Learn English » English Literature » Poem 'To a Friend with a Religious Vocation' by Elizabeth Jennings

To a Friend with a Religious Vocation

Thinking of your vocation, I am filled
With thoughts of my own lack of one. I see
Within myself no wish to breed or build
Or take the three vows ringed by poverty.
And yet I have a sense,
Vague and inchoate, with no symmetry,
Of purpose. Is it merely a pretense,

A kind of scaffolding which I erect –
Half out of fear, half out of laziness?
The fitful poems come but can’t protect
The empty areas of loneliness.
You know what you must do,
So that mere breathing is a way to bless.
Dark nights, perhaps, but no grey days ahead for you.

Your vows enfold you. I must make my own;
Now this, now that, each one empirical.
My poems move from feelings not yet known,
And when the poem is written I can feel
A flash, a moment’s peace.
The curtain will be drawn across the grill.
My silences are always enemies.

Yet with the same convictions that you have
(It is but your vocation that I lack),
I must, like you, believe in perfect love.
It is the dark, the dark that draws me back
Into a chaos where
Vocations, visions fail, the will grows slack
And I am stunned by silence everywhere.


Elizabeth Jennings talks about different types of religious convictions in "To a Friend with a Religious Vocation"


The title of this poem is rather uncharacteristic of Jennings since it does not entirely give an idea of the subject matter of the poem: it is not a generic title. The term 'Religious' stands out as a possible hint to the theme of the poem but it does not really indicate the contents of the poem. However, since Elizabeth Jennings uses religious imagery and themes in many of her poems, the reader may safely assume that this is one of those poems that have religion, especially, Catholicism, as the underlying theme.

Furthermore, it can be noted about the title that 'Friend' and 'Vocation' have opposing connotations: while 'Friend' implies a level of trust, 'vocation' has the connotation of being absorbed in the single minded pursuit of something bigger than oneself. Critics maintain that the subject of her poem ‘To a Friend with a Religious Vocation’ could be Beth Davidson, whom Jennings had met in 1958 and who became a Carmelite nun, or an American friend Charlotte who entered nunnery in 1958.

The first stanza is a comparison between the vocation chosen by her friend, and the poet’s own lack of a vocation. The poet professes her lack of inclination to marriage, to building up a family, or a life dedicated to God taking “the three vows ringed by poverty” which is an allusion to the vows that a nun is supposed to take. However, she has a “sense/Vague and inchoate, with no symmetry,/or purpose”. In other words, the poet has a vague idea of her life purpose, though in the next line she is quick to point out that her professed sense of purpose could be “merely a pretense” and not much else.

The second stanza continues the theme of the poet’s own purpose in life, which could be a reference to writing poems. However, she says that her poems do not protect her from “loneliness”. In the case of the poet’s friend, life’s purpose is clear: she just have to exist in the vocation (“mere breathing is a way to bless”). There is no vagueness about life: there are no “grey days”.

The third stanza continues the theme of differences that the poet finds between herself and the friend who has found her vocation. Her friend has her “vows”, but the poet has to make her own vows, and unlike the friend’s the poet’s vows are “empirical” or related to practical life. Her main life purpose is the writing of poems, which gives her “a moment’s peace”. After the poem is written, the fire of creativity is dulled, a “curtain will be drawn across the grill.” After that there is always a period of inactivity, which the poet says is not a friendly time. “My silences are always enemies.”

In the final stanza, the poet affirms that she should have the same convictions about life like her friend, though she lacks the vocation. Like her friend who may be pledged to a divine love, the poet has to “believe in perfect love”. However, when there is spiritual darkness, when she does not have any inspiration to write, she finds her life full of chaos and she has no will power. At those times, she is “stunned by silence everywhere”. In other words, she is not able to compose poems.

Language and imagery

The poem has 4 septets, and a sustained rhyme scheme (ABABCBC). There is recurrent reference to ‘darkness’ and ‘chaos’ as opposed to the fairly ordered and enlightened world of a person who has chosen a vocation and entered a nunnery. The darkness and chaos the poet refers to could be an indication of the personal problems or the lack of inspiration that the poet might have experienced at times.

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