Invoking the story of Jacob’s dream from Genesis 28:10-17, “The Jacob’s Ladder” utilizes the dream as metaphor for poetic construction. The plot from Genesis maintains that when Jacob came to rest his head at the end of the day, he dreamed that he saw God’s angels ascending and descending a great ladder reaching from Earth to the heavens. God announced to Jacob that all the land that he surveys should belong to him and his descendants, and his descendants should be so many that they would be as the dust is to the Earth. Jacob awakened and acknowledged that this place upon which he had slept was holy and touched by God.
Levertov picks up the story and utilizes it as a leitmotif (with subtle emendation) for her thoughts on a poetic construction that, she asserts, can approach the divine. In the poem, her narrator observes that the ladder is, in fact, a stairway (possibly referring to one of many actual geographical locations, such as the cut-in steps of Cheddar Gorge in the United Kingdom) of a cut, rosy stone meant as much, if not more, for human steps as for those of angels, who would not need to tread upon the tangible. However, the stairway itself is sharp, jagged, and a difficult climb that scrapes the knees of the climber who would dare ascend it and approach God in Heaven. Yet this pain, in some way, consoles the climber.
The last line suggests an interesting ambiguity in the poem, as it seems to imply that the ascendant of the stairs is not a mortal but rather the poem itself ascending into the heavens. This ambiguity is hardly minor, however, as the possible difference in meanings allows for a shift in the agency of the written word: Does poetry come from a person, or is it inspired by something incorporeal, living and breathing with its own life? That Levertov constructs the stairway not as a mystical, gleaming thing made of evanescent materials but rather as one made of rock lends to a particular reading, but even this thought becomes complicated as the staircase sits in front of a doubting, gray skyline. The tenor of the piece suggests that the biblical Jacob’s remarks are indeed true, but whether poetry is the stuff of the divine or the corporeal is left for the reader to ponder.