Italian Light: Elizabeth Jennings and Thomas Aquinas

[Editor’s Note:  Last week, Ann Loades reviewed Dana Greene’s biography of Elizabeth Jennings and considered her turbulent life, her prolific body of work, and her significant impact in literary and theological realms.  This week, Caleb Kormann offers a more in depth look into Jennings’s relationship with poetry and theology through the influence of Thomas Aquinas.]

 ‘Philosophy is therefore always a scaffolding or skeleton rather than a complete building or a whole body. But of course one cannot build a house without scaffolding or possess a body without a bone structure’, wrote Elizabeth Jennings in the foreword to Every Changing Shape[1] Jennings’s poetry has been widely anthologised — her readership in the UK was substantial — and she has never been wholly without her champions. Nevertheless, her work, rich as silk, has arguably slipped through the fingers of critical attention. ‘Clarify, me, please, God of the galaxies’, Jennings pled with God in a poem from her 1985 collection, Extending the Territory. In a 2018 essay, Dana Gioia pled analogously with literary criticism to ‘clarify Jennings’ significant place in the contemporary canon’. [2] Toward that end, in however modest and minute a way, this article will reflect on a possible feature of the philosophical skeleton that serves the embodiment of Jennings’s artistic genius. Namely, her interest in Thomas Aquinas.

Jennings was a devoted Catholic, and her religion runs to the bone of both her poetry and her prose. Literary scholar Jean Ward has argued that the relationship between Jennings’s Catholicism and the culture of her homeland, England, was fraught with tension, at times giving her an almost exilic character and casting new light on her fondness for Gerard Manley Hopkins. ‘She never… gave up the attempt to bring her untypical, Catholic vision as close as possible to all readers, drawing attention to neglected wealth in the poetic and cultural tradition and communicating her Catholic perception of unseen realities present in the ordinary and everyday’, concludes Ward. [3] In a similar vein, other scholars have asked after the relationship between Jennings’s Catholicism and the understanding of both faith and sacramentality in her poetry. [4] The relationship between her Catholicism and what recent biographer Dana Greene calls ‘her obvious interest in philosophical issues’, however, has yet to be fully explored. [5]

What, then, of Jennings’s Catholic philosophy? Greene notes that Jennings not only read Aquinas, but also Thomistic titans like Étienne Gilson, Joseph Maréchal, and Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange. [6] Likewise, the penultimate chapter of Every Changing Shape has Jennings reflecting directly on Aquinas by way of another venerable Thomist, Thomas Gilby, OP.  ‘“Wholeness, harmony, and clarity” were the three requisites which Aquinas demanded in a work of art’, writes Jennings. ‘We can see how these three qualities are discernible both in the making of a poem and in the prayer of the mystic’. She adds her own caveat: ‘Harmony and clarity are only reached after confusion and darkness’, and yet ‘this neither invalidates their importance nor denies that sense of timelessness which I have already referred to’. [7]

Wholeness, harmony, and clarity are, infamously, Thomas’s three conditions of beauty, found in his discussion of the properties of the Son within the Trinitarian life. [8] Wholeness, or integritas, is aptly described by Monroe Beardsley as a thing’s ‘being all there’. [9] In other words, that which is whole is missing none of what makes it what it is. Within the Trinity, the Son’s wholeness is that he ‘has in Himself truly and perfectly the nature of the Father’. [10] The second condition, harmony or proportio, means that a thing is fittingly ordered — well proportioned — to that which it represents. Its form is in felicitous harmony with that which it images. In the case of the Trinity, the Son’s harmony is that ‘He is the express Image of the Father’. [11] The final condition, clarity or claritas, could be described as the resplendence of the form of a thing. Here, Thomas relates the clarity of the Son to his being ‘the Word, which is the light and splendor of the intellect’. [12]

In Thomas’s commentary on Pseudo-Dionysius’s The Divine Names, he explains the relation between claritas and form: ‘All form, through which something has being, is a certain participation in the divine claritas… things are beautiful… according to their own form’. [13] That is, form is the means of a thing’s splendour. In each blade of grass, each glimmer of joy in the human eye, each note of a symphony, it is the particular configuration of matter into form that fosters the manifestation of its beauty.

There are, it seems, glimmers of affinity between Jennings’s poetry and the Angelic Doctor’s account of beauty. Formalistically, the interplay between clarity and form belongs to her artistic genius. There is also a longing for harmony, order, and the fittingness of form that appears to linger in the imagination of her poems. In ‘Order’, for instance, Jennings writes of the homesick roving of the human heart, east of Eden: ‘After we / were driven from that garden, we’ve shown how / there must be patterns’. Further, ‘In our wild world of misrule we insist / on shapeliness and balance’. [14] In ‘A Metaphysical Point About Poetry’, Jennings, in conversation with an unidentified ‘you’ that could justifiably be read as Aquinas himself, writes: ‘I wish to say that God / Is present in all poetry that’s made / with form and purpose’. [15] Form and purpose or, in Thomas’s terms, formal and final causality.

The Thomistic interplay between form and clarity might also be felt in a reading of Jennings’s poem ‘Italian Light’ if one thinks of stone as form and light as clarity. That the poem concludes with an almost cosmological harmony is not beyond the point:

It is not quite a house without the sun
And sun is what we notice, wonder at
As if stone left its hard and quarried state
To be reciprocal to light and let
The falling beams bound and rebound upon
Shutter and wall, each with assurance thrown.

So on descending from the snow we meet
Not warmth of south but houses which contrive
To be designed of sun. The builders have
Instructed hands to know where shadows fall
And made of buildings an obedient stone
Linked to the sun as waters to the moon. [16]

In one of Jennings’s two published poems about Thomas, titled as plainly as ‘The Ox’ was reputed to have been, she admires the way he transformed Aristotle ‘with clarity into a great system coinciding with every / Christian dogma, dancing metaphysical thought’. [17] Jennings resisted the rationalisation of poetry, and this is not to say she adopted Thomas’s thought tout court or that he exhausts her philosophy.

Still more, her life was not all order and form, shapeliness and balance — nor was Thomas’s. ‘The poems which satisfy most are not those which simply give a sense of reconciliation and order’, writes Jennings, ‘but those which show life and order as the fruits of conflict; and we need to feel this tension even in the most triumphant and reconciled poems’. [18] Philosophy may be skeletal, as Thomas himself also affirmed. But if we feel Jennings’s longing for the reconciled order of wholeness and harmony, form and clarity, it is there we may look to trace the shape, however incomplete, of the beauty she enfleshed.


[1] Elizabeth Jennings, Every Changing Shape (Philadelphia: Dufour Editions, 1962), 11.

[2] Dana Gioia, ‘Clarify Me, Please, God of the Galaxies’, in First Things, May 2018,

[3] Jean Ward, ‘Jennings: An Exile in her Own Country?’ in Literature& Theology 21.2 (June 2007), 210.

[4] Barry Sloan, ‘Poetry and Faith: The Example of Elizabeth Jennings’, in Christianity and Literature 55.3 (Spring 2006), 393-414.

Stephen McInerney, ‘Art with Its Largesse and Its Own Restraint: The Sacramental Poetics of Elizabeth Jennings and Les Murray’, in Between Human and Divine: The Catholic Vision in Contemporary Literature, ed. Mary R. Reichardt (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2010), 207-225. Print.

[5] Dana Greene, Elizabeth Jennings: The Inward War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 50.

[6] Ibid., 67.

[7] Jennings, Every Changing Shape, 214-215.

[8] Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, Ia., q. 39, a. 8. ‘Infamously’ is a nod, on the one hand, to the sense that Aquinas’s three conditions are well-known and yet strike many of us as peculiar—we moderns might know of them, but we do not seem to know quite what to do with them. On the other hand, I believe it is worth acknowledging the hot debates within Thomism over the status of beauty in Aquinas’s thought.

[9] Monroe Beardsley, Aesthetics from Classical Greece to the Present: A Short History (New York: Macmillan, 1966), 103.

[10] Aquinas, Summa theologiae, Ia., q. 39, a. 8.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Aquinas, In Dionysium, De divinis Nominibus, c. IV, lect. 5, translated by Aidan Nichols in Redeeming Beauty: Soundings in Sacral Aesthetics (Aldershot, England: Ashgate Publishing, 2007), 14.

[14] Elizabeth Jennings, ‘Order’, in The Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2012), 735.

[15] Jennings, ‘A Metaphysical Point about Poetry’, in The Collected Poems, 775.

[16] Jennings, ‘Italian Light’, in The Collected Poems, 18.

[17] Jennings, ‘Thomas Aquinas’, in The Collected Poems, 321.  In reference to ‘The Ox’, or ‘The Dumb Ox’, cf. Denys Turner, Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 5.

[18] Jennings, Every Changing Shape, 108.


  • Caleb Kormann is an MTS student at Saint John's School of Theology and Seminary, where he studies systematic theology as a Lilly Community Fellow. Caleb's research focuses on the intersection between metaphysics and systematic theology, and other interests include the relationship between poetry and theology and theological aesthetics.

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