‘I like reviewing. Prose is easy.’ … . ‘I don’t like adverse reviews. I don’t think there should be any personal remarks in any literary criticism’ … ‘Occasionally I write for the Daily Telegraph. It’s better to print the reviews in these little boxes instead of having one of these round-ups where you link the book with another artificially.’
(Interview with Gremang, 1993, pp. 98-9.)

When Jennings left her job at Chatto and Windus, she became a regular review for the Daily Telegraph (DT) and was a prolific reviewer thereafter. She models a constructive and generous discourse that she would have liked to see towards her own work. Her encyclopedic knowledge of poets meant that she could always make links between them and position work within literary traditions, especially the English lines. As she states above, however, she would do justice to a poet by considering them on their own merit, just as she would have wished critics to do for her. (See ‘Reflections on Reviews’, an undated fictitious dialogue about reviews M186, F86, Delaware)

Her reviews followed a template of an Introduction, faithful summary of the work, personal praise, comments on a weakness or two and a generous rounding up. She tended to praise human emotions and reveal something of her preferences and personality. She was obviously at home with canonical texts, but wrote interesting reviews about those pressing on the borders, such as Charlotte Mew and her Friends by Penelope Fitzgerald (DT 10 Nov 1982) and Carol Ann Duffy’s Selling Manhattan.

‘As Eliot has said, “there is no competition”’ she states in her instructive and sharp Introduction to Poetry To-day 1961 (p. 54). Similarly, her Introduction to An Anthology of Modern Verse: 1940-60 is an inclusive survey that expresses a perceived consensus about her contemporary trends and groups. Interestingly, it was favourable to women.



‘Why should the “literary” or indeed “poetry” world be so cruel? Carcanet sets a high standard in literary worth and moral integrity.’
(Jennings to Schmidt, 6 May 79.)

Discussing her on equal terms with other New Lines poets, John Press finds similarities between Jennings, John Wain, Donald Davie, Philip Larkin and A. Alvarez: a measured speech, ‘a common tone of voice’, being rational, cautious, sometimes didactic and favouring traditional verse patterns, especially the quatrain (1963, pp. 44-5).

Jennings was a prominent figure in the Times Literary Supplement (TLS) and was written about as a familiar figure to its readers. It published several of her poems, especially when a new book came out and these were usually reviewed – sometimes singly or alongside others, most notably Larkin’s The Less Deceived. Here are a few samples of the mixed messages sent out:

  • ‘A Poet among the Mystics’, an anonymous review of Every Changing Shape and Song for a Birth or a Death (TLS 6 Oct. 1961), slates her critical insights and expression: ‘In a prose that astonishes by its monotony she plods through five of the better-known mystics.’ … ‘Critically flabby terms like “wonderful”’. Nothing new on the well-known commonplace that poets and mystics share common ground.’ With reference to the poetry volume: ‘the essential simplicity of mind is still there, as is the tendency to monotony of rhythm, but these, when used as bases for unexpected variation, can be assets in poetry, and both are reinforced by a painful honesty and a passion for accuracy that flash out suddenly in almost every poem, quietly betraying its apparent quiet.’

  • ‘Cool Comfort’, a review of her Collected Poems (TLS 21 Sept. 1967): ‘Looked at as a whole, the poetry of Elizabeth Jennings seems full of paradoxes and puzzles. To characterise it, one perhaps might use the word “reserved”; yet it is also often astonishingly, and even embarrassingly, open, as “confessional” as anything one finds in Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Again, one might use the word “abstract”, yet almost everywhere there is a concreteness of experience which at its weakest becomes mere literalness. The blurb to these collected poems labels Miss Jennings as a lyric poet but if this is true hers is a lyricism which at the same time carries a strong burden of moralizing and didacticism. And if this is “feminine” poetry, does this mean that it is more like Christina Rossetti’s than, say, Edwin Muir’s?’ The lukewarm review ends with a positive summary: ‘The best poems here, such as ‘A Fear’, ‘For a Child Born Dead’, ‘Ghosts’, ‘Disguises’, ‘The Shot’, ‘One Flesh’ and ‘Madness’, stand among the best English poems of the 1950s and 1960s.’

  • Growing Points received a fulsome review by Roy Fuller (TLS 4 July 1975) and his perception that she was developing in a new direction became the official verdict on her work. Jennings, as ever, tended to internalize the verdict of others and colluded with his opinion.

