Elizabeth Jennings, Best-Selling Poet

Much-loved British poet Elizabeth Jennings (1926 – 2001) published almost thirty books of poetry, several anthologies and critical works. Photograph from <a href="http://www.elizabethjennings.org/gallery_viewer.php?gal=portraits">Elizabeth Jennings Project</a>.

Much-loved British poet Elizabeth Jennings (1926 – 2001) published almost thirty books of poetry, several anthologies and critical works. Photograph from Elizabeth Jennings Project.

The Burns Library has a significant collection of the papers of Elizabeth Jennings, the British poet who lived from 1926 to 2001. Jennings, who published almost thirty books of poetry, several anthologies and critical works, was, and still is, a much loved writer whose books of poetry sold widely. In 1989 her editor at Carcanet Michael Schmidt wrote to Jennings that “your books continue to sell very well indeed. Statistically speaking, you are now unrivalled as our best-seller. Indeed you must be one of the best-selling poets in England. … Few authors can claim the earned popularity that you now enjoy. I think it is wonderful and deserved.” (Letter from Schmidt to Jennings, dated July 7, 1989).

Elizabeth Jennings was born in Boston, Lincolnshire, the daughter of Henry Cecil Jennings, Medical Officer for the county. After graduating from Oxford University, Jennings worked as an Assistant Librarian at Oxford City Library from 1950-58 and then as a reader for the London publisher Chatto & Windus from 1958-60. From 1960 for the rest of her life Jennings was a full-time writer. She began writing poetry early being encouraged by one of her schoolteachers as well as by an uncle, himself a poet. Her earliest poetic inspirations were G. K. Chesterton’s “Battle of Lepanto”, Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and the odes of Keats. Later on, Edwin Muir and Robert Frost were the two poets by whom Jennings was most influenced. Roman Catholicism, the religion in which she was born, was extremely important to Jennings throughout her life and not surprisingly spiritual concerns were important themes in many of her poems.

Jennings’s poems were also characterized by strong logic, emotional sensitivity, an absence of vagueness, an avoidance of decoration, an eschewing of any mystification. She was always particularly interested in form and in the use of rhyme and meter. Jennings is often included in The Movement, a group of poets active in the late 1940s and later who strongly believed in simplicity in poetry and who avoided all decoration and pretentiousness in literature. Nine poets are usually listed as comprising The Movement – Kingsley Amis, Robert Conquest, Donald Davie, D. J. Enright, Thom Gunn, John Holloway, Philip Larkin, John Wain and Elizabeth Jennings. Though Jennings was strongly attracted to the members’ common purpose and principles, she stood apart in being the only woman and the only devout Catholic among the group. She differed too from the other members in her strong dislike of irony, her espousal of spirituality, and her love for foreign parts, particularly Italy.

Article from <i> Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series</i>, n.d., Box 17, Folder 35, Elizabeth Jennings Papers, MS.2007.018, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Article from Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, n.d., Box 17, Folder 35, Elizabeth Jennings Papers, MS.2007.018, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

According to the finding aid, there are nineteen boxes of materials in the Burns Library’s Elizabeth Jennings Papers. They contain numerous manuscripts of her poetry, both published and unpublished, from the period 1971-1997 comprising hundreds of both adult and children’s poems. The collection also has manuscripts of published and unpublished prose works. These include introductions to books; most of an autobiographical essay published in The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Women Poets; many handwritten drafts of book reviews; much personal, professional, and financial correspondence; various ephemera that include a poster, programs and brochures. Particularly interesting are two manuscripts, an unpublished autobiographical account entitled Without Whom and an unpublished monograph, A Brief Study of T. S. Eliot and His Life.

At the beginning of Without Whom, Jennings is quite specific about the primary themes of the work:

This book is not an autobiography though it does contain some attributes of a life about oneself. There is a good deal about childhood, for example, but rather less about romantic love. It is intended to be about other people and, in two instances, about other places; to these people and these places I owe debts I can never repay adequately.

Jennings’s modesty and regard for friends is evident in Without Whom:

It has sometimes seemed to me that there is far too much egotism in autobiographies. Of course, to write about myself does mean in large part to present yourself in the distorting mirror of self regard. However, the best autobiographies contain a great deal about other people, relations, friends, all those one has loved and been loved by. This book is intended to contain more of the latter than the former. I would not have written it “without” the good fortune which brought me in touch with some rare people and some great places to which I was given the golden key of liberty.

This semi-autobiographical work also has a long section describing Jennings’s interacting with fellow poets while at Oxford. It is interesting to read of her view of the American Donald Hall, who was later to become a very famous poet:

… the writer who brought us all together through sheer love of poetry was a young American called Donald Hall. He was doing research on English prosody and he lived at Christ Church. Donald was a very tall young man but not at all slender. In fact one young graduate wit who had the rare distinction of taking a First Class in Mathematics at Oxford and Cambridge wrote this clerihew about him:

Donald Hall
Is fat and tall
But the ego inside the matter
Is taller and fatter.

Donald had quite enough humour to relish this.

Jennings relates in Without Whom that Hall played a major role in introducing her and other young poets at Oxford to such contemporary American poets as Wallace Stevens, Richard Wilbur, and Robert Lowell.

Wilbur was unknown to us while we had only read Stevens and Lowell in anthologies. With great generosity, Donald gave me American editions of Stevens and Wilbur and they excited me and, I think, influenced my poems. The beautiful thick-paper editions of Stevens’s Auroras of Autumn and Credences of Summer and Wilbur’s Things of the World became part of my poetic world.

Jennings’s relating of when she first came across Kingsley Amis at Oxford is amusing:

I cannot really think why but when I saw Kingsley Amis’s name up in the Examination Schools at Oxford, I thought he would be a black man. Was it the name? It certainly did not sound like an English Christian name. Was I muddling the name with Kingston Jamaica? I shall never know. I only know that when I told him about this he laughed very heartedly.

Title page of typescript for <i>A Brief Study of T.S. Eliot and his Life</i>, unpublished manuscript by Elizabeth Jennings, Box 16, Folder 5, Elizabeth Jennings Papers, MS.2007.018, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Title page of typescript for A Brief Study of T.S. Eliot and his Life, unpublished manuscript by Elizabeth Jennings, Box 16, Folder 5, Elizabeth Jennings Papers, MS.2007.018, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

The Burns collection also contains Jennings’s monograph on Eliot entitled A Brief Study of T.S. Eliot and his Life. This was never published, Jennings’s reason, as she observed in an October 1993 note accompanying the manuscript, was because “the poet’s widow will not cooperate with anyone writing about T.S.E.” It is a relatively slight study though Jennings’s anecdotes and personal observations about Eliot are surely enough to merit publication consideration:

In 1960, I myself was lucky enough to have tea with Eliot in ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’. I found him much taller than I had expected, though slightly stooped, but he was, indeed, a very distinguished-looking and sensitive man. But, which is much more important, he was modest, gentle, kind and understanding; for example, I happened at the time of meeting him, to be working on a book about the relationship between poetry and mysticism, and he suggested several books that might help me. Otherwise, we talked about Edwin Muir, a splendid poet whose papers Eliot latterly published, and whom we both admired very much. Eliot had previously made a selection of Muir’s poems and wrote a very appreciative introduction to the book.

But what was Eliot’s office like? It was tiny yet crammed with books. I noticed the only two photographs on its mantelpiece – those of Virginia Woolf and Groucho Marx. During the Sixties, Eliot and Groucho met and immediately became friends; they corresponded often and also dined together, having already exchanged photographs. This friendship is only more example of the poet’s varied sense of humour and response to genius of a different form from his own.

Letter and postcard from Priscilla Tolkein Cyen to Jennings, dated 1993, Box 16, Folders 19 and 20, Elizabeth Jennings Papers, MS.2007.018, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Letter and postcard from Priscilla Tolkein Cyen to Jennings, both dated 1993, Box 16, Folders 19 and 20, Elizabeth Jennings Papers, MS.2007.018, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Prominent among the correspondence in the Burns Library Jennings papers is a letter from Jennings to Sir John Gielgud, letters to Jennings from, among others, Priscilla Tolkien Cyen (J.R.R. Tolkien’s daughter), Roy Fuller, John Heath-Stubbs, Daniel Day Lewis, and Sir Alec Guinness. In a letter to Jennings, dated February 21st, 1990, Guinness provides very interesting observations on the controversial film director Peter Greenaway:

Peter Greenaway. I found the Draughtsman’s Contract fascinating to look at but couldn’t join in the universal praise for it. Zoo-something or other I found pretentious and un-understandable. A week or two ago he asked me to play Gonzalo in his forth-coming film of The Tempest – to be called Prospero’s Books. John G. is to play Prospero and all the parts up until the last ¼ hour of film – when other actors materialize. It is so vividly written I was tempted. But then I came across a page of descriptions which nauseated me – unwarranted sadism and bloodiness – so I said no. There is a sickness in the air of his work – but it arrests the eye.

The above extracts comprise only a tiny proportion of the fascinating material in the Elizabeth Jennings Papers at the Burns Library. Whether for pure pleasure or for more scholarly purposes you are most welcome to come to Burns to read more.  For more information, contact the Burns Library at 617-552-4861 or burnsref@bc.edu.

  •  Brendan Rapple, Collection Development Librarian, O’Neill Library.
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