One Flesh by Elizabeth Jennings

In this poem, One Flesh, Elizabeth Jennings uses the speaker, who seems to be a child, or at least young enough to still occupy her parents’ home, who looks upon her parents with intrigue. They lie in bed, one reading and the other apparently daydreaming. The onlooker wonders about the thoughts that must be going through their minds. They lie there so close together, and yet to the speaker they seem so far apart. While they are physically near each other, they seem to be distant in their thoughts. The speaker notices this, and briefly wonders how she came to be, or rather how too people who once loved each other could have grown so cold and distant.

One Flesh by Elizabeth Jennings

 

One Flesh Analysis

Stanza One

Lying apart now, each in a separate bed,
He with a book, keeping the light on late,
She like a girl dreaming of childhood,
All men elsewhere – it is as if they wait
Some new event: the book he holds unread,
Her eyes fixed on the shadows overhead.

The first stanza of One Flesh, which can be read in full here, focuses on the distance between the man and woman, mentally. The man holds a book that is yet unread and waits to see what distant lands it might hake him to. He escapes his present reality by entering into a different realm through his reading. The onlooker seems to think that this mental escape is what the man prefers to his present reality of lying in bed next to his wife. For this reason, he keeps the light on and focuses on his book rather than the woman next to him. The woman also enters into a distant realty-her past. The observer seems sure of her mother’s thoughts and that she dreams of her childhood as she lays there next to her husband. This paints a picture of two people in close proximity, yet far apart from one another in reality. They allow their minds to take them to two completely different and far apart places.

While the wife drifts back to childhood, the husband enters into a different realm entirely. The speaker clearly has a rather apathetic view toward “lasting” relationships. Though these two people are still together physically and bound by marriage, the speaker makes the observation that they are not bound in heart, soul, or mind. She does not know for certain whether they were at one point a unified couple, but as she gazes at them in their old age, she notes that they have grown cold toward one another and reveals to the reader the impact her parents’ relationship has had on her thoughts and feelings toward love, relationships, and marriage.

 

Stanza Two

Tossed up like flotsam from a former passion,
(…)
For which their whole lives were a preparation.

The first line of this stanza of One Flesh reveals the speaker’s belief that the two were in love at one point. In fact, she refers to them as being the remnants of a former passion, as though they were like the foam that floats on top of the ocean after the eaves have been tossed up in a storm. The fact that she refers to her parent’s former passion as a storm, also reveals her feelings toward love and marriage. Now, she views her parents as the whole, empty remnants of a once passionate storm. The speaker confesses to the reader that she has rarely ever seen her parents touch, and when she has seen it, it seemed fake and overdone, as though it were a show or an act of necessity. the relationship between her parents did not seem real or genuine to her.

The last part of this stanza is fascinating because she views her parent’s behavior as something rather chaste, and expresses her belief that they had been preparing themselves for lives of chastity all along. In the author’s time period, chastity was of utmost importance, especially for young girls. Thus, society valued abstinence until marriage, and young people were supposed to train their minds to put aside sexual thoughts. Thus, the speaker concludes that all people train for chastity, and it is ultimately their final destination. Though there might be a short storm of passion after marriage, the speaker believes that people will ultimately return to what they have been trained for their entire lives: abstinence.

 

Stanza Three

Strangely apart, yet strangely close together,
(…)
Whose fire from which I came, has now grown cold?

In this stanza, the focus shifts from love, to time. The speaker, having commented on the mental and emotional distance between her parents, now questions whether they know they are old. The speaker seems to have come to a realization that her parents do not have much time left, and yet they lie, close but not speaking to one another, their minds drifting to different places. It is almost as if the speaker questions the significance of their lives and whether or not they realize that they are wasting precious moments they have with one another. She is aware that her parents are old and will not be around for many more years, but they do not seem to realize that, or if they do realize it, by it, they are not moved to rekindle their passion. The speaker does not seem moved by this kind of love, which seems to her no real love at all. Time seems to the speaker, like a feather, lightly reminding the two that there is not much time left. The observer seems to be able to see the feather, though the married couple cannot. Whether they are too absorbed in their separate thoughts to notice it, or whether they are intentionally ignoring it, is not clear. The speaker simply implies that she is aware of the time that is wasting away, even if her parents are not.

Although the poem is primarily about the speaker’s parents, it also offers insight into the speaker herself and her views on love and marriage. She has only seen a marriage that has grown lifeless, even though it has lasted. She seems to believe that people are trained for and destined for chastity, whether married or not. Thus, the undertone of One Flesh seems to indicate the author’s belief that marriage is irrelevant, and that one way or another, people end up alone and celibate.

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  • Avatar Elizabeth Croft says:

    This commentary has a number of questionable interpretations. The speaker is Jenning’s herself as an adult speaking of her own parents, not a child “still living at home”. She is imagining or re-imagining her parents in later life – it was published in 1966 when Jennings was forty. Her relationship to her father, particularly, was difficult partly due to the strictly Catholic upbringing she endured and she seems to have struggled with her own sexuality throughout her life, having a number of affairs but never marrying. Chastity is of course an important concept in the Catholic church – it may be that Jennings saw it as an unattainable ideal which her parents have strived for all their lives and have now attained. After all, the title is ironic – taken from the Marriage Ceremony. What we see here are two people who no longer become “one flesh” through the sexual act. However, there is no lack of love, necessarily. it is ambiguous in its interpretation of the silence between them – “a confession
    Of having little feeling – or too much.” Later she says “Strangely apart, yet strangely close together,”. Jennings has not yet reached the age where she can understand the relationship between a long-time and elderly couple. She can only speculate.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      This is a really astute analysis and takes into consideration the context on a far greater level. Thank you for adding this.

  • Avatar Kaviena Rajeswaran says:

    You have some spelling mistakes that you should correct other than that this is really helpful.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      sorry, yeah these have been amended!

  • Avatar Muneyi Muneyi says:

    I don’t think the persona sees the parents as physically close to each other if you consider the opening line, ‘Lying apart now, each in a separate bed,’ The impression I get is that the couple is now physically more distant from each other than married people should. They seem mutually uncomfortable with each other in old age as evidenced by preferring individual beds. This physical distance is also mirrored in the mental distance as each partner broods over widely different topics. Lack of sexual desire for each other explains the recession into ‘chastity’ not forced on them by society this time but dictated by aging effects on sexual drive.

    • Avatar Harley says:

      Interesting analysis, and I would say that I agree that they are both physically and mentally separate. But I would say that the chastity is more of a by product from their lack of love for each other and yet it is aided by their societal training, evidenced by the line that ‘their whole lives were a preparation’ for their current chastity. Perhaps the notion that older people shouldn’t have sex or reverting to training from their youth, it may not simply be a choice or a lack of libido.

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