A Way of Looking

Elizabeth Jennings

‘A Way of Looking’ by Elizabeth Jennings explores the peculiar but often unnoticed ways our perception is guided by more than what is objectively observed.

Elizabeth Jennings

Nationality: English

Elizabeth Jennings was a British poet and writer known for her lyrical and introspective style.

Her first collection was Poems in 1953.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: What we see is irrevocably influenced by our thoughts and associations

Themes: Beauty, Nature, New Life

Speaker: An observer

Emotions Evoked: Confusion, Gratitude, Joyfulness

Poetic Form: Sestet

Time Period: 20th Century

This erudite poem by Elizabeth Jennings uses imagery to contemplate the human mind and its stranger powers of perception.

‘A Way of Looking’ is a short but moving poem by Elizabeth Jennings that attempts to uncover the ways in which the human mind perceives the world around it. One filled with quaint visual imagery and figurative language that accentuates the somewhat surreal movement of thought and reflection that goes on behind our eyes.

Ultimately, the poem seeks to reveal how we latch on to a variety of associations when we look at something, whether conscious of it or not. It is a portrait of the human imagination in all its incessant and ceaseless motion.


A Way of Looking’ by Elizabeth Jennings is a contemplative poem that illustrates how our minds do not objectively observe but rather perceive.

‘A Way of Looking’ begins with the speaker pondering the nature of perception. In the first stanza, they describe looking at a scene and their thought process. “We would retrace our thoughts to find / The thought of which this landscape is the image,” the speaker asserts. That landscape mentioned is given more detail in the preceding lines as composed of a “tree and waterfall.” But the physical scene in front of the speaker is not their focus; instead, they hone in on how the image of this place formed in mind becomes dominant over reality. As if “their first roots and source [were] within the mind.”

The second stanza suddenly changes the scene: “But something plays a trick upon the scene: / A different kind of light, a strange colour.” This unexpected alteration forces the speaker’s mind to adjust to this new feature of the landscape. They describe it as being disjointed with the image they’ve already created in their imagination, necessitating new “thought and reflection.” In other words, the speaker is reprocessing this new view in their mind to better “fit the image” they had before it.

Literary Devices

‘A Way of Looking’ uses a number of different literary devices that include but are not limited to:

  • Visual imagery: “The thought of which this landscape is the image” (3); “A different kind of light, a stranger colour / Flows down on the appropriated view” (8-9).
  • Simile: “It is as if the tree and waterfall / Had their first roots and source within the mind” (5-6).
  • Metaphor: “But something plays a trick upon the scene” (7); “Nothing within the mind fits” (10); “To fit the image and to make it true” (12).

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

It is the association after all
We seek, we would retrace our thoughts to find
The thought of which this landscape is the image,
Then pay the thought and not the landscape homage.
It is as if the tree and waterfall
Had their first roots and source within the mind.

The first stanza of ‘A Way of Looking’ introduces the idea central to the poem: when we look at something, our mind often fixates on the subjective and not the objective. We seldom perceive something without creating some kind of “association” (1), and it is this that the speaker affirms we look for in any scene.

Take, for instance, the landscape that they are staring at. The speaker describes the way one might “retrace [their] thoughts to find / The thought of which this landscape is the image” (3-4). This is occurring in retrospect, but the recollection of this landscape is not the focus.

Instead, they recognize that they’ll concentrate on the perceptions and associations that the landscape inspired instead of the landscape itself. Jennings uses a powerful example of imagery and simile to drive home this notion that in perceiving something, our minds recreate it: “It is as if the tree and waterfall / Had their first roots and source within the mind” (5-6).

Stanza Two

But something plays a trick upon the scene:
To fit the image and to make it true.

Stanza two of ‘A Way of Looking’ introduces a change in the scenery the speaker observes, describing it as a “trick upon the scene” (7). This transformation is owed to “a different kind of light, a strange colour” (8) that “flows down on the appropriated view” (9). The speaker’s diction emphasizes the way their mind has commandeered the scene within their imagination and away from objective reality.

The result is an acute sense of the discordance between their perception of the scene and what is actually there. “Nothing within the mind fits. This is new” (10), they ominously and curiously declare. The poem ends with a resolute illustration of the mind reprocessing the landscape: “Thought and reflection must begin again / To fit the image and to make it true” (11). Truth is obviously subjective here, and what the speaker means is “true” to their own perceptions.


What is the theme of ‘A Way of Looking?

The poem’s theme centers on the speaker’s visualization of how the human mind works. Essentially, we perceive things not just as they objectively appear but rather with associations and alterations made in our imagination. The point of the poem is to highlight this often unnoticeable quality of our perception.

Why did Elizabeth Jennings write ‘A Way of Looking?

It is unclear specifically why Jennings wrote the poem, yet it is perhaps not unlikely that they experienced something similar to their speaker. After all, poets often live in the realm of retrospection and recreate entire scenes from the imagination.

