The Catholic poet who turned her suffering into verse

Elizabeth Jennings

Having blogged recently on Dana Greene’s biography of the poet Elizabeth Jennings, I have been rather haunted by the image of an elderly shopping-bag lady, struggling to survive in a world that does not easily accommodate those who are different or eccentric, and living heroically through her poetry – the very opposite of what one might call a “Sunday afternoon poet.”

I spoke to one of her very old friends, who wished to remain anonymous. She did confirm this picture: how demanding Jennings could be of her friends, though she added that Jennings was also very generous to them. She felt Jennings was quite unable to cope with the demands of daily living and admitted that when she died, “I felt a huge burden lifted off me, as I had always felt a great responsibility towards her.” Yet she also reflected on the poet’s great charm and that “it was extraordinary how she managed to make poems from the mess of her personal life.”

I also spoke to Fr David Hartley, now the parish priest in Thame but then the chaplain at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. He told me that Jennings’ “bag lady” appearance around Oxford was mitigated in hospital by “the equalising effect of gowns and blankets”, adding “I simply saw her for what she was, a very prayerful person going through some very dark times.” He felt that “One particular problem was that she would feel that darkness at night and need to talk, so I was called in to see her by nursing staff at all hours, simply to talk and pray with her.”

He recalled: “We would talk about the Church, about Oxford and how she had seen it change, but always coming back to that depth and significance of life which only our faith can give us.”

I asked him which poem of Jennings’ he would choose and he tells me it is Homage to Gerard Manley Hopkins after receiving Holy Communion in Hospital: “Hopkins, I understand exactly now/what you mean when you told us that the sick/endear us to them. I know this is true/because I am a sick one and God’s quick/saving principle has come to me/a tiny piece of bread unleavened saves/the soul. I feel its power immediately./Stammering my thanks, I know my flesh behaves/oddly, but I know also I am/within Heaven’s confines. You, O Hopkins I/commend for showing me how close I came/to our Redeemer in his healing, high/Offices. My thanksgiving is home/and Jesus Christ is with me where I lie.”

Fr Hartley thinks Hopkins “was one point of contact we could share, with my love of his poems and limited understanding, and her lived experience of his own inner knowledge and expression of the awareness of Christ’s presence.” For Fr Hartley, it was a “privilege to minister to her. Then I was asked by a close friend of hers to celebrate her funeral Mass, attempting in her own words to express in my homily that firm faith and hope which she shared and shows to us.”

He also referred to Jennings’ poem A Company of Friends in which, despite the often lonely circumstances of her life, she celebrated her friends, concluding with the lines “We gave time back to one another as/we shook warm hands and called a clear Good Night./Now it’s last night’s tomorrow and I pass/ That feast like film before my eyes and light/My long room with that silver and that glass/and glory in the sight.”