Peter Levi: poet of winter.
Now I fear the artillery of spring. A sunlit page protected by snowfalls, the undiggable earth the monotonous colours, is kingdom of midwinter and love.
from "Village Snow" (Private Ground 19) (1)
OVER the course of nearly fifty years, Peter Levi (1931-2000) produced a remarkable corpus of poetry. Blending playful modernistic techniques with an impulse for the structure and order of traditional poetic forms, Levi faced a world of barrenness and angst with a believer's devotion to religious faith. The grandson of Sephardic Jews who had emigrated from Constantinople to London, Levi was reared according to his mother's devout Roman Catholicism, a faith that he himself would embrace and follow all his life. Educated at Christian Brothers and Jesuit schools and at Campion Hall, Oxford, Levi spent more than twenty years in the Jesuit priesthood before renouncing his orders in 1974 to marry Deirdre Connolly, widow of critic Cyril Connolly. Throughout both the ecclesial and lay phases of his life, he wrote steadily and copiously, producing ten individual volumes of lyric poetry as well as a significant number of long moral poems. (2) In addition to his poetic output, Levi was a prolific literary scholar and translator, an Oxford don, and a classical antiquarian and amateur archaeologist. (3) He achieved a measure of celebrity in the 1960s and 70s, using both radio and film to revive the Augustan didactic poem and speak to the nation on moral themes. (4) In 1984 he was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford, a five-year chair in which he was succeeded by Seamus Heaney. (5) In his final years, blindness brought on by diabetes did not diminish his enthusiasm for his work or alter his poetic vision. Despite his tremendous and varied output, however, Levi has not yet received any significant attention from literary scholars. It is therefore fitting that he once claimed, "I have little respect for most of what is normally called literary criticism, much more for history and the knowledge of languages and peoples" ("Introduction," The Art of Poetry 4). Reviewers and fellow poets, however, have justly recognized his regard for human beings and their languages and have hailed his poetry for its intellectual maturity, expressionistic beauty, and profound optimism. (6)
Even more than his humanism, what created and sustained the recondite and transcendent beauty in his poetry was a systematic and intellectual Christian faith, which he maintained formally and consistently throughout his life and which he expressed with profound and dispassionate sobriety. He once stated, "I've thought that my poetry should handle religious themes very indirectly if at all" (Haffenden 11). Indeed, because of its deeply personal nature, faith often appears in his poetry with delicate nuance. Nevertheless, he does touch regularly if subtly on matters of belief, and even overt and direct statements of his faith can occasionally be found in his poems. The following extract from his elegy, "For Anne Pennington" (1983), effectively illustrates how he positions Christianity in his poetry:
Death gave gravity to Jesus Christ, and all our souls drown in his death and blood, because he drooped his holy head to sleep and suffered and in shadows was refreshed, as the ascending lark from his rough bed climbs in the sight of heaven's sparkling sun. (Rags of Time 25)
With its dynamic alliterations (d, dr, l, s, sh) and its visionary reiteration of Christian orthodoxy, this passage typifies the "Gregorian quality" John Bayley finds in Levi's poetry, wherein "the imagination of God continues to live in sound" (54). There is a tremendous conviction here in which religious belief (Christ's resurrection) is echoed and sustained by poetic tradition (the lark ascending). Indeed it seems that poetic language can summon the reader into the presence of God and that poetry, like Christianity, has redemptive graces. However, it should be noted that Levi did not believe that poetry and religion were coequal; instead, he accorded religion the position of privilege: "Poetry is only language and religion is more than a language. It has a more substantial reality" ("Requiem Sermon" 189).
To Levi, the very existence of poetry is analogical evidence of God's redemptive love working within creation. Perhaps not surprisingly for a poet who translated the Gospel of John, poetry is tantamount to the Word made flesh; indeed, poetry reenacts the Incarnation. As Levi says in his excellent introduction to The Penguin Book of English Christian Verse, "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not comprehend it, but poetry and the muses frequent the twilight where light is visible but darkness is not subdued" (20). (7) In Levi's imagination, poetry gives form to the spirit and thus, though not an alternative to religion, functions coordinately and in analog to it: poetry embodies the "spirit of things that longed in their brief lives / for everlasting stillness and yet strive / towards the resurrection of the dead" (Reed Music 15). Thus, as the soul yearns for eternity by way of resurrection, so a poem desires to give new birth to past experience. As these pronouncements suggest, faith typically manifests itself in his poetry in assertions of spiritual security rather than of a struggle with doubt. The result is that for Levi Christian belief seldom necessitates a defense or justification; it simply is: "I praise redemption bought" (CP 76). His belief in the fulfillment of God's promises is equally secure: "and God will make them come true in the street one day. / ... / And God shall fulfill this with his amen" (CP 179). In the words of David Pryce-Jones, who delivered his eulogy, "To a man of reason, faith was 'axiomatic'" (43). This outlook was most likely the result of his Jesuit education, the aim of which, as Levi put it in his meditative autobiography, The Flutes of Autumn (1983), "is to produce a perfect inner freedom, a conscious freedom in which God, life, death, oneself and the world and the Crucifixion of Christ, are all tranquilly and completely accepted" (64-65). He went on to admit that this often worked better in theory than in practice, and that in his case "What it did accomplish ... was to make me a poet and a kind of scholar" (65). But it may help to explain why Levi's poetry rarely seems to question the elements of faith. (8)
