Wednesday, 2 October 2013

One Step Beyond

The Poetry of Elizabeth Jennings

Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland

Elizabeth Jennings (1926 - 2001) was born in Boston, Lincolnshire. Her family moved to Oxford when she was six, and she remained in the city for the rest of her life.

She read English at Saint Anne's College, but there is nothing remotely 'donnish' or anything smacking of Oxbridge in her corpus. Her poetry is universal in scope. It is a genuinely catholic body of work, both in terms of the religion she practiced and the breadth of mythic vision that informs her poetic world:

Then I remembered words that you had said
Of art as gesture and as sacrament
A mountain under the calm form of paint
Much like the Presence under wine and bread -
Art with its largesse and its own restraint

(Visit to an Artist)

This sacramental view is balanced throughout her oeuvre by a rich and fecund exploration of European mythology:

Alternatives to loss ...
Will always fail. Mythology is better, will point you
To the old stories of Diana and Eurydice.

(The Inheritors)


Leading us gently into labyrinths within us where half-bulls sometimes wake in our own darkness
And where we must be both Theseus and Ariadne.

(The Minotaur)

What distinguishes her canon, however - in both its religious and mythological aspects - is a subtly expressed sense of the numinous, allied to a recognition of the mysterious, uncertain, fundamentally inexplicable nature of human consciousness and our role in the universe:

Always it was the half-seen, the just-heard that enthralled.


Jennings' work pushes beyond dogma towards regions behind and beyond our Maya of verbal/written formulations and constructions. Jennings drinks straight from the source - the archetypal wellsprings, which pour forth the 'choice and master' themes, words and pictures of our imaginations.

In Alan Garner's novel, Red Shift, the action unfolds in the same location but at three different points of history: Roman Britain, the English Civil War and the early 1970s. Jennings' poetry gives a similar impression of belonging to both here and elsewhere - yesterday, now and always. It posesses a depth of texture and richness of tone that - like all true art - conveys the sense that our lives are more nuanced, multi-layered and freighted with possibility than the daily grind would sometimes have us believe.

But we have to pay a price. With depth comes darkness. Araidne's thread ushers us into the labyrinth. A mental breakdown in the early 1960s brought Jennings face to face with the 'heart of darkness' in herself and the world. And out of this 'dazzling dark', the voices of the great Spanish mystics - John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila - spoke to her with an authority and resonance authenticated by the pain and crushing loss of the dark night of the soul and spirit. The lives and writings of these two Iberian saints highlight the agony and also the vitality of this Via Negativa - this purging of the mesh of images and desires that lock us into our small selves and keep us alienated from the true gold lying on the far side of despair.

This is a tough road, mind. It requires exceptional levels of mental, emotional and imaginative discipline. As T.S. Eliot comments in East Coker:

I said to my soul, be still, and let the darkness come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God.

This is difficult for a poet like Jennings. Paradoxical too. Because, to a tremendous extent, she relishes and revels in the whirl of images. She thrives off the forms, figures and energies triggered by the free play of human imagination.

This is no bad thing. In a world forever plagued by the dead hand of fundamentalist literalism, the balance she strikes, like C.S. Lewis, between the religious and the mythological is a sterling example indeed. But she doesn't leave it there. She goes further. Much further. She's not content to stay there. Not at all. She presses on - one, two, three steps beyond - beyond madness, beyond idols, past projections, severing the web of wish-fulfillment and self-promoting fantasy.

She steps into the truth instead. There isn't anywhere else for a poet to go. Into the heart of light: 

It was by negatives I learned my place.
The garden went on growing and I sensed
A sudden breeze that blew across my face
Despair returned, but now it danced, it danced.

(The Resurrection)


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