Denise Levertov: A Poet's Pilgrimage
by Angela Alaimo O'Donnell
"Poems . . . become stepping stones in one's slow pilgrimage . . . small Virgils leading the soul's Dante around the spiral of hell and paradise."
—Denise Levertov, "Poetry, Prophecy, Survival"
etween 1940, when her first poem appeared in print (she was 16 years old), until 1999, when her final volume, The Great Unknowing : Last Poems, was published posthumously, Denise Levertov established herself as a brilliant, original, and formidable presence in contemporary poetry, both in England and America. Having written her first poem at age five, Levertov thought of herself thereafter as a poet, first and foremost. All other identities—that of Englishwoman, adoptive American, daughter, sister, wife, mother, homemaker, teacher, literary critic, political activist, and religious convert—would be subject to this primary identity, signifying absolute commitment to a vocation that arrived early in her life and never deserted her. This fierce devotion to her gift is evident in every poem Levertov ever published, in every essay she wrote, and in every interview she granted. Over the course of six decades—a long and prolific career that produced over twenty-four collections of poems, four books of essays, and several translations—Levertov's singular voice sounds with a bell-like clarity. Poet and critic Kenneth Roxroth, one of Levertov's early and enthusiastic supporters, recognized clearly her unique place in contemporary poetry: "The universal respect in which she is held by Academics, Beats, and Black Mountain [poets] has led her to be identified with one or the other [literary movement] by careless critics and anthologists. She is in fact classically independent" (Saturday Review, 1965).
This remarkable artistic independence—the ability to create an idiom and convey a vision that is entirely her own yet also participates in conversation with the voices of her era—is evident in Levertov's work at all stages of her career, and her corollary independence of spirit is manifest in the unconventional way she lived her life. In fact, the trajectory of her life and the art that emerged from her passionate engagement with the world are so closely related that, in Levertov's mind, there is no separation between them. In the passage quoted above from "Poetry, Prophecy, and Survival," one of her many fine essays on the craft and vocation of poetry, Levertov likens her simultaneous journey as a human being in quest of truth and as an artist in quest of beauty to the personal and archetypal journey Dante depicts in The Divine Comedy. Like Dante, whose pathway leads him out of the depths of destruction towards salvation, Levertov discovers in the pattern of her own pilgrimage that poetry has served as both her pathway and her guide from darkness to light, from ignorance to enlightenment, and from the desolation of existential doubt towards the consolation of belief. Similarly, and in keeping with Levertov's metaphor, any full account of her life and work should move step by step, stone by stone, and poem by poem, from her obscure childhood in Ilford, England to her position as one of the most celebrated and revered American poets of the 20th century. In lieu of such a full account, the following summary offers an overview of the shape of the journey, stopping briefly at some of the stations along the way.
Early Education & Formation
Denise Levertov was born on October 24th, 1923 in Ilford, England, a suburb of London, to Beatrice Adelaide Spooner-Jones, a Welsh woman descended from coal miners and religious mystic Angell Jones of Mold, and to Paul Philip Levertoff, a Russian Jewish scholar who emigrated to the UK, converted to Christianity, and became an Anglican priest. As unconventional children of unconventional parents, neither Denise nor her elder sister, Olga, received any formal education; instead, they grew up in a houseful of books, receiving religious instruction from their father, who wrote prolifically about Jewish and Christian mysticism in several languages (Hebrew, Russian, German, and English), reading aloud with their mother works of the great nineteenth-century novelists and poets, and studying art and ballet. Growing up in a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual household, partaking of many identities but belonging to no one in particular, "among Jews a Goy, among Gentiles…a Jew; among Anglo-Saxons a Celt; in Wales a Londoner," Levertov felt her "difference" early and understood herself to be marked for a life unlike those of ordinary English children her age: "[I knew] before I was ten that I was an artist-person and had a destiny" ("Autobiographical Sketch," 260).