As a good Jesuit, then, Levi consistently grounded his faith in rationality; likewise, his scholarly imagination was balanced by a deep attachment to the natural landscape, a surprising byproduct of this Jesuit training, which he described as both "an enforced idleness of many years" and "a great opportunity": "There was nothing to look at but the weather and the trees, squirrels, and the orchids, flowers ... and that's what I did" (Hurwitt 11). Emma Fisher has noted that Levi's poems "assert his sensuous enjoyment of the world, and his spiritual incompleteness at being separate from it and having to make sense of it" (25). Indeed, as Fram Dinshaw puts it, Levi's "moral authority" as a poet stems from his "exact grasp" of the realities of the natural world (55). In this sense, his closest literary connection might very well be Gerard Manley Hopkins, a fellow Jesuit whose poetry also evinces proof of God's love in the world's natural beauty. Levi downplayed the influence, admitting that he was "frightened by him" until he was nearly thirty years old (Flutes 65). However, it is clear that he shared Hopkins' view of the "pied beauty" of God's creation. Levi wrote that at Heythrop College, his Jesuit training school, his "real life was mostly in the woods.... You heard sheep and lambs in the day and foxes barking at night. The calling of the plovers and the cawing of rooks were ordinary voices. Then a weedy, swimmable chain of lakes, Victorian woods and secret copses, violets and cowslips and orchids and autumn crocuses, and the great avenue of lime trees, every one a rookery, would have attracted anyone" (Flutes 71). This too was part of the Jesuit experience: "I was driven by something close to boredom, as many English Jesuits have been, to the near observation of nature, and by something like frustration to an intensity of vision" (Flutes 65). Indeed his love of landscape mediated his spiritual and poetic development such that when he did feel compelled to provide some intellectual defense of his belief it was often by way of evidence from the natural world. As he wrote in one poem, "I am living in an unwritten bible. / ... / and the voices of God are planetary. / ... / The greatness of God is variable" (CP 250). In this natural world can be seen the clear and evident hand of God's creative love and authority; that Levi embraced this idea and this faith without questioning is evident in the declarative and affirmative nature of his rhetoric. (9)
ONCE Levi's intellectual and poetic base of Christianity is understood, the reader may very well begin to see the religious significance of the most striking and memorable motif in his poetry: his reverence for wintry landscapes. Profoundly moved by the poems of Martin Robertson, an Oxford professor of classical art and archaeology, Levi described one of Robertson's poetry collections with a salient metaphor that suggests winter's potency for poetic inspiration and spiritual regeneration: "It is as if the whole work were a dark tree tufted with snow at the moment when a bright sun melts the snow into a constant shower under the tree like small rain, yet without appearing to diminish the snow on the branches; the sun makes the dark tree glitter and the snow glisten and the rainfall of melted snow sparkle in the shadows of the tree" ("Introduction," A Hot Bath at Bedtime xxi). (10) This metaphor is perhaps better applied to his own poetry: remarkably, about twenty percent of Levi's poetic output is specifically about winter, and countless poems beyond this number employ images and metaphors of winter. (11) Why was Peter Levi so immersed in the season of dormancy and cold? It seems to mean many things to him. There is physical solace in its barren chill: "I am comforted by a bird's winter piping, / the increase of darkness, freshness of light" (Five Ages 45). It offers spiritual comfort as well: "There is a peace that sits on snowy hills, / a counterblast that cools the wit of man" (The Rags of Time 16). Winter develops the intellect and fosters the muse: "I study bare landscape, question the dead, / listen to cold rain falling in my head" (CP 81). Winter symbolizes human frailty and vulnerability: "and I saw that the shortest-living weeds / are the most human, and the tree is bare" (CP 250). Winter embodies the anxiety of dying yet paradoxically offers consolation against this awful finality: "It is a transformation of the world / that quiets all questions. It is sober. / It is a death, we are alive in it" (Private Ground 18). The harshness of the season even seems to stop the agonizing onward march of time: "Then let a fall of snow / mute time's overflow" (CP 21). Winter symbolizes that within death is the promise of rebirth: "May we die like the falling of snow, / resurrection as pure, as meaningless, / the pleasures of heaven are midwinter. / May death dissolve as the snow will dissolve" (Private Ground 19). Finally, winter reinforces his embracing belief in the mysteries of Christian faith: "At the year's end stands Christ in a pillar of fire" (CP 12). In short, the season of winter is a steadying motif by which the poet rediscovers and expresses his spiritual faith. While firing his muse, winter offers the poet comfort against the onset of age and death, and as he ponders its beauty winter substantiates his faith with promises of redemption and resurrection.
