To a Friend with a Religious Vocation

Elizabeth Jennings


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.

The poem, ‘To a Friend with a Religious Vocation’, by Elizabeth Jennings orbits around varied religious convictions the poet discusses in it by comparing her conviction with her friend’s conviction. Composed in 4 septets, the poem’s title does not suit its theme, as it doesn’t speak what the poet wants to convey through it. Elizabeth says where her friend is fully aware of her purpose in life; she, on the other hand, doesn’t have any idea about what her purpose in life is.

To a Friend with a Religious Vocation by Elizabeth Jennings 

To a Friend with a Religious Vocation Analysis

Thinking of your vocation, I am filled


Of purpose. Is it merely a pretense,

When the first stanza of ‘To a Friend with a Religious Vocation’ starts, we find the poet comparing the vocation opted by her friend with her own. The poet says where her friend has determined vows towards her life, she has no such vows. She lacks the vocation unlike her friend’s. Professing her lack of interests towards marriage, the poet says she neither wants to build up her family, nor does she want to dedicate her life to God by taking “the three vows ringed by poverty”, which a nun is supposed to take. But she still has a “sense/Vague and inchoate, with no symmetry, /or purpose”. This, in other words, means that her idea towards life purpose is vague, it’s “merely a pretense” and nothing else.

Thus, here, the poet, comparing her life purpose with her friend’s life purpose, says that she is trackless in her life, but her friend is fully determined with a purpose to fulfill in her life. She says she cannot dedicate her life to God, while her friend has already had set vows to go ahead with the vocation of the nun. With this difference in her vocation from her friend, the poet wants to let us know that she is not satisfied with what she is doing in her life, but at the same time, she says that she doesn’t even wish to dedicate her life for God.

A kind of scaffolding which I erect –


Dark nights, perhaps, but no grey days ahead for you.

In the second stanza, the poet continues to talk about the purpose of her life. Where in the first stanza, Elizabeth says that she has no fixed ‘vows’ towards her purpose in life, in the second stanza; she says she has her own purpose in life. Here the poet is suggesting towards the writing poems that she has been doing since her childhood.

However, this also doesn’t save her from the rampant ‘loneliness’ in her life. She says: “The fitful poems come but can’t protect/The empty areas of loneliness.” By this verse, she may mean that her life is so full of loneliness that even poem writing doesn’t create any interest in her life. Though she may be vowed towards writing poems, but that too doesn’t get her what she is seeking for.

On the contrary, her friend has a very clear purpose in her life. She is neither vogue in her life, nor have any “grey days” like the poet has to face even after writing poetry. The poet says: “You know what you must do,” she just has to engross herself in her chosen vocation, that is; “mere breathing is a way to bless”.

Thus, through this stanza, the poet wants to say that even her “fitful poems’ are not able to protect her from ‘loneliness’ that she has to face after having composed a poem. She says while her friend’s life is full of hopes and enlightenment, her own life is going without any purpose in life. She is vogue in her life, but her friend is very clear about what exactly she has to do in her life.

Your vows enfold you. I must make my own;


My silences are always enemies.

In this third stanza of ‘To a Friend with a Religious Vocation’, the poet, continuing her theme, says that where her friend has discovered her vocation, she (the poet) has also made poem writing her life’s purpose. The poet says that just as her friend gets calm and peace by choosing and working in her own profession, she is also very happy at the writing of poems, which, in return, provides her with “a moment’s peace”. The noteworthy point here is that where the poet was pessimistic in the first two stanzas of the poem, in this stanza, the poet has changed attitude towards her life.

She says that her friend’s vows are “empirical” or “practical”, while she will herself have to make her own vows.  She says the creativity is gone after the poems are composed. There is no fire of creativity left in her. It becomes totally dull, and there starts a very long period of inactivity, which, according to her, doesn’t remain at all active.

Calling it a non-friendly time, the poet says: “My silences are always enemies,” which means the poet is highly tormented by the ‘silences’ and ‘loneliness’ that she has to face after having written poems. However, that poem writing does give her a ‘flash’ and a ‘moment’s peace.

Yet with the same convictions that you have


And I am stunned by silence everywhere.

In this concluding stanza of ‘To a Friend with a Religious Vocation’, the poet says although she doesn’t have convictions like her friend, yet she wants to have as her. She says just as her friend is vowed or pledged to a divine love, she too wishes to “believe in perfect love”. By ‘perfect love’, the poet may mean the spiritual love that is considered to be as pure as truth.

However, on the other hand, she says she doesn’t get inspired when there is spiritual darkness, that is; she is not inspired by the godly love. This spiritual darkness fills the poet’s life with chaos, and there is no will power left, and during that time, she gets “stunned by silence everywhere”, which means she becomes unable to compose any poem. She says when she is surrounded by the spiritual darkness, the vocations, and visions get failed, the will becomes slack, and there is silence all around.


Language and Imagery

From the language and imagery point of view, the poem, ‘To a Friend with a Religious Vocation’, consists of 4 septets, and is formatted in a sustained rhyme scheme, which reads like ABABCBC. Elizabeth, the poet of the poem, recurrently refers to ‘chaos’ and ‘darkness’, instead of talking about the enlightened world of vocation that her friend decided to get into. The chaos and darkness referred to by the poet in the poem may indicate towards the personal problems or the want of inspiration the poet might have had to face at times in her life.

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Dharmender Kumar Poetry Expert
Dharmender is a writer by passion, and a lawyer by profession. He has has a degree in English literature from Delhi University, and Mass Communication from Bhartiya Vidhya Bhavan, Delhi, as well as holding a law degree. Dharmender is awesomely passionate about Indian and English literature.

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