She was confirmed in this suspicion at a young age (and for the remainder of her life) by respected literary figures who encouraged her and publishers who praised and promoted her work. At the age of twelve, Levertov sent several of her poems to T.S. Eliot and received, in response, a two-page typewritten letter from him offering the young poet advice and providing the impetus for her to continue her pursuit of writing. In 1940, her first poem to appear in print, "Listening to the Distant Guns," was published in Poetry Quarterly. A few years later, when Levertov was working as a civilian nurse in London during World War II (1943-44), she walked into the office of Cressett Press, publisher of the journal, introduced herself, and soon after gave him a manuscript of her poems. Impressed with her work, the editor brought Levertov into his circle of London poet friends and published her first book, The Double Image, in 1946. At the age of twenty-three, Levertov's career had been launched.
The following year, while travelling in Europe with a friend, Levertov met American writer Mitchell Goodman and married him. Until recently, very little information about Levertov's brief time abroad, before her marriage, was known. With the recent publication of the first full-scale biography of the poet, Denise Levertov: A Poet's Life (2012), by Dana Greene, readers now have a more intimate portrait of the poet as a young woman, particularly with regard to her sexual vulnerability and the way in which it shaped her life. Levertov left England, and the over-protective environment of her childhood home, to serve as an au pair for a Dutch family in Holland. Shortly after her arrival, Levertov discovered that she was pregnant. The father was Norman "En" Potter, a young Englishman with whom she had had an affair and who was now engaged to another woman. Faced with the potential ruination of her plans to be an artist, afraid to reveal to her parents what would have been deemed a shameful affair, and lacking the financial resources to raise the child on her own, Levertov sought an abortion, a dangerous—as well as an illegal—procedure. In Greene's account, the affair, her abandonment, and the experience of the abortion itself left Levertov feeling vulnerable and uncertain; thus, meeting Mitchell Goodman, a charming and considerate man, must have seemed providential (Greene, 26-32). Her decision to marry Goodman was motivated by the desire for security and a stability her life lacked, rather than love, yet the marriage proved happy for the first few years, produced a son, Nicolai, in 1949, and enabled the two budding writers to enjoy a literary partnership at the beginning of their careers. Ultimately, however, the stress of two writers sharing the same household became too great, and Levertov's success, as the years went by, undermined her less successful husband's confidence and his mental health. (Goodman suffered from bouts of depression.) They divorced in 1975, freeing Levertov, at the age of fifty-one, to live independently for the first time in her life.
Poetic Development & Critical Reception
Perhaps the most consequential result of her marriage to Goodman, in terms of her career as a writer, was her emigration to America in 1948 and her naturalization as an American citizen in 1955. According to Levertov, "Marrying an American and coming to live here while still young was very stimulating to me as a writer for it necessitated the finding of new rhythms in which to write, in accordance with new rhythms of life and speech" (Wagner, Denise Levertov, 28). Significantly, some years before, Levertov had discovered in a Paris bookstore a collection of essays by William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain, and had sought out his poetry. As a young English woman, she didn't know what to make of his poems, with their strange typography, their everyday American diction, and their concentration on the image as the focal point of the poem. Reading his work, however, planted seeds that would germinate when she arrived in America and heard the play of American speech on a daily basis. It was then that she recognized Williams' attempt to pattern his poems after spoken rhythms, rather than the distinctly written tradition English poets modeled their verse upon. Open to change, delighted by new ways of hearing and seeing the world, and always susceptible to the power of the word, Levertov set about re-newing and re-inventing her language, and, deliberately, becoming an American poet.