The brief but powerful "Turning-Point" (1997) may serve as a useful introduction to the poetic grip that winter has on Levi's imagination. Here Levi, who had gone blind only shortly before writing this poem, identifies with and draws inspiration from his fellow blind poet Milton:
It is these darker mornings taught the Muse to attend upon Milton blind in his bed, day after day, no bird's song to confuse that chanted, tranquil watersong of the dead. Woods sicken and the leaf falls away fast, the earth is cold with ground-mist and moon-haze and now the equinoctial gales have passed and towards morning one bright star will blaze. (Reed Music 71)
Though the poet has long found inspiration in the cold and darkness, the season here takes on new meaning with his blindness. As winter comes, he sees in his mind's eye the star of Bethlehem, signaling the compensatory comfort he finds in his Christian faith. Though he will not see it, he knows the star "will blaze," not twinkle like a remote and tiny point of light or flash and be extinguished. This is the triumph of faith over materiality and reason. Though the mornings are growing "darker" with winter's onset, there is no corresponding darkness for the poet, whose blind insight is indicated by the pale "moon-haze" of the winter's night. His intellectual and poetic clarity are seen in the poem's structure, with its true rhymes and metrical regularity. His spiritual clarity is seen in his glad embrace of the coming winter, especially the "fast" fall of leaves, suggesting both rapidity and permanence. In a clever and ironic reversal, Levi takes those apparent images of death ("sicken," "falls," "cold," "passed") as the source of his new life. One may well ask why he finds the Stygian "watersong of the dead" to be "tranquil" yet the song of birds--so often associated with poetic inspiration--to be a source of confusion. To Levi, vernal nature is superficial; it is artificially tranquil and therefore intellectually deceptive. The pastoral as a literary convention prevents an early dawn vision of the "one bright star," a clear symbol of Christian revelation. In order to achieve both poetic and spiritual vision, the poet must reject the conventional sources of literary inspiration and ground his imagination in the death of the earth in order to achieve the possibility of new spiritual and poetic birth.
The star of Bethlehem allusion in "Turning-Point" suggests that part of winter's appeal to Levi is that it is the season of Christmas. One of his earliest poems, "In midwinter" (1960), (12) paints a hauntingly beautiful scene of deer running through a snow-covered forest; with its recurring symbolism of holly trees, crimson berries, and running deer, the poem echoes the traditional Christmas carol, "The Holly and the Ivy." Here, as in the carol, the symbols associated with Christmas have much more to say about the Crucifixion than about the Nativity. In keeping with Christian symbolism, "In midwinter" has seven separate references to deer, and twice describes the deer running between lime trees, a species perhaps better known as the linden and associated in European folklore as the tree of the Blessed Virgin. At the very center of the poem, "branch-headed stags went by / silently trotting." Levi extends the stag's virility and royal authority into an apt symbol that mediates the paradoxical nature of Christ. The stag is lofty and magnificent yet fragile and vulnerable, a beast hunted because of its majesty. Its antlers, like Christ's crown of thorns, suggest doomed greatness. Shed and regrown each year, the antlers also point to Christ's perennial Nativity: he is born to humanity each Christmas night. The holly, often associated with immortality, provides with its sharp-edged leaves another symbol of Christ's crown of thorns, while its red berries suggest his blood: "A holly tree dark and crimson / sprouted at the wood's centre, thick and high / without a whisper, no other berry so fine." Levi's "dark and crimson" tree, following folkloric tradition, is the tree used to make the cross. In this forest of holly and linden, one might expect darkness; however, Levi writes that "Outside the wood was black midwinter," implying a certain measure of light within the thicket. As the deer among the lime trees is Levi's symbol of Christ born of the Virgin, then light (of a spiritual nature) might very well be found in this forest, with darkness for those unwilling to venture in. On the surface, the poem offers the simple and comforting scene of deer in a wintry landscape. But Levi's effective use of symbols urges the reader to meditate on the paradox of a divine Savior born to die. As Levi writes three times, "it was a marvellous thing / to see the deer running." This threefold marvel includes not just birth, but also death, and rebirth as well (CP 18).
"For Christmas 1958," which dates from Levi's second collection (1962), presents the poet in a cathedral during a choristers' rehearsal. Here Levi meditates on the Incarnational paradox--that Christ's birth necessitates his death--while suggesting faith as comfort from the despair that reason brings: "My mind as if in a stone prison / waits for the young gaolers and the wise." In a world of "violence, dissolution / ... [and] wind-haunted eyes," the poet futilely seeks comfort in the authoritative traditions of religion and poetry. In imitation of the cathedral's "perpendicular force," the poet imposes a rational and orderly structure of five rhyming quatrains onto the "tempestuous rage" he feels. The poem is built largely on the discovery of such paradoxes: the "comic melancholies" of the choral music, the cathedral composing "its sad colours" out of its grey stone, and the "force" and "hulk" of the building settling "into a sleep as gentle as a moth's wing." This sleep is not a closing of the mind, nor a metaphor of death; it is instead a holy sleep, impending birth and rebirth. Thus the poet takes heart from the shape and security of the cathedral's interior; he hopes to compose as harmoniously as the building, and he attempts to replicate its beauty and order with the shape of his poem:
Here I, poor flotsam Christian, perceiving only the angle of a lead roof against a designed stone, must write as I can what I can neither imagine nor speak of.
A powerful paradox rests in the implication of the poet's identification of himself as a "flotsam Christian"; ungrounded and adrift, this Christian believer has difficulty "perceiving" anything beyond the physical structure of the cathedral. However, writing what cannot be imagined offers hope in its echo of that great paradox of the Christmas season: the Incarnation, the divine taking on human form. Neither the poet's passion nor the rituals of the church can drive out the world's wildness and chaos:
And no harmonic or tempestuous rage can exorcize from those fierce eyes the wild terror, but this painful and grave image: the sadly loving woman and the child.
