English Literature
One Flesh

One Flesh

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Exploring ‘One Flesh’: An Analysis of Elizabeth Jennings’ Poem

Elizabeth Jennings’ poem ‘One Flesh’ was published in 1966 as part of her collection, The Mind Has Mountains. Known for her profound and emotionally charged works, this poem offers a unique perspective on the distant and complicated relationship between a married couple, as seen through the eyes of their child.

A Closer Look at ‘One Flesh’

The poem delves into the concept that love may not always stand the test of time, and how this can impact a long-term relationship. The narrator, who is the couple's child, observes the growing emotional and physical gap between their parents as they come to terms with their once fiery love now fading into cold embers. Written in regular stanzas with an iambic meter and no set rhyme scheme, the poem also incorporates poetic devices such as simile, personification, enjambment, and caesura. It also uses biblical and religious imagery and contrasting elements to portray the theme.

Understanding ‘One Flesh’ in Context

In order to fully comprehend the poem, it is essential to consider the biographical and literary context in which it was written.

The Biographical Context

A devout Roman Catholic, Elizabeth Jennings was an English poet who lived from 1926 to 2001. The title of the poem, ‘One Flesh’, references the joining of a couple in marriage, as stated in biblical teachings.

Jennings attended various schools before studying English at Oxford University. It was during her time working at Oxford City Library that she developed an interest in poetry.

The Literary Context

Jennings’ work is often compared to that of poets such as Philip Larkin and Thom Gunn, who were part of a literary group known as ‘The Movement’. This group of writers was renowned for their poetic mastery of meter and rhyme, and were brought together in an anthology by Robert Conquest in 1954. The term ‘The Movement’ was coined by JD Scott, literary editor of The Spectator.

Jennings’ first collection, titled 'Poems', was published when she was in her early 20s, and her second collection, ‘A Way of Looking’, won the Somerset Maugham award, allowing her to spend time in Rome, which later influenced her future works.

Analysis of the Structure of ‘One Flesh’

The Significance of the Title

The title of the poem makes a direct reference to Christian marriage vows, specifically citing Genesis 2:24. This not only reflects Jennings’ strong Catholic beliefs, but also sets the tone for the exploration of marriage and relationships within the poem.

The Form of the Poem

'One Flesh' comprises three six-line stanzas with balanced and regular lines, symbolizing the perceived stability of marriage. This structure is in stark contrast to the portrayal of the parents’ strained relationship in the poem.

Structure and Content

The three stanzas of the poem each focus on a different aspect of the parents’ distant relationship – mental, physical, and emotional. This mirrors the fragmented state of their marriage, highlighting the contrast between the cohesive form and conflicting content of the poem.

The Theme of Separation in ‘One Flesh’

The first and second stanzas of the poem end with rhyming couplets, while the final stanza follows an ABABAB rhyme scheme. This emphasizes the growing rift between the parents, with the rhymes mirroring their disconnected relationship.

The poem's use of iambic meter, which is a poetic line consisting of iambs, adds to its consistent flow and lyrical rhythm. This lyrical quality also contributes to the nostalgic and at times, childlike tone of the poem.

Exploring Iambic Meter in ‘One Flesh’

The poem utilizes iambic meter, with each poetic line containing a metrical foot comprising of two syllables - an unstressed first syllable and a stressed second syllable.

The first stanza depicts the emotional chasm between the parents as they lie in separate beds, lost in their own thoughts. The father's book remains unread, while the mother's eyes are fixated on the shadows above.

An Emphasis on Physical Distance

The second stanza highlights the physical distance between the parents. This distance is further emphasized with the simile, "Tossed up like flotsam from a former passion," suggesting that although their relationship may have once been passionate and lively, they now rarely touch.

The Struggle of Love in 'One Flesh'

The poem 'One Flesh' by Elizabeth Jennings explores the emotional turmoil and divide within a marriage. The use of iambic meter in the line "Chastity faces them, a destination" emphasizes the separation between the parents and highlights the uncommonness of a married couple choosing to live a chaste existence.