Even as this shift in her work had begun, Kenneth Rexroth included her poems in his anthology of New British Poets in 1949 (a nice piece of historic irony), effectively bringing her work to the attention of the American literati, including Robert Creeley, with whom Levertov would share a lifelong friendship, along with Robert Duncan, Charles Olsen, and other poets of the so-called Black Mountain school. In fact, it is because of her friendships with these latter poets that Levertov would come to be associated with this school, by some critics, despite the poet's insistence that she shared no literary credo with them. Similarly, in years to come, she would be labeled a Beat poet, erroneously, because of her friendship with Rexroth and because her second book, Here and Now (1957) was published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Press. In still later years (late 1950s and 1960s), the growing interest in including women writers in various poetic camps would lead to the attempt to designate her a Feminist poet; Levertov rejected this label as well, insisting that her work was about the human condition, and not confined to women's experience, and that it ought to be valued on its own merits and not because it was written by a woman. In addition, Dana Greene's recent biography offers evidence that Levertov was wary of the radical feminist agenda adopted by some of her contemporaries, including Adrienne Rich, and wished to distance herself from what she saw as a reactionary culture of male-bashing and lesbianism. One of the consistencies over Levertov's long career—and one of the reasons for Rexroth's dubbing of her as "classically independent"—is her resistance to any easy categorization. In reality, Levertov's poetry evolved continually in response to the writers she was reading and meeting, to the great social events of her time, and to the ever-changing geography of her interior journey. She, like the great, independent poets who came before her, including her first poetic mentor, Wordsworth, created the taste—and the readership—by which her poems would be appreciated.
In attempting to map the geography of her journey as a poet, one might trace the course of Levertov's career through four distinctive phases:
1.) Her early work as a "British neo-Romantic," evident in her first two books, The Double Image (1946) and Here and Now (1957), marks Levertov as an inheritor of the Wordsworthian tradition of celebrating the beauty in nature and in ordinary life. Her vision in these poems is grounded in an authoritative lyric voice, and, in keeping with Keats, Tennyson, and Hopkins (other favorites of her childhood), the verse is musical and often written in strict forms. These poems establish a kind of ground rhythm from which Levertov will depart in the years to follow when she eschews formal verse.
2.) Even as she continues to focus on the events of ordinary life as a means of access to the transcendent, Levertov cultivates an entirely new voice as she experiments with free verse and a consciously American idiom. In this work of her early maturity, including The Jacob's Ladder (1961) and O Taste and See (1964), critic Albert Gelpi emphasizes her search for meaning in the mundane as "the poems again and again break into a celebration of the sacredness, even the sacramentality of temporal existence" (Gelpi, 4). Yet even amid this poetry of spiritual affirmation, there appear powerful images of wandering and pilgrimage through realms of darkness and doubt, suggesting a growing uncertainty about her vocation and adumbrating the darkness of the poems of social protest that will occupy her mind for the next decade.
3.) Her poems of the late 1960s and the 1970s are overwhelmingly poems of socio-political protest, focused on the Vietnam War, American aid to El Salvador, and nuclear proliferation. Her collections The Sorrow Dance (1967), Relearning the Alphabet (1970), To Stay Alive (1971), and portions of Candles in Babylon (1982) attest to the emergence of Levertov's strong social consciousness. As she is writing these poems, Levertov also takes on the role of social activist: with Muriel Rukeyser and several other poets, she founds the organization Writers and Artists Protest against the War in Vietnam, travels to North Vietnam to witness the horrors of the war first-hand, takes part in anti-war demonstrations, and is arrested on numerous occasions for acts of civil disobedience. Her obsession with the war, both in her writing and in her life, takes its toll on her reputation; for the first time in Levertov's career, her poetry begins to receive some negative reviews. The critical reception of these poems range from corrosive denunciation to congratulatory praise. Marjorie Perloff's dismissive review in Contemporary Literature expresses the distaste felt by so many of Levertov's readers: "It is distressing to report that . . . Levertov's new book, To Stay Alive, contains a quantity of bad confessional verse. Her anti-Vietnam War poems . . . sound rather like a versified New York Review of Books." (Perloff, 97) In contrast, James F. Mersmann offers high-minded admiration of her project in his lengthy study of Levertov's work: "In some sense the early poems are undoubtedly more perfect and enduring works of art, but they are…only teacups. The war-shadowed poems are less clean and symmetrical but are moral and philosophical schooners of some size…." (Mersmann, 105). This divergence of opinion reflects the larger critical divide that emerged in this era between the model of the poet as distant and detached observer of human affairs and that of the activist poet who is very much in the fray and creates art that aims to alter the course of events for the common good.