It is only the acknowledgement of the Incarnation itself that offers the poet consolation, expressed through the poetic comforts of iambic perfection, while the quatrain's rhymes serve as a reminder that Christ has come for the sake of the "island exiles with wind-haunted eyes." Even this consolation, however, is undercut by the poem's final paradox of a "grave image," a serious reminder that within the Nativity are the seeds of the Crucifixion (CP 60).
In "This early dark" (1978), Levi again imagines himself in church during the Christmas season. The usual deathly imagery seems to prevail: in "This early dark," the poet's "ageing lamplight is as weak as tea," and "the birds hardly survive, they hardly sing." Despite the diminished light and sound, however, immense life is suggested by the baptismal possibility of renewal: a brooding storm presaged by "thin rain" and "thin mist" has within it not just "grey" but also the vibrant colors of "apricot" and "rose." Levi finds tremendous vitality in this scene, but perhaps nowhere so surprisingly as within the cold and damp of the church; there, even "the wet stone of the church floor is breathing." Would this stone be alive were it not in the church? Perhaps not, for in contrast, "the hillside is utterly dark." As in "Turning-Point," Levi does not need birdsong to inspire his faith or his verse. The darkness, the damp, and the silence of all except the "nightwind" serve as his inspiration. In this setting, he rejoices, "My spirit is beginning to live." This is not merely an emotional renewal created in the wintry darkness but is specifically religious: "Midwinter, among the shortest of days, / even the birth of Christ a common song." In the silence of the birds, the poet finds a point of connection: "my spirit is alive and without words." Ironically, of course, the poet does not seem silent to the reader, but in life he cannot always be so voluble as he is in poetry. Silence is necessary for the poet to be spiritually reborn, and it is his rebirth in wintry silence that he now tells us of. The poet is conscious of the usual metaphors of vernal rebirth, though he modulates these to privilege winter. "Half the earth is ploughed up and glistening," but this is an autumnal, end-of-harvest ploughing where birds "hardly sing" and "daylight hardly increase[s]." This is the scene that causes the poet's heart to leap up, to reiterate now for the second and third times: "My spirit is alive. It is alive." It is a confident assertion of rebirth in winter that concludes the poem (Five Ages 52).
This same idea of rebirth is central to "Rose-hips and blackberries" (2001), a poem that demonstrates earth enjoying a vibrant renewal when summer dies and autumn prepares for the hush of winter's birth. The first stanza depicts summer as lifeless and dying, yet glad perhaps of its impending death:
Rose-hips and blackberries fresh on the branch mark autumn stepping out into the hush of summer's heavy dews and dying wish, till the world shivers and begins to drench.
The first line gives a false image of spring. In Britain at least, blackberries and rose-hips both do best during the cold mornings of early autumn; thus when summer dies and autumn anticipates the chill of winter, the world begins to stir and return to life. The rose-hip is a particularly apt symbol. A mature rose-hip contains the seeds to grow new rose plants; moreover, it has medicinal properties. Rose-hips only grow if the rose-bloom is not dead-headed; let the rose-bloom die naturally on the vine, and the rose hip will form. Thus, the poem suggests, out of a natural death comes new life. The poem also suggests that as summer falsely implies life, so winter falsely implies death: this early onset of winter's chill is a "time for the puzzled dog digging old bones / and robins in the ruined apple cores." The illusion of death can be found in the bones and discarded apples; however, the dog and the robin each discover sustenance and life in what we are too quick to think of as dead. Thus, Levi concludes,
The weather is off balance, only silence is spreading around us like a season, it is the season of some inward sense as the wind drones on with an inward tone.
The weather is not really "off balance," but what might make it seem so (to an American reader, at least) is the common association of the robin with the return of spring. In Britain, however, the robin has long been associated with winter and is a prominent Christmas symbol. The dog's unearthing of buried bones and the robin's discovery of nourishment in fallen apples work together to suggest redemption and resurrection. If this is "off balance," it is because Levi finds his resurrection symbols in winter rather than in spring. What is "off balance," interestingly, is this very line of verse, wherein the metrical form reinforces the poem's meaning; throughout, Levi uses a regular base of iambic pentameter, except for this single line that holds an extra syllable. Levi thus throws the reader "off balance" with both his rhythm and his imagery, pushing us into "some inward sense" sustained by winter's "inward tone." In winter, life is renewed inwardly, or spiritually, and the poet animatedly anticipates winter's approach and his own impending renewal (Viriditas 64).
