Elizabeth Joan Jennings was born at The Bungalow, Tower Road, Skirbeck, Boston, Lincolnshire, on 18 July 1926. When she was six the family moved to Oxford, the city she regarded as home for the rest of her life. Born and brought up as a Roman Catholic, she was educated initially at Rye St Antony and subsequently at Oxford high school where, at thirteen just as the Second World War began, she discovered both the importance of her religion and the power of poetry.
Jennings read English at St Anne's College, Oxford, between 1944 and 1947. Her contemporaries remembered her as a sociable and popular student, who acted in drama society productions and enjoyed listening to jazz with her friends Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin. She was briefly engaged to a fellow student at Keble College, but never married. Jennings's first slim collection, “Poems”, appeared in 1953. By this time, after a short spell working in advertising, she had become an assistant at Oxford City Library, where she remained until 1958. Between 1958 and 1960 Jennings was an editor for the publishers Chatto and Windus, before becoming a freelance writer in 1961. “Song for a Birth or a Death”, Jennings’ critical book on religion and poetry, was published in 1961, following by “Every Changing Shape”, and her translations of “The Sonnets of Michelangelo”, the same year.
In 1962, Jennings was one of three writers included (with R. S. Thomas and Lawrence Durrell), in the first volume of Penguin Modern Poets. At this time, however, she suffered a major breakdown and was hospitalized in Oxford. The experience prompted some unsatisfactory experimental poems, later suppressed, and the movingly restrained “Sequence in Hospital” from “Recoveries” (1964). The latter collection was also notable for its echoes of Robert Graves, then professor of poetry at Oxford, in poems such as “Works of Art”, “Man in a Park”, and “Warning to Parents”. Other influences included Robert Frost, on whom she wrote a monograph for the “Writers and Critics” series (1964), and Christina Rossetti, a selection of whose work she edited in 1970. Other published volumes of Jennings’ poetry included “The Mind Has Mountains” (1966), “The Animals' Arrival” (1969), “Lucidities” (1970), and “Relationships” (1972).
When Macmillan, Jennings's main publisher since 1966, curtailed its poetry list in the early 1970s, she was taken up by the recently established Carcanet Press. Her next book, “Growing Points” (1975), represented a creative rebirth. A renewed confidence and authority were evident in the solidly made sonnets which opened the collection; the generous celebrations of other writers (including Hopkins, Stevens, and Auden); and the calm treatment of domestic upheaval in “Given Notice” and “Leaving a Room”.
Growing and breaking were predominant themes in her subsequent collections: “Consequently I Rejoice” (1977), “Moments of Grace” (1980), “Celebrations and Elegies” (1982), “Extending the Territory” (1985), “Tributes” (1989), “Times and Seasons” (1992), “Familiar Spirits” (1994), “In the Meantime” (1996), “Praises” (1998), and “Timely Issues” (2001). While Jennings’ work could be celebratory—of seasons, faith, the arts, and (with due warnings) the young—it also turned inevitably towards elegy: “A Happy Death” (of a Dominican priest) in “Tributes” and “For my Mother” in “Times and Seasons”.
Long before her death, Elizabeth Jennings had become—in the words of Michael Schmidt, her publisher from 1975 onwards—”the most unconditionally loved writer” of her poetic generation (“New Collected Poems”, xix). Her “Selected Poems” (1979) and “Collected Poems” (1986), both sold in the tens of thousands. Sales of the latter (for which she received the W. H. Smith Award), were superseded by the posthumous “New Collected Poems” (2002).
Despite her popularity, Jennings continued to live in modest Oxford lodgings crammed with collections of glass, china, musical boxes, and doll's house furniture. She dressed with a simple practicality (even when collecting her CBE in 1992), that many regarded as eccentric. In the last year of her life, Durham University made her an Honorary Doctor of Divinity. Jennings died of heart failure on 26 October 2001, at Rosebank Care Home, High Street, Bampton, Oxfordshire.
[Source: 'Elizabeth Jennings' Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Online, by Neil Powell]