  • The review of Lucidities (TLS 11 Dec. 1970) provides a lengthy and intricate analysis of the balance between aesthetics and expression in Jennings’ work: ‘Elizabeth Jennings’ poems have always needed their shrewd, wistful intuitive intelligence to guard themselves against an impulse to generalized, excessively proverbial statement, just as they have needed their impersonality of metrical form to prevent feeling from becoming too plangent and tremulous. In her best poetry the matching of form and feeling has been impressively exact.’ … ‘More than one poem seems composed out of the expressible fragments of a centrally inexpressible experience of loss or disorientation.’

  • ‘A Distilled Despair’, Julian Symons’ review of Selected Poems and Moments of Grace (TLS 1 Feb. 1980) said that poets go off at 40 and she was no exception; it exacerbated Jennings’ anxiety that her reputation was declining. All through the 1980s, although the sales of her work indicated that her readership had not waned, she needed reassurance that she hadn’t ‘gone off’. More positively, Symons viewed her 1967 Collected as her best volume and recommended Selected for showcasing the best poems, naming ‘A Mental Hospital Sitting Room’, ‘The interrogator’ and ‘Telling Stories’ with its ‘brilliantly extended conceit’.

Ian Hamilton, writing on The Movement in Schmidt/Lindop (1972), decides ‘The intellectual brilliance of Elizabeth Jennings, for example, consists of a laborious obsession with the mind.’ (p. 72). At the more ‘nasty’ end of the spectrum, a reviewer of The Mind has Mountains, accused her of being restrained but self-conscious: ‘Since they are poems of recovery they represent the triumph over adversity but, in the end, she may well discard many of them, for some lack the inner tension of her former work, and others read as drably as the unhappy condition they describe’ (Poetry Review 58 (Spring 1967), p. 52). In Isis, the Oxford student newspaper, she was easy fodder for a scathing and scurrilous review that played pejoratively on all the stereotypes to which she was vulnerable: she was ‘A Christian lady’, an ‘emotional anchorite’, exhibiting ‘sexual embarrassment’, inhabiting a restricted world of ‘shapeless woollens, small kindnesses and quiet deaths’; but it concluded that she has ‘real lyric power’. (29 May 1975). At the same time, Edward Levy wrote an attentive account in response to Growing Points in PN Review (vol. 5, 1975) as did Roy Fuller in the TLS (see above).

Adverse allusions to her religious poetry being out of fashion pressured her to play it down, but her editor wisely advised her not to as it was part of the appeal for many of her admirers. (Letter from Michael Schmidt, 16 Nov. 1982). Martin Booth, for one, observed, ‘Few can match Elizabeth Jennings’ musicality. Few try to write religious verse these irreligious days and she is brave to attempt it and highly successful when she does.’ Furthermore, ‘Taken as a whole, Elizabeth Jennings’ poetry is a corpus of peace and one that many should enter in turbulent times. … From her melancholic and sadly beautiful shell she produces poetry of exceptional lyrical qualities.’ (British Poetry 1964-84, 1985, pp. 178-179).

See also, ‘Quiet Gatherings’ Review of Praises, by Catriona O’Reilly, PN Review 25.5. May-June 99, pp 61-2.)

As illustrated in Symons’ piece above, the poetry about her mental health received positive and negative press in equal measure. The negative, however, caused her to erase most from her second collection and regret any reference to it: ‘I was hurt by and angry about Robert Nye’s really bitchy review in last week’s Times. What is the matter with him? Tommy thought it cruel too but that it really reflected nastiness on him rather than me. I don’t believe he read the book properly. All that rubbish about “mental disturbance” is rubbish. I had a break-down over 25 years ago and there are no signs of it in Extending. I’d swear across The Bible. (Letter to Michael Schmidt, 21 Jan (1985)

When it came to being called ‘confessional’, M.L. Rosenthal, considers the English writers ‘like Elizabeth Jennings, Edwin Brock and George MacBeth, can’t do it because of their basic failure of sympathy with American use of language and with the American mentality’ and that they are too stuck in formal traditionalism. (Our Life in Poetry, 1991, p. 253.)

For more tributes and sources, see Carcanet Press website.



‘FANMAIL’ is the title of one her folders (Georgetown Folder 25) and the contents prove once more the importance to Jennings of connecting with her readers across the globe and across the spectrum between academics and general readers. The fans include a Lecturer in the Faculty of Law, Warsaw (8 Dec 1980), a Master at Downside Public School, Bath (16 March 1981), The Graduate Common Room, Christchurch College Oxford (24 Nov 1981) following her reading at Oxford Poetry Society, and a Nancy Millward, Orpington (30 Aug 1980). On the envelope Jennings wrote ‘IMPORTANT ENCOURAGING LETTER’ and another envelope marked ‘FAN LETTER: ANSWERED’ encloses a letter from a 14 year old girl in Tunbridge Wells (10 Jan 1981) who had been moved by Jennings’ Selected Poems.