4.) From Candles in Babylon (1982) through the last collections of her poems, including Oblique Prayers (1984), Breathing the Water (1987), A Door in the Hive (1989), Evening Train (1992), Sands of the Well (1996), The Stream and the Sapphire (1997) , and The Great Unknowing: Last Poems (1999), Levertov explores with greater focus and intensity the intersection between the twin journeys of art and faith, a theme implicit throughout her earlier work . Her preoccupation with the development of her role as poet fully engaged in the world, in combination with her passionate concern over matters of peace and non-violence, liberation theology, and social justice, leads to her conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1989, the church of activist-writers Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Daniel Berrigan and of the martyred Salvadoran Archbishop, Oscar Romero. Similar to the poems written along political themes, the poems of this later period, many of which are explicitly religious in nature, have been met with mixed critical reception, ranging from deep admiration of her project (see Gelpi, "Introduction" and Lacey, "An Afterword") to puzzlement (see Gish, Interview, 177-81). In addition, Levertov writes movingly about aging and personal mortality in her later poems, prompting Daisy Aldan to observe, in World Literature Today, that these poems "manifest a new modesty, a refinement, sensibility, creative intelligence, compassion and spirituality," and Mark Jarman to conclude, in The Hudson Review, "This is the best writing she [has] done in years." (Poetry Foundation, 5).
The consolations evident in Levertov's late work were hard won. Diagnosed with lymphoma in 1994, Levertov fought the disease for the next three years and continued to live with her characteristic intensity, writing every day, visiting friends, and giving readings and lectures, as her health permitted. She died of complications of the disease on December 20, 1997. Among the many awards and honors received in the course of her lifetime—a list which includes the Shelley Memorial Award, The Robert Frost Medal, The Leonore Marshall Prize, and The Lannan Award—perhaps none is more telling than the nomination of this England-born poet as Poet Laureate of the U.S. just before her death. Fellow-poet, Walt Whitman, once wrote, "the proof of a poet is that his country has absorbed him as affectionately as he has absorbed it" (Whitman, xii). Forty-nine years after her pilgrimage across the Atlantic, America claimed her as one of its own. "I am by nature, heritage, and as an artist, forever a stranger and pilgrim," the fiercely independent Denise Levertov once wrote ("A Poet's View," 245). It is not surprising, perhaps, that she declined the honor.
Levertov's Poetry & Poetics
Though the focus and tenor of Levertov's work shifts throughout the course of her career, there are several core concepts, foundational to her work, that recur in her poems from first to last: the primacy of the imagination, the acknowledgement and celebration of mystery, a sacramental disposition towards the world, and commitment to the vocation of poetry. In briefly examining four representative poems from the four movements in her poetic development, "Listening to Distant Guns" (1940), "O Taste and See" (1964), "Advent 1966" (1971), and "Caedmon" (1987), Levertov's almost obsessive engagement of these themes becomes evident along with the rich variety of ways in which she explores them.
"Listening to Distant Guns," the first poem Levertov ever published, may seem at first glance to be the work of another poet:
The roses tremble; oh the sunflower's eye
Is opened wide in sad expectancy.
Westward and back the circling swallows fly,
The rooks' battalions dwindle near the hill.
That low pulsation in the east is war:
No bell now breaks the evening's silent dream.
The bloodless clarity of the evening's sky
Betrays no whisper of the battle-scream.