IF winter brings a rapturous moment of rebirth, it can also embody an extended period of stillness, of waiting and watching as in a vigil. Such a time of patient endurance characterizes "On winter days" (1981), a poem constructed out of images of the rare beauty of a sunny winter morning combined with the familiar physical aches that accompany the season:
On winter days when the late-rising sun eases the grass under the painful walls, I feel it down to the roots of my bones: so this is age, this is the calm hour, this lightness, and the dog like a dead leaf rattling here and there over the grass, the winter-coated cat in the pear-tree, moss bright on the dun branches, the grey stone. Age is vigil, an ache worse than a stone, then to be lightened by the low-hung sun on winter mid-mornings when the mist clears. (Private Ground 41)
In this poem, Levi creates a deep connection between himself and the natural world he describes, to the point that he identifies himself as a tree ("the roots of my bones") and even appropriates the pathetic fallacy, where he imagines a stone wall to share his body's pain. Indeed, the poem is built upon images of pain and weight relieved by lightness: "eases the grass," "calm hour," "this lightness," the dog and cat both slight in weight, and the dark moss and branches made "bright." The "ache" of "Age" is "lightened" by the early morning sun of winter, a delightful pun that suggests the sunlight brightening the scene and lifting the poet's heavy spirits, preparing the reader for the poet's spiritual vision in the final line, when "the mist clears." The "vigil" of old age in winter suggests a period of waiting and watching for death, but the Christian connotations are unmistakable; a vigil is the eve of a holy day used as an occasion for devotional observance. Winter is that spiritual vigil, that preparation for renewal and rebirth. In "On winter days" it is not a rebirth that brings life to the poet; it is the faith that such rebirth will come. This is the clearing of the mist. He feels assured that the clouds of darkness will be lifted, and indeed it may be the waiting itself for this light that lifts the weight of spiritual pain. (13)
Waiting and watching are also at the heart of "Fall" (1989), where the paradox of "a frozen gesture of goodbye" suggests winter's appeal: the illusion winter creates that time has stopped, has been conquered: "There is a coldness on the breeze / and the bough yellows in the lime / like leaf by leaf the death of time." As in "In midwinter," the lime tree to which Levi refers is the linden, and with its hallowed status in Slavic and Germanic myth it seems a sacred tree to Levi. Here he almost certainly means a lime-walk or lime-avenue, rather than a single tree, as the second stanza describes the branches of the lime as "Green clouds that fall away and die / generation by generation." The multiplicity of branches may appear to be airy and cloud-like, a fitting metaphor for the dense and abundant foliage of the linden. The linden also serves as a Proustian allusion; the first conscious but involuntary memory in Swann's Way occurs when the narrator dips a madeleine into a cup of linden blossom tea, and the poem's last word, "lost," translates and echoes Proust's title, "perdu" These allusions point to the poem's central idea, that winter helps us to recover, by way of memory and stopped time, what is lost. The stoppage of time is also signaled by two significant spondaic substitutions in lines 2 and 9: "and the bough yellows in the lime" and "Now they stand waiting for the frost." The disruption of meter reinforces the disruption of life signaled by the approach of winter and death. Though the process may be gradual (yellowing leaves that await the frost and eventually fall away), time will stop, and Levi draws attention to this disruption of life with his sudden metrical reversal. Though for some this might make winter harsh and unattractive, to Levi it is the very source of its beauty and meaning. Winter is the season of loss, and both earthly and spiritual relationships are clarified by loss. Thus the restrained anticipation in awaiting winter's approach:
Now they stand waiting for the frost, the fall of leaf and the poem our children will have read to them because they love what they have lost.
This final stanza is enriched by its ambiguity. The poem will appear, will be created, in this moment of seasonal death; when leaves fall, so will poems. To a Christian poet, of course, a "fall" will have the enhanced meaning of lost innocence. Children will demand a poem as compensation for the loss of innocence and the concomitant loss of spiritual connection. A poem helps to restore or recreate that basic union with the divine. This sudden and unexpected intrusion of youth into a poem about age and death is a quiet reminder of rebirth and renewal by way of the remembrance of what is lost. The demand for a poem is an act of commemoration of the dead, signified by the sacred linden leaves. Children and trees alike "stand waiting for the frost," awaiting the poem to memorialize what is loved and lost, loved because lost, and to be restored through that act of spiritual memory (Shadow and Bone 21). (14)
LEVI finds clear spiritual consolation in the response of the natural world to winter's advance. Birds in particular inspire the poet, with their symbolic proximity to the heavens and the easy metaphors for poetic and spiritual flight. "A dust of birds" (1960) portrays the flight of water birds in a winter's sky. With its five quatrains each rhyming a-b-b-a, the poem suggests an attempt to impose order on a chaos of unstructured rhythms and line lengths. This structure finds its analog in the poem's theme: the poet's effort to live by a conjoining of rationality and faith in a world of loneliness and despair. "A dust of birds" and "the shaggy sun creeping" in the poem's opening lines suggest nomadic rootlessness and isolation, to which the poet feels naturally drawn, as if that is what he is supposed to write about: "these seem the authentic words / of desolation." Poets, after all, are supposed to wander lonely as a cloud. Amid these images and feelings of loss, however, the poet notices in the sky a miraculous resistance to despair: "high up, beating air / with wide wings, a pair / of flighting geese in a lonely exultation." The poet's desolation and despair are blown away by the beating wings of the pair of high-flying geese; these birds may appear "lonely," but they are in fact exultant. Though it is winter, indicated by "this bitter season" in the poem's final line, the geese, in their northward flight, seem to sense spring's imminent return:
Making north they go with a powerful mind, making for blind dark and sea-pools where the salt airs blow.
Moreover, they fly trustingly toward their destination, as if directed by an unseen hand. Their instinctive trust is a "powerful mind," and their destination is a "blind / dark" not to be avoided but embraced. The implication for the poet is his need to rely on faith. The last stanza makes the simile clear: as instinct guides the geese, so reason must be willing to operate by faith. Like the geese,
... flying reason seeking its ancient places moves scarcely seen among chases of cloud, chimeras of this bitter season.
