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Saturday, 12 August 2017

Elizabeth Jennings & David Gascoyne: Mystical Experience and the Making of Poems

Elizabeth Jennings was a poet 'with an acute ability to combine concrete detail with abstract thought.'

'She was a bold and genuine versifier who conveyed both a sense of the hidden, and the fact that it was powerfully alive within her. For many years her favourite of her own poems was Fountain, from A Sense of the World (1958), which ends, It is how we must have felt / Once at the edge of some perpetual stream, / Fearful of touching, bringing no thirst at all, / Panicked by no perception of ourselves / But drawing the water down to the deepest wonder.

She later explained: "Art, for me, is that strength, that summoning fountain".'

Peter Levi stated that ‘[Jennings] may be the last poet of what used to be called ‘the soul’. 'One strand of her writing vitalizes English mystical verse in which she was steeped.' She wrote that 'a writer should neither preach nor conceal their creed.' 'For her, it was about taking a Christian lens to all subjects, following on from Chaucer, Milton, Dryden, Patmore, Hopkins and T.S. Eliot.'

Her faith contributed to some significant prose works. 'Every Changing Shape (1961) was a highly regarded exploration of the relationship between poetry and mysticism, while Christianity and Poetry (1965) considers the influence of religion on literature':

'Poets and mystics who have experienced some close, personal but supra-rational awareness of God have always carried away from such moments of illumination an increased subtlety, a profoundly original understanding of human experience and of the apparent contradictions even in the physical universe.’ … ‘Poetry is not rationalization but revelation and what is healing in it, both for the poet and his readers, is the ability to depict conflict at its most vulnerable point; with Hopkins, this point is the wrestling of man with God, - but also the surrender of man to God.' ’While frequently making parallels between poetry and religion, Jennings teases out the differences between the mystic and the poet: the poet wants to communicate ordinary experience while the mystic moves away from it.

In Every Changing Shape she gives a reading of Miserere by David Gascoyne: 'the only living English poet, apart from Eliot, in the true mystical tradition. If not directly influenced by it, his work undoubtedly leads back to the visionary poetry of Vaughan, Herbert and Traherne.'

She writes, 'in the magnificent sequence of poems called Miserere the poet, in lines of extreme lucidity, examines the depths of man’s guilt and the terror of life without God. The traditional “dark night of the soul” is transferred to Christ himself—Christ who is both the victim and the conquerer:

God's wounds are numbered.
All is now withdrawn: void yawns
The rock-hewn tomb. There is no more
Regeneration in the stricken sun....

This may it be: and worse.
And may we know Thy perfect darkness.

And may we into Hell descend with Thee.'

'Kyrie explores “the black catastrophe that can lay waste our world” and pleads:

Grant us extraordinary grace.'

'... it is the poet’s vision itself which sanctifies and radiates. The vision is the end and not the means and once it has been achieved, however fleetingly, it illuminates all things outside it while itself remaining locked in its own lyrical form and music.. This is the hard-won triumph of all great visionary poetry.'

Gascoyne said that 'The poet's job is to go on holding on to something like faith, through the darkness of total lack of faith...the eclipse of God.'

Niall McDevitt argues that the purpose served by Christian poetry, 'certainly at Gascoyne’s level, is not to proselytise or even to pray, but to wrestle with Christendom.' 'None of us can deny that we are surrounded by Christian architecture, iconography, educational and charitable institutions, tourist rubble etc. Our ancestry is Christian, our guilt is Christian and the wars we watch on television being fought in our name are Christian also. Even our nihilism is Christian. True Christian poetry is a critique of Christendom, which is, after all, the superstructure of capitalism. As poetry cleanses the language, it cleanses the superstructure':

'Involved in their own sophistry
The black priest and the upright man
Faced by subversive truth shall be struck dumb,
Christ of Revolution and of Poetry,
While the rejected and condemned become
Agents of the divine.' (Ecce Homo)


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