Written when she was only sixteen, before her discovery of free verse and the possibilities of the American poetic idiom, the poem consists of graceful rhymed and metered lines, and its diction and imagery are reminiscent of poems by Levertov's favorite poets, including Wordsworth, Tennsyon, Hopkins, and Blake. Nonetheless, readers with a knowledge of her later poems can see in this journeyman's work Levertov's signature attention to the particulars of the natural world, the sense of awe and mystery that pervades the landscape she describes, and even the haunting presence of war—the subject that will become her chief preoccupation in the decades to come—is adumbrated in the ominous fifth line. Here we see Levertov assuming her characteristic role, that of poet and prophet. Levertov claims this role, repeatedly, in her essays: "Prophecy is a word often associated with poetry, and…above all…the prophets provide words of witness" ("Poetry, Prophecy, and Survival," 147). Here she bears witness to the war of her childhood, World War II, and its omnipresence in her world. The seer, gifted with vision and also with the language necessary to make that vision accessible to others, enables us to perceive the insidious presence of violence even in landscapes removed from war's proximity.
By the time Levertov writes the poems in her collection, O Taste and See (1964), she has been experimenting with free verse over for a decade. In several of her essays, Levertov writes succinctly about the essential function of open or non-metrical forms in the development of modern poetry: "I think…that the twentieth century impulse to move away from prescribed forms has not always been due to rebellion and a wish for more freedom, but rather to an awakened interest in the experience of journeying and not only in the destination." Free verse depends largely, for its effects, on line-breaks that, rather than being predictable (as in measured lines) "notate the tiny nonsyntactic pauses" that constantly take place during the conception and composition of a poem and serve "to reveal the thinking/feeling process" ("Technique and Tune-up," 95). This emphasis in Levertov's chosen images ("journeying" and "process") on motion and activity is related, to some extent, to her vision of poetry as "a gratuitous dance," an arrangement of language that emulates the leaps of imagination and movements of mind experienced initially by the poet and then, virtually, by the reader.
In Levertov's poem, "O Taste and See," she engages both her primary themes and her experimental poetics to characteristically delightful effect:
The world is
not with us enough
O taste and see
the subway Bible poster said,
meaning The Lord, meaning
if anything all that lives
to the imagination's tongue,
grief, mercy, language,
tangerine, weather, to
breathe them, bite,
savor, chew, swallow, transform
into our flesh our
deaths, crossing the street, plum, quince,
living in the orchard and being
hungry, and plucking
This poem, depicting a moment of inspiration received in the most unlikely of places (a New York City subway car), thrives on the element of surprise, both in terms of form and content. First, there is the unexpected juxtaposition of Wordsworth's famously world-weary sonnet ("The World is Too Much With Us") with the celebratory words of Psalm 34:8 ("Taste and see that the Lord is good.") Not only do these two lines not follow one another logically—they positively repel. Wordsworth's sonnet laments the world's intrusion into his peace of mind and wishes for a more detached and isolated existence, whereas the psalmist urges immersing oneself in the world's intense beauty and plenitude, for it is all made by God and, therefore, good. Levertov chooses the latter poet's advice, over the lament of the former, creating a catalogue of "fruits" that the tongue might savor. The unpredictable play of language here is further energized by Levertov's free verse lines. Her leap from word to word and thought to thought astonishes the reader, revealing unexpected relationships between unlike concepts and objects: "grief" and "mercy" redeemed by sweet "tangerine," "our deaths" blessed by "plum" and "quince." The word "taste" is operative in the poem, suggesting that we must not only look at and listen to the beauty of the world, we must devour it. This, in fact, is what human beings were born to do, the poem suggests, even as it brings us back to our common origin in Eden's orchard (according to Judeo-Christian mythos), plucking the fruit of creation given in good measure.
All of Levertov's signature tropes are here. The celebration of mystery is evident in the paradoxical relationship humanity bears towards nature—loving and partaking of its plenty, yet knowing that one's own mortality is somehow rooted in that tasting, that storied orchard, that first fruit. The tree of life and the tree of death somehow grow from the same root. The sacramental understanding of the world is evident in the trope of Eucharist, implicit throughout the poem, as the eating of the goodness of the earth serves as the means through which one is redeemed from death. The generative force that powers the poem, of course, is the imagination. Levertov once wrote, "To believe, as an artist, in inspiration or the intuitive, to know without Imagination…no amount of acquired craft or scholarship or of brilliant reasoning will suffice, is to live with a door of one's life open to the transcendent, the numinous" ("A Poet's View," 241). This describes the disposition of the speaker in the poem—open to the suggestion made by the poster in the subway car, open to the language of Wordsworth and the psalmist, open to the goodness of the fruit vendor's wares and the men and women buying them and crossing the street all around her, and, most important, open to the wonder and mystery of it all. This is the poet's vocation in daily, ordinary practice.
