Elizabeth Jennings

E lizabeth Jennings is known today as a master of form and lyric poetry. Her work is marked by its emotional restraint and connection to the Roman Catholic church. She is often compared to and contrasted with Phillip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, and Thom Gunn, all members of the English poetic group known as The Movement. Today she is considered one of the greatest English poets of the second half of the twentieth century. 

Elizabeth Jennings


Life Facts

  • Elizabeth Jennings was born in Boston, Lincolnshire, England, in July of 1926.
  • She attended Oxford High School and St Anne’s College in Oxford. 
  • Jennings worked in advertising, at the City Library, and in the publishing industry.
  • Elizabeth Jennings published or was included in, around thirty different collections.
  • She died in October of 2001. 

Interesting Facts

  • Elizabeth Jennings first developed a love for writing in university. 
  • ‘A Way of Looking’ was published in 1955 and won the Somerset Maugham award. 
  • An important period of her life was spent in Rome. 
  • Jennings received an Honorary Doctorate of Divinity from Durham University shortly before her death. 
  • Elizabeth Jennings is buried in Wolvercote Cemetery in Oxford. 


Famous Poems by Elizabeth Jennings

‘Sequence in a Hospital’ is a fairly long poem in which s speaker describes her hopes, fears, and routines while staying at the hospital. The poem is divided into eight sections that vary in length and rhyme scheme. The speaker begins the poem, hopeless. She has no control over her life or body, which is not unusual in the hospital. The following lines note some of the many ways people try to ignore their situation’s reality. In the concluding lines, Jennings describes the pain of those nearing death and the uncomfortable situations scattered throughout the hospital. 

 

‘Admonition’ is a sapphic poem in which the poet describes how one should maintain control over their own life rather than designate their responsibilities to others. She warns the reader to take a car to win their life, not to let anyone control “you.” No one should ever commit to something they can’t get out of or delegate their responsibilities to others. The speaker concludes by giving the imperfection of a star as an example.

 

‘Song at the Beginning of Autumn’ tells of the power of sensorial memories about the coming of autumn. The poem starts with the speaker declaring that autumn is on its way. She’s the only one who can sense it in the air, knowing soon the green leaves are going to change colors. The second stanza brings in Proust’s Madeleine memory in Swann’s Way, and then finally, in the last stanza, she discusses how human beings categorize time and the seasons.

 

‘Rembrandt’s Late Self-Portraits’ is an original and memorable poem in which the speaker describes how Rembrandt, through all of his work, but especially his late self-portraits, took an honest look at himself and others. He depicted his face, “unflinchingly.” He didn’t try to make himself more attractive or younger than he was at the time. This authentic way of creating art helped him confront his past and future. Rembrandt reckoned with his own darkness in a way that the speaker admires.

 

‘Answers’ describes how one speaker compartmentalizes the big questions and answers in life in the back of her mind. The speaker in this particular piece prefers the company of “small” answers. These are the everyday conclusions that satisfy and comfort her. But, unfortunately for her, the “big answers” and big questions are still rattling around in her head, demanding attention. There are, Jennings speaker concludes, answers on the horizon. THey’re going to reach her eventually and demand that she confront her life head-on. 


Early Life

Elizabeth Jennings was born in Boston, Lincolnshire, England, in July of 1926. Her father, Dr. Henry Cecil Jennings, was a medical officer, and in the early thirties, he moved the family to Oxford. It was here that Jennings would spend the rest of her life.

 

As a young woman raised in a Roman Catholic household, she first attended Rhy St Antony School in Headington. She later attended Oxford High School. Jennings received her university education from St Anne’s College in Oxford from 1944 to 1947. 

 

It was at college that Jennings first developed a love for writing. This was partial because she attended several lectures given by remarkable figures such as C.S. Lewis. It was also here that she was first exposed to classic literature and philosophy.


Literary Career

After graduating from St Anne’s College, Jennings went on to work in advertising and at the City Library and in the publishing industry. During this time period, her work was published in Oxford Poetry, New English Weekly, and other literary journals such as Poetry Review. It was not until she was twenty-seven years old that her first collection of poems was released.

 

Her second collection, A Way of Looking, was published in 1955. It won the Somerset Maugham award and included prize money, which allowed the poet to travel to Rome. She spent three revelatory months there, developing herself as a writer. This collection was followed quickly by A Sense of the World in 1958. 

 

Throughout her life, Jennings published or was included in around thirty different collections. She was also a prolific contributor to literary criticism to journals such as the Dublin Review and London Magazine. Among all of her successes, Jennings suffered from bouts of severe mental illness.


Death

Elizabeth Jennings died in October of 2001, soon after receiving an Honorary Doctorate of Divinity from Durham University. She is buried in Wolvercote Cemetery in Oxford.


Influence from other Poets

Elizabeth Jennings was notably influenced by writers such as W.H. Auden, Robert Graves, Edwin Muir, and Gerard Manley Hopkins.


Poems by Elizabeth Jennings

Explore poetry by Elizabeth Jennings below, analyzed by the team at Poem Analysis.

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