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Humphrey Jennings: analytic history and the poetic cross-section

30 September 2021

Aoiffe Walsh, Royal Holloway, University of London

Filmmaker Lindsay Anderson famously described Humphrey Jennings as ‘the only real poet the British cinema has yet produced.’[1] But what could have prompted Anderson to make such a claim? I propose it was the way in which Jennings imbued the exploration and analysis of photographic factuality with a sense of emotion and imagination. As a documentary filmmaker with the Crown Film Unit, responsible for wartime propaganda films, the materials Jennings worked with were those of the objective world manipulated in such a way as to appeal to British sentimentality. Jennings was also part of a Surrealism emerging in Britain in the early 1930s that explored emotion and imagination alongside empiricist knowledge claims. Educated at Cambridge University within the lively discourses of logical positivism, pragmatism, humanism, and materialism, Jennings’ work displays a set of complex artistic impulses and influences. The way that Jennings generates imaginative and affective expression through the capture of material mundanity is a deliberate result of how he conceives of history, knowledge, poetry, and analysis. Reconciling such often disparate intellectual systems results in what Jennings described as an ‘imaginative history.’[2]

Jennings’ posthumously published book,  Pandaemonium: The Coming of the Machine as seen by Contemporary Observers (1985) is a culminative example of this historical project. Compiled and edited by Charles Madge and Mary-Louise Jennings, Pandaemonium provides insight into the syntheses Jennings created throughout his life: between documentary and poetry, realism and surrealism, materialism and imagination. Pandaemonium is a series of written passages that present firsthand descriptions of the Industrial Revolution. Like his films, it exhibits a reconciliation of the mundane with the sentimental. Jennings presents this ‘imaginative history’ in contradistinction to a ‘political’, ‘mechanical’, ‘social’, or ‘economic’ history.[3] He places this imaginative historical account in contrast to the analytic approach, claiming that the imaginative method presents ‘the complexity’ of a moment in a way that the analytic forgoes.[4] Jennings associates this expression of complexity that the imaginative historical method presents with poetic activity, and assigns the analysis that studies it in its material makeup, to science.   

Jennings describes this disparity between the imaginative and analytic historical methods, and justifies the need for symbiosis between the two, through the metaphor of time as a rope. He claims that ‘the analytic historian’s business is to disentangle, ‘shred by shred’, ‘plucking the strand’ out of this rope.[5] ‘The result’ he continues, ‘is the length of the rope but only one strand’s thickness.’[6] In the analytic historical method, although it may still run parallel to the rest of the rope, this strand ‘is presented nevertheless alone.’[7] The poet offers a different kind of historical account. The poet is someone who cuts ‘the whole rope,’ revealing a historical cross-section.[8] This glimpse of history cannot claim to present empiricist fact, rather ‘facts which have been passed through the feelings and the mind of an individual.’[9] Although an ‘imaginative’ method of this kind attends to a history that has been ‘coloured… selected and altered and pruned and enlarged and minimised and exaggerated,’ Jennings proposes these are not a ‘distortions’ in the way the often-narrow definition of truth assumed by the sciences might suggest.[10] These recollections belong to the time: they not only shape and interpret an event but are themselves shaped in the same encounter.

Jennings developed this bilateral historical theory throughout his life, demonstrating the complex set of influences to which he was subject. From 1926 and throughout his undergraduate years, he was exposed to the antithesis between the poetic and the scientific, as well as the attempts to reconcile them, particularly through his academic supervisor, the literary critic and one of the founders of the New Criticism, I. A. Richards. Richards’ intellectual shift from a highly analytic pragmatist theory of language to affectivity in language through Romanticism is reflected in the work of many of his students, Jennings included.  Several of those students – Hugh Sykes Davies, Kathleen Raine, William Empson, and Charles Madge to name a few – also made up the contributing and editing body of the undergraduate journal Experiment (1928-1931) that looked for poetic content in the work of post-enlightenment scientists and scientific activity within the arts.[11]  From these peers, Jennings caught the early Francophilia of his generation of avant-gardists, prompting his brief move to Paris and his subsequent involvement in the 1936 London International Surrealist Exhibition.  Committed at this time to Breton’s original vision for the movement, Jennings maintained the importance of Freudian thought in Surrealism, defending its use of psychoanalytic dream interpretation to some of his more apostatizing British Surrealist peers.[12] 

In his contribution to Surrealism (1936), a collection of essays edited by Herbert Read, Breton also claimed that there were two major constituents of history: ‘manifest content’ which presented historical fact, timelines and events and people, and ‘latent content’, ‘the secret depth of history.’[13]  The manifest content refers to the analytic historical approach, where strands of temporal constituents are plucked from one another in order for scientific analysis to take place. The latent content is much like the imaginative history explored through poetry. Here, the intangible and internal life of history is revealed through a cross-section of these combined strands. Breton asserted  that the manifest was of subsidiary significance to the latent. While Breton committed Surrealism to the expression of latent content by abandoning manifest restraints, Jennings hoped to supplement the crucial work of the analytic historian with imagination. For Jennings,  the poet was no better equipped to present history than the analytic historian, and he intended not to ‘invalidate the analytic method.’[14] Rather he hoped to compliment it, asserting that ‘life – of which their analyses are analyses – is a synthesis’ itself and that ‘the interactions between its parts are infinitely more complex than any analytic machine can follow.’[15] In this way, Jennings suggested poetry as a useful companion to historical analysis.  Where analysis accounted for the constituents of a historical moment, one-by-one, poetry could account for the complexity of the whole of these constituents combined.  Furthermore, poetry attended to something that analysis often could not access: the feeling of the moment.  Consistently throughout his body of work, Jennings imbued the materiality of history with imagination, creating a complex network of metaphor and allusion that expressed the latent content of history; a meeting of complex subjectivity and analysis of the object world.    

Image Credit: Andre Breton and Humphrey Jennings at the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition, 25 x 30 cm (9 13/16” x 11 13/16”), (1936) Currently held by New Burlington Galleries, London. Online: <> [Accessed 27 Sep 2021.]


[1] Jeannette Sloniowski, Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video, New and Expanded Edition(Wayne State University Press, 2013), pp. 141.

[2] Humphrey Jennings, edited by Marie-Louise Jennings and Charles Madge, Pandaemonium 1660–1886: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers (The Free Press, 1985), pp. xxxv.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid: xxxvi.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid: xxxv.

[10] Ibid.

[11] James Merralls, ‘Humphrey Jennings: A Biographical Sketch’, Film Quarterly, 15.2 (1961), 29-34 (p. 31). 

[12] Humphrey Jennings, ‘Surrealism: Reviewed by Humphrey Jennings’, Contemporary Poetry and Prose, 8 (1936), pp. 168.

[13] Andre Breton, ‘Limits Not Frontiers.’, Surrealism (1936), 93-116 (pp. 106).

[14] Jennings, Pandaemonium pp. xxxvi.

[15] Ibid.


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