Levertov brings this same imaginative intensity and commitment to engagement of the world in the social protest poems of the succeeding decade. In "Advent 1966," she attempts to describe the unspeakable horror she witnessed during a trip to North Vietnam.
Because in Vietnam the vision of a Burning Babe
is multiplied, multiplied,
the flesh on fire
not Christ's, as Southwell saw it, prefiguring
the Passion upon the Eve of Christmas,
but wholly human and repeated, repeated,
infant after infant, their names forgotten,
their sex unknown in the ashes,
set alight, flaming but not vanishing,
not vanishing as his vision but lingering,
cinders upon the earth or living on
moaning and stinking in hospitals three abed;
because of this my strong sight,
my clear caressive sight, my poet's sight I was given
that it might stir me to song,
There is a cataract filming over
my inner eyes. Or else a monstrous insect
has entered my head, and looks out
from my sockets with multiple vision,
seeing not the unique Holy Infant
burning sublimely, an imagination of redemption,
furnace in which souls are wrought into new life,
but, as off a beltline, more, more senseless figures aflame.
And this insect (who is not there—
it is my own eyes do my seeing, the insect
is not there, what I see is there)
will not permit me to look elsewhere,
or if I look, to see except dulled and unfocused
the delicate, firm, whole flesh of the still unburned.
Like the previous poems considered, this poem is grounded in a kind of double vision, one that is literary in nature and one that is actual. Robert Southwell's joyful lyric written in celebration of the birth of the infant Christ, "The Burning Babe," takes on a nightmarish quality in the context of war where actual babies are actually burned, often deliberately and on a day-to-day basis, and there is nothing the poet can do about it. The first half of the poem is driven forward by repetition ("multiplied, multiplied," "repeated, repeated," "infant after infant," "not vanishing, not vanishing"), as if the poet is at a loss for the necessary words as she tries to bear witness to atrocity. In the second half of the poem, as if in attempt to account for this failure of language, the poet finds that her vision has been horribly compromised, "a cataract" having formed over her eyes giving her multiple simultaneous visions of multiple burning babes. Deprived of the capacious vision of a prophet, the poet has been reduced to "insect," with a fly's eye view. The previous double image has been replicated, many times over, and despite her desire to do so, she cannot look away. This has become the poet's work, for better or for worse.
"Advent 1966" may seem, in some ways, to constitute a denial of those certainties about the imagination and its power evident in so many of her other poems. However, even here, in this most dire of circumstances, the very act of writing the poem becomes a source of redemption. Levertov writes, "The action of imagination, if unsmothered, is to lift the crushed mind out of affliction. The intellect by itself may point out the source of suffering; but the imagination illuminates it" ("Poetry, Prophecy, and Survival," 145). Thus, Levertov's poem serves a purpose akin to that of Nick Ut's iconic photograph of the "Napalm Girl," that appeared on the cover of LIFE magazine on June 8th, 1972. It bears witness to suffering, refusing to offer any easy solace other than that inherent in its art, and sets it before others for illumination.
The final poem for consideration, "Caedmon," published in 1987, belongs to the last movement of Levertov's career. This poem represents, in many ways, the culmination of her primary poetic themes even as it describes, albeit somewhat allegorically, her twin journeys of art and of faith.
All others talked as if
talk were a dance.
Clodhopper I, with clumsy feet
would break the gliding ring.
Early I learned to
close by the door:
then when the talk began
I'd wipe my
mouth and wend
unnoticed back to the barn
to be with the warm beasts,
dumb among body sounds
of the simple ones.
I'd see by a twist
of lit rush the motes
of gold moving
from shadow to shadow
slow in the wake
of deep untroubled sighs.
munched or stirred or were still. I
was at home and lonely,
both in good measure. Until
the sudden angel affrighted me—light effacing
my feeble beam,
a forest of torches, feathers of flame, sparks upflying:
but the cows as before
were calm, and nothing was burning,
nothing but I, as that hand of fire
touched my lips and scorched my tongue
and pulled my voice
into the ring of the dance.
This poem narrates the transformative moment in the life of Caedmon, the Anglo-Saxon poet credited with composing, "Caedmon's Hymn," one of the earliest extant poems in Old English (c. 737 A.D.). The Venerable Bede describes Caedmon's life and the circumstances of the poem's composition in his Historia Ecclesiastica (215-17). Caedmon, who worked as a herdsman at Whitby Abbey, would sit at table with the monks and laborers as they recited verses and accompanied themselves on the harp. Before the harp was passed to him, Caedmon, who was mute, would retire to the barn to sleep among the animals he considered his kin. According to the story, Caedmon had a dream in wherein a voice urged him to sing of the Creation, and in response he recited his now-famous hymn of praise. The following morning, Caedmon recalled the poem he created in his dream and discovered that he was able to improvise additional verses. His recitation amazed his superiors at the monastery, who regarded his new gift as a divine commission, and Caedmon embarked upon a new life as a poet.
Levertov retells this familiar tale, but instead of employing third-person narrative, she creates a dramatic monologue, thus allowing the formerly inarticulate Caedmon to tell his own story and, thereby, reveal much about himself and the nature of the transformation that occurs within him. Her artistic choice to speak from a vantage point other than that of her customary autobiographical "I" suggests an expansion of Levertov's imaginative vision to one that is more fully compassionate and sympathetic. Even so, in testimony to the universality achieved by means of attention to particularity, Levertov manages to tell her own story through Caedmon's.
The speaker's recounting of the events that forever changed his life is disarmingly simple and unpretentious, yet also musical in its way, articulation appropriate to a former herdsman-turned-poet. He begins with his sense of isolation from "all others," who seem to speak with the natural grace accorded to dancers. Their talk is a means of reinforcing their life together, imaged as a communal dance from which "Clodhopper" Caedmon is excluded by virtue of his clumsiness. Caedmon describes his self-imposed isolation even in the midst of his fellows: "Early I learned to / hunch myself," the unusual inversion of subject and adverb an unconscious expression of his attempts to hide himself, and the word "hunch" foreshadowing the refuge he will seek among the "warm beasts " himself "dumb" among the dumb creatures he considers kin.
Yet Caedmon's life among the animals is not without wonder. The speaker perceives the beauty of his fellow barn-dwellers and, through them, the mysterious but inexpressible mystery of life. Though he is like the cows, in some ways, and feels he belongs in the barn more than the abbey, he knows himself to be radically un-like them as well, an intuition that leads him to the simple yet profound articulation of the universal sense of alienation familiar to all human beings: "I / was at home and lonely / both in good measure." Unlike the animals, which rest easy amid the security of the herd, the speaker knows himself to be separated from them, as well as separated from his own human tribe, and finds this isolation of self amid unconscious creatures to be a burden. Still, he abides his condition patiently, as if waiting for some intervention.
