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One Flesh

Elizabeth Jennings' poem 'One Flesh' was first published in her 1966 poetry collection, The Mind Has Mountains. The poem explores the now-distant relationship of a married couple from the perspective of their child. Jennings often wrote poetry which contained emotionally tense and impactful undertones, tackling uncomfortable subjects such as the breakdown of a marriage, which is addressed in 'One Flesh'.

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One Flesh

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Elizabeth Jennings' poem 'One Flesh' was first published in her 1966 poetry collection, The Mind Has Mountains. The poem explores the now-distant relationship of a married couple from the perspective of their child. Jennings often wrote poetry which contained emotionally tense and impactful undertones, tackling uncomfortable subjects such as the breakdown of a marriage, which is addressed in 'One Flesh'.

Summary of 'One Flesh' by Elizabeth Jennings

‘One Flesh’ explores how romantic love may not necessarily last, and where that can leave two people in a long-term relationship. The narrator of the poem is the child of a married couple, who observes the mental and physical distance between the parents as they realise that the fire from which' they 'came, has now grown cold'.

'One Flesh' Summary and Analysis

Date published

1966

Author

Elizabeth Jennings

Form

Regular stanzas

Meter

Iambic

Rhyme Scheme

No set rhyme scheme

Poetic Devices

Simile, personification, enjambment, caesura

Frequently noted imagery

Biblical / religious, opposites

Tone

Nostalgic

Themes

Distance, the passage of time, the nature of relationships

Analysis

The two subjects of the poem are no longer ‘one flesh’, the ‘fire from which’ the narrator of the poem ‘came’ has died, and instead their parents are two separate beings, distant from one another.

'One Flesh': context

We will look into the biographical and literary context of Jennings's 'One Flesh'.

Biographical context

Elizabeth Jennings was an English poet who lived from 1926 to 2001. She was a devout Roman Catholic, and often wove religious themes into her work. The title 'One Flesh' refers to how a couple is joined together to become 'one flesh' when they are married.

She attended Rye St Antony School in Headington and Oxford High School, before studying at St Anne’s College at Oxford University between 1944 and 1947. She graduated with a degree in English. Jennings developed an interest in writing poetry while working at Oxford City Library.

Literary context

Elizabeth Jennings' work is often likened to that of Philip Larkin and Thom Gunn, both were part of a group of writers called 'The Movement' alongside her. This group of poets weren't known for breaking the mould; instead, they became renowned for their lyric poetry and mastery of meter and rhyme.

The Movement: A term referring to a group of writers who first came together in Robert Conquest's New Lines Anthology which included the works of Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, John Wain, and others. The term was coined in 1954 by JD Scott, literary editor of The Spectator.

While in her early 20s, Jennings' work was published in a number of journals including 'Poetry Review', 'Oxford Poetry' and 'New English Week'. Her first poetry collection titled Poems wasn't published until she was 27, in 1953.

Her second collection, ‘A Way of Looking’, was published in 1955 and won the Somerset Maugham award. The prize money from this award allowed Jennings to spend almost three months in Rome, contributing to her commitment to Roman Catholicism and influencing her future poetry.

Somerset Maugham award: A British literary prize given by the Society of Authors, set up by William Somerset Maugham in 1947.

'One Flesh': structure analysis

Let's analyse the main features and structure of 'One Flesh'. The title of the poem is a reference to Christian marriage vows. In a biblical context, the term 'One Flesh' comes from Genesis 2:24:

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.

The use of a biblical reference in the title is reflective of the importance of Roman Catholicism in Jennings' own life. The title also highlights to the reader how the poem will focus on the subject of marriage. This causes the distance between the parents, expressed in the poem itself, to stand out, as we don't instantly associate marriage with division and 'having little feeling'.

Form

'One Flesh' has a regular form, made up of three six-line stanzas. The lines are balanced, and regular, representing the apparent stability of marriage.

This cohesive structure is juxtaposed against the portrayal of the divided nature of the parent's relationship. The juxtaposition of the form and content of the poem represents the state of their marriage - while they appear to be together, as 'one flesh', they sleep in 'a separate bed', barely touching, dreaming and thinking of different things.

One Flesh, Marriage, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Elizabeth Jennings explores the physical and emotional distance between a married couple and contrasts it with the structured and balanced poetic meter and form.

Structure

Each of the poem's three stanzas considers a different aspect of the narrator's parents' distance; mental, physical, and emotional.

While the first and second stanzas end in rhyming couplets, the final stanza has an ABABAB rhyme scheme, underpinning the separation of the parents - the rhymes are separate, just as the parents are.

The poem is written with an iambic meter, creating a consistent momentum, and lyrical rhythm. The lyrical nature of the poem’s rhythm adds to its nostalgic, occasionally ‘childlike’ tone.

Iambic meter: the pattern of a poetic line made up of iambs.

Iamb: a metrical foot of poetry consisting of two syllables - the first is unstressed and the second is stressed.

Stanza one

The first stanza presents the mental distance between the parents. They lie ‘in a separate bed’ - both appear to be doing nothing, lost in their own minds. The father’s book is ‘unread’, while the mother’s eyes are ‘fixed on the shadows overhead’.

