Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Denise Levertov’s own footnote for this poem tells the reader that the plot of “Cademon” comes from the History of the English Church and People (731), by Saint Bede the Venerable, the first known British Christian poet. That information tells readers that the historical analog of “Cademon” is the story of an illiterate stable hand who received a divine call to sing in praise of God.
Even armed with that knowledge, readers may find that the tight line and verse structure of “Cademon” obviates simple readings of the poem. It is reminiscent, perhaps, of the laconic verse of Levertov’s Imagist mentors: Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and H. D. The message appears to be simple enough: Any beings who come into contact with the spirit can be transformed into something magnificent. Here, the clumsy, inarticulate persona informs the reader of his inability with words by comparing the situation to being trapped in a dance without any knowledge of steps or grace. Yet when he is touched by the divine hand of an angel while attending to his duties as a cowhand, he finds his mouth and lips touched, burned even, by the fiery hand of God, and he discovers his poetic voice.
Whether the poem is meant to be didactic, with Levertov asserting the ways of finding one’s own poetic voice utilizing the tale of Cademon as an example, or whether it is an autobiographical analog to both her own poetic ascension and her Christian conversion, is debatable. There is little biographical evidence to assert the latter reading, but given the persona’s self-effacing attitude toward himself, there is some credibility to consider the discussion. Regardless of how one interprets the intention of the piece, “Cademon” illustrates Levertov’s transformative reliance upon her reconceptualization of the divine as a source material separating herself from her more Transcendental roots to ones assuredly more Christian.
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Block, Edward, ed. Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature 50, no. 1 (Fall, 1997). Special Levertov issue.
Gwynne, R. S., ed. American Poets Since World War II. Vol. 5 in Dictionary of Literary Biography, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. Detroit: Gale Research, 1980.
Hollenberg, Donna. “’History as I Desired It’: Ekphrasis as Postmodern Witness in Denise Levertov’s Late Poetry.” Modernism/Modernity 10, no. 3 (September, 2003): 519-537.
Janssen, Ronald, ed. Twentieth Century Literature 38, no. 3 (Fall, 1992). Special Levertov issue.
Little, Anne Colclough, and Susie Paul, eds. Denise Levertov: New Perspectives. West Cornwall, Conn.: Locust Hill Press, 2000.
Long, Mark. “Affinities of Faith and Place in the Poetry of Denise Levertov.” ISLE 6, no. 2 (Summer, 1999): 31-40.
Rodgers, Audrey. Denise Levertov: The Poetry of Engagement. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1993.
Wagner, Linda W. Denise Levertov. New York: Twayne, 1967.
Wagner, Linda W., ed. Denise Levertov: In Her Own Province. New York: New Directions, 1979.
Wagner-Martin, Linda, ed. Critical Essays on Denise Levertov. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991.