The Emotional Distance

The third stanza delves deeper into the concept of love, revealing the growing emotional divide between the parents. The once passionate fire in their relationship has now grown cold, leaving them "strangely apart, yet strangely close together" while lying in separate beds.

Poetic Elements at Play

Jennings skillfully employs similes to create vivid imagery of change and aging. In the first stanza, the wife/mother is compared to a girl dreaming of her childhood, emphasizing her age and the changes she has experienced. This creates a nostalgic tone as she reminisces about her past.

The final stanza uses personification to depict the passage of time. Time is portrayed as a gentle feather that touches the parents, symbolizing the inevitable and gradual process of aging. It also raises the question, "Do they know they are old?" suggesting the parents may be unaware of the impact of time on their relationship.

Enjambment and caesura are also utilized effectively in the poem, creating a fragmented rhythm that mirrors the stop-and-go nature of the parents' relationship. The use of enjambment in the second stanza reflects the difficulty the couple has in communicating their true feelings.

The Use of Third Person

The poem is narrated in third person and does not reveal the names of the parents, referring to them simply as "he" and "she." This further emphasizes their emotional and physical separation.

An Exploration of Imagery and Tone in 'One Flesh'

The use of pronouns instead of names in 'One Flesh' is a deliberate choice that embodies the narrator's perspective. The theme of distance and fading passion within a relationship is relatable to many couples, making this poem universally resonant.

Imagery and Symbolism

Jennings' Catholic faith is evident throughout her writing, including 'One Flesh.' The poem contains biblical references that link the parents' marriage to traditional Catholic ideals. This adds a layer of meaning to their decision to stay together, possibly due to the belief that it is the right thing to do. In the second stanza, Jennings writes:

  • "They hardly ever touch,
  • Or if they do, it is like a confession
  • Of having little feeling - or too much."

The use of the word "confession" suggests that the parents view their emotions as sinful and feel the need to confess them. The sin itself is ambiguous, representing either the lack of feeling in their marriage or the struggle to express their intense emotions. In both cases, it is clear that societal expectations are causing them to repress their true feelings.

The religious imagery continues as the progression of the parents' marriage is portrayed as a journey towards "chastity":

  • "Chastity faces them, a destination
  • For which their whole lives were a preparation."

In Catholicism, remaining chaste is a fundamental principle, but the fact that the parents have been preparing for a chaste life within marriage is unconventional. This juxtaposition of ideas is further emphasized by the title 'one flesh,' typically symbolizing the spiritual and physical union of a husband and wife.

Throughout the poem, imagery is used to depict the distance between the parents. In the first stanza, the husband is portrayed as sitting in bed with a book, while the wife dreams of her childhood "like a girl." This imagery reinforces the emotional and physical separation between them.

The Contrast and Complexities of Relationships in Elizabeth Jennings' Poem 'One Flesh'

In Elizabeth Jennings' 'One Flesh', the husband and wife are both yearning to escape their current reality. However, their actions and thoughts reveal a stark contrast between the two characters. While the husband is depicted as grounded and mature, engrossed in reading about 'some new event', the wife is portrayed as absent-minded and lost in her daydreams, with 'her eyes fixed on the shadows overhead'. This imagery reflects the contrast between youth and maturity in how reading is associated with being responsible, while daydreaming is linked to innocence.

The theme of opposition is further emphasized in the second stanza, where the parents are described as 'strangely apart, yet strangely close together'. This paradox mirrors the internal conflict within their relationship – though they may have grown distant over time, the bond of marriage still ties them together.

In the final stanza, the contrast between opposing elements is used to powerful effect as the narrator ponders why the 'fire from which' they 'came' has now 'grown cold'. The use of 'fire' and 'cold' highlights the impact of time on the parents' relationship. Once ignited with passion, it has now dimmed, and the narrator, their child, has emerged from this once burning fire.