Stanza two

Stanza two zooms in further on the parents' relationship, presenting their physical distance. This distance is highlighted by the simile ‘Tossed up like flotsam from a former passion’ - although the parents may once have had a lively, passionate relationship, they now ’hardly ever touch’.

The line ‘Chastity faces them, a destination’ breaks the poem’s iambic meter, emphasising the parents' separation, stressing how unusual it is that a married couple would have spent their lives in ‘preparation’ for a chaste existence.

Stanza three

While the previous two stanzas examine the mental and physical distance between the two figures, this stanza focuses on the concept of love and the emotional divide between the parents. The ‘fire from which’ the narrative came has now ‘grown cold’, as the parents remain lying in their separate beds, ‘strangely apart, yet strangely close together’.

Poetic devices

Let's take a look at the different poetic devices that are used in the poem.

Simile

Jennings uses similes to evoke imagery relating to change and age. In the first stanza, the wife/mother is described as;

She like a girl dreaming of childhood,

All men elsewhere ­it is as if they wait

The contrast between the wife being 'like a girl' and our knowledge as the reader that she is no longer a girl, emphasises the character's age and how she must have changed as she grew older. The image of her 'dreaming of childhood' creates a nostalgic tone, as she daydreams of a life she no longer has.

In the final stanza another simile is used, this time to highlight the fragility of the parents' relationship and the changes it has undergone.

Silence between them like a thread to hold

The image of silence being a 'thread' indicates that the distance is being held by the parents, waiting to drop or be pulled at.

Personification

In the final stanza, Jennings utilises personification to describe the passing of time.

And time itself’s a feather

Touching them gently

The personification of the effects of time creates a sense that this change is inevitable. The imagery of the feather indicates that the process of aging isn't brutal, the parents are gradually progressing with time’s gentle touch. However, it also highlights how the parents may be unaware of time's effects, as the narrator ponders 'do they know they are old’.

Enjambment

Enjambment is used to great effect within the poem, producing a fragmented rhythm which stops, starts, and sometimes tumbles between lines. For instance, in the second stanza Jennings describes how the couple 'hardly ever touch' using enjambment across the lines;

if they do, it is like a confession

Of having little feeling ­ or too much.

The carrying of the actual confession onto the next line highlights how it's a difficult thing to say and write. Much like a confession, the poem comes out in bursts, underlining how the parents struggle to communicate their perspectives to one another.

Caesura

Caesura is also used in the poem, working alongside Jennings' use of enjambment to continue the poem's fragmented tone. For instance, in the second stanza the line;

How cool they lie. They hardly ever touch,

Is encouraged to be read in a fragmented way, with a pause in the middle. Perhaps this is because the truth that their parents 'hardly ever touch' is a challenging one for the narrator to accept. A sense of clarity is created here, highlighted by the tone of resigned acceptance produced by the short simple sentences that describe the relationship of the narrator's parents.

Pronouns

The poem is written in the third person. Names aren’t given to either parent. They are referred to ‘he’ and ‘she’ throughout. This lexical choice of using pronouns rather than names generalise the experience of the narrator. The issue of distance and the dimming of 'passion' is one experienced by many couples.

'One Flesh': Imagery

The imagery in 'One Flesh' is connected to religion and opposition.

Biblical/religious

Elizabeth Jennings was strongly influenced by her devotion to Catholicism throughout her career as a writer, and ‘One Flesh’ is no exception. Biblical imagery can be found throughout the poem. The connection between the parents' marriage and traditional expectations of relationships set up by Catholic values adds another dimension to why they remain together; they may believe that it is the right and proper thing to do. Jennings writes in the second stanza;

They hardly ever touch,

Or if they do, it is like a confession

Of having little feeling - or too much.

The noun ‘confession’ implies that the parents feel as though their feelings are sinful and need to be confessed. What the sin could be is ambiguous, it could be ‘having little feeling’ for each other and living in a discontented marriage, or having ‘too much’ feeling and being unsure of how to express it. With either interpretation, there is a sense that the parents are repressing their feelings to conform to a set of values.

The religious imagery is continued as the progression of the parents' marriage is presented as a journey toward ‘chastity’;

Chastity faces them, a destination

For which their whole lives were a preparation.

In a traditional context, remaining chaste and pure outside of marriage is a common principle in Catholicism. However, the statement that the parents have been in ‘preparation’ for a chaste life may seem unusual in the context of marriage - juxtaposing the title of ‘one flesh’, which is associated with the spiritual and physical union of a husband and wife.

Opposition

Throughout the poem, a sense of distance between the parents is created through imagery placed in opposition to each other.

In the first stanza, the husband sits in bed ‘with a book’ while the wife ‘like a girl’ dreams of ‘childhood’. Although they are both avoiding their present reality, the husband is grounded, reading about ‘some new event’, while the wife is less present, daydreaming about the past, ‘her eyes fixed on the shadows overhead’. We associate reading with maturity, while we associate daydreaming with innocent youth, placing the husband and wife in opposition to one another.

