The Enemies is written by Elizabeth Jennings (1926 –2001). She developed a passion for writing at a very young age. After her graduation she became a writer. Her poems were published in journals like New English Weekly, Poetry Review, The Spectator, Oxford Poetry and Outposts. But her first book was published when she 27. Lyrical poets like Hopkins, Graves, Muir and Auden have influenced a lot. Her second book, A way of Looking got her the Somerset Maugham Award and this was a turning point in her life. She travelled to Rome with the prize money and then on her poems took on a new dimension; one that was more spiritual and religious. She is considered to be a traditionalist more than an innovator. She is known for her lyrical poetry and the tabloids called her “the big lady of sonnets” when she was honoured by the queen in 1992. Elizabeth Jennings is ranked as one of the finest British poets of the second half of the twentieth century. She also got the credit of being England’s best Catholic poet after Gerard Manley Hopkins. The Enemies was written in 1950s and it is a beautiful poem on fear of strangers.
The poem is about a night and day in a city. Some people came across the river to the city. Women in the city were awake with the food. There were lights in the city. Since they were hospitable lot of women they entertained the people who had come. The women did not ask why the men had come and the men spoke in a language not known to the women. In the morning everyone was talking of the quick invasion in the dark. No one ever knew the reason for their coming but for certain it was not for destruction.
It was evident in the morning that there was no destruction in the homes or fields. Yet, strangely, the place looked haunted. Men who met each other were speaking with trepidation. Even old friends closed up and there was no warmth in the handshake. Everyone thought to themselves it is better to hide themselves. They were worried that the strangers have set up their homes in the minds of the people. The homes of people which were such welcome places were no more so. To avoid meeting people the blinds on the windows were drawn and this was with the fear if the strangers still haunt their homes.
The poem ‘The Enemies’ has twenty lines and it is a narrative poem. The first two stanzas have six lines and the third stanza has eight lines. It tells about an event that happened in the city on one night and its effects the next morning and thereafter. It is a lyrical poem as it has a rhyme scheme. In the first two stanzas the rhyme scheme is ABABBA. In the third stanza there are eight lines and the rhyme changes; it is ABABABBA. The meter of the poem is mostly the same in each stanza. In all the three stanzas there are pauses in the middle of a line and this is to complete the thought started in the previous line. This is a little different as it takes the prose structure, when there is a period in between the line.
The poem has a theme which is simple and evident and underlying these seemingly simple lines are ideas with deep import. Some strangers came and invaded the city for no specific reason. No external devastations had taken place but there were great internal damages, in the minds of the people.
It talks about fear of strangers which can erode the trust. The role woman is given a lot of importance. Women who are naturally hospitable do not think much before hosting people. They trust faster than men and it can be because they are not worldly wise. The women do not ask why the men came but they do have an excuse; the men spoke in a language they did not understand.
The invaders are all men and it the men who are affected; they are the ones who have closed up. The next morning the women are communicating about the previous night but the men have clamped up and shut out others from their life.
So who could be these strangers who wrecked the minds of the people without any trace of violence? There is a deeper significance. The city is ourselves and the strangers that come in is ‘mistrust’. They come in and we do not know how they came and even when they came. Once they came we gave it our attention. We fed it with our thoughts. They seem to have left us in the morning but no. They have stayed silently to create a fear of strangers. Now there is no one in the world we trust, we look upon others with apprehension. While all religion profess faith, this faith in ourselves, others and god is lost forever.
There is enjambment in the poem. Enjambment where one thought is carried over to the next line. It is seen in each stanza.
Last night they came across the river and
Entered the city.
The women say that not one stranger told
A reason for his coming.
Those strangers have set up their homes in minds
I used to walk in.
Alliteration is seen in the last stanza, “Man meeting man”. The city had become like a ghostly place and a metaphor is used to describe it; “Yet all the city is a haunted place. The imagery of the invasion is brought about through the words, ‘dark invasions’. The invasion was done in the dark so ‘dark invasion’. The invasion brought darkness to the minds of the people so again ‘dark invasion’.
Elizabeth Jenny has an unassuming technical craft in her poetry and there is an emotional restraint as well. The Enemies has a spiritual undertone as it trying to convey that without trust life is going to be very difficult to live.