Denise Levertov wrote many poems with spiritual themes throughout her career. For example respect for nature and life, nothingness and absence, and despair with the world. There were also positive ideas and images about peace in death, wandering search, gratitude to give, wonder at mystery, and dance of delight.
It is as if she had been driven to ask spiritual questions out of a growing awareness of the tensions in the world and her relation to it.
In 1997 – the year of her death aged 74 – she brought together a collection of 38 of these previously published poems in The Stream & The Sapphire, published by New Directions Publishing Corporation, New York.
Life of Denise Levertov
Denise Levertov was born in 1923 and grew up in Ilford Essex. Her mother, came from a small mining village in North Wales. Her father, a Russian Hassidic Jew, emigrated to the UK and became an Anglican priest after converting to Christianity. During World War II, she became a civilian nurse serving in London throughout the bombings. In 1947 she married Mitchell Goodman, an American writer, and a year later they moved to America.
Inner development of Denise Levertov
It seems that she valued her spiritual religious doubts and uncertainties as a way of finding a way through the maze of life. However in line with her inner development, her writing began to show the idea that nothingness and darkness were no longer things to doubt and agonize over. For example :
From St. Thomas Didymus
why has this child lost his childhood in suffering,
why is this child who will soon be a man
tormented, torn, twisted?
Why is he cruelly punished
who has done nothing except be born?
The twin of my birth
was not so close
as that man I heard
say what my heart
sighed with each beat, my breath silently
cried in and out,
in and out.
After the healing,
he, with his wondering
newly peaceful boy, receded;
dwells on the gratitude, the astonished joy,
acceptance and forgetting.”
What was a nagging worry resolves into something positive.
Religious consciousness of Denise Levertov
During the course of her life her poems tend to shift away from constantly questioning religion to accepting it simply. And so later the content became more overtly religious as her own beliefs slowly developed from agnosticism, through constantly questioning religion to an acceptance of the Christian faith. She wrote that this was movement “incorporating much doubt and questioning as well as affirmation”.
As a developing religious consciousness began to be reflected in the poetry of Denise Levertov, I am reminded of what the philosopher James Pratt wrote. He wrote about an intuitive sense of a presence of a life greater than one’s own. This presence is said to be like a very happy feeling of being with another person although not actually being able to see, hear or sense that person.
She wrote about this mysterious presence in terms of its absence:
From On a theme by Thomas Merton
“Like a child
at a barbaric fairgrounds –
noise, lights, the violent odors –
Adam fragments himself. The whirling rides!
Fragmented Adam stares.
unseen, the whirling rides
dazzle, the lights blinding him. Fragmented,
he is not present to himself. God
suffers the void that is his absence.”
Are we not also dazzled by the fast moving stimulating technology filled world that demands our attention so that we fail to notice the absence of God’s spirit within our soul? No wonder we are prone to despair at the pointlessness of it all.
“When I started writing explicitly Christian poems, I thought I’d lose part of my readership. But I haven’t actually. … This sense of spiritual hunger is something of a counter-force or unconscious reaction to all that technological euphoria.”
Christian faith of Denise Levertov
She also said:
“When you’re really caught up in writing a poem, it can be a form of prayer. I’m not very good at praying, but what I experience when I’m writing a poem is close to prayer. I feel it in different degrees and not with every poem.”
She compares religious faith with the ebbing and flowing of the tide.
From The Tide
“Faith’s a tide, it seems, ebbs and flows responsive
to action and inaction.
Remain in stasis, blown sand
stings your face, and anemones
shrivel in rock pools no wave renews.
Clean the littered beach, clear
the lines of a forming poem,
the waters fled inward.
Dull stones again fulfill
their glowing destinies, and emptiness
is a cup, and holds
Whilst reflecting on the need to make the effort to focus her attention on God and what she calls God’s embrace, she also seems to be able to tolerate not knowing all the answers and accept the paradoxes of faith.
In her writing, to my mind, Denise Levertov, illustrates what the spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg maintained is true religious enlightenment. This is a gift of inner perception from God received by those people who:
- humbly search for spiritual meaning
- love what is true for the sake of truth
- want to be truly useful in life
- turn to spiritual values in precedence over the natural desires of life
Copyright 2014 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems