APRIL 29, 2019
DANA GREENE’S CHOICE of subtitle for her biography of British poet Elizabeth Jennings was inspired. It came from Marianne Moore, who took it from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem; Jennings also used it as the title for one of her many autobiographies. It might have been even more inspired to make “War” plural, in order to capture the diverse battles of Jennings’s soul and intellect: lust versus Catholic orthodoxy; alienation versus loneliness; vanity versus alcoholism and compulsiveness.
One must admire Greene’s talent for organizing the disarray of Jennings’s life into a cohesive narrative. Her subject’s astonishingly prolific output complicated the task; Jennings wrote and edited 48 published books — mostly poetry but also biographies, autobiographies, criticism, and essays. What is more astonishing is that her published works are only a small fraction of what she produced. Greene describes many manic writing binges, including one where Jennings wrote 192 poems in 30 days.
The inclusion of Jennings as the sole woman among the young British poets who became known as “the Movement” adds further difficulty. This characterization first appeared in an anonymous 1954 Spectator piece written by the paper’s literary editor, J. D. Scott, and it has always been controversial. Greene characterizes the Movement as “a faux classification,” and Jennings herself called it “a journalistic gimmick.”
Despite these objections, Scott’s essay made a reasonable case. He noted that Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, and John Wain — all Oxford poets — shared a common taste for formal verse and accessibility while rejecting what they saw as the excesses of recent and contemporary poets, particularly Dylan Thomas. Before long, the Movement’s “membership” expanded to include D. J. Enright, Donald Davie, Thom Gunn, John Holloway, Robert Conquest, and Elizabeth Jennings. While they did not meet as a group — and some of them may never have met at all — it is hard to dispute the observation that Oxford was suddenly producing gifted young poets with many similarities in cultural attitudes and literary style.
Greene’s over-the-top contempt for poets of the Movement undermines her objectivity and credibility as a biographer. She calls them “boozing blokes” and incorrectly tars them all in this fashion: “Their worldview was provincial, agnostic and politically noncommittal. They were Little Englanders who were sometime crass and debunking.” This invective comes off as an amateurish application of today’s ideologies to another era, not as a careful analysis of literary history. Conquest, for instance, was hardly apolitical — he was also a historian who did much to open the eyes of government officials and academics both to the atrocities committed by the Soviet Union in the 1930s and the continuing threat that the Soviet Union posed to democracies around the world. It is also bizarre for Greene to condemn all the male Movement poets for “boozing” when she provides such a sympathetic account of Jennings’s alcoholism, which became so severe that it eventually led to her institutionalized rehabilitation.
The main arc of Jennings’s life is fairly straightforward, but the many oscillations along that arc are messy. Jennings was born in 1926 to upper-middle-class Catholic parents who lived in the small rural town of Boston in Lincolnshire. This time in the countryside was the happiest part of Jennings’s life, and as she aged, she viewed it as increasingly idyllic.
Expulsion from Eden occurred in 1932, when the Jennings family moved to Oxford, a jolt from which Jennings never emotionally recovered, even though she began to make friends who would support her and her literary career. One of her earliest Oxford friends was Priscilla Tolkien, the daughter of the famed professor and author. Priscilla continued to stand by Jennings all her life, even as the poet wore out the patience of almost everyone around her.
Jennings attended a number of schools in Oxford, and people witnessed few of her later dysfunctional traits. Inspired initially by G. K. Chesterton — a usual model for young poets of that era — she began writing poetry, almost compulsively. Another decisive development occurred when she turned 15; for Jennings, puberty initiated a titanic lifelong battle between her intensely lustful desires and the tenets of her “cradle Catholicism.”
In 1944, at the age of 18, she entered the University of Oxford, where she initially struggled academically, but went on to achieve Second Class honors. She also — very warily — began dating. In the summer of 1947 she became engaged to “Stuart.” Jennings offered conflicting statements about the eventual breakup of this relationship, as does Greene, but it seems probable that her father’s opposition was the key obstacle. Greene has this to say about “Stuart”: “He was a Keble man who was seven years her senior, former prisoner of war in Japan, a poet, and a Buddhist.” Despite this wealth of precise information, there is no evidence in her notes that Greene made any effort to identify “Stuart” so as to learn more about this key relationship from another perspective.
