Towards a New Confessionalism: Elizabeth Jennings and Sylvia Plath
Due to their self-disclosing manner, both Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001) and Sylvia Plath (1932-63) have been labelled ‘confessional’ yet have markedly different life experiences and profiles in literary and popular imaginations. Jennings was born in Boston, Lincolnshire, and educated in Oxford where she lived for the rest of her life. She had a broken engagement then a relationship with a married man but never married or had children. Plath emigrated to Cambridge University from America in 1955 and later lived in Devon with her husband Ted Hughes. Following their separation in 1962, she moved to London and published one volume of poetry before her death. The posthumous Ariel (1965) was followed by three further volumes before the Collected (1981) and Selected Poems (1985). In contrast, Elizabeth Jennings published over twenty poetry collections, a book on poetics and several critical essays; she edited influential anthologies and appears in many others. She was awarded prestigious poetry prizes and in 1992 a CBE. There are two major Collected Poems (1986, 2002) and a forthcoming Collected Works. Jennings enjoyed high esteem in the decade following her graduation from St Anne’s College (1949) and was the only woman counted among the postwar ‘Movement’ poets when her admirers included Philip Larkin. Her traditional formalism was praised in the 1950s and 1960s but was later considered too cautious. Nevertheless, the sales of Collected and Selected Poems made her a bestselling poet on the Carcanet list and the 1980s was one of her most commercially successful decades. Until the recent Introduction there were merely a handful of articles and a number of interviews but no full-length critical work or biography. Jennings suffers from poor image material, with most photographs circulating her elderly otherworldly persona. At the other extreme, Plath’s publicity showcases her youthful intelligent beauty and she attracts biographies, critical works, conferences, a film and recently the unabridged journals (2000). Her victim iconography and expression of female anger have appealed to women readers, with her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar (1963) achieving the status of a feminist manifesto. Jennings’ gender-shyness and notoriously downtrodden appearance in her final years have not. However, the high and continuing sales of her books suggest a poetry that speaks for and to a broad readership.
Citation : Dowson, J. (2011) Towards a New Confessionalism: Elizabeth Jennings and Sylvia Plath. In: Dowson, J. ed. The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth Century British and Irish Women’s Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.pp. 62-81
ISBN : 9780521197854
Research Group : English Research Group
Peer Reviewed : Yes
- School of Humanities