings was an English poet born on July 18th 1926, in Boston, Lincolnshire, United Kingdom.
  • Jennings' poetry was not initially seen as autobiographical but her work became more personal after her nervous breakdown.
  • A trip to Italy had a deep effect on Elizabeth Jennings' faith and her poetry.
  • Elizabeth Jennings was first inspired to write poetry while studying at St Anne's College at the University of Oxford.
  • Elizabeth Jennings' poetry was profoundly influenced by her Roman Catholic faith.

1. Peter Stanford, Elizabeth Jennings: The Inward War by Dana Greene – review (The Guardian) 6th Jan 2019

Frequently Asked Questions about Elizabeth Jennings

Elizabeth Jennings is known as an English poet who wrote simple poems using traditional techniques.

Elizabeth Jennings died in 2001 when she was 79 years old.

Elizabeth Jennings published her first poetry collection in 1955.

The three major themes in Elizabeth Jennings' poetry are suffering, relationships and religion.

Elizabeth Jennings was an English poet born in Boston, Lincolnshire on July 18th 1926.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

What is the main tone that the poem is written in?

Which of these themes does the poet not discuss?

Which of these is a structural feature which the poem does not have?

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