That intervention arrives with the appearance of "the sudden angel" who instantaneously transforms him and his destiny. The "feeble beam" by which Caedmon formerly viewed the barn's dark interior has now become conflagration, "a forest of torches, feathers of flame, sparks upflying." This line calls attention to itself as the longest in the poem and the most energetic, containing as it does three different descriptions of the same scene. We literally see and hear the loosening of Caedmon's previously tied tongue in this breathless catalogue of images. In addition, the line contains strong alliteration (a sonic effect quietly implicit in much of the poem) in imitation of the primary formal element of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Most important, the sudden inspiration Caedmon receives is carried not by wind (as is traditional and is also implied in the word "inspiration" itself) but by means of fire. Caedmon feels as if his lips have been touched by "the hand of fire" and his tongue "scorched," the latter image suggesting, perhaps, the tongues of flame that appeared over the heads of Christ's disciples at Pentecost upon receiving the gift of speaking in tongues. In addition, the previous image is likely an allusion to the vision of Isaiah in the Hebrew Scriptures wherein an angel touches his lips with burning coals, thus purifying him and enabling him to respond to God's call for a new prophet, "Here am I. Send me!" (Isaiah 6:8). Like Isaiah before him, Caedmon receives the gift of prophecy and of poetry, the power to perceive the truth and to speak it so that others might hear. Through her retelling of this story, Levertov depicts the transformative power of the imagination, the gift that has shaped her own life and destiny, a mysterious force that makes artists of seemingly ordinary people.
Clearly, Levertov's poem integrates the religious and the artistic impulse so completely it is impossible to separate them. The gift of imagination comes from a divine source outside the self, which changes Caedmon from what he once was and sets him on a new course in life. Yet, in the poem's final image, instead of setting him apart, his vocation restores him to the human community he once felt separate from as, "Clodhopper" no longer, he joins "the ring of the dance."
This final image of poetry as a source of community is one that appears often in Levertov's late work. As a young woman, she believed her destiny as a poet set her apart from others, but as she continued her pilgrimage, she discovered along the road companions that would walk with her for a lifetime. Her friendships with Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, and scores of others; her mentor-protégé relationship with William Carlos Williams; her passionate comradeship with Murial Rukheyser and other anti-war poets and activists; and, finally, even her troubled relationship with Mitchell Goodman, all brought Levertov to the realization that while the artist's life must be one of independence, it does not have to be one of solitude. No one needs to make the journey as an artist or as a human being alone, she came to realize: even Dante had Virgil and Beatrice as accompaniment and destination, making possible the poet's pilgrimage towards paradise.
Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Bible, New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Albert Gelpi, ed., Denise Levertov: Selected Criticism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991).
Nancy K. Gish, "Feminism, Poetry, and the Church: An Interview with Denise Levertov" in Conversations with Denise Levertov, ed. Jewel Spears Brooker (Jackson Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1998), 171-81.
Dana Greene, Denise Levertov: A Poet's Life (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2012).
Paul A. Lacey, "'To Meditate a Saving Strategy': Denise Levertov's Religious Poetry," in Renascence, Vol. L, No. 1&2, Fall 1997/Winter 1998, pp. 17-32.
Denise Levertov, "A Poet's View," in New & Selected Essays (New York: New Directions, 1992).
----- "Advent 1966" in To Stay Alive (New York: New Directions, 1971).
-----"Autobiographical Sketch," in New & Selected Essays (New York: New Directions, 1992).
-----"Caedmon," in Breathing the Water (New York: New Directions, 1987).
-----"Listening to Distant Guns," in Collected Earlier Poems 1940-1960 (New York: New Directions, 1979).
-----"O Taste and See," in O Taste and See (New York: New Directions, 1964).
-----"Poetry, Prophecy, and Survival," in New & Selected Essays (New York: New Directions, 1992).
----- "Technique and Tune-up," in New & Selected Essays (New York: New Directions, 1992).
James F. Mersmann, Out of the Vietnam Vortex: A Study of Poets and Poetry against the War. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1974.
Marjorie G. Perloff, "Poetry Chronicle: 1970–71," in Contemporary Literature (© 1973 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 14, No. 1, Winter, 1973, pp. 97-131.
"Denise Levertov: 1923-1997, 2012."
Kenneth Rexroth, "Poetry in the Sixties" (originally published in Saturday Review, 1965), in his With Eye and Ear, (copyright 1970 by Herder and Herder, Inc.: The Seabury Press), p 77. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/denise-levertov
Walt Whitman, "Preface to Leaves of Grass," in Leaves of Grass (Brooklyn: 1955), xii.
Linda Wagner, Denise Levertov. (New York, Twayne Publishers, 1967).