Denise Levertov was born October 24, 1923, in Ilford, Essex, England, the daughter of Paul Philip Levertoff, a Russian Jew who converted to Christianity and became a minister, and Beatrice Spooner-Jones, a Welsh preacher’s daughter. Until she was thirteen years old, Denise and her sister were educated by their parents at home. The environment was rich in books and cultural discussion; her mother read the great works of nineteenth century literature aloud to the family, and her father was literate in four languages. She did receive some formal education in the form of ballet study from age twelve through seventeen and, in addition, took French lessons, learned piano, and painted, all of which would later aid the development of her rhythm and style. Her parents had been prisoners of war at Leipzig during World War I, so many refugees came to their home. The resultant religious, social, and ethical discussions that took place there profoundly influenced her life and works.
This background provided a natural environment for learning to write, and at age five, Levertov decided to become a poet. When she was twelve, she sent some of her work to T. S. Eliot, himself a venerable poet of great esteem and, at the time, someone dealing with conflicting concerns about poetics, religion and social issues, who responded with an encouraging letter of advice. At sixteen, she corresponded with the poet and critic Herbert Read and also became acquainted with editor Charles Wrey and author Kenneth Rexroth.
During World War II, she underwent nurse’s training and worked for three years at St. Luke’s Hospital, where she helped to rehabilitate returning soldiers. During the evenings, she continued to write poetry. As noted, her family was actively engaged at this time in the relocation of Jewish refugees, so the war figured prominently in her life. Yet the political climate of the war did not directly figure in her first book, The Double Image (1946). The poems, here, dealt more from a personal vantage point of the loss of childhood, death, and separation, and Levertov composed them in more standard and regular stanzas than the free verse which she became synonymous with in her later work. She would continue to develop these themes, alongside her social and political...
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In her book of essays Light Up the Cave (1981), Levertov states that politics are a poetic concern because they are a human concern, an integral part of daily life. A poet who is committed to affirming life is also bound to defend it against political threats of destruction. The best of Levertov’s poems in her more than forty books do just that. She writes in direct language, using organic forms appropriate to the contents of the poems. Throughout her career, Levertov’s changing styles and explorations brought her readers many moments of pleasure and enlightenment.
Born near London, England, in 1923, Denise Levertov was reared in a multicultural environment: Welsh and Russian, Jewish and Christian. On her mother’s side, her lineage was Welsh. Beatrice Spooner-Jones, her mother, was a daughter of a physician and great-granddaughter of a tailor, teacher, and preacher, Angell Jones, made famous by Daniel Owen, “the Welsh Dickens,” in the novel Hunangofiant Rhys Lewis (1885). Beatrice Spooner-Jones had a beautiful singing voice and a stock of stories to tell of Welsh life. She loved to travel, and in Constantinople, where she was a teacher in a Scottish mission, she met a young Russian Jew, Paul Peter Levertoff, who had converted to Christianity. They were married in London, where he was ordained to the Anglican priesthood. His great passion in life was reconciliation between Christians and Jews. A daughter, Olga, was born to the couple, and seven years later, a second daughter, Denise.
In some ways, Denise felt like an only child. She never attended a public or private school; her mother, her only teacher, read many classic works of fiction to her. She visited museums and libraries in London and studied ballet for many years; for a time, she considered a career in dance. When World War II came, she entered nurse’s training and worked in a number of London public hospitals caring for children, the aged, and the poor. She had been writing poems since childhood and published her first volume of poems in...
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