Elizabeth Jennings was born in Boston, Lincolnshire before moving to Oxford aged six, where she remained almost exclusively for the rest of her life. She attended OHS during the 1940s and memorably wrote about the teaching she had there in her late poem ‘A Classroom’ (see below). On leaving OHS, she went to St Anne’s College, Oxford, where she studied English Literature.
After graduating from St Anne’s, she started a DLitt on Matthew Arnold but broke this off in order to begin a spell of work at a London publishing house, where she mixed with many of the leading literary figures of the day. She then returned to Oxford where she worked in the City Library for eight years and became an admired poet, editor, and reviewer.
Jennings’ early poetry was published in journals such as Oxford Poetry, New English Weekly, The Spectator, Outposts and Poetry Review, leading her to be grouped with the Movement poets (Larkin, Amis, et al) – though this was a label she neither recognised nor appreciated. Her first book, Poems, was not published until she was 27, while her second collection, A Way of Looking, earned her a Somerset Maugham Award that enabled her to travel to Rome – an experience which added a new dimension to her Roman Catholicism as well as new depth to her poetic imagination.
In all, her literary career spanned fifty years and a total of twenty-seven volumes of poetry, constituting a major contribution to modern verse that was recognised in 1992 by conferral of a CBE. Her greatest influences were the more lyrical poets such as Hopkins, Auden, Graves and Muir, but her work is also characterised by a strong confessional element, which led to her being compared to Sylvia Plath.
“Only one thing must be cast out, and that is the vague. Only true clarity reaches to the heights and the depths of human, and more than human, understanding.”
With a literary prestige sometimes obscured by her reputation for eccentric behaviour and dress (she liked sitting and writing in cafés, particularly favouring The Randolph, where coffee cost £2.25, yielded 4 cups and included a biscuit), her importance was nonetheless recognised by admirers including Kingsley Amis, Kathleen Raine, John Gielgud, Anthony Thwaite, Philip Larkin and Germaine Greer. The hallmark of her poetry was that it sought after clarity and connection with the reader, based on Jennings’ belief that ‘poetry is an art which, of its very nature, strips away inessentials to reveal only what is important, only what will suffice. What the poem discovers – and this is its chief function – is order amid chaos, meaning in the middle of confusion, and affirmation at the heart of despair.’
The critic Dana Gioia concluded that ‘Jennings ranks among the finest British poets of the second half of the twentieth century. She is also England’s best Catholic poet since Gerard Manley Hopkins.’