Elizabeth Jennings’ Delay relies on the metaphor of starlight traveling to earth to explore the complexity and mishaps of love. Jennings reflects on how love can be missed due to coincidences, misinterpretation, and misunderstanding. The tone of the poem is wistful, with both the extended metaphor and subject content inducing a feeling of introspection. You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Analysis
The poem is split into two stanzas, both of four lines (quatrains). There is a constant rhyme scheme of ABAB and the metrical rhythm is iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter is a stressed, unstressed, stressed pattern that is often used within poetry to emulate the sound of a heartbeat. By invoking this trope, Jennings draws upon a tradition of love poetry to reflect the content of Delay. Similarly, the consistent rhyme scheme is a mechanism to further the introspective tone of the poem. Indeed, the consistent rhyme scheme is comforting within a poem about the folly of love.
Lines within Delay are enjambed, meaning they flow onto the next line without punctuation. This helps sustain the meter of the poem, while also creating a steady rhythm when read. The enjambment could also be read as a symbol for the constant stream of light, the key symbol within the poem.
Lines One & Two
The radiance of the star that leans on me
Was shining years ago. The light that now
Jennings begins Delay with a luminous description of a ‘star’. The star emits a ‘radiance’ which instantly illuminates the poem with the image of light. The use of this adjective, when the metaphor of light representing love within the poem is understood, also elevates the concept of love. It is something radiant, ethereal, and brilliant.
Jennings paints a splendid picture of love, following this impactful beginning with the idea that the light is ‘lean[ing] on’ her. This at first seems strange, light indeed does not have a weight. Yet Jennings feels the slightest pressure of the light barring down upon her. Here, the poet is suggesting that light and love have a certain weight, perhaps more emotional than physical, which can be audibly felt and understood within the body. The idea of ‘lean[ing]’ also draws upon connotations of support, with Jennings suggesting the physical connection that love invokes. All within the first line Jennings has projected an incredible image of beauty, encompassing a romantic, brilliant side to love.
The semantics of light permeate through all areas within Delay. Within the first stanza, we have ‘radiance’, ‘shining’, and ‘glitters’ as adjectives linked with ‘light’. Jennings is painting a dazzling picture of this far off star, still shining brightly despite the distance.
Lines Three & Four
Yet, despite its radiance, Jennings says that she ‘may never see’ this beautiful light. Here arrises the first element of doubt within the poem. Jennings suggests that despite how brightly a star is burning and no matter how beautiful, sometimes one simply does not see it. This is the first mishap of love that Jennings explores. This is a representation of when one person simply does not see/notice another who is in love with them. It doesn’t matter how ferocious and passionate they love, sometimes they will just go unnoticed. The conditional ‘may’ furthers the fickle of this disposition. There is nothing malevolent or unkind in Jennings’ words, it’s a simple matter of coincidence.
The ‘time lag’ in which Jennings reference is a relation to the concept of light-years within physics. A ‘Light-year’ is the maximum distance that light can travel in one year within the vacuum of space. For example, if a star is 8 light-years away from us on earth, it would take 8 years for its light to reach our eyes. This means that when looking up at the sky, essentially you are looking into the past, as the light which is reaching you actually emanated many many years ago. This is the central idea of Delay, and is continued within the following stanza.
Jennings sees that love ‘may not reach me until Its first desire is spent’, drawing upon the concept of Light Years to categorize a long-term love that goes unnoticed. When Jennings finally realizes that someone loves her, it is now too flat and the moment has passed. The ‘first desire’ has long since been ‘spent’ and the love has faded over time.
This process cannot be forced, Jennings writes that the ‘star’s impulse must wait’. She suggests that love is a game of patience, which is both a blessing and a curse. If realized and ‘claim[ed], love is ‘beautiful’. Yet more often than not it fades to nothing over time. Jennings has a very wistful tone, yet there is no contextual information to explain who she is actually writing about.
Again Jennings writes using conditional uncertainty, this word ‘may’ is repeated. Delay is incredibly introspective, and we are lead to wonder if the poem is reflecting on real events or if this is just fiction. Although it is left ambitious, with the triple conditional ‘may’ shrouding the poem in an elusive and far off the atmosphere, the continuous use of the pronoun ‘me’ rejects this notion. The poem is incredibly personal, with the ‘me’ pronoun further elevating this sense that we are seeing directly into Jennings’ private thoughts. Although left ambitious, I would be lead to suggest Jennings is reflecting on personal experiences based on the tone and pronoun use. Poor Jennings.
And love arrived may find us somewhere else.
The final notion of failed love is addressed in the last line. Perhaps even if the love does eventually ‘arrive’ and is realized, it will be too late as they will ‘find us somewhere else’. This line works in two ways. The first physically, perhaps the receiver of love will now have moved away, to a far off country or land. This idea is especially popular among modern readers as it relates to the concept of long-distance relationships. The ‘somewhere else’ is again ambitious, allowing a personal identification to be taken with the poem. The second possible reading of this line is that the ‘somewhere else’ is an emotional distance. Whereas once Jennings may have been ready to accept the ‘light’, she has now changed her mind. Although she realizes that love is possible, she no longer wants it, found now somewhere else.
Delay is a continual reflection on the mishaps of love and the coincidences that can occur. Although fairly ambiguous in nature, the resounding idea is one of love’s failings. Love does not always work out, and sometimes there doesn’t have to be a reason.