Elizabeth Jennings: ‘The Inward War’ by Dana Greene - review by Carol Rumens

Carol Rumens

Metaphysical Modern

Elizabeth Jennings: ‘The Inward War’


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Elizabeth Jennings (1926–2001) saw writing poetry as a sacred vocation. She came of age at a time when the most visible young poets in England were signed up to that religion of the ordinary and the masculine known as The Movement. But her poems delighted her peers. She was designated the star of the journal Oxford Poetry by its editor, ‘the charming Kingsley Amis’, who, I suspect, might have had her in mind when, later, he wrote ‘A Bookshop Idyll’ (‘Women are really much nicer than men:/No wonder we like them’). Even in early love poems, such as ‘Identity’, Jennings was moving towards the transcendental: ‘When I decide I shall assemble you/Or, more precisely, when I decide which thoughts/Of mine about you fit most easily together,/Then I can learn what I have loved, what lets/ Light through the mind’.

Job opportunities for women existed in the postwar literary world of London, but Jennings found it oppressive. She was no less uneasy about sex: perhaps because of her Catholicism and early insecurities, she needed a special kind of human connection, one that was intense yet not physically demanding or emotionally possessive. Friendships with priestly mentors such as Father Aelwin Tindal-Atkinson and strong, gifted women such as the historian Veronica Wedgwood became integral to her happiness and her poetry, one aim of which was to redefine human love as something independent of the body.

Boston, Lincolnshire, was her childhood Eden, lost when the family moved to Oxford when she was six. Confirmation brought confession and its humiliations. Recollections of early childhood often signify redemption: ‘A child watched the sky and said, “Up there”/And “there” meant Heaven for me’ (‘A Sky in Childhood’).

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