What is the significance of light in the poem?

The light that appears in the poem changes the scene sufficiently enough that the speaker’s prior perception of it is marred. In a way, it literally forces them to view the scene in a new light.

What is the “association” the speaker seeks?

The “association” that is mentioned at the beginning of the poem might refer to the kind of associations the mind makes when looking at something. When the speaker looks at the landscape before them, they don’t just see a tree and a waterfall but whatever other connections or thoughts that spring forward, by will or involuntarily. These associations create differences in what the speaker perceives versus what is being observed.

Similar Poems

  • ‘A Requiem’ – this poem recounts the emotional experience of attending a funeral ceremony.
  • ‘Fountain’ – this poem revels in the poet’s observations of a fountain.
  • ‘Reminiscence’ – this poem also deals with memory and retrospect, but this time, it is directed at childhood.

Poetry+ Review Corner

A Way of Looking

Enhance your understanding of the poem's key elements with our exclusive review and critical analysis. Join Poetry+ to unlock this valuable content.

Elizabeth Jennings

This poem by Elizabeth Jennings is a beautiful example of the poet's traditional style and sublime pensiveness. One that makes use of imagery and figurative language to ruminate over the curious ways that people perceive the world around them. It is a timeless and moving poem that highlights some of the best qualities of her poetry.
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20th Century

Jennings was a 20th-century poet who enjoyed much critical success that was unfortunately overshadowed by personal struggles. Still, her poetry has left an imprint and remains persistently inspiring. This poem underscores some of the reasons she is so enduring, which include but are not limited to her lucid descriptions and insightful musings.
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Although her personal life marred her reputation, Jennings is still regarded as one of the more influential and lasting English poets who wrote during the second half of the 20th century. This poem is a great example of the ways in which she was viewed as a traditionalist who utilized poetic structure to pen incredibly insightful and poignant lines of verse.
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One of the poem's central themes is this quiet reverence for the ability and process of perceiving the world around us. Both Jennings' diction and imagery regard it with a particular beauty, especially in the way the speaker describes how what we see becomes entangled with our mind so as to appear to spring from it directly.
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Nature is a theme found in the poem. The subject of the speaker's view and focus is a natural landscape: a tree and a waterfall. The speaker's attentive gaze implies their reverence for the sight and elevates nature as a kind of revelatory experience. It also reveals how we can distort the things we observe with our minds.
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New Life

In a way, this poem by Jennings advocates for the way the familiar can be altered so easily by such small changes. This can be understood as a renewal of sorts, one brought on by our minds. According to the speaker, when we look at something, we see with all our own memories and associations as well. These can be broken when the scenery changes.
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One of the emotions that the poem both inspires and expresses is a sense of confusion. Over the course of the poem, the speaker describes how their mind orients itself around the landscape they are observing. But that is all destroyed the moment a new ray of light enters the scene, forcing them to reassess it all in confusion.
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This poem by Jennings describes an implied sense of gratitude for the way of thinking. The speaker isn't disappointed or annoyed at the fact that they need to rethink their perceptions. Instead, the poem is slightly reverent of the whole process and also signifies the sublime qualities of human observation, one that is both moving and thoughtful.
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The poem also inspires a sense of joy that stems from its descriptions of the way the eyes and mind function. Thanks to these processes, we can observe and associate with the world around us. The poem unfolds as this ode to what occurs when we see something and begin to mold it to our perceptions unconsciously.
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One obvious topic that the poem touches on is imagination. The speaker seems to be referring to this part of our mind, which often works unconsciously when describing the way we tend to pay the thought of something more in mind than the actual thing itself. The imagination is also tasked to make the new image "true" when the scenery changes.
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Light is another topic found within the poem. In the second stanza, a beam of light changes the scene in a subtle but ambiguous way. This causes the speaker's perception of the landscape to be altered and forces them to realign their thoughts around the new changes. The light serves as a symbol for a new perspective.
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There is also a philosophical bent to Jennings' poem. One that is rooted in its attempt to understand the various pieces of human perception and its mercurial ways. This is representative of many of her poems which often ruminate on major themes like death and religion. This poem hones in on the wonder and paradox of our subjective points of view.
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One of the core topics of this poem is its illustration of a transformation. There are two such moments that occur in the poem: the first is when the ray of light changes the scene for the speaker, and the second is when the speaker's mind reorients itself around the change. Both emphasize the rapid ways in which our minds can process such transformations and the constant state of change we are engaged in, like the world around us.
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This poem is organized as two sestets, stanzas of poetry containing six lines. Jennings was known for using strict poetic structures and forms in her writings and excelled at them as well. This poem is a bit less rigid than some of her other poems, but it does still emphasize her commitment to form with its simple meter and rhyme.
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Steven Ward Poetry Expert
Steven Ward is a passionate writer, having studied for a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and being a poetry editor for the 'West Wind' publication. He brings this experience to his poetry analysis on Poem Analysis.

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