The end of autumn brings about a change in the weather, a change in atmosphere, and a change in attitude; when the winter sets in, cold and grey, there seems to be a lapse back into an almost pagan attitude. As the days grow shorter and darker, the spiritual aspect of the season makes itself known in countless ways; churches advertise different masses, and candles lend an unearthly air to every ritual.
In Elizabeth Jennings’ poem, ‘Harvest and Consecration’, the poetess deals with the end of the season of harvest and its development into winter. Autumn is an abundant season of food and of ritual, of light and closeness, and the poetess makes sure to emphasis this aspect through her turn of phrase, and her description of the season – this is indicative of the way that Elizabeth Jennings writes, as she has many similar poems; she takes a great deal of pleasure in attributing meaning to ordinary landscapes, ordinary objects, and therefore turns them into extraordinary creations.
For Jennings, there is very little that is as spiritual as a closeness of spirit to the landscape, which is a very Romantic approach to poetry. Saying this, Jennings herself was considered to be a part of the ‘Movement’ school of poetry, a fact which she personally disliked, being religious and also writing with meaning, rather than with satire.
Harvest and Consecration Analysis
After the heaped piles and the corn sheaves waiting
To be collected, gathered into barns,
After all fruits have burst their skins, the sating
Season cools and turns,
And then I think of something that you said
Of when you held the chalice and the bread.
The opening of ‘Harvest and Consecration‘, which you can read in full here, brings an immediate focus to the time period: it is the end of the harvesting season, and there is an air of waiting; the ‘cornsheaves waiting / to be collected, gathered into barns’, and the ‘fruits have burst their skins’. The reference to these actions draws attention to the fullness of the harvest season, the plentiful supplies gathered from the earth, and the way ‘Harvest and Consecration‘ itself is written gives an almost breathless sense of being. The poem lilts, in the opening, and the inclusion of so many pauses in the phrasing makes the reader stop and think about what he is reading; it brings to mind an image of a countryside, a farm lonely and distant, and this image of coziness is carried throughout to the end of the stanza.
We have no reference for who the ‘you’ in the penultimate line is, but we can assume that it is a close family member; it seems to be a familial sort of poem, with emphasis on the meaningful connection between family and hearth and harvest.
The conflation of religion and harvest begins here: it is telling that Jennings chooses to reference this episode specifically after the harvest, and to write about it in the same way. Jennings herself was an avid Roman-Catholic, and her beliefs are evident in many of her poems; here, the reference to the ‘chalice and bread’, coming after the description of the plentiful harvest, implies that the harvest itself is almost holy, that the provision of food is on par with the Biblical story.
Stanzas Two and Three
I spoke of Mass and thought of it as close
To how a season feels which stirs and brings
Until you said no one could feel such passion
And still preserve the power of consecration.
In these stanzas, Jennings moves on to the topic of religion as itself a form of harvesting; she speaks of Mass, and ‘thought of it as close / To how a season feels which stirs and brings / Fire to the hearth, food to the hungry house’ – it appears to be speaking of the sense of the spiritual cultivated throughout the harvesting season and the end of the months. There is a larger sense of belief in winter, appears to be Jennings’ point, perhaps because the closer and closer people get to Christmas, the more their beliefs become pronounced; however, within the same stanza itself, Jennings conflates the images of farming with the images of divinity. Near the end, she writes ‘God in a garden, then in sheaves of corn’, again bringing up the image of the parable of the bread and fishes, and thereby further linking the idea of farming with the idea of holiness. In a way, Jennings seems to be implying that the production of farming is itself a method of attending a religious service.
Life itself is shown in two divides here: the common, and the consecrated. Near the end, Jennings references the priest ‘as a midwife and a mother’, and points out that even they must feel something, and that when they do, they retain their divinity. However, the person she is speaking to disagrees; they hold the view that religion itself is unemotional and spiritual.
And it is true. How cool the gold sheaves lie,
The wine and bread protect our ecstasy.
Initially, Jennings appears to agree with what he is saying, and points out the cleanliness of the produce: ‘how cool the gold sheaves lie’, but that they are not wholly innocent. Their appearance of complete innocence is marred by the fact that they are bursting with flavor on the inside, and so too, Jennings assumes, is religion; it assumes a front of no emotion, a front that is largely considered to be without passion, and yet there is a hidden passion in strong spiritual belief, much like there is a hidden passion when it comes to farming.
Elizabeth Jennings was constantly inquisitive and exploratory of the world, even if in a rather unworldly way: she had a magnificent disregard for normal modes of dress. She loved theatre and films, and was a fanatical follower of televised snooker. She hated Freud with an even greater passion than that with which she hated Marx. But she was not, on the whole, a great hater.
– The Telegraph, Obituary on Elizabeth Jennings, published 2001.
Elizabeth Jennings was a prolific British poetess born in Lincolnshire in 1926, though she lived most of her life in Oxford. She won numerous awards throughout her life, including the Somerset Maugham Prize for her collection, A Way of Looking, an Honourary Doctorate of Divinity from Durham University, and a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. She was best known for her lyrical poetry.