As the narrator grapples with the harsh reality of their parents' lack of passion, there is a sense of a breakdown within the entire family. This distance between the parents has also caused the narrator to feel detached and distant from them as well.

Tone and Perspective

The narrator of 'One Flesh' is likely a young person, possibly a child, observing the relationship of their parents. Their thoughts and experiences are presented from a third-person perspective, adding a unique angle to the first-person experience. This creates a nostalgic and reflective tone, as the narrator observes the parents' distance and wonders, 'do they know they're old'. This simple question evokes a relatable feeling – the realization that one is growing up and the people around them are changing.

The Themes in Elizabeth Jennings' Poem 'One Flesh'

In 'One Flesh', the narrator grapples with the difficult realization that they can never fully understand the complexities of their parents' relationship. The nostalgic tone throughout the poem adds to the childlike perspective of seeking answers that can never be fully answered.

Exploring the Themes

  • Distance: The theme of distance is prevalent throughout the poem as it portrays the parents' relationship. Words like 'apart', 'separate', 'elsewhere', and 'hardly ever touch' create a sense of separation, emphasizing that the couple may be married but are no longer truly connected as 'one flesh'.
  • The Passage of Time: The poem centers on the narrator's perception of their parents' relationship and how it has evolved over time. The metaphor of 'chastity' facing the parents symbolizes the journey they have been on to reach this point in their lives.
  • The Complexity of Relationships: 'One Flesh' captures the intricate dynamics of both a romantic relationship between a husband and wife and a familial relationship between a parent and child. The couple is portrayed as 'flotsam from a former passion', representing the inevitable distance in their relationship, much like wreckage caught in the forces of nature. The complexity of their feelings is also highlighted, with the couple experiencing 'too little feeling - or too much'.

Key Points to Take Away from 'One Flesh'

  • The poem was first published in Elizabeth Jennings' 1966 collection, 'The Mind Has Mountains'.
  • Jennings was part of the literary group known as 'The Movement'.
  • 'One Flesh' has a nostalgic tone and explores the relationship between a husband and wife from their child's perspective.
  • The title of the poem carries religious undertones, symbolizing the union of a couple in marriage.
  • The poem has a consistent form with three stanzas of six lines each.
  • The first two stanzas have rhyming couplets, while the final stanza follows an ABABAB rhyme scheme.
  • Jennings effectively employs poetic devices such as simile, enjambment, and caesura to enhance the impact of the poem.Exploring the Themes of Time and Relationships in 'One Flesh' by Elizabeth Jennings
  • Unpacking the Use of Biblical Imagery
  • In her poem 'One Flesh', Elizabeth Jennings employs biblical imagery to convey the passage of time and the nature of relationships. Through the use of vivid metaphors and symbolism, she reflects on the changing dynamics of love and its effects on individuals.
  • An Examination of the Poem's Core Message
  • The central theme of 'One Flesh' centers on the idea that romantic love doesn't always last forever, and this realization can have a profound impact on those involved. The speaker reflects on her parents' relationship, once passionate and intense, now grown 'cold' and distant.
  • Depicting the Complexity of Love
  • Jennings presents love as a multifaceted emotion that can evolve and change over time. In the poem, the speaker observes the 'fire' that once ignited her parents' love has dimmed, leaving them disconnected and 'separate'.
  • Understanding the Structure of the Poem
  • The rhyme scheme of 'One Flesh' is irregular, with rhyming couplets at the end of the first two stanzas and an ABABAB pattern in the final stanza. This structure mirrors the unpredictability and fragility of love.
  • Delving into the History of 'One Flesh'
  • Published in 1966, 'One Flesh' was written by Elizabeth Jennings as a tribute to her aging parents and their enduring relationship. It serves as a poignant reflection on the passing of time and the complexities of love.

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