Clouded reason, unguided by faith, will result in existential desolation; such despair, however, is chimerical, a wild and ungrounded fantasy. A rational joy, the poem suggests, is signaled by the instinctual trust of the geese (CP 33).
Levi turns again to a scene of birds in a wintry landscape in "The Upper Lake" (1966). This time his attention is riveted by a pair of swans, flying "Suddenly" out of the sky to land in a quiet lake and take refuge there. Though the descent of the birds, "dropping on loud wings out of blue air," is wild and unrestrained in its rapidity, once they alight on the lake's surface the motion and noise are replaced by a little eternity of peace and bliss: "all morning long they slept and swam." This sense of timelessness is reinforced by the movement of the swans on the lake, who spend the day in a ritual of swimming, eating, sleeping, and flying:
They circled in the lake current, ruffled luxuriant feathers, and slept again, then cropped weeds, swept in violent full flight from end to end of it, and then settled back into dark water, and float there now while owls cry and reply.
The swans' swimming motion is circular, suggesting unity, timelessness, and perfection, and thus they represent the cyclical nature of life and suggest a mysterious circularity in creation. That their circular movement is within a current is a reminder of the implacable forward flow of time within creation's larger circularity, a paradox reinforced by the potency of violence within the apparently gentle swans. The wintry landscape, indicated subtly by the "dead rushes" in the lake (reiterated later as "cold rushes") and the "bitter sky" from which the "snow-coloured" swans descend, is as much in the poet's spirit as in the natural world. The swans, as an embodiment of strength, security and peace, offer the poet resistance against his current of spiritual weakness: "it seemed a beautiful and moving thing / to one so shadow-minded as I am." Indeed the shadows may be essential in order for light to be defined. As Levi put it elsewhere, "In order to have an aspiration towards God, I suppose, you must move through a world of shadows" (Haffenden 10). (15)
The poet's shadowy mind therefore suggests psychological or spiritual darkness, reinforced by the "dark water" and the "blackness of the bitter sky." The shadows also suggest an easy preference for illusion over truth. That night, the poet continues to watch the swans circling in the lake and notices in the water "some reflected stars." Like Plato's cave-dweller who sees only shadows which he takes for reality, the poet looks downward at starlight reflected in the "dark water" rather than looking up at the actual stars. The swans, however, ensconced in their "upper" lake as indicated in the title, are a catalyst to the poet to look upward, away from the dark water and toward a spiritual truth indicated by the actual stars. The poem's final stanza joins stars and swans together with one creatively vague pronoun referent ("them") in the first line, until the second line makes clear that the swans remain his focus:
Think of them tonight until late, white shapes asleep, light-proof, at ease, or at morning, fresh and delicate, silent between the cold rushes.
To think on the swans, as the poet commands, is to open oneself to a spiritual awakening. The poet desires this awakening for himself, indicated by a peaceful sleep followed by the freshness that both he and the swans will enjoy the next morning. There remains a certain indeterminacy, however, indicated by the ambiguity of "white shapes" and of "light-proof." Are the swans the very proof of light, and thus the evidence for spiritual truth? Or does this marvelously ambiguous phrase suggest, working like the phrase "fool-proof," that the swans are safe from light? In such a case, light is the enemy and darkness remains the easy comfort for the poet who prefers the ease of looking down at reflected stars rather than the difficult upward movement required of him. By continuing to look downward, however, the poet also sees the swans, who, though they spend gentle, easy time on dark water, will also expend forceful, violent energy in the air. The poet understands this duality about human life, that darkness and light each depend upon the other. To think on the swans in this upper lake is to accept and ameliorate the shadows in the mind (CP 111).
The swans of this upper lake, it should be noted, compose a distinctly British scene, as do the wintry tableaux in each of these poems. Indeed, Levi's love of winter is deeply rooted in the landscapes of Britain, and to him there could be nothing more defining or beautiful than the British winter: "I have seen it snowing onto the cowslips. / It is my England" (Five Ages 11). (16) In his long contemplative poem, "Village Snow" (1981), he meditates on snowfall in an unnamed English village, and though briefly he imagines snow elsewhere--Venice, Salzburg, New York, and so forth--always he returns to England, this "kingdom of midwinter and of love" (Private Ground 19). Inexplicably possessed by the desire "to evaporate into the English landscape" (Flutes 32), he feels something of what John of Gaunt felt for "This other Eden, demi-paradise, /.../ This blessed plot" (Richard II 2. 1.42, 50). Perhaps Levi's passion for the patria is rooted in his childhood memories of growing up during the Second World War. In The Flutes of Autumn, he remembers being captivated by patriotic war films in which "The heroes lived in lush countryside, or they listened to birds or walked on a cliff, and England itself, seen from the air, was the mightiest symbol of all. The scaly sea, the glimmering white cliffs, and the British fleet meant something in the forties that even Shakespeare had never foreseen" (32). The seeming timelessness experienced in an English winter is thus rooted in a specific moment in time, a moment that was threatened by imminent Nazi invasion. This paradox of time can be understood in the context of Eliot's Little Gidding (1942), another poem about timelessness rooted in the horrific disruption of time that was the war: "Midwinter spring is its own season," writes Eliot, yet "Here, the intersection of the timeless moment / Is England and nowhere" (11. 1, 54-55). Like Eliot, Levi looked to Christian tradition to create the illusion of timelessness in an England of despair and of terrifyingly rapid changes. Thus, the wintry English landscape becomes the outward and visible sign of the poet's desire for stability and permanence in the face of chaos and confusion: "Above all in its landscape," Levi says of England, "it still conveys that truth" (Flutes 136). "Village Snow" aptly embodies this idea of truth in the landscape:
And the snow falling and the snow falling. And snow that fell following snow that fell. Under the snow one flower, a small eye, one weak, sweet breath, it will breathe for a time, will live its little life in a few weeks. (Private Ground 25-26)
For Levi, the truth within the landscape is that winter is the season of spiritual renewal. Delighting in the snow as it drifts higher and higher, he anticipates his readers' query: "How curious this should be comforting" (25). The comfort is in the waiting for rebirth.