The university exposed her to the top poets of that time and to those who would become top poets in the future. She dutifully followed C. S. Lewis’s advice in a lecture to read Plato. She also met Kingsley Amis, who Greene admits “would have an important role in advancing her as a poet.” Jennings was indeed advancing rapidly as a growing number of her poems appeared in print in prestigious journals.
Like many graduating seniors, Jennings was somewhat at a loss to know what to do next. And so, like many graduating seniors, she punted and asked her father for help; he paid for another year at Oxford so that she could pursue an ill-fated project on Matthew Arnold. Her first job after Oxford was even more of a disaster:
Using her father’s contacts, she finally secured a position as assistant librarian at the Oxford City library […] her schedule was demanding and inflexible and her salary minimal at £6 per week. Her work consisted in checking out and shelving books and sometimes manning the reference desk. At times, she became irritated with library patrons. Once, in a fury, she retreated to the basement and flung a chair across the room, smashing it to bits.
Before long she took a trip to Rome, which converted her from a perfunctory “cradle Catholic” to a passionate member of her faith.
After returning from Rome she decided to leave the library and take the bold step of making her living as a writer. It is a tribute to her industriousness, and her ability to turn on her charm when necessary, that she survived for a brief time with payments for poems, reviews, and articles — as well as support from patrons of the arts. A few months later, she received an unexpected offer of an entry-level job at the London publisher Chatto & Windus. Jennings plunged into the work, and even more into the London literary scene, but, after a year, burned out and returned to Oxford as a full-time writer.
Jennings’s reputation continued to rise in the United Kingdom, but American critics and readers largely ignored her. Despite her awards and prestigious publications, her behavior became intermittently more paranoid and erratic. She was institutionalized several times and attempted suicide at least twice, once by trying to gas herself in an oven shortly after Sylvia Plath’s death. She continued to write at an exhausting pace even when institutionalized; for one of her many Carcanet books she asked its long-suffering founder, Michael Schmidt, to pick her best from among a thousand poems.
Despite her self-destructive behavior and indiscriminately prolific writing, in 1992 Jennings received the medal of the Commander of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth. The following year, she was homeless for a long stretch and posted notices at newsstands that read, “Elizabeth Jennings has nowhere to live. Can you help?” When she died, her diminished circle of friends ignored all her instructions for her funeral.
There is much to celebrate in this biography. Dana Greene has avoided the temptation to savage her subject as Lawrance Thompson did Robert Frost and Andrew Motion did Philip Larkin. Unlike recent biographers of Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, and Richard Wilbur, she has largely kept her own ego out of her work. Most importantly, she has brought order to the disorder of Jennings’s life and carefully documented it.
The book does have shortcomings. The prose often deteriorates during discussions of sex or politics. For instance, Greene describes some of Jennings’s erotic poetry as “congruent with and descriptive of the events of her life” without further explanation. Greene also provides us with this clumsy sentence about Jennings’s poems on abortion, in which she seems to confuse “views” with “perspectives”: “In these she expresses a variety of views: of a woman encouraged to have an abortion, a man accepting pregnancy as proof of passion, a women complicit with an abortion, and another woman who refuses it.” She provides no actual analyses of these poems, and she sniffily dismisses Jennings’s political verse as “simplistic” and “naïve” without offering evidence to support this sweeping condemnation.
A larger problem with Greene’s methodology is that she views Jennings’s poetry primarily as data about her life. She almost never provides personal insight into the poems, but rather quotes critics to make whatever point about Jennings’s life she feels is warranted. As a result, the book never shows us why many critics consider Elizabeth Jennings to be an accomplished formalist or why she may be the greatest religious poet of the second half of the 20th century — it simply offers the punditry of others to make the claim. In other words, the author missed an important opportunity to show readers who are unfamiliar with Jennings’s work why there was a need for this biography.
Despite these reservations, it is good to have a cogent telling of the Jennings story that will serve as part of the foundation for the eventual definitive biography.
A. M. Juster, the poetry editor of First Things, has recently published the Elegies of Maximianus (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018) and John Milton’s Book of Elegies (Paideia Institute Press, 2019). He tweets about poetry, not politics, @amjuster.