Elizabeth Jennings: ‘The Inward War’, by Dana Greene

Dana Greene’s biography of Elizabeth Jennings (1926–2001) is a record of a life outwardly uneventful but characterized by inner turmoil. Jennings, the only woman and only Catholic associated with the group misleadingly labelled ‘The Movement’, was subject to periodic bouts of mental illness (anxiety, depression, obsessive spending and hoarding, and paranoia), which were sometimes severe enough for her to be temporarily institutionalized. She underwent psychiatric treatment which she found hard to bear and which did little to improve her condition. She was often lonely and always hypersensitive to criticism. She was also chronically short of money, although, whenever she was in funds, she spent recklessly and extravagantly, on drink, taxi rides, trips to the cinema and the theatre, and on the toys and knick-knacks by which she loved to be surrounded. And she was emotionally needy and extremely demanding, often soliciting loans, or gifts of money, or other forms of material assistance from her friends, who must have had a great deal of patience and forbearance, as well as generosity.

Greene charts, sympathetically but with commendable objectivity, the trajectory of Jennings’ life from an intermittently happy childhood (although her mother was distant and her father irascible), through her student days at Oxford (by which time she had blossomed into an attractive young woman with delicate features), to her old age ravaged by mental and physical illness (when her unkempt and dishevelled appearance led to her being known as ‘the bag lady of the sonnets’). She never married, but seems always to have needed someone to love: one of the many psychological necessities of her complex nature. She was both obsessed with and afraid of sex, but had many close friendships with men (often priests) and women.

Jennings led, in many ways, an unhappy life – perhaps it would not be exaggerating to call it tortured. Such inner peace as she found came from two things: writing poetry and her Catholic faith. She wrote poetry copiously all her life, even when she was institutionalized. Only a fraction of her total output has been published, but even that runs to several hundred poems. Critics sometimes suggested that she wrote too much and revised too little, but a writer seldom chooses his or her modus operandi. Nearly all writers are obsessives who write, in response to some deep inner compulsion, in the only way they can. Flaubert could spend an entire day agonizing over the choice of a single word (‘le mot juste’) or the construction of a particular sentence. Jennings, however, wrote quickly and incessantly, and rarely revised what she had written.

For Jennings, poetry had a sacramental character. In her mind and imagination, art and religion were closely related. In her epilogue, Greene writes insightfully—

For Jennings, the function of poetry is to discover order in a post-Edenic world marked by chaos, time, decay, and darkness. Poetry restores what is lost and only half-remembered. It halts time and, like love, religious ritual, and the experience of nature, it holds back darkness and gives brief access to the transcendent, offering hope in the midst of despair. She suggests that the best poems are those which show order emerging from conflict. For her, the poem moves not from the general to the particular, or from one abstraction to another. Neither is it concerned with theoretical ideas, but with ideas expressed in images, metaphors, and similes. Although poetry must be personal, the poet’s experience is shaped and ordered by means of imagination, emotion, technical skill, and intellect. As a consequence, the poet’s individual experience is transcended. The poem which emerges is an autonomous phenomenon, one independent of its creator.

[…]

Poetry is a restoration, but it is also ‘a way of looking,’ of seeing the world. As such, it is a gateway to the numinous, like the Eucharist, and analogous to prayer and mystical experience. Given these insights about the nature of poetry, Jennings can be understood as an early contributor to the field of theopoetics, the study of poetry as an embodied dimension of human experience, an offering of legitimate evidence of the intersection of divine and human interaction.

Many religious poets have apprehended poetry in precisely this sense. The metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, Milton, Blake, Hopkins, Thompson, Meynell, and Patmore, would probably have agreed. So, I suspect, would T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Roy Campbell, and George Mackay Brown – the first two being Anglicans, and the last two, like Jennings, Roman Catholics. The religious sensibility has an instinctive affinity for order and a corresponding aversion from whatever tends to produce chaos, disorder, misrule, and anarchy. For Jennings, writing poetry was a way of distilling order, purpose, and meaning from the amorphous data of personal experience. Her Catholic faith was absolutely crucial to this enterprise. From Catholicism, she derived her ‘way of looking’ – the standpoint from which she perceived and interpreted reality. In this, she resembles several other Catholic authors who suffered from mental illness and for whom the Church was a rock and faith was a way of keeping the demons at bay – e.g. Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, and Alice Thomas Ellis. Not that they believed because they had a psychological need to believe: rather, it was the case that, having been received into the Church because they had been persuaded by the evidence [1] that the Catholic faith was true, they then found it to be a bulwark against chaos, misery, depression, and despair. As Hilaire Belloc wrote in his ‘Letter to Dean Inge,’

One thing in this world is different from all other. It has a personality and a force. It is recognized, and (when recognized) most violently loved or hated. It is the Catholic Church. Within that household the human spirit has roof and hearth. Outside it, is the Night.

Perhaps it is because the craft of poetry is so technically exacting – it is, above all, the prime example of the ordered use of language – that so many poets are drawn to Catholicism. In Jennings’ life and art, the quest for order and meaning was central and paramount. There must have been, somewhere in the recesses of her unconscious mind, a profound fear of disorder, and perhaps even a tendency to associate disorder with madness and mental collapse. In the light of her many psychological problems and her harrowing experiences of psychotherapy, such a view would be understandable.

Jennings’ enormous literary output included several prose works (mostly critical essays) and some unpublished autobiographies. According to Greene, the autobiographies are exercises in concealment rather than self-revelation. In many respects, Jennings was an intensely private person who guarded her privacy jealously. The extraordinary thing is that this difficult, disturbed, and demanding woman – someone for whom the term ‘high maintenance’ might have been invented – had so many loyal, true friends: the priests Sebastian Bullough, Hildebrand James, and Peter Levi, Rugena (Ruga) Stanley, Priscilla (Prisca) Tolkien, and C. V. (Veronica) Wedgwood, were among those who befriended her and helped her in different ways, sometimes financially, sometimes by providing her with a home to stay in, always by supporting her emotionally.

Not the least of the merits of this fascinating biography is that it reminds us that creative gifts often come at a high price. By common consent and critical acclamation, Elizabeth Jennings was one of the greatest poets of the late twentieth century. But how many of us would have wanted her gifts if we had to pay for them by living her life?

Notes

[1] The evidence for the Catholic Faith comprises both (1) historical and empirical (experiential) data, and (2) philosophical arguments.

Jon Elsby is the author of Light in the Darkness, a series of essays on Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers, and C. S. Lewis. It is available from online retailers, including

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