This imagery of opposites is more overt in the second stanza, as the parents are described as ‘strangely apart, yet strangely close together’. The paradox of being ‘apart’ yet ‘together’ is reflective of the conflict between the husband and wife. They may have grown apart over time, they may be in opposition to each other, yet they are bound by the commitment of marriage.

In the final stanza, this imagery is used to great effect as the narrator questions how the ‘fire from which’ they ‘came, has now grown cold?’ The juxtaposition of ‘fire’ and ‘cold’ underlines the impact of time on the parent’s relationship. They were not always ‘cold’ and distant, their relationship once had ‘passion’, and it was from this that the narrator came.

The realisation of the narrator, that this ‘passion’ and ‘fire’ no longer exists, creates the sense of a breakdown within the family unit as a whole, not just within the relationship between the husband and wife. This distance between these two figures has caused the narrator, their child, to also feel distant from them.

'One Flesh': tone

The narrator of the poem is a younger person, perhaps a child, observing the relationship between their parents. The relationship and the thoughts of the parents are what the child believes they may be, providing an interesting third-person angle to a first-person experience. This creates a nostalgic and pondering tone, as the narrator observes how the parents’ are ‘tossed up like flotsam from a former passion’, hardly ever touching, ‘strangely apart’.

A childlike element to this nostalgic tone is brought out in the final stanza as the narrator questions, ‘do they know they’re old’. The simple question evokes a feeling in the reader that they themselves have probably felt - the realisation that they are growing up and the people around them are changing.

The nature of this question, as the narrator realises they can’t fully understand what their parents are going through, but can only understand that ‘the fire from which’ they came ‘has now grown cold’, adds to this childlike tone of nostalgia; as if they’re seeking answers to big questions that can never be truly solved.

Themes in 'One Flesh' by Elizabeth Jennings

The main themes in 'One Flesh' are distance, the passage of time, love, and the nature of relationships.

Distance

The theme of distance is highlighted throughout the poem in relation to the parent’s relationship. This is particularly evident in Jennings’ use of a semantic field of separation; ‘apart’, ‘separate’, ‘elsewhere’ and ‘hardly ever touch’. This use of language demonstrates that while the parents may be bound together in marriage, they are no longer ‘one flesh’.

The passage of time

The poem is defined by the narrator's perception of their parent's relationship and its apparent decline. The passage of time, and the changes which come with it, is a prevalent theme throughout, the metaphor of 'chastity' facing the parents highlights this;

Chastity faces them, a destination

For which their whole lives were a preparation.

The idea that the parents have been preparing for this destination for their whole lives underpins the idea that this distance in their relationship was inevitable as time passed.

The theme of change in the parent's relationship and age is encapsulated by the final stanza of the poem;

Do they know they're old,

These two who are my father and my mother

Whose fire from which I came, has now grown cold?

The rhetorical question of 'do they know they're old' forces the reader to consider whether the parents know that they have grown distant from each other as time has passed. The juxtaposition of 'fire' and 'cold', on the other hand, highlights how the parents the child came from have changed into people unfamiliar, perhaps, even to each other.

The nature of relationships

Jennings captures the complex nature of two relationships. The romantic relationship between husband and wife, on the one hand, and the familial relationship between a parent and their child.

Both relationships appear to have become stilted in their complexity. For instance, the husband and wife have become ‘tossed up like flotsam from a former passion’. The use of the verb ‘tossed’ in this simile indicates that the distance between the husband and wife was not something they intended; it was just inevitable. ‘Flotsam’ refers to the wreckage of a ship, suggesting that the relationship was caught in the inevitable forces of nature, leaving the couple ‘tossed up’, without the ‘passion’ that once existed between them.

The complexity of this distance is further highlighted by how the couple has ‘little feeling - or too much’. The separation the two feel is difficult to interpret. They, and the narrator, are unsure of how to define what their feelings have grown into as time has passed.

One Flesh - Key takeaways

  • 'One Flesh' was first published in Elizabeth Jennings' 1966 poetry collection The Mind Has Mountains.
  • The poem explores the relationship of a husband and wife from the narrative perspective of their child, and has a nostalgic tone.
  • The title of the poem 'One Flesh' has religious connotations, referring to the joining of a couple in marriage.
  • 'One Flesh' has a regular form, made up of three six-line stanzas. The first and second stanzas end in rhyming couplets, while the final stanza has an ABABAB rhyme scheme.
  • Jennings' utilises poetic devices such as simile, enjambment, and caesura. The poem also contains biblical imagery, and covers themes such as the passage of time and the nature of relationships.

Frequently Asked Questions about One Flesh

‘One Flesh’ explores how romantic love may not necessarily last, and where that can leave two people in a long-term relationship. The two subjects of the poem are no longer ‘one flesh’, the ‘fire from which’ the narrator of the poem ‘came’ has died, and instead their parents are two separate beings, distant from one another.

Love in 'One Flesh' is presented as a complex emotion which can grow 'cold' over time.

'One Flesh' has an irregular rhyme scheme, with rhyming couplets at the end of the first two stanzas and an ABABAB rhyme scheme in the final stanza.

'One Flesh' was published in 1966.

Elizabeth wrote 'One Flesh' as an exploration and ode to her aging parents and their relationship.

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