Arts & Books Books

A Catholic poet unskilled in the art of living

Elizabeth Jennings

Charlie Hegarty on a fragile but courageous Catholic artist

Elizabeth Jennings: The Inward War
By Dana Greene
OUP, 288pp, £25/$35

Dana Greene has written a sympathetic and perceptive study of the life of Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001). In under 300 pages, she handles the major themes of Jennings’s poetry, relating them to stages of the poet’s life, and deals insightfully with the “inward war” that Jennings contended with all her life: a conflict that included psychological instability, poverty, poor health and loneliness.

Greene asks the question: how did Jennings, against the odds, achieve what she did: 48 books of poetry, prose and anthology and a massive archive of unpublished poems? The answer is that poetry was her life. The flow did not cease in the face of adversity. Indeed, during the time Jennings spent at the Warneford Hospital in Oxford from 1963 to 1965 after suffering a breakdown, she continued to write, turning her experiences of mental suffering into poetry.

Greene recognises the intermeshing of the poet’s lifelong Catholic faith with her verse. For the poet, her art was “a gateway to the numinous, like the Eucharist, and analogous to prayer and mystical experience”. Indeed for her, “poetry and mysticism share many of the same functions in the human mind and imagination. They emerge from the same creative source and require their practitioners to engage with darkness and shadows.”

In his obituary of the poet, Michael Schmidt, Jennings’s editor for 25 years, referred to her combination of “passion, purity and the prosaic”. Readers who have not yet encountered her writings would find Greene’s book a helpful introduction, with its sensitive portrait of a fragile yet indomitable woman, unmarried, deeply dependent on a series of intense friendships, determined to make a (hazardous) living out of poetry alone, impractical, unskilled in the art of living, moving to flats and bedsits around Oxford and becoming a familiar figure in its cafés and wine bars.

Greene concludes that Jennings’s life “stands as a witness to the poetic imagination, a means of experiencing life and enhancing its vitality”. Indeed, her poems poignantly express, as a priest-friend of hers commented, “the depth and significance of life which only our faith can give us”.