Elizabeth Jennings’ ‘The Annunciation‘ re-imagines the iconic moment the Angel Gabriel informed Mary she would bear the child of God by focusing on Mary’s reaction to the news. The poem thereby explores faith and doubt through feminine eyes which reminds the reader how many of these stories center on the male experience.
‘The Annunciation‘ breaks with tradition by centering the experience of Mary and the human response to the news that she will bear the son of God.
The poem begins after the Angel’s arrival, demonstrating that it is primarily concerned with Mary’s reaction to the news rather than the delivery of it. As the stanzas continue, Mary gradually comes to terms with the news that she will fall pregnant, observing the relationship between the mundane and the divine all around her. By doing so, the poem engages with the innate incongruity that the conception of Christ represents as he is both mortal and immortal and both man and God.
You can read the full poem here.
Elizabeth Jennings was born in Lincolnshire in 1926 and was raised as a Catholic. She attended the University of Oxford where she studied English and began publishing her work. It was at Oxford that she met fellow poets Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, and Thomas Gunn who became a group that was known as ‘The Movement.’ Her work was very influenced by both her Catholicism and by her struggles with her own mental health. She attempted suicide on several occasions and spent significant periods of time in psychiatric hospitals before her death in 2001. She is widely respected as one of Britain’s finest twentieth-century poets.
Nothing will ease the pain to come
Though now she sits in ecstasy
And lets it have its way with her.
The angel’s shadow in the room
Is lightly lifted as if he
Had never terrified her there.
The poem begins with the hyperbolic assertion that “nothing will ease the pain to come” which subverts the readers’ expectations by reminding them that, in spite of the divinity of the virgin conception, Mary will have to experience the pain of childbirth nonetheless. Jennings juxtaposes this future pain with the ecstasy of the present which emphasizes the fact that the poem is concerned with contrast and things that are seemingly incongruous with one another. The use of the euphemistic “let it have its way with her” indicates Mary’s vulnerability and reinforces the fact that she had no choice in the matter.
This sinister reading is reinforced by the reference to the angel’s shadow. Given the fact angels are divine beings, one might not imagine they would cast shadows at all. The fact Jennings mentions it explicitly ensures the angel reflects men more broadly, who cast long shadows over the women who, historically, were expected to be subservient to their will.
The furniture again returns
To its old simple state. She can
Something she never gave to man
Or god before, and this god grows
The use of sibilance in the second line creates a sinister and bitter tone. This could reflect the fact Mary resents the mundane nature of her surroundings because she has experienced the divine and now nothing compares. However, it could also evoke bitterness because, even though her surroundings are cosmetically normal again, she knows her life will never be the same again and resents the decision that was taken without her.
The final lines of the poem allude to Mary’s virginity by referring to “something” she never gave to man or god. It also reminds the reader that, while this story is often told wondrously, Mary was not consulted and did not agree to carry God’s child. The guttural alliteration at the end of the stanza could imbue the words with a degree of anger as a result of this unexpected visitation.
Most like a man. She wonders how
With a strange child that is my own.”
This stanza captures the contradiction at the core of the poem; the child she is going to carry is both divine and human, both hers and distinct from her. The uncertainty Mary displays in the first and second lines reinforces her vulnerability and lack of support. Jennings’ use of caesura on the first and third lines disrupts the pace of the stanza, possibly mirroring Mary’s shock and uncertainty about what to do with the information she has been given. Finally, the juxtaposition in the final line is a microcosm of the poem as Mary struggles the reconcile the relationship she will have with her child with the one she feels she ought to have.
So from her ecstasy she moves
And great salvations grip her side.
The final stanza begins by repeating the word “ecstasy” from the first stanza which encourages the reader to ponder the word and its application to these events. The use of parentheses in the third line could reflect the sudden interruption that the angel’s arrival caused in her life. However, they could also be used by Jennings to represent Mary herself and show how her experience is often viewed as an afterthought even though the story concerns her more than anyone.
The poem concludes by returning to the same unresolved impossibility that is the concurrent mortality and immortality of her child. Whilst Mary appears to accept this, the final lines cast some doubt. The great salvations are personified when they are described as gripping Mary which again suggests a degree of coercion that is rarely mentioned when this story is told.
In Christianity, the Annunciation refers to the moment the Angel Gabriel told Mary she would fall pregnant even though she was a virgin and that the child would be the son of God. Contrary to popular belief, this pregnancy was not an immaculate conception. That term refers to Mary’s own conception as she was to be born without sin so that she may carry the child of God when she reached adulthood.
The poem features four stanzas, each with six lines. In stanzas two, three, and four, the third line rhymes with the sixth. Jennings used caesura throughout the poem to disrupt the pace and flow, possibly mirroring the sudden disruption caused by the angel’s arrival and news.
‘The Movement’ was the name given to a group of poets that included Jennings who were committed to traditional poetic forms and simplistic means of expression. Jennings was the only woman and only Catholic in this group. ‘The Movement’ wrote during times of immense geopolitical change when Britain was coming to terms with its reduced international power and the collapse of its empire.
Elizabeth Jennings was a devout Catholic her entire life and much of her work was informed by her faith. Whilst this poem certainly deals with Christian themes, it does so with a focus on the human toll paid by Mary who was ultimately used by those more powerful than her, a fate Jennings saw as all too common for women throughout history.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Annunciation‘ might want to explore other Elizabeth Jennings poems. For example:
- ‘A Mental Hospital Sitting-Room‘ – A powerful poem that explores Jennings’ experience of psychiatric care.
- ‘Admonition‘ – A sapphic poem that explores questions of agency and responsibility.
Some other poems that may be of interest include: