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Explication of “One Flesh” by Elizabeth Jennings

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“One Flesh” is probably the best-known poem by the late British poetess Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001). Published as part of her poetry collection The Mind Has Mountains (1966), the poem is an ode ostensibly devoted to her aging parents who—upon entering the chilly late autumn of their long married life—have drifted apart both physically and emotionally. Its ironic title is an allusion to a biblical phrase in Genesis, “one flesh,” which is an allegorical symbol of marriage: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:21).

But rather than criticize her elderly parents for their estrangement from each other, the ode is conveying her feelings of sadness, sympathy, regret, and daughterly concern. Of course, one should never mistake a poem's persona for its author, especially since Jennings was not known to “write explicitly autobiographical poetry” (PoemHunter.com). This explication of “One Flesh” explores the deeper (symbolic) meaning as well as the structure of the lyric poem, underlying its lasting popularity with many readers on both sides of the Atlantic. By focusing on the connotations and relationships of words, imagery, figures of speech, and other poetic components that comprise “One Flesh,” this essay connects the poem’s theme, plot, characters, and conflicts to its structural elements, such as form, content, rhyme, voice, mood, diction, tone, rhythm, etc. It is due to its masterful and sensitive treatment of eternal but delicate themes like love, marriage, disillusionment, loneliness, suffering, as well as death, that Jennings' ode appeals to a broad array of readers—both young and old, men and women.

The analysis begins by examining the ode's symbolic meaning(s) and beautiful poetic language, including the use of figurative speech, which account for the reader's reactions of aesthetic pleasure and emotional enjoyment. The first stanza opens with a melancholy depiction of an old couple in their bedroom, both “Lying apart now, each in a separate bed, / He with a book, keeping the light on late, / She like a girl dreaming of childhood” (lines 1-3). The separate beds are both a metaphor and a symbol of the physical distance and emotional separation of the two spouses. The husband is pretending to read a book in bed with his nightstand lamp on, while “she is like a girl” (a simile) who is daydreaming in bed about her long-lost childhood (2-3). But he seems to have no interest in his “unread” book (a case of situational irony), brooding instead over how “all” men seem to be waiting for something “new” in their lives: “All men elsewhere—it is as if they wait / Some new event: || the book he holds unread, / Her eyes fixed on the shadows overhead” (4-6). The use of a caesuraa pause (||) within a poetic line —in conjunction with an enjambment (a run-on line) in line 5 hints at the husband's awareness or implicit acknowledgement of his mortality. The wife, on the other hand, is just staring at the lamp's shadows on the ceiling (a metaphor for her childhood memories), clearly trying to escape the depressing reality of having grown old. It is likely that the phrase “the shadows overhead” is an allusion to the famous solipsistic metaphor of a cave fire's shadows on the cave wall in Plato's Allegory of the Cave, symbolizing life's uncertainties, deceptiveness, and unreality. Ultimately, what the old couple is silently waiting for is death (a recurring theme never explicitly mentioned in the text), which is not that far off in their future.

The second stanza makes use of a simile (“like flotsam”) and a quasi-onomatopoeia (“Tossed”)—“Tossed up like flotsam from a former passion, / How cool they lie. || They hardly ever touch” (7-8)—to describe how the old couple is like wreckage jettisoned by the shipwreck of their long-faded romantic passion, as both lie emotionless and cold to each other in their separate beds, avoiding any interaction. And when they do show some feelings for one another, it is an embarrassing admission—”like a confession” (a simile)—of feeling guilty for their indifference or even hostility to each other: “Or if they do, || it is like a confession / Of having little feeling || —or too much” (9-10). Using caesuras before the line breaks in lines 8, 9, and 10 contributes to the ode's natural rhythm. One can even feel the old couple's deliberate silences in the poem's steady rhythm. A loveless future without any intimacy and passion lies ahead of them—indeed, a sexless life of “chastity” (a religious metaphor)—for which they have been preparing mentally all their lives: “Chastity faces them, a destination / For which their whole lives were a preparation” (11-12), because they have always felt intuitively that this is how their marriage is destined to end up in old age.

The third stanza starts with a juxtaposition, which changes somewhat the poem's somber atmosphere by contrasting the aged couple being “apart” with it being also “close together.” It employs a simile (“like a thread”) to portray them as physically apart and yet spiritually still bonded. Their silence (as they have nothing to say to each other any more) tenuously keeps them together like a fine “thread”—as if they are holding on a life-saving line but not pulling it in: “Strangely apart, yet strangely close together, / Silence between them like a thread to hold / And not wind in...” (13-15). Lines 13 and 14 make use of the stylistic device of sibilance—a form of alliteration, in which the “s” consonant is repeated in quick succession at the beginning of more than two words: “Strangely apart, yet strangely close together, / Silence...” in order to emphasize the silence of their mutual estrangement. Much like their long silences, “time” (presumably, their long life together) keeps them connected, even though time is at the same time compared to a flighty “feather” (a metaphor for the fickleness of life), which quietly and imperceptibly ages both of them: “...And time itself's a feather / Touching them gently...” (15-16). The stanza closes with a gloomy rhetorical question which, for the first time, puts the poem in a more personal, almost autobiographical context, by revealing the persona's (the poet's?) relationship to the elderly couple: “Do they know they're old, / These two who are my father and my mother / Whose fire from which I came, has now grown cold?” (16-18). Using a second juxtaposition and another effective metaphor (“fire”), the poetess regretfully contrasts her parents' long-extinguished “fire” of youthful romance, love, and passion with their “cold” detachment and physical disconnection in old age.

In terms of structure and sound patterns, “One Flesh” consists of three stanzas with six lines each (so-called sestets or sextets), measuring usually ten syllables per line (that is, a metrical line of five feet or iambic pentameter). The poem's rhyme scheme is abcbaa (a rare variant of the English sestet, using an off-rhyme or slant rhyme at the line break in line 3) in the first stanza and dedeff (conventional English sestet) in the second stanza, but it changes to ghghgh (Sicilian sestet) in the last stanza, where the persona's identity and relationship to the elderly couple are finally uncovered. The whole poem is presented from the point of view of the persona (the poetess), revealing in the first-person voice what's on her mind, but never what's going on in the minds of her aged parents. In addition to using the non-traditional form of six-line stanzas, each ending in a heroic couplet—“two lines of iambic pentameter, consecutively rhymed” (Burroway 371)—the poem's metered verse is rendered all the more remarkable for its simple but memorable word choice (diction), melancholy tone, poignant mood, monotonously repetitive rhythm, and a pessimistic state of mind which casts doubts on the very possibility that marital love can last forever—or even for very long. Those two who once used to be physically and mentally “one flesh” are now co-habiting strangers who are deeply alienated from each other. This is not an unexpected sentiment for someone like Miss Jennings, who—although well-educated, intellectually refined, and quite pretty in her younger days—never married. Because of its masterful and sensitive treatment of eternal but delicate themes like love, flawed marriage, disillusionment, loneliness, suffering, and death, her elegiac poem “One Flesh” appeals to a surprisingly wide array of readers—both young and old, men and women.

 

Works Cited

Burroway, Janet. Ed. Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft. 4th edition. Boston: Longman  Publishing Group, 2014. Print.

Jennings, Elizabeth. “One Flesh.” Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft. Ed. Janet Burroway. 4th  edition. Boston: Longman Publishing Group, 2014. 129. Print.

New American Standard Bible. Genesis. Lockman Foundation: La Habra, California, 1995. 2:21. Web.  3 Feb. 2015. <http://biblehub.com/nasb/genesis/2.htm>.

“Biography of Elizabeth Jennings.” PoemHunter.com. Web. 2 Feb. 2015.  <http://www.poemhunter.com/elizabeth-jennings/biography/>.