Saturday, July 20, 2013

`The Downward World is Prodigally Rich'

I missed the birthday this week of the English poet Elizabeth Jennings. She was born in Boston, Lincolnshire, on July 18, 1926, and died Oct. 26, 2001, in Bampton, Oxfordshire. She’s buried in Wolvercote Cemetery alongside Isaiah Berlin, J.R.R. Tolkien and James Murray, founding editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. I sense her work has never been well-known in the U.S. and is mostly forgotten in the U.K. Though a woman, her demographics have never been fashionable. She was a serious Roman Catholic, not an academic, an elastic formalist and never conspicuously political. She was also popular, by poetry market standards. Her Selected and Collected volumes of 1979 and 1986, respectively, sold more than 86,000 copies. When Nicholas Lezard reviewed her hefty Collected Poems last year, he called her work “accessible without being shallow,” as though such a distinction were necessary. She takes her rightful place among the most gifted of her English contemporaries – Smith, Enright, Larkin, Sisson, Gunn and Hill. Take “Green World” from Extending the Territory (1985), in which she reclaims “green” from the ideologues and returns it to the world of Shakespeare’s comedies: 

“The green world stands in its accomplished guise
Under elusive suns. Our gardens reach
Up to the cruising clouds. Before our eyes
The downward world is prodigally rich.
Summer wins from Nature her vast prize. 

“Elegiac moods, nostalgia too
Are absent and we live in strong today,
Watching the green stride and sustain a view.
The very light is eagerly at play
And there are silences for me and you. 

“Silence broken by the planning birds,
Their peaceful bickering. The winds are light
Yet strong enough to give refrains to words
And whisper through the star-decisive night.
The sunlight also holds us on strong cords,
The green world bows before admiring sight.” 

With gardens we accommodate ourselves to the world. Our reward is green. Charles Lamb writes in one of his Essays of Elia, “New Year’s Eve”: “I am in love with this green earth; the face of town and country; the unspeakable rural solitudes, and the sweet security of streets. I would set up my tabernacle here.”

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