Allen, Brigid. "Levi, Peter Chad Tigar (1931-2000)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Ed. Lawrence Goldman. Oxford: OUP, Oct. 2007. 9 June 2010 <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/73779>.
Bayley, John. "Sometimes Voices .... '" Agenda 24.3 (1986): 51-54.
Dinshaw, Fram. "A Note on Peter Levi." Agenda 24.3 (1986): 55-56.
Dooley, Tim. "Peter Levi." Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 40: Poets of Great Britain and Ireland Since 1960. Detroit: Gale, 1985. 299-306.
Eliot, T. S. "Little Gidding." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 3rd ed. Ed. M. H. Abrams. New York: Norton, 1975. 2546-2552.
--. The Waste Land. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 3rd ed. Ed. M. H. Abrams. New York: Norton, 1975. 2527-2543.
Fisher, Emma. "Migrations." The Spectator 17 February 1979: 25-26.
Haffenden, John. "Peter Levi: An Interview." Poetry Review 74.3 (1984): 5-21.
Hurwitt, Jannika. "The Art of Poetry No. 14." Paris Review 76 (Fall 1979): 1-34.
Levi, Deirdre Connolly. Letter to the author. 24 June 2010.
Levi, Peter. The Art of Poetry: The Oxford Lectures 1984-1989. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1991.
--. Collected Poems 1955-1975. London: Anvil Press Poetry, 1976.
--. Five Ages. London: Anvil Press Poetry, 1978.
--. The Flutes of Autumn. London: Harvill Press, 1983.
--. "Goodbye to the Art of Poetry." The Art of Poetry 293-312.
--. The Hill of Kronos. London: Collins, 1980.
--. "Introduction." The Art of Poetry 1-4.
--. "Introduction." A Hot Bath at Bedtime: Poems 1933-77. By Martin Robertson. Oxford: Robert Dugdale, 1977. xi-xxii.
--. "Introduction." The Penguin Book of English Christian Verse. Ed. Peter Levi. London: Penguin, 1984. 19-31.
--. Private Ground. London: Anvil Press Poetry, 1981.
--. The Rags of Time. London: Anvil Press Poetry, 1994.
--. Reed Music. London: Anvil Press Poetry, 1997.
--. "Requiem Sermon for David Jones." The Flutes of Autumn 185-191.
--. Shadow and Bone: Poems 1981-1988. London: Anvil Press Poetry, 1989.
--. Viriditas. London: Anvil Press Poetry, 2001.
"Peter (Chad Tigar) Levi." Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Daniel G. Marowski and Roger Matuz. Vol. 41. Detroit: Gale Research, 1987. 242-250.
Pryce-Jones, David. "Poet, Dandy and Visionary." The Spectator 10 June 2000: 43.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Richard H. Ed. Frances E. Dolan. The Pelican Shakespeare. London: Penguin, 2000.
(1) Quotations from Levi's poems are by volume title and page number. Quotations from his first four books of poetry are cited from Collected Poems, 1955-1975 (abbreviated as CP).
(2) Levi's ten individual volumes of lyric poetry are The Gravel Ponds (1960), Water, Rock and Sand (1962), Fresh Water, Sea Water (1966), Life is a Platform (1971), Five Ages (1978), Private Ground ( 1981 ), Shadow and Bone: Poems 1981-1988 (1989), The Rags of Time (1994), Reed Music (1997), and the posthumously published Viriditas (2001). The first four of these volumes are gathered into Levi's Collected Poems, 1955-1975 (1976), which also contains a number of new, uncollected poems, his long didactic poems, as well as several other long poems which had been published separately, including The Shearwaters (1965), Ruined Abbeys (1968), and Pancakes for the Queen of Babylon (1968). The Rags of Time is a collection of elegies for deceased friends, some of which were published separately as The Echoing Green (1983) and Shakespeare's Birthday (1985).
(3) His travelogues include The Light Garden of the Ancient King: Journeys in Afghanistan (1972), The Hill of Kronos (1980), and A Bottle in the Shade: A Journey in the Western Peloponnese (1996). His scholarly works include Atlas of the Greek World (1980) and A History of Greek Literature (1985), as well as biographies and studies of Shakespeare, Milton, Tennyson, Horace, Virgil, Pasternak, and Edward Lear, and critical editions of Pope, Johnson, and Boswell. He also published translations of the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko and the Greek poet George Pavlopoulos, as well as biblical translations (both the Psalms and the Gospel of John).
(4) These include Ruined Abbeys (1968), written for a BBC film on Cistercian ruins in Yorkshire, his poetic "sermons," as he called them, that comprise the collection Death is a Pulpit (1971), and especially his Good Friday Sermon 1973, all of which are included in Collected Poems, 1955-1975. On the sermon as a creative medium, Levi said, "I think it is much unexploited and I think it has thrilling potentialities, but of course only if you happen to believe what you're saying. And it so happens that I did. I mildly regret not being able to preach any more sermons" (Hurwitt 3-4).
(5) Levi's fifteen lectures, including "Goodbye to the Art of Poetry," a valedictory lecture on poetry composed in verse, were collected and published as The Art of Poetry: The Oxford Lectures 1984-1989.
(6) Reviewers have also noted Levi's tendency to be difficult or puzzling, sometimes even suggesting that his work is "solipsistic," "impenetrable," or "hermetic." Others have noted that he is "fluently obscure," "altogether gentle," "grave and quiet," "a delicate landscape artist of the first order," and "a poet of brooding integrity" ("Peter [Chad Tigar] Levi," Contemporary Literary Criticism 242-250). Full evaluations of Levi's life and work have not yet been published; thus far the best introductions to Levi are Tim Dooley's short but incisive account in the Dictionary of Literary Biography and Brigid Allen's even briefer notice in the Dictionary of National Biography, together with the individual interviews conducted by Jannika Hurwitt and John Haffenden.
(7) The Holy Gospel of John: A New Translation, trans. Peter Levi (Worthing, UK: Churchman, 1985). Levi also translated the book of Revelation, attributed to John: The Revelation of John, trans. Peter Levi (London: Kyle Cathie, 1992). Levi once offered this amusing possibility for why he loved so much the Greek of St. John's Gospel: "I demanded to learn Greek," he claimed, because "Oscar Wilde, who in the summer of my fourteenth birthday had just become my literary idol, said the Greek text of the Gospel was the most beautiful book in the world" (The Hill of Kronos 10). Elsewhere, he said that he was simply agreeing with Wilde as he already "liked the gospel even in English, and even in the foul version" he had to read in school (Hurwitt 6).
(8) In her review of Five Ages, Emma Fisher also noticed Levi's tendency to accept rather than to question: "His poems do not argue, he does not try to prove it" (25).
(9) In relation to other poets of faith besides Hopkins, the context of Levi's Christian poetics merits further examination. His work reveals a sacramental vision of history and geography and an erudite complexity that often resemble the perspectives of T. S. Eliot and David Jones. His interest in the communal and cultural role of Christianity, as his poetic sermons indicate, unites him intellectually with W. H. Auden and C. H. Sisson. His explorations of the personal and social significance of religious belief connect him as well to John Betjeman and Anthony Thwaite, though he does not exhibit the sharp swings between faith and doubt that their work manifests. Neither in his writings is he at all confessional or even personal about the nature of his faith or his experiences as a believer, traits more characteristic of Elizabeth Jennings and R. S. Thomas. Though his voice and form are uniquely his, as a Christian poet Levi did not feel isolated or alienated. Indeed, it was a marvel to him that so many poets in this skeptical age have addressed, and continue to address, the intellectual problems of Christian faith, and he insisted that there "has been much more splendid and profound Christian poetry written in modern times in English than one would ever have imagined .... It is like the baskets full of crumbs when the gospel feast was over..." ("Introduction," The Penguin Book of English Christian Verse 20).
(10) Levi knew Robertson (1911-2004) well from his own days as an Oxford don, but they were drawn into a friendship through their mutual love of poetry and classical archaeology. Robertson is best known for his magisterial History of Greek Art (Cambridge UP, 1976).
(11) Tim Dooley suggests that all of Levi's work "is a single, extended poem repeatedly returning to eternal and inexhaustible themes" (306).
(12) Levi rarely titled his poems, especially prior to the 1980s, preferring a numbering system instead. Where titles are not supplied, I refer to the poem by its first line or opening phrase.
(13) Levi's dogs, nosing in the frosty grass and unearthing old bones in this and the previous poem, may allude to Eliot's dog that threatens to unearth the "frost disturbed" "corpse you planted last year in your garden," which serves as a distorted symbol of rebirth (The Waste Land, ll. 73, 71).
(14) "Poetry is that frost," Levi writes in "Goodbye to the Art of Poetry" (The Art of Poetry 295).
(15) In "Village Snow," Levi also noted the natural attraction to shadows, particularly those of winter: "But outside it is snowing in the dark. / There is something in us desires the dark / and flowers turn their heads calmly to it" (Private Ground 20).
(16) Ironically, Levi once claimed, "I have chronic catarrh and I can't stand the English winter" (Hurwitt 12). One would never suspect this sentiment by reading his poetry. Levi's widow, Deirdre Levi, confirms his paradoxical emotions about winter: "Peter disliked the winter a good deal, mostly because he suffered from a chronic catarrhal condition (all the year round, but obviously far worse in winter. He had to use inhalers etc.)... Of course he loved the beauty of winter, icicles, snow, skies, log-fires & everything" (Deirdre Levi, letter to the author, 24 June 2010).
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|Author:||Gardner, Kevin J.|
|Publication:||Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2011|
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