Jennings devoted her life to poetry, believing it has powers: to connect people and strengthen human community; to express and evoke the irrational parts of human intelligence and emotion, particularly love; to both order and compensate for the inchoate nature of experience; to contribute to self-knowledge. While she was conscious of writing in conjunction with a poetic community, past and present, she struggled to find a place in contemporary literary trends. Mostly, she was associated with ‘The Movement’, a group of poets and writers who achieved fame in the postwar period for their rejection of literary pretentiousness and decoration in favour of simplicity in literature. Jennings is known for her subtle, yet skillful, use of language and a strong interest in verse forms that have sparked comparisons with such poets as Christina Rossetti, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, R.S. Thomas and Philip Larkin. Like these, her dominant mode is the lyric and her preoccupations are self-in-relationship, childhood and religious faith and doubt.
In his preface to Jennings’ New Collected Poems (2002), Michael Schmidt testifies: ‘Her Selected Poems (1979) has sold well in excess of 50,000 copies, her original Collected Poems (1986) 35,000.’ The breadth of Jennings’ appeal has been a strength and limitation when it comes to her literary status. After her first book came out, she complained about George Fraser’s review in New Statesman and Nation:
This extract encapsulates the self-doubt and yearning for recognition that riddles her prolific correspondence. Her use of the impersonal ‘one’ also encapsulates the paradoxical confiding and self-concealing tone that characterizes all her writing, from her letters and unpublished autobiography to her lyric poems.
In the final two decades of her life, ill health and poverty caused a decline in her personal appearance and to some extent she colluded with, and arguably hid behind, the persona of an eccentric. Yet during these years and after her death, her poetry continued to have a clarity and wisdom that maintained its appeal to academic and general readers, young and old across the globe:
Since her death in 2001, a network of scholars, editors and librarians are suring up a space for her in literary history with some significant publications. We have been through her literary papers and discussed how Jennings should best be remembered, read and judged. The consensus is that had she written less and revised her work more she would have been appreciated for her greatest achievements.
For useful overviews see:
‘Jennings, Elizabeth (Vol. 135) - Introduction.’ Contemporary Literary Criticism, ed. Jeffrey W. Hunter, vol. 135. Gale Cengage, 2001.
Neil Powell, ‘Jennings, Elizabeth Joan (1926–2001)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edn, Oxford University Press (Jan. 2005).
Literary Agent: David Higham Associates.
Purchase books: A good place to start is with her bestselling Selected